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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Chance Acquaintance - Chapter 3. On The Way Back To Quebec
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A Chance Acquaintance - Chapter 3. On The Way Back To Quebec Post by :Marc_Meole Category :Long Stories Author :William Dean Howells Date :May 2012 Read :2941

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A Chance Acquaintance - Chapter 3. On The Way Back To Quebec


By this time the boat was moving down the river, and every one was alive to the scenery. The procession of the pine-clad, rounded heights on either shore began shortly after Ha-Ha Bay had disappeared behind a curve, and it hardly ceased, save at one point, before the boat re-entered the St. Lawrence. The shores of the stream are almost uninhabited. The hills rise from the water's edge, and if ever a narrow vale divides them, it is but to open drearier solitudes to the eye. In such a valley would stand a saw-mill, and huddled about it a few poor huts, while a friendless road, scarce discernible from the boat, wound up from the river through the valley, and led to wildernesses all the forlorner for the devastation of their forests. Now and then an island, rugged as the shores, broke the long reaches of the grim river with its massive rock and dark evergreen, and seemed in the distance to forbid escape from those dreary waters, over which no bird flew, and in which it was incredible any fish swam.

Mrs. Ellison, with her foot comfortably and not ungracefully supported on a stool, was in so little pain as to be looking from time to time at one of the guide-books which the colonel had lavished upon his party, and which she was disposed to hold to very strict account for any excesses of description.

"It says here that the water of the Saguenay is as black as ink. Do _you think it is, Richard?"

"It looks so."

"Well, but if you took some up in your hand?"

"Perhaps it wouldn't be as black as the best Maynard and Noyes, but it would be black enough for all practical purposes."

"Maybe," suggested Kitty, "the guide-book means the kind that is light blue at first, but 'becomes a deep black on exposure to the air,' as the label says."

"What do you think, Mr. Arbuton?" asked Mrs. Ellison with unabated anxiety.

"Well, really, I don't know," said Mr. Arbuton, who thought it a very trivial kind of talk, "I can't say, indeed. I haven't taken any of it up in my hand."

"That's true," said Mrs. Ellison gravely, with an accent of reproval for the others who had not thought of so simple a solution of the problem, "very true."

The colonel looked into her face with an air of well-feigned alarm. "You don't think the sprain has gone to your head, Fanny?" he asked, and walked away, leaving Mr. Arbuton to the ladies. Mrs. Ellison did not care for this or any other gibe, if she but served her own purposes; and now, having made everybody laugh and given the conversation a lively turn, she was as perfectly content as if she had not been herself an offering to the cause of cheerfulness. She was, indeed, equal to any sacrifice in the enterprise she had undertaken, and would not only have given Kitty all her worldly goods, but would have quite effaced herself to further her own designs upon Mr. Arbuton. She turned again to her guide-book, and left the young people to continue the talk in unbroken gayety. They at once became serious, as most people do after a hearty laugh, which, if you think, seems always to have something strange and sad in it. But besides, Kitty was oppressed by the coldness that seemed perpetually to hover in Mr. Arbuton's atmosphere, while she was interested by his fastidious good looks and his blameless manners and his air of a world different from any she had hitherto known. He was one of those men whose perfection makes you feel guilty of misdemeanor whenever they meet you, and whose greeting turns your honest good-day coarse and common; even Kitty's fearless ignorance and more than Western disregard of dignities were not proof against him. She had found it easy to talk with Mrs. March as she did with her cousin at home: she liked to be frank and gay in her parley, to jest and to laugh and to make harmless fun, and to sentimentalize in a half-earnest way; she liked to be with Mr. Arbuton, but now she did not see how she could take her natural tone with him. She wondered at her daring lightness at the breakfast-table; she waited for him to say something, and he said, with a glance at the gray heaven that always overhangs the Saguenay, that it was beginning to rain, and unfurled the slender silk umbrella which harmonized so perfectly with the London effect of his dress, and held it over her. Mrs. Ellison sat within the shelter of the projecting roof, and diligently perused her book with her eyes, and listened to their talk.

"The great drawback to this sort of thing in America," continued Mr. Arbuton, "is that there is no human interest about the scenery, fine as it is."

"Why, I don't know," said Kitty, "there was that little settlement round the saw-mill. Can't you imagine any human interest in the lives of the people there? It seems to me that one might make almost anything out of them. Suppose, for example, that the owner of that mill was a disappointed man who had come here to bury the wreck of his life in--sawdust?"

"O, yes! That sort of thing; certainly. But I didn't mean that, I meant something historical. There is no past, no atmosphere, no traditions, you know."

"O, but the Saguenay _has a tradition," said Kitty. "You know that a party of the first explorers left their comrades at Tadoussac, and came up the Saguenay three hundred years ago, and never were seen or heard of again. I think it's so in keeping with the looks of the river. The Saguenay would never tell a secret."

"Um!" uttered Mr. Arbuton, as if he were not quite sure that it was the Saguenay's place to have a legend of this sort, and disposed to snub the legend because the Saguenay had it. After a little silence, he began to speak of famous rivers abroad.

"I suppose," Kitty said, "the Rhine has traditions enough, hasn't it?"

"Yes," he answered, "but I think the Rhine rather overdoes it. You can't help feeling, you know, that it's somewhat melodramatic and--common. Have you ever seen the Rhine?"

"O, no! This is almost the first I've seen of anything. Perhaps," she added, demurely, yet with a tremor at finding herself about to make light of Mr. Arbuton, "if I had had too much of tradition on the Rhine I should want more of it on the Saguenay."

"Why, you must allow there's a golden mean in everything, Miss Ellison," said her companion with a lenient laugh, not feeling it disagreeable to be made light of by her.

"Yes; and I'm afraid we're going to find Cape Trinity and Cape Eternity altogether too big when we come to them. Don't you think eighteen hundred feet excessively high for a feature of river scenery?"

Mr. Arbuton really did have an objection to the exaggerations of nature on this continent, and secretly thought them in bad taste, but he had never formulated his feeling. He was not sure but it was ridiculous, now that it was suggested, and yet the possibility was too novel to be entertained without suspicion.

However, when after a while the rumor of their approach to the great objects of the Saguenay journey had spread among the passengers, and they began to assemble at points favorable for the enjoyment of the spectacle, he was glad to have secured the place he held with Miss Ellison, and a sympathetic thrill of excitement passed through his loath superiority. The rain ceased as they drew nearer, and the gray clouds that had hung so low upon the hills sullenly lifted from them and let their growing height he seen. The captain bade his sight-seers look at the vast Roman profile that showed itself upon the rock, and then he pointed out the wonderful Gothic arch, the reputed doorway of an unexplored cavern, under which an upright shaft of stone had stood for ages statue-like, till not many winters ago the frost heaved it from its base, and it plunged headlong down through the ice into the unfathomed depths below. The unvarying gloom of the pines was lit now by the pensive glimmer of birch-trees, and this gray tone gave an indescribable sentiment of pathos and of age to the scenery. Suddenly the boat rounded the corner of the three steps, each five hundred feet high, in which Cape Eternity climbs from the river, and crept in under the naked side of the awful cliff. It is sheer rock, springing from the black water, and stretching upward with a weary, effort-like aspect, in long impulses of stone marked by deep seams from space to space, till, fifteen hundred feet in air, its vast brow beetles forward, and frowns with a scattering fringe of pines. There are stains of weather and of oozing springs upon the front of the cliff, but it is height alone that seems to seize the eye, and one remembers afterwards these details, which are indeed so few as not properly to enter into the effect. The rock fully justifies its attributive height to the eye, which follows the upward rush of the mighty acclivity, steep after steep, till it wins the cloud-capt summit, when the measureless mass seems to swing and sway overhead, and the nerves tremble with the same terror that besets him who looks downward from the verge of a lofty precipice. It is wholly grim and stern; no touch of beauty relieves the austere majesty of that presence. At the foot of Cape Eternity the water is of unknown depth, and it spreads, a black expanse, in the rounding hollow of shores of unimaginable wildness and desolation, and issues again in its river's course around the base of Cape Trinity. This is yet loftier than the sister cliff, but it slopes gently backward from the stream, and from foot to crest it is heavily clothed with a forest of pines. The woods that hitherto have shagged the hills with a stunted and meagre growth, showing long stretches scarred by fire, now assume a stately size, and assemble themselves compactly upon the side of the mountain, setting their serried stems one rank above another, till the summit is crowned with the mass of their dark green plumes, dense and soft and beautiful; so that the spirit perturbed by the spectacle of the other cliff is calmed and assuaged by the serene grandeur of this.

There have been, to be sure, some human agencies at work even under the shadow of Cape Eternity to restore the spirit to self-possession, and perhaps none turns from it wholly dismayed. Kitty, at any rate, took heart from some works of art which the cliff wall displayed near the water's edge. One of these was a lively fresco portrait of Lieutenant-General Sherman, with the insignia of his rank, and the other was an even more striking effigy of General O'Neil, of the Armies of the Irish Republic, wearing a threatening aspect, and designed in a bold conceit of his presence there as conqueror of Canada in the year 1875. Mr. Arbuton was inclined to resent these intrusions upon the sublimity of nature, and he could not conceive, without disadvantage to them, how Miss Ellison and the colonel should accept them so cheerfully as part of the pleasure of the whole. As he listened blankly to their exchange of jests he found himself awfully beset by a temptation which one of the boat's crew placed before the passengers. This was a bucket full of pebbles of inviting size; and the man said, "Now, see which can hit the cliff. It's farther than any of you can throw, though it looks so near."

The passengers cast themselves upon the store of missiles, Colonel Ellison most actively among them. None struck the cliff, and suddenly Mr. Arbuton felt a blind, stupid, irresistible longing to try his chance. The spirit of his college days, of his boating and ball-playing youth, came upon him. He picked up a pebble, while Kitty opened her eyes in a stare of dumb surprise. Then he wheeled and threw it, and as it struck against the cliff with a shock that seemed to have broken all the windows on the Back Bay, he exulted in a sense of freedom the havoc caused him. It was as if for an instant he had rent away the ties of custom, thrown off the bonds of social allegiance, broken down and trampled upon the conventions which his whole life long he had held so dear and respectable. In that moment of frenzy he feared himself capable of shaking hands with the shabby Englishman in the Glengarry cap, or of asking the whole admiring company of passengers down to the bar. A cry of applause had broken from them at his achievement, and he had for the first time tasted the sweets of popular favor. Of course a revulsion must come, and it must be of a corresponding violence; and the next moment Mr. Arbuton hated them all, and most of all Colonel Ellison, who had been loudest in his praise. Him he thought for that moment everything that was aggressively and intrusively vulgar. But he could not utter these friendly impressions, nor is it so easy to withdraw from any concession, and he found it impossible to repair his broken defences. Destiny had been against him from the beginning, and now why should he not strike hands with it for the brief half-day that he was to continue in these people's society? In the morning he would part from them forever, and in the mean time why should he not try to please and be pleased? There might, to be sure, have been many reasons why he should not do this; but however the balance stood he now yielded himself passively to his fate. He was polite to Mrs. Ellison, he was attentive to Kitty, and as far as he could he entered into the fantastic spirit of her talk with the colonel. He was not a dull man; he had quite an apt wit of his own, and a neat way of saying things; but humor always seemed to him something not perfectly well bred; of course he helped to praise it in some old-established diner-out, or some woman of good fashion, whose _mots it was customary to repeat, and he even tolerated it in books; but he was at a loss with these people, who looked at life in so bizarre a temper, yet without airiness or pretension, nay, with a whimsical readiness to acknowledge kindred in every droll or laughable thing.

The boat stopped at Tadoussac on her return, and among the spectators who came down to the landing was a certain very pretty, conscious-looking, silly, bridal-faced young woman,--imaginably the belle of the season at that forlorn watering-place,--who before coming on board stood awhile attended by a following of those elderly imperial and colonial British who heavily flutter round the fair at such resorts. She had an air of utterly satisfied vanity, in which there was no harm in the world, and when she saw that she had fixed the eyes of the shoreward-gazing passengers, it appeared as if she fell into a happy trepidation too blissful to be passively borne; she moistened her pretty red lips with her tongue, she twitched her mantle, she settled the bow at her lovely throat, she bridled and tossed her graceful head.

"What should you do next, Kitty?" asked the colonel, who had been sympathetically intent upon all this.

"O, I think I should pat my foot," answered Kitty; and in fact the charming simpleton on shore, having perfected her attitude, was tapping the ground nervously with the toe of her adorable slipper.

After the boat started, a Canadian lady of ripe age, yet of a vivacity not to be reconciled with the notion of the married state, capered briskly about among her somewhat stolid and indifferent friends, saying, "They're going to fire it as soon as we round the point"; and presently a dull boom, as of a small piece of ordnance discharged in the neighborhood of the hotel, struck through the gathering fog, and this elderly sylph clapped her hands and exulted: "They've fired it, they've fired it! and now the captain will blow the whistle in answer." But the captain did nothing of the kind, and the lady, after some more girlish effervescence, upbraided him for an old owl and an old muff, and so sank into such a flat and spiritless calm that she was sorrowful to see.

"Too bad, Mr. Arbuton, isn't it?" said the colonel; and Mr. Arbuton listened in vague doubt while Kitty built up with her cousin a touching romance for the poor lady, supposed to have spent the one brilliant and successful summer of her life at Tadoussac, where her admirers had agreed to bemoan her loss in this explosion of gunpowder. They asked him if he did not wish the captain _had whistled; and "Oh!" shuddered Kitty, "doesn't it all make you feel just as if you had been doing it yourself?"--a question which he hardly knew how to answer, never having, to his knowledge, done a ridiculous thing in his life, much less been guilty of such behavior as that of the disappointed lady.

At Cacouna, where the boat stopped to take on the horses and carriages of some home-returning sojourners, the pier was a labyrinth of equipages of many sorts and sizes, and a herd of bright-hooded, gayly blanketed horses gave variety to the human crowd that soaked and steamed in the fine, slowly falling rain. A draught-horse was every three minutes driven into their midst with tedious iteration as he slowly drew baskets of coal up from the sloop unloading at the wharf, and each time they closed solidly upon his retreat as if they never expected to see that horse again while the world stood. They were idle ladies and gentlemen under umbrellas, Indians and habitans taking the rain stolidly erect or with shrugged shoulders, and two or three clergymen of the curate type, who might have stepped as they were out of any dull English novel. These were talking in low voices and putting their hands to their ears to catch the replies of the lady-passengers who hung upon the rail, and twaddled back as dryly as if there was no moisture in life. All the while the safety-valves hissed with the escaping steam, and the boat's crew silently toiled with the grooms of the different horses to get the equipages on board. With the carriages it was an affair of mere muscle, but the horses required to be managed with brain. No sooner had one of them placed his fore feet on the gangway plank than he protested by backing up over a mass of patient Canadians, carrying with him half a dozen grooms and deck-hands. Then his hood was drawn over his eyes, and he was blindly walked up and down the pier, and back to the gangway, which he knew as soon as he touched it. He pulled, he pranced, he shied, he did all that a bad and stubborn horse can do, till at last a groom mounted his back, a clump of deck-hands tugged at his bridle, and other grooms, tenderly embracing him at different points, pushed, and he was thus conveyed on board with mingled affection and ignominy. None of the Canadians seemed amused by this; they regarded it with serious composure as a fitting decorum, and Mr. Arbuton had no comment to make upon it. But at the first embrace bestowed upon the horse by the grooms the colonel said absently, "Ah! long-lost brother," and Kitty laughed; and as the scruples of each brute were successively overcome, she helped to give some grotesque interpretation to the various scenes of the melodrama, while Mr. Arbuton stood beside her, and sheltered her with his umbrella; and a spice of malice in her heart told her that he viewed this drolling, and especially her part in it, with grave misgiving. That gave the zest of transgression to her excess, mixed with dismay; for the tricksy spirit in her was not a domineering spirit, but was easily abashed by the moods of others. She ought not to have laughed at Dick's speeches, she soon told herself, much less helped him on. She dreadfully feared that she had done something indecorous, and she was pensive and silent over it as she moved listlessly about after supper; and she sat at last thinking in a dreary sort of perplexity on what had passed during the day, which seemed a long one.

The shabby Englishman with his wife and sister were walking up and down the cabin. By and by they stopped, and sat down at the table facing Kitty; the elder woman, with a civil freedom, addressed her some commonplace, and the four were presently in lively talk; for Kitty had beamed upon the woman in return, having already longed to know something of them. The world was so fresh to her, that she could find delight in those poor singing or acting folk, though she had soon to own to herself that their talk was not very witty nor very wise, and that the best thing about them was their good-nature. The colonel sat at the end of the table with a newspaper; Mrs. Ellison had gone to bed; and Kitty was beginning to tire of her new acquaintance, and to wonder how she could get away from them, when she saw rescue in the eye of Mr. Arbuton as he came down to the cabin. She knew he was looking for her; she saw him check himself with a start of recognition; then he walked rapidly by the group, without glancing at them.

"Brrrr!" said the blond girl, drawing her blue knit shawl about her shoulders, "isn't it cold?" and she and her friends laughed.

"O dear!" thought Kitty, "I didn't suppose they were so rude. I'm afraid I must say good night," she added aloud, after a little, and stole away the most conscience-stricken creature on that boat. She heard those people laugh again after she left them.

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