Their Silver Wedding Journey – William Dean Howells
The story of Mr. W. D. Howells’s ‘Their Silver Wedding Journey’ is ‘Their Wedding Journey’ over again, after an interval of twenty-five years; and a clever and entertaining recital of familiarities it is. It is like looking in the glass to read such a tale, and there are all the sights and sounds of the steamer, too, of the Continent, and of the amiable and happy go-betweens of a lover husband and his wife. Mr. Howells beats his gold out pretty thin, but it is gold all the same; or, to change the figure, the old shapes and colors are here again, but the kaleidoscope has had a shake and the combination is fresh. Particularly will they enjoy the result who are about to take the European tour, or lately have taken it, or never can hope to take it except through the eyes of others, and whose recollections or expectations or imaginations are blessed with a little touch of romance and sentiment.
Their Silver Wedding Journey.
Excerpt from the text:
“You need the rest,” said the Business End; “and your wife wants you to go, as well as your doctor. Besides, it’s your Sabbatical year, and you, could send back a lot of stuff for the magazine.”
“Is that your notion of a Sabbatical year?” asked the editor.
“No; I throw that out as a bait to your conscience. You needn’t write a line while you’re gone. I wish you wouldn’t for your own sake; although every number that hasn’t got you in it is a back number for me.”
“That’s very nice of you, Fulkerson,” said the editor. “I suppose you realize that it’s nine years since we took ‘Every Other Week’ from Dryfoos?”
“Well, that makes it all the more Sabbatical,” said Fulkerson. “The two extra years that you’ve put in here, over and above the old style Sabbatical seven, are just so much more to your credit. It was your right to go, two years ago, and now it’s your duty. Couldn’t you look at it in that light?”
“I dare say Mrs. March could,” the editor assented. “I don’t believe she could be brought to regard it as a pleasure on any other terms.”
“Of course not,” said Fulkerson. “If you won’t take a year, take three months, and call it a Sabbatical summer; but go, anyway. You can make up half a dozen numbers ahead, and Tom, here, knows your ways so well that you needn’t think about ‘Every Other Week’ from the time you start till the time you try to bribe the customs inspector when you get back. I can take a hack at the editing myself, if Tom’s inspiration gives out, and put a little of my advertising fire into the thing.” He laid his hand on the shoulder of the young fellow who stood smiling by, and pushed and shook him in the liking there was between them. “Now you go, March! Mrs. Fulkerson feels just as I do about it; we had our outing last year, and we want Mrs. March and you to have yours. You let me go down and engage your passage, and—”
“No, no!” the editor rebelled. “I’ll think about it;” but as he turned to the work he was so fond of and so weary of, he tried not to think of the question again, till he closed his desk in the afternoon, and started to walk home; the doctor had said he ought to walk, and he did so, though he longed to ride, and looked wistfully at the passing cars.
He knew he was in a rut, as his wife often said; but if it was a rut, it was a support too; it kept him from wobbling: She always talked as if the flowery fields of youth lay on either side of the dusty road he had been going so long, and he had but to step aside from it, to be among the butterflies and buttercups again; he sometimes indulged this illusion, himself, in a certain ironical spirit which caressed while it mocked the notion. They had a tacit agreement that their youth, if they were ever to find it again, was to be looked for in Europe, where they met when they were young, and they had never been quite without the hope of going back there, some day, for a long sojourn. They had not seen the time when they could do so; they were dreamers, but, as they recognized, even dreaming is not free from care; and in his dream March had been obliged to work pretty steadily, if not too intensely. He had been forced to forego the distinctly literary ambition with which he had started in life because he had their common living to make, and he could not make it by writing graceful verse, or even graceful prose. He had been many years in a sufficiently distasteful business, and he had lost any thought of leaving it when it left him, perhaps because his hold on it had always been rather lax, and he had not been able to conceal that he disliked it. At any rate, he was supplanted in his insurance agency at Boston by a subordinate in his office, and though he was at the same time offered a place of nominal credit in the employ of the company, he was able to decline it in grace of a chance which united the charm of congenial work with the solid advantage of a better salary than he had been getting for work he hated. It was an incredible chance, but it was rendered appreciably real by the necessity it involved that they should leave Boston, where they had lived all their married life, where Mrs. March as well as their children was born, and where all their tender and familiar ties were, and come to New York, where the literary enterprise which formed his chance was to be founded.
It was then a magazine of a new sort, which his business partner had imagined in such leisure as the management of a newspaper syndicate afforded him, and had always thought of getting March to edit. The magazine which is also a book has since been realized elsewhere on more or less prosperous terms, but not for any long period, and ‘Every Other Week’ was apparently—the only periodical of the kind conditioned for survival. It was at first backed by unlimited capital, and it had the instant favor of a popular mood, which has since changed, but which did not change so soon that the magazine had not time to establish itself in a wide acceptance. It was now no longer a novelty, it was no longer in the maiden blush of its first success, but it had entered upon its second youth with the reasonable hope of many years of prosperity before it. In fact it was a very comfortable living for all concerned, and the Marches had the conditions, almost dismayingly perfect, in which they had often promised themselves to go and be young again in Europe, when they rebelled at finding themselves elderly in America. Their daughter was married, and so very much to her mother’s mind that she did not worry about her, even though she lived so far away as Chicago, still a wild frontier town to her Boston imagination; and their son, as soon as he left college, had taken hold on ‘Every Other Week’, under his father’s instruction, with a zeal and intelligence which won him Fulkerson’s praise as a chip of the old block. These two liked each other, and worked into each other’s hands as cordially and aptly as Fulkerson and March had ever done. It amused the father to see his son offering Fulkerson the same deference which the Business End paid to seniority in March himself; but in fact, Fulkerson’s forehead was getting, as he said, more intellectual every day; and the years were pushing them all along together.
Still, March had kept on in the old rut, and one day he fell down in it. He had a long sickness, and when he was well of it, he was so slow in getting his grip of work again that he was sometimes deeply discouraged. His wife shared his depression, whether he showed or whether he hid it, and when the doctor advised his going abroad, she abetted the doctor with all the strength of a woman’s hygienic intuitions. March himself willingly consented, at first; but as soon as he got strength for his work, he began to temporize and to demur. He said that he believed it would do him just as much good to go to Saratoga, where they always had such a good time, as to go to Carlsbad; and Mrs. March had been obliged several times to leave him to his own undoing; she always took him more vigorously in hand afterwards.
When he got home from the ‘Every Other Week’ office, the afternoon of that talk with the Business End, he wanted to laugh with his wife at Fulkerson’s notion of a Sabbatical year. She did not think it was so very droll; she even urged it seriously against him, as if she had now the authority of Holy Writ for forcing him abroad; she found no relish of absurdity in the idea that it was his duty to take this rest which had been his right before.
He abandoned himself to a fancy which had been working to the surface of his thought. “We could call it our Silver Wedding Journey, and go round to all the old places, and see them in the reflected light of the past.”
“Oh, we could!” she responded, passionately; and he had now the delicate responsibility of persuading her that he was joking.
He could think of nothing better than a return to Fulkerson’s absurdity. “It would be our Silver Wedding Journey just as it would be my Sabbatical year—a good deal after date. But I suppose that would make it all the more silvery.”
She faltered in her elation. “Didn’t you say a Sabbatical year yourself?” she demanded.
“Fulkerson said it; but it was a figurative expression.”
“And I suppose the Silver Wedding Journey was a figurative expression too!”
“It was a notion that tempted me; I thought you would enjoy it. Don’t you suppose I should be glad too, if we could go over, and find ourselves just as we were when we first met there?”
“No; I don’t believe now that you care anything about it.”
“Well, it couldn’t be done, anyway; so that doesn’t matter.”
“It could be done, if you were a mind to think so. And it would be the greatest inspiration to you. You are always longing for some chance to do original work, to get away from your editing, but you’ve let the time slip by without really trying to do anything; I don’t call those little studies of yours in the magazine anything; and now you won’t take the chance that’s almost forcing itself upon you. You could write an original book of the nicest kind; mix up travel and fiction; get some love in.”
“Oh, that’s the stalest kind of thing!”
“Well, but you could see it from a perfectly new point of view. You could look at it as a sort of dispassionate witness, and treat it humorously—of course it is ridiculous—and do something entirely fresh.”
“It wouldn’t work. It would be carrying water on both shoulders. The fiction would kill the travel, the travel would kill the fiction; the love and the humor wouldn’t mingle any more than oil and vinegar.”
“Well, and what is better than a salad?”
“But this would be all salad-dressing, and nothing to put it on.” She was silent, and he yielded to another fancy. “We might imagine coming upon our former selves over there, and travelling round with them—a wedding journey ‘en partie carree’.”
“Something like that. I call it a very poetical idea,” she said with a sort of provisionality, as if distrusting another ambush.
“It isn’t so bad,” he admitted. “How young we were, in those days!”
“Too young to know what a good time we were having,” she said, relaxing her doubt for the retrospect. “I don’t feel as if I really saw Europe, then; I was too inexperienced, too ignorant, too simple. I would like to go, just to make sure that I had been.” He was smiling again in the way he had when anything occurred to him that amused him, and she demanded, “What is it?”
“Nothing. I was wishing we could go in the consciousness of people who actually hadn’t been before—carry them all through Europe, and let them see it in the old, simple-hearted American way.”