Nonfiction > Lionel Strachey, et al., eds. > The World’s Wit and Humor > American
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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes.  1906.
Vols. I–V: American
 
Tom Fane and I
By Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–1867)
 
From “Prose Writings”

       “Common as light is love,
And its familiar voice wearies not ever.”
SHELLEY.    

TOM FANE’S four Canadian ponies were whizzing his light phaeton through the sand at a rate that would have put spirits into anything but a lover absent from his mistress. The “heaven-kissing” pines towered on every side like the thousand and one columns of the Palæologi at Constantinople; their flat and spreading tops shutting out the light of heaven almost as effectually as the world of Mussulmans, mosques, kiosks, bazaars, and Giaours, sustained on those innumerable capitals, darkens the subterranean wonder of Stamboul. An American pine-forest is as like a temple, and a sublime one, as any dream that ever entered into the architectural brain of the slumbering Martin. The Yankee Methodists, in their camp-meetings, have but followed an irresistible instinct to worship God in the religious dimness of these interminable aisles of the wilderness.
  1
  Tom Fane and I had stoned the storks together in the palace of Crœsus at Sardis. We had read Anastasius on a mufti’s tomb in the Nekropolis of Scutari. We had burned with fig-fevers in the same caravansary at Smyrna. We had cooled our hot foreheads, and cursed the Greeks in emulous Romaic, in the dim tomb of Agamemnon at Argos. We had been grave at Paris, and merry at Rome, and we had picnicked with the beauties of the Fanar in the Valley of Sweet Waters in pleasant Rumelia; and when, after parting in France, he had returned to England and his regiment, and I to New England and law, whom should I meet in a summer’s trip to the St. Lawrence but Capt. Tom Fane of the ——th, quartered at the cliff-perched and doughty garrison of Quebec, and ready for any “lark” that would vary the monotony of duty!  2
  Having eaten seven mess-dinners, driven to the Falls of Montmorency, and paid my respects to Lord Dalhousie, the hospitable and able governor of the Canadas, Quebec had no longer a temptation; and obeying a magnet, of which more anon, I announced to Fane that my traps were packed, and my heart sent on, à l’avant-courier, to Saratoga.  3
  “Is she pretty?” said Tom.  4
  “As the starry-eyed Circassian we gazed at through the grill in the slave-market at Constantinople!” (Heaven and my mistress forgive me for the comparison! but it conveyed more to Tom Fane than a folio of more respectful similitudes.)  5
  “Have you any objection to be drawn to your lady-love by four cattle that would buy the soul of Osbaldiston?”  6
  “‘Objection!’ quotha?”  7
  The next morning, four double-jointed and well-groomed ponies were munching their corn in the bow of a steamer upon the St. Lawrence, wondering, possibly, what in the name of Bucephalus had set the hills and churches flying at such a rate down the river. The hills and churches came to a standstill with the steamer opposite Montreal; and the ponies were landed, and put to their mettle for some twenty miles, where they were destined to be astonished by a similar flying phenomenon in the mountains girding the lengthening waters of Lake Champlain. Landed at Ticonderoga, a few miles’ trot brought them to Lake George and a third steamer; and, with a winding passage among green islands and overhanging precipices loaded like a harvest-wagon with vegetation, we made our last landing on the edge of the pine-forest, where our story opens.  8
  “Well, I must object,” says Tom, setting his whip in the socket, and edging round upon his driving-box, “I must object to this republican gravity of yours. I should take it for melancholy, did I not know it was the ‘complexion’ of your never-smiling countrymen.”  9
  “Spare me, Tom! ‘I see a hand you cannot see.’ Talk to your ponies, and let me be miserable, if you love me.”  10
  “For what, in the name of common-sense? Are you not within five hours of your mistress? Is not this cursed sand your natal soil? Do not
     ‘The pine-boughs sing
Old songs with new gladness’?
and in the years that we have dangled about, ‘here-and-thereians’ together, were you ever before grave, sad, or sulky? and will you without a precedent, and you a lawyer, inflict your stupidity upon me for the first time in this waste and beingless solitude? Half an hour more of the dread silence of this forest, and it will not need the horn of Astolpho to set me irremediably mad!”
  11
  “If employment will save your wits, you may invent a scheme for marrying the son of a poor gentleman to the ward of a rich trader in rice and molasses.”  12
  “The programme of our approaching campaign, I presume?”  13
  “Simply.”  14
  “Is the lady willing?”  15
  “I would fain believe so.”  16
  “Is Mr. Popkins unwilling?”  17
  “As the most romantic lover could desire.”  18
  “And the state of the campaign?”  19
  “Why, thus: Mr. George Washington Jefferson Frump, whom you have irreverently called Mr. Popkins, is sole guardian to the daughter of a dead West-Indian planter, of whom he was once the agent. I fell in love with Kate Lorimer from description, when she was at school with my sister, saw her by favor of a garden-wall, and after the usual vows——”  20
  “Too romantic for a Yankee, by half!”  21
  —“proposed by letter to Mr. Frump.”  22
  “Oh, bathos!”  23
  “He refused me.”  24
  “Because——”  25
  “Imprimis, I was not myself in the ‘sugar line’; and in secundis, my father wore gloves, and ‘did nothing for a living’—two blots in the eyes of Mr. Frump, which all the waters of Niagara would never wash from my escutcheon.”  26
  “And what the devil hindered you from running off with her?”  27
  “Fifty shares in the Manhattan Insurance Company, a gold-mine in Florida, Heaven knows how many hogsheads of treacle, and a million of acres on the banks of the Missouri.”  28
  “‘Pluto’s flame-colored daughter’ defend us! what a living El Dorado!”  29
  “All of which she forfeits if she marries without old Frump’s consent.”  30
  “I see, I see! And this Io and her Argus are now drinking the waters at Saratoga?”  31
  “Even so.”  32
  “I’ll bet you my four-in-hand to a sonnet, that I get her for you before the season is over.”  33
  “Money and all?”  34
  “Mines, molasses, and Missouri acres!”  35
  “And if you do, Tom, I’ll give you a team of Virginian bloods that would astonish Ascot, and throw you into the bargain a forgiveness for riding over me with your camel on the banks of the Hermus.”  36
  “Santa Maria! do you remember that spongy foot stepping over your frontispiece? I had already cast my eyes up to Mont Sipylus to choose a clean niche for you out of the rock-hewn tombs of the kings of Lydia. I thought you would sleep with Alyattis, Phil!”  37
  We dashed on through dark forest and open clearing, through glens of tangled cedar and wild vine, over log bridges, corduroy marshes, and sand-hills, till, toward evening, a scattering shanty or two, and an occasional sound of a woodman’s ax, betokened our vicinity to Saratoga. A turn around a clump of tall pines brought us immediately into the broad street of the village; and the flaunting shops, the overgrown, unsightly hotels, riddled with windows like honeycombs, the fashionable idlers out for their evening lounge to the waters, the indolent smokers on the colonnades, and the dusty and loaded coaches driving from door to door in search of lodgings, formed the usual evening picture of the Bath of America.  38
  As it was necessary to Tom’s plan that my arrival at Saratoga should not be known, he pulled up at a small tavern at the entrance of the street, and, dropping me and my baggage, drove on to Congress Hall, with my best prayers, and a letter of introduction to my sister, whom I had left on her way to the Springs with a party at my departure for Montreal. Unwilling to remain in such a tantalizing vicinity, I hired a chaise the next morning, and, despatching a note to Tom, drove to seek a retreat at Barhydt’s—a spot that cannot well be described in the tail of a paragraph.  39
  Herr Barhydt is an old Dutch settler, who, till the mineral-springs of Saratoga were discovered some five miles from his door, was buried in the depth of a forest solitude, unknown to all but the prowling Indian. The sky is supported above him (or looks to be) by a wilderness of straight, columnar pine shafts, gigantic in girth, and with no foliage except at the top, where they branch out like round tables spread for a banquet in the clouds. A small, ear-shaped lake, sunk as deep into the earth as the firs shoot above it, black as Erebus in the dim shadow of its hilly shore, and the obstructed light of the trees that nearly meet over it, and clear and unbroken as a mirror, save the pearl spots of the thousand lotuses holding up their cups to the blue eye of heaven that peers through the leafy vault, sleeps beneath his window; and around him in the forest lies, still unbroken, the elastic and brown carpet of the faded pine-tassels, deposited in yearly layers since the continent rose from the flood, and rotted a foot beneath the surface to a rich mold that would fatten the Symplegades to a flower-garden. With his black tarn well stocked with trout, his bit of a farm in the clearing near by, and an old Dutch Bible, Herr Barhydt lived a life of Dutch musing, talked Dutch to his geese and chickens, sang Dutch psalms to the echoes of the mighty forest, and, except on his far-between visits to Albany, which grew rarer and rarer as the old Dutch inhabitants dropped faster away, saw never a white human face from one maple-blossoming to another.  40
  A roving mineralogist tasted the waters of Saratoga; and, like the work of a lath-and-plaster Aladdin, up sprung a thriving village around the fountain’s lip, and hotels, tin tumblers, and apothecaries multiplied in the usual proportion to each other, but out of all precedent with everything else for rapidity. Libraries, newspapers, churches, livery-stables, and lawyers followed in their train; and it was soon established, from the Plains of Abraham to the savannas of Alabama, that no person of fashionable taste or broken constitution could exist through the months of July and August without a visit to the chalybeate springs and populous village of Saratoga. It contained seven thousand inhabitants before Herr Barhydt, living in his wooded seclusion only five miles off, became aware of its existence. A pair of lovers, philandering about the forest on horseback, popped in upon him one June morning; and thenceforth there was no rest for the soul of the Dutchman. Everybody rode down to eat his trout, and make love in the dark shades of his mirrored lagoon; and at last, in self-defense, he added a room or two to his shanty, enclosed his cabbage garden, and put a price upon his trout dinners. The traveler nowadays, who has not dined at Barhydt’s, with his own champagne cold from the tarn, and the white-headed old settler “gargling” Dutch about the house, in his manifold vocation of cook, hostler, and waiter, may as well not have seen Niagara.  41
  Installed in the back chamber of the old man’s last addition to his house, with Barry Cornwall and Elia (old fellow-travelers of mine), a rude chair, a ruder but clean bed, and a troop of thoughts so perpetually from home that it mattered very little what was the complexion of anything about me, I waited Tom’s operations with a lover’s usual patience. Barhydt’s visitors seldom arrived before two or three o’clock; and the long, soft mornings, quiet as a shadowy Elysium on the rim of that ebon lake, were as solitary as a melancholy man could desire. Didst thou but know, O gentle Barry Cornwall! how gratefully thou hast been read and mused upon in those dim and whispering aisles of the forest, three thousand and more miles from thy smoky whereabouts, methinks it would warm up the flush of pleasure around thine eyelids, though the “golden-tressed Adelaide” were waiting her goodnight kisses at thy knee!  42
  I could stand it no longer. On the second evening of my seclusion, I made bold to borrow old Barhydt’s superannuated roadster, and, getting up the steam with infinite difficulty in his rickety engine, higgled away, with a pace to which I could not venture to affix a name, to the gay scenes of Saratoga.  43
  It was ten o’clock when I dismounted at the stable in Congress Hall, and giving Der Teufel, as the old man ambitiously styled his steed, to the hands of the hostler, stole round through the garden to the eastern colonnade.  44
  I feel called upon to describe “Congress Hall.” Some fourteen or fifteen millions of white gentlemen and ladies consider that wooden and windowed Babylon as the proper palace of Delight—a sojourn to be sighed for and sacrificed for and economized for; the birthplace of Love, the haunt of Hymen, the arena of Fashion; a place without which a new lease of life were valueless, for which, if the conjuring cap of King Erricus itself could not furnish a season-ticket, it might lie on a lady’s toilet as unnoticed as a bride’s nightcap a twelvemonth after marriage. I say to myself sometimes, as I pass the window at White’s, and see a world-sick worldling with the curl of satiety and disgust on his lip, wondering how the next hour will come to its death. “If you but knew, my friend, what a campaign of pleasure you are losing in America—what belles than the bluebells slighter and fairer; what hearts than the dewdrops fresher and clearer, are living their pretty hour, like gems undived for in the ocean; what loads of foliage, what Titans of trees, what glorious wildernesses of rocks and waters, are lavishing their splendors on the clouds that sail over them; and all within the magic circle of which Congress Hall is the center, and which a circling dove would measure to get an appetite for his breakfast—if you but knew this, my lord, as I know it, you would not be gazing so vacantly on the steps of Crockford’s, nor consider ‘the graybeard’ such a laggard in his hours.”  45
  Congress Hall is a wooden building, of which the size and capacity could never be definitely ascertained. It is built on a slight elevation, just above the strongly impregnated spring whose name it bears; with little attempt at architecture, save a spacious and vine-covered colonnade, serving as a promenade, on either side, and two wings, the extremities of which are lost in the distance. A relic or two of the still-astonished forest towers above the chimneys, in the shape of a melancholy group of firs; and, five minutes’ walk from the door, the dim old wilderness stands looking down on the village in its primeval grandeur, like the spirits of the wronged Indians whose tracks are scarce vanished from the sand. In the strength of the summer solstice, from five hundred to a thousand people dine together at Congress Hall; and, after absorbing as many bottles of the best wines of the world, a sunset promenade plays the valve to the sentiment thus generated, and, with a cup of tea, the crowd separates to dress for the nightly ball. There are several other hotels in the village, equally crowded and equally spacious; and the ball is given alternately at each. Congress Hall is the “crack” place, however, and I expect that Mr. Westcott, the obliging proprietor, will give me the preference of rooms, on my next annual visit, for this just and honorable mention.  46
  The dinner-tables were piled into an orchestra, and draped with green baize and green wreaths; the floor of the immense hall was chalked with American flags and the initials of all the heroes of the Revolution; and the band was playing a waltz in a style that made the candles quiver, and the pines tremble audibly in their tassels. The ballroom was on the ground floor; and the colonnade upon the garden side was crowded with spectators, a row of grinning black fellows edging the cluster of heads at every window, and keeping time with their hands and feet in the irresistible sympathy of their music-loving natures. Drawing my hat over my eyes, I stood at the least-thronged window, and, concealing my face in the curtain, waited impatiently for the appearance of the dancers.  47
  The bevy in the drawing-room was sufficiently strong at last; and the lady patronesses, handed in by a State governor or two, and here and there a member of Congress, achieved the entrée with their usual intrepidity. Followed beaux and followed belles. Such belles! Slight, delicate, fragile-looking creatures, elegant as Retzsch’s angels, warm-eyed as Mohammedan houris, yet timid as the antelope whose hazel orbs they eclipse, limbed like nothing earthly except an American woman—I would rather not go on. When I speak of the beauty of my countrywomen, my heart swells. I do believe the New World has a newer mold for its mothers and daughters. I think I am not prejudiced. I have been years away. I have sighed in France; I have loved in Italy; I have bargained for Circassians in an Eastern bezestein; and I have lounged at Howell and James’s on a sunny day in the season; and my eye is trained and my perceptions quickened; but I do think (Honor bright! and Heath’s “Book of Beauty” forgiving me) that there is no such beautiful work of God under the arch of the sky as an American girl in her bellehood.  48
  Enter Tom Fane in a Stultz coat and Sparding tights, looking as a man who had been the mirror of Bond Street might be supposed to look a thousand leagues from his club-house. She leaned on his arm. I had never seen her half so lovely. Fresh and calm from the seclusion of her chamber, her transparent cheek was just tinged with the first mounting blood from the excitement of lights and music. Her lips were slightly parted, her fine-lined eyebrows were arched with a girlish surprise, and her ungloved arm lay carelessly and confidingly within his, as white, round, and slender as if Canova had wrought it in Parian for his Psyche. If you have never seen a beauty of Northern blood nurtured in a Southern clime, the cold fairness of her race warmed up as if it had been steeped in some golden sunset, and her deep blue eye darkened and filled with a fire as unnaturally resplendent as the fusion of chrysoprase into a diamond; and if you have never known the corresponding contrast in the character—the intelligence and constancy of the North kindling with the enthusiasm and impulse, the passionateness, and the abandon of a more burning latitude—you have seen nothing, let me insinuate, though you “have been i’ the Indies twice,” that could give you an idea of Kate Lorimer.  49
  She waltzed, and then Tom danced with my sister; and then, resigning her to another partner, he offered his arm again to Miss Lorimer, and left the ballroom with several other couples for a turn in the fresh air of the colonnade. I was not jealous, but I felt unpleasantly at his returning to her so immediately. He was the handsomest man, out of all comparison, in the room; and he had dimmed my star too often in our rambles in Europe and Asia not to suggest a thought, at least, that the same pleasant eclipse might occur in our American astronomy. I stepped off the colonnade, and took a turn in the garden.  50
  Those “children of eternity,” as Walter Savage Landor poetically calls the breezes, performed their soothing ministry upon my temples; and I replaced Tom in my confidence with an heroic effort, and turned back. A swing hung between two gigantic pines, just under the balustrade; and, flinging myself into the cushioned seat, I abandoned myself to the musings natural to a person “in my situation.” The sentimentalizing promenaders lounged backward and forward above me, and, not hearing Tom’s drawl among them, I presumed he had returned to the ballroom. A lady and gentleman, walking in silence, stopped presently, and leaned upon the railing opposite the swing. They stood a moment, looking into the dim shadow of the pine-grove; and then a voice, that I knew better than my own, remarked in a low and silvery tone upon the beauty of the night.  51
  She was not answered; and after a moment’s pause, as if resuming a conversation that had been interrupted, she turned very earnestly to her companion, and asked, “Are you sure, quite sure, that you could venture to marry without a fortune?”  52
  “Quite, dear Miss Lorimer.”  53
  I started from the swing; but, before the words of execration that rushed choking from my heart could struggle to my lips, they had mingled with the crowd, and vanished.  54
  I strode down the garden walk in a frenzy of passion. Should I call him immediately to account? Should I rush into the ballroom, and accuse him of his treachery to her face? Should I drown myself in old Barhydt’s tarn, or join an Indian tribe, and make war upon the whites? Or should I, could I, be magnanimous, and write him a note immediately, offering to be his groomsman at the wedding?  55
  I stepped into the punch-room, asked for pen, ink, and paper, and indited the following note:
          DEAR TOM,—If your approaching nuptials are to be sufficiently public to admit of a groomsman, you will make me the happiest of friends by selecting me for that office.
Yours ever truly,
PHIL.    
  56
  Having despatched it to his room, I flew to the stable, roused Der Teufel, who had gathered up his legs in the straw for the night, flogged him furiously out of the village, and, giving him the rein as he entered the forest, enjoyed the scenery in the humor of mad old Hieronymo in the Spanish tragedy, “the moon dark, the stars extinct, the winds blowing, the owls shrieking, the toads croaking, the minutes jarring, and the clock striking twelve.”  57
  Early the next day Tom’s “tiger” dismounted at Barhydt’s door, with an answer to my note as follows:—
          DEAR PHIL,—The Devil must have informed you of a secret I supposed safe from all the world. Be assured I should have chosen no one but yourself to support me on the occasion; and however you have discovered my design upon your treasure, a thousand thanks for your generous consent. I expected no less from your noble nature.
Yours devotedly,
TOM.    
  P.S. I shall endeavor to be at Barhydt’s, with materials for the fifth act of our comedy, to-morrow morning.
  58
  “‘Comedy!’ call you this, Mr. Fane?” I felt my heart turn black as I threw down the letter. After a thousand plans of revenge formed and abandoned, borrowing old Barhydt’s rifles, loading them deliberately, and discharging them again into the air, I flung myself exhausted on the bed, and reasoned myself back to my magnanimity. I would be his groomsman!  59
  It was a morning like the burst of a millennium on the world. I felt as if I should never forgive the birds for their mocking enjoyment of it. The wild heron swung up from the reeds, the lotuses shook out their dew into the lake as the breeze stirred them, and the senseless old Dutchman sat fishing in his canoe, singing one of his unintelligible psalms to a quick measure that half-maddened me. I threw myself upon the yielding floor of pine-tassels on the edge of the lake, and, with the wretched school philosophy, “Si gravis est, brevis est,” endeavored to put down the tempest of my feelings.  60
  A carriage rattled over the little bridge, mounted the ascent rapidly, and brought up at Barhydt’s door.  61
  “Phil!” shouted Tom, “Phil!”  62
  I gulped down a choking sensation in my throat, and rushed up the bank to him. A stranger was dismounting from his horse.  63
  “Quick!” said Tom, shaking my hand hurriedly, “there is no time to lose. Out with your inkhorn, Mr. Poppletree, and have your paper signed while I tie up my ponies.”  64
  “What is this, sir?” said I, starting back as the stranger deliberately presented me with a paper, in which my own name was written in conspicuous letters.  65
  The magistrate gazed at me with a look of astonishment. “A contract of marriage, I think, between Mr. Philip Slingsby and Miss Katherine Lorimer, spinster. Are you the gentleman named in that instrument, sir?”  66
  At this moment my sister, leading the blushing girl by the hand, came and threw her arms about my neck, and, drawing her within my reach, ran off and left us together.  67
  There are some pure moments in this life that description would only profane.  68
  We were married by the village magistrate, in that magnificent sanctuary of the forest; old Barhydt and his lotuses the only indifferent witnesses of vows as passionate as ever trembled upon human lips.  69
  I had scarce pressed her to my heart and dashed the tears from my eyes, when Fane, who had looked more at my sister than at the bride during the ceremony, left her suddenly, and, thrusting a roll of parchment into my pocket, ran off to bring up his ponies. I was on the way to Saratoga, a married man, and my bride on the seat beside me, before I had recovered from my astonishment.  70
  “Pray,” said Tom, “if it be not an impertinent question, and you can find breath in your ecstasies, how did you find out that your sister had done me the honor to accept the offer of my hand?”  71
  The resounding woods rung with his unmerciful laughter at the explanation.  72
  “And pray,” said I, in my turn, “if it is not an impertinent question, and you can find a spare breath in your ecstasies, by what magic did you persuade old Frump to trust his ward and her title-deeds in your treacherous keeping?”  73
  “It is a long story, my dear Phil, and I will give you the particulars when you pay me the ‘Virginia bloods’ you wot of. Suffice it for the present, that Mr. Frump believes Mr. Tom Fane (alias Jacob Phipps, Esq., sleeping partner of a banking-house at Liverpool) to be the accepted of his fair ward. In his extreme delight at seeing her in so fair a way to marry into a bank, he generously made her a present of her own fortune, signed over his right to control it by a document in your possession, and will undergo as agreeable a surprise in about five minutes as the greatest lover of excitement could desire.”  74
  The ponies dashed on. The sandy ascent by the Pavilion Spring was surmounted, and in another minute we were at the door of Congress Hall. The last stragglers from the breakfast-table were lounging down the colonnade, and old Frump sat reading the newspaper under the portico.  75
  “Aha! Mr. Phipps,” said he, as Tom drove up, “back so soon, eh? Why, I thought you and Kitty would be billing it till dinner-time!”  76
  “Sir!” said Tom very gravely, “you have the honor of addressing Capt. Thomas Fane, of His Majesty’s ——th Fusileers; and whenever you have a moment’s leisure, I shall be happy to submit to your perusal a certificate of the marriage of Miss Katherine Lorimer to the gentleman I have the pleasure to present to you—Mr. Frump, Mr. Slingsby!”  77
  At the mention of my name, the blood in Mr. Frump’s ruddy complexion turned suddenly to the color of the Tiber. Poetry alone can express the feeling pictured in his countenance:
 “If every atom of a dead man’s flesh
Should creep, each one with a particular life,
Yet all as cold as ever—’twas just so;
Or had it drizzled needle-points of frost
Upon a feverish head made suddenly bald.”
  78
  George Washington Jefferson Frump, Esq., left Congress Hall the same evening, and has since ungraciously refused an invitation to Captain Fane’s wedding—possibly from his having neglected to invite him on a similar occasion at Saratoga. This last, however, I am free to say, is a gratuitous supposition of my own.  79
 
 
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