Their Wedding Journey – William Dean Howells
The artistic descriptions of characters, places, and incidents; the fine observation, which detects what ordinary spectators either see inadequately or miss altogether; the delightful humor which pervades the whole; and the simple beauty of style-all these combine to render this story by Mr. Howells one of time most attractive ever published in America. This first attempt at fiction greatly increased his public of readers. There is really very little to the book ; two characters, Basil and Isabel, occupy the foreground, and are carefully and faithfully drawn ; they are relieved by a background of pleasing bits of American and Canadian scenery. Such a commonplace subject had never been treated in such an original manner before, and probably a similar attempt by any other author would result in a failure. Howell’s first attempt at portraying the commonplaces in American life was eminently successful.
Their Wedding Journey.
Excerpt from the text:
They first met in Boston, but the match was made in Europe, where they afterwards saw each other; whither, indeed, he followed her; and there the match was also broken off. Why it was broken off, and why it was renewed after a lapse of years, is part of quite a long love-story, which I do not think myself qualified to rehearse, distrusting my fitness for a sustained or involved narration; though I am persuaded that a skillful romancer could turn the courtship of Basil and Isabel March to excellent account. Fortunately for me, however, in attempting to tell the reader of the wedding-journey of a newly married couple, no longer very young, to be sure, but still fresh in the light of their love, I shall have nothing to do but to talk of some ordinary traits of American life as these appeared to them, to speak a little of well-known and easily accessible places, to present now a bit of landscape and now a sketch of character.
They had agreed to make their wedding-journey in the simplest and quietest way, and as it did not take place at once after their marriage, but some weeks later, it had all the desired charm of privacy from the outset.
“How much better,” said Isabel, “to go now, when nobody cares whether you go or stay, than to have started off upon a wretched wedding-breakfast, all tears and trousseau, and had people wanting to see you aboard the cars. Now there will not be a suspicion of honey-moonshine about us; we shall go just like anybody else,–with a difference, dear, with a difference!” and she took Basil’s cheeks between her hands. In order to do this, she had to ran round the table; for they were at dinner, and Isabel’s aunt, with whom they had begun married life, sat substantial between them. It was rather a girlish thing for Isabel, and she added, with a conscious blush, “We are past our first youth, you know; and we shall not strike the public as bridal, shall we? My one horror in life is an evident bride.”
Basil looked at her fondly, as if he did not think her at all too old to be taken for a bride; and for my part I do not object to a woman’s being of Isabel’s age, if she is of a good heart and temper. Life must have been very unkind to her if at that age she have not won more than she has lost. It seemed to Basil that his wife was quite as fair as when they met first, eight years before; but he could not help recurring with an inextinguishable regret to the long interval of their broken engagement, which but for that fatality they might have spent together, he imagined, in just such rapture as this. The regret always haunted him, more or less; it was part of his love; the loss accounted irreparable really enriched the final gain.
“I don’t know,” he said presently, with as much gravity as a man can whose cheeks are clasped between a lady’s hands, “you don’t begin very well for a bride who wishes to keep her secret. If you behave in this way, they will put us into the ‘bridal chambers’ at all the hotels. And the cars–they’re beginning to have them on the palace-cars.”
Just then a shadow fell into the room.
“Wasn’t that thunder, Isabel?” asked her aunt, who had been contentedly surveying the tender spectacle before her. “O dear! you’ll never be able to go by the boat to-night, if it storms. It’s actually raining now!”
In fact, it was the beginning of that terrible storm of June, 1870. All in a moment, out of the hot sunshine of the day it burst upon us before we quite knew that it threatened, even before we had fairly noticed the clouds, and it went on from passion to passion with an inexhaustible violence. In the square upon which our friends looked out of their dining-room windows the trees whitened in the gusts, and darkened in the driving floods of the rainfall, and in some paroxysms of the tempest bent themselves in desperate submission, and then with a great shudder rent away whole branches and flung them far off upon the ground. Hail mingled with the rain, and now the few umbrellas that had braved the storm vanished, and the hurtling ice crackled upon the pavement, where the lightning played like flames burning from the earth, while the thunder roared overhead without ceasing. There was something splendidly theatrical about it all; and when a street-car, laden to the last inch of its capacity, came by, with horses that pranced and leaped under the stinging blows of the hailstones, our friends felt as if it were an effective and very naturalistic bit of pantomime contrived for their admiration. Yet as to themselves they were very sensible of a potent reality in the affair, and at intervals during the storm they debated about going at all that day, and decided to go and not to go, according to the changing complexion of the elements. Basil had said that as this was their first journey together in America, he wished to give it at the beginning as pungent a national character as possible, and that as he could imagine nothing more peculiarly American than a voyage to New York by a Fall River boat, they ought to take that route thither. So much upholstery, so much music, such variety of company, he understood, could not be got in any other way, and it might be that they would even catch a glimpse of the inventor of the combination, who represented the very excess and extremity of a certain kind of Americanism. Isabel had eagerly consented; but these aesthetic motives were paralyzed for her by the thought of passing Point Judith in a storm, and she descended from her high intents first to the Inside Boats, without the magnificence and the orchestra, and then to the idea of going by land in a sleeping-car. Having comfortably accomplished this feat, she treated Basil’s consent as a matter of course, not because she did not regard him, but because as a woman she could not conceive of the steps to her conclusion as unknown to him, and always treated her own decisions as the product of their common reasoning. But her husband held out for the boat, and insisted that if the storm fell before seven o’clock, they could reach it at Newport by the last express; and it was this obstinacy that, in proof of Isabel’s wisdom, obliged them to wait two hours in the station before going by the land route. The storm abated at five o’clock, and though the rain continued, it seemed well by a quarter of seven to set out for the Old Colony Depot, in sight of which a sudden and vivid flash of lightning caused Isabel to seize her husband’s arm, and to implore him, “O don’t go by the boat!” On this, Basil had the incredible weakness to yield; and bade the driver take them to the Worcester Depot. It was the first swerving from the ideal in their wedding journey, but it was by no means the last; though it must be confessed that it was early to begin.
They both felt more tranquil when they were irretrievably committed by the purchase of their tickets, and when they sat down in the waiting-room of the station, with all the time between seven and nine o’clock before them. Basil would have eked out the business of checking the trunks into an affair of some length, but the baggage-master did his duty with pitiless celerity; and so Basil, in the mere excess of his disoccupation, bought an accident-insurance ticket. This employed him half a minute, and then he gave up the unequal contest, and went and took his place beside Isabel, who sat prettily wrapped in her shawl, perfectly content.
“Isn’t it charming,” she said gayly, “having to wait so long? It puts me in mind of some of those other journeys we took together. But I can’t think of those times with any patience, when we might really have had each other, and didn’t! Do you remember how long we had to wait at Chambery? and the numbers of military gentlemen that waited too, with their little waists, and their kisses when they met? and that poor married military gentleman, with the plain wife and the two children, and a tarnished uniform? He seemed to be somehow in misfortune, and his mustache hung down in such a spiritless way, while all the other military mustaches about curled and bristled with so much boldness. I think ‘salles d’attente’ everywhere are delightful, and there is such a community of interest in them all, that when I come here only to go out to Brookline, I feel myself a traveller once more,–a blessed stranger in a strange land. O dear, Basil, those were happy times after all, when we might have had each other and didn’t! And now we’re the more precious for having been so long lost.”
She drew closer and closer to him, and looked at him in a way that threatened betrayal of her bridal character.
“Isabel, you will be having your head on my shoulder, next,” said he.
“Never!” she answered fiercely, recovering her distance with a start. “But, dearest, if you do see me going to–act absurdly, you know, do stop me.”
“I’m very sorry, but I’ve got myself to stop. Besides, I didn’t undertake to preserve the incognito of this bridal party.”
If any accident of the sort dreaded had really happened, it would not have mattered so much, for as yet they were the sole occupants of the waiting room. To be sure, the ticket-seller was there, and the lady who checked packages left in her charge, but these must have seen so many endearments pass between passengers,–that a fleeting caress or so would scarcely have drawn their notice to our pair. Yet Isabel did not so much even as put her hand into her husband’s; and as Basil afterwards said, it was very good practice.
Our temporary state, whatever it is, is often mirrored in all that come near us, and our friends were fated to meet frequent parodies of their happiness from first to last on this journey. The travesty began with the very first people who entered the waiting-room after themselves, and who were a very young couple starting like themselves upon a pleasure tour, which also was evidently one of the first tours of any kind that they had made. It was of modest extent, and comprised going to New York and back; but they talked of it with a fluttered and joyful expectation as if it were a voyage to Europe. Presently there appeared a burlesque of their happiness (but with a touch of tragedy) in that kind of young man who is called by the females of his class a fellow, and two young women of that kind known to him as girls. He took a place between these, and presently began a robust flirtation with one of them. He possessed himself, after a brief struggle, of her parasol, and twirled it about, as he uttered, with a sort of tender rudeness inconceivable vapidities, such as you would expect from none but a man of the highest fashion. The girl thus courted became selfishly unconscious of everything but her own joy, and made no attempt to bring the other girl within its warmth, but left her to languish forgotten on the other side. The latter sometimes leaned forward, and tried to divert a little of the flirtation to herself, but the flirters snubbed her with short answers, and presently she gave up and sat still in the sad patience of uncourted women. In this attitude she became a burden to Isabel, who was glad when the three took themselves away, and were succeeded by a very stylish couple–from New York, she knew as well as if they had given her their address on West 999th Street. The lady was not pretty, and she was not, Isabel thought, dressed in the perfect taste of Boston; but she owned frankly to herself that the New-Yorkeress was stylish, undeniably effective. The gentleman bought a ticket for New York, and remained at the window of the office talking quite easily with the seller.
“You couldn’t do that, my poor Basil,” said Isabel, “you’d be afraid.”