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Short story about a love affair, by the prolific American-born author and literary critic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.Henry James, OM, son of theologian Henry James Sr., brother of the philosopher and psychologist William James and diarist Alice James, was an American-born author, one of the founders and leaders of a school of realism in fiction. He spent much of his life in England and became a British subject shortly before his death. He is primarily known for a series of major novels in which he portrayed the encounter of America with Europe. His plots centered on personal relationships, the proper exercise of power in such relationships, and other moral questions. His method of writing from the point of view of a character within a tale allowed him to explore the phenomena of consciousness and perception, and his style in later works has been compared to impressionist painting.James insisted that writers in Great Britain and America should be allowed the greatest freedom possible in presenting their view of the world, as French authors were. His imaginative use of point of view, interior monologue and unreliable narrators in his own novels and tales brought a new depth and interest to realistic fiction, and foreshadowed the modernist work of the twentieth century. An extraordinarily productive writer, in addition to his voluminous works of fiction he published articles and books of travel writing, biography, autobiography, and criticism,and wrote plays, some of which were performed during his lifetime with moderate success. His theatrical work is thought to have profoundly influenced his later novels and tales.
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FOUR YEARS AGO—IN 1874—TWO YOUNG Englishmen had occasion to go to the United States. They crossed the ocean at midsummer, and, arriving in New York on the first day of August, were much struck with the fervid temperature of that city. Disembarking upon the wharf, they climbed into one of those huge high-hung coaches which convey passengers to the hotels, and with a great deal of bouncing and bumping, took their course through Broadway. The midsummer aspect of New York is not, perhaps, the most favorable one; still, it is not without its picturesque and even brilliant side. Nothing could well resemble less a typical English street than the interminable avenue, rich in incongruities, through which our two travelers advanced—looking out on each side of them at the comfortable animation of the sidewalks, the high-colored, heterogeneous architecture, the huge white marble facades glittering in the strong, crude light, and bedizened with gilded lettering, the multifarious awnings, banners, and streamers, the extraordinary number of omnibuses, horsecars, and other democratic vehicles, the vendors of cooling fluids, the white trousers and big straw hats of the policemen, the tripping gait of the modish young persons on the pavement, the general brightness, newness, juvenility, both of people and things. The young men had exchanged few observations; but in crossing Union Square, in front of the monument to Washington—in the very shadow, indeed, projected by the image of the pater patriae—one of them remarked to the other, “It seems a rum-looking place.”
“Ah, very odd, very odd,” said the other, who was the clever man of the two.
“Pity it’s so beastly hot,” resumed the first speaker after a pause.
“You know we are in a low latitude,” said his friend.
“I daresay,” remarked the other.
“I wonder,” said the second speaker presently, “if they can give one a bath?”
“I daresay not,” rejoined the other.
“Oh, I say!” cried his comrade.
This animated discussion was checked by their arrival at the hotel, which had been recommended to them by an American gentleman whose acquaintance they made—with whom, indeed, they became very intimate—on the steamer, and who had proposed to accompany them to the inn and introduce them, in a friendly way, to the proprietor. This plan, however, had been defeated by their friend’s finding that his “partner” was awaiting him on the wharf and that his commercial associate desired him instantly to come and give his attention to certain telegrams received from St. Louis. But the two Englishmen, with nothing but their national prestige and personal graces to recommend them, were very well received at the hotel, which had an air of capacious hospitality. They found that a bath was not unattainable, and were indeed struck with the facilities for prolonged and reiterated immersion with which their apartment was supplied. After bathing a good deal—more, indeed, than they had ever done before on a single occasion—they made their way into the dining room of the hotel, which was a spacious restaurant, with a fountain in the middle, a great many tall plants in ornamental tubs, and an array of French waiters. The first dinner on land, after a sea voyage, is, under any circumstances, a delightful occasion, and there was something particularly agreeable in the circumstances in which our young Englishmen found themselves. They were extremely good natured young men; they were more observant than they appeared; in a sort of inarticulate, accidentally dissimulative fashion, they were highly appreciative. This was, perhaps, especially the case with the elder, who was also, as I have said, the man of talent. They sat down at a little table, which was a very different affair from the great clattering seesaw in the saloon of the steamer. The wide doors and windows of the restaurant stood open, beneath large awnings, to a wide pavement, where there were other plants in tubs, and rows of spreading trees, and beyond which there was a large shady square, without any palings, and with marble-paved walks. And above the vivid verdure rose other facades of white marble and of pale chocolate-colored stone, squaring themselves against the deep blue sky. Here, outside, in the light and the shade and the heat, there was a great tinkling of the bells of innumerable streetcars, and a constant strolling and shuffling and rustling of many pedestrians, a large proportion of whom were young women in Pompadour-looking dresses. Within, the place was cool and vaguely lighted, with the plash of water, the odor of flowers, and the flitting of French waiters, as I have said, upon soundless carpets.
“It’s rather like Paris, you know,” said the younger of our two travelers.
“It’s like Paris—only more so,” his companion rejoined.
“I suppose it’s the French waiters,” said the first speaker. “Why don’t they have French waiters in London?”
“Fancy a French waiter at a club,” said his friend.
The young Englishman started a little, as if he could not fancy it. “In Paris I’m very apt to dine at a place where there’s an English waiter. Don’t you know what’s-his-name’s, close to the thingumbob? They always set an English waiter at me. I suppose they think I can’t speak French.”
“Well, you can’t.” And the elder of the young Englishmen unfolded his napkin.
His companion took no notice whatever of this declaration. “I say,” he resumed in a moment, “I suppose we must learn to speak American. I suppose we must take lessons.”
“I can’t understand them,” said the clever man.
“What the deuce is HE saying?” asked his comrade, appealing from the French waiter.
“He is recommending some soft-shell crabs,” said the clever man.
And so, in desultory observation of the idiosyncrasies of the new society in which they found themselves, the young Englishmen proceeded to dine—going in largely, as the phrase is, for cooling draughts and dishes, of which their attendant offered them a very long list. After dinner they went out and slowly walked about the neighboring streets. The early dusk of waning summer was coming on, but the heat was still very great. The pavements were hot even to the stout boot soles of the British travelers, and the trees along the curbstone emitted strange exotic odors. The young men wandered through the adjoining square—that queer place without palings, and with marble walks arranged in black and white lozenges. There were a great many benches, crowded with shabby-looking people, and the travelers remarked, very justly, that it was not much like Belgrave Square. On one side was an enormous hotel, lifting up into the hot darkness an immense array of open, brightly lighted windows. At the base of this populous structure was an eternal jangle of horsecars, and all round it, in the upper dusk, was a sinister hum of mosquitoes. The ground floor of the hotel seemed to be a huge transparent cage, flinging a wide glare of gaslight into the street, of which it formed a sort of public adjunct, absorbing and emitting the passersby promiscuously. The young Englishmen went in with everyone else, from curiosity, and saw a couple of hundred men sitting on divans along a great marble-paved corridor, with their legs stretched out, together with several dozen more standing in a queue, as at the ticket office of a railway station, before a brilliantly illuminated counter of vast extent. These latter persons, who carried portmanteaus in their hands, had a dejected, exhausted look; their garments were not very fresh, and they seemed to be rendering some mysterious tribute to a magnificent young man with a waxed mustache, and a shirtfront adorned with diamond buttons, who every now and then dropped an absent glance over their multitudinous patience. They were American citizens doing homage to a hotel clerk.
“I’m glad he didn’t tell us to go there,” said one of our Englishmen, alluding to their friend on the steamer, who had told them so many things. They walked up the Fifth Avenue, where, for instance, he had told them that all the first families lived. But the first families were out of town, and our young travelers had only the satisfaction of seeing some of the second—or perhaps even the third—taking the evening air upon balconies and high flights of doorsteps, in the streets which radiate from the more ornamental thoroughfare. They went a little way down one of these side streets, and they saw young ladies in white dresses—charming-looking persons—seated in graceful attitudes on the chocolate-colored steps. In one or two places these young ladies were conversing across the street with other young ladies seated in similar postures and costumes in front of the opposite houses, and in the warm night air their colloquial tones sounded strange in the ears of the young Englishmen. One of our friends, nevertheless—the younger one—intimated that he felt a disposition to interrupt a few of these soft familiarities; but his companion observed, pertinently enough, that he had better be careful. “We must not begin with making mistakes,” said his companion.
“But he told us, you know—he told us,” urged the young man, alluding again to the friend on the steamer.
“Never mind what he told us!” answered his comrade, who, if he had greater talents, was also apparently more of a moralist.
By bedtime—in their impatience to taste of a terrestrial couch again our seafarers went to bed early—it was still insufferably hot, and the buzz of the mosquitoes at the open windows might have passed for an audible crepitation of the temperature. “We can’t stand this, you know,” the young Englishmen said to each other; and they tossed about all night more boisterously than they had tossed upon the Atlantic billows. On the morrow, their first thought was that they would re-embark that day for England; and then it occured to them that they might find an asylum nearer at hand. The cave of Aeolus became their ideal of comfort, and they wondered where the Americans went when they wished to cool off. They had not the least idea, and they determined to apply for information to Mr. J. L. Westgate. This was the name inscribed in a bold hand on the back of a letter carefully preserved in the pocketbook of our junior traveler. Beneath the address, in the left-hand corner of the envelope, were the words, “Introducing Lord Lambeth and Percy Beaumont, Esq.” The letter had been given to the two Englishmen by a good friend of theirs in London, who had been in America two years previously, and had singled out Mr. J. L. Westgate from the many friends he had left there as the consignee, as it were, of his compatriots. “He is a capital fellow,” the Englishman in London had said, “and he has got an awfully pretty wife. He’s tremendously hospitable—he will do everything in the world for you; and as he knows everyone over there, it is quite needless I should give you any other introduction. He will make you see everyone; trust to him for putting you into circulation. He has got a tremendously pretty wife.” It was natural that in the hour of tribulation Lord Lambeth and Mr. Percy Beaumont should have bethought themselves of a gentleman whose attractions had been thus vividly depicted; all the more so that he lived in the Fifth Avenue, and that the Fifth Avenue, as they had ascertained the night before, was contiguous to their hotel. “Ten to one he’ll be out of town,” said Percy Beaumont; “but we can at least find out where he has gone, and we can immediately start in pursuit. He can’t possibly have gone to a hotter place, you know.”
“Oh, there’s only one hotter place,” said Lord Lambeth, “and I hope he hasn’t gone there.”
They strolled along the shady side of the street to the number indicated upon the precious letter. The house presented an imposing chocolate-colored expanse, relieved by facings and window cornices of florid sculpture, and by a couple of dusty rose trees which clambered over the balconies and the portico. This last-mentioned feature was approached by a monumental flight of steps.
“Rather better than a London house,” said Lord Lambeth, looking down from this altitude, after they had rung the bell.
“It depends upon what London house you mean,” replied his companion. “You have a tremendous chance to get wet between the house door and your carriage.”
“Well,” said Lord Lambeth, glancing at the burning heavens, “I ‘guess’ it doesn’t rain so much here!”
The door was opened by a long Negro in a white jacket, who grinned familiarly when Lord Lambeth asked for Mr. Westgate.
“He ain’t at home, sah; he’s downtown at his o’fice.”
“Oh, at his office?” said the visitors. “And when will he be at home?”
“Well, sah, when he goes out dis way in de mo’ning, he ain’t liable to come home all day.”
This was discouraging; but the address of Mr. Westgate’s office was freely imparted by the intelligent black and was taken down by Percy Beaumont in his pocketbook. The two gentlemen then returned, languidly, to their hotel, and sent for a hackney coach, and in this commodious vehicle they rolled comfortably downtown. They measured the whole length of Broadway again and found it a path of fire; and then, deflecting to the left, they were deposited by their conductor before a fresh, light, ornamental structure, ten stories high, in a street crowded with keen-faced, light-limbed young men, who were running about very quickly and stopping each other eagerly at corners and in doorways. Passing into this brilliant building, they were introduced by one of the keen-faced young men—he was a charming fellow, in wonderful cream-colored garments and a hat with a blue ribbon, who had evidently perceived them to be aliens and helpless—to a very snug hydraulic elevator, in which they took their place with many other persons, and which, shooting upward in its vertical socket, presently projected them into the seventh horizontal compartment of the edifice. Here, after brief delay, they found themselves face to face with the friend of their friend in London. His office was composed of several different rooms, and they waited very silently in one of them after they had sent in their letter and their cards. The letter was not one which it would take Mr. Westgate very long to read, but he came out to speak to them more instantly than they could have expected; he had evidently jumped up from his work. He was a tall, lean personage and was dressed all in fresh white linen; he had a thin, sharp, familiar face, with an expression that was at one and the same time sociable and businesslike, a quick, intelligent eye, and a large brown mustache, which concealed his mouth and made his chin, beneath it, look small. Lord Lambeth thought he looked tremendously clever.
“How do you do, Lord Lambeth—how do you do, sir?” he said, holding the open letter in his hand. “I’m very glad to see you; I hope you’re very well. You had better come in here; I think it’s cooler,” and he led the way into another room, where there were law books and papers, and windows wide open beneath striped awning. Just opposite one of the windows, on a line with his eyes, Lord Lambeth observed the weathervane of a church steeple. The uproar of the street sounded infinitely far below, and Lord Lambeth felt very high in the air. “I say it’s cooler,” pursued their host, “but everything is relative. How do you stand the heat?”
“I can’t say we like it,” said Lord Lambeth; “but Beaumont likes it better than I.”
“Well, it won’t last,” Mr. Westgate very cheerfully declared; “nothing unpleasant lasts over here. It was very hot when Captain Littledale was here; he did nothing but drink sherry cobblers. He expressed some doubt in his letter whether I will remember him—as if I didn’t remember making six sherry cobblers for him one day in about twenty minutes. I hope you left him well, two years having elapsed since then.”
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