Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. IXXI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 18611889
The Parlor Car
By William Dean Howells (18371920)
[The Parlor Car. A Farce. 1876.]
SCENE: A parlor car on the New York Central Railroad. It is late afternoon in the early autumn, with a cloudy sunset threatening rain. The car is unoccupied save by a gentleman, who sits fronting one of the windows, with his feet in another chair; a newspaper lies across his lap; his hat is drawn down over his eyes, and he is apparently asleep. The rear door of the car opens, and the conductor enters with a young lady, heavily veiled, the porter coming after with her wraps and travelling-bags. The ladys air is of mingled anxiety and desperation, with a certain fierceness of movement. She casts a careless glance over the empty chairs.
CONDUCTOR. Heres your ticket, madam. You can have any of the places you like here, orglancing at the unconscious gentleman, and then at the young ladyif you prefer, you can go and take that seat in the forward car.
MISS LUCY GALBRAITH. Oh, I cant ride backwards. Ill stay here, please. Thank you. The porter places her things in a chair by a window, across the car from the sleeping gentleman, and she throws herself wearily into the next seat, wheels round in it, and lifting her veil gazes absently out at the landscape. Her face, which is very pretty, with a low forehead shadowed by thick blond hair, shows the traces of tears. She makes search in her pocket for her handkerchief, which she presses to her eyes. The conductor, lingering a moment, goes out.
PORTER. Ill be right here, at de end of de cah, if you should happen to want anything, missmaking a feint of arranging the shawls and satchels. Should you like some dese things hung up? Well, deyll be jus as well in de chair. Wes pretty late dis afternoon; moren four hours behin time. Ought to been into Albany fore dis. Freight train off de track jus dis side o Rochester, an had to wait. Was you goin to stop at Schenectady, miss?
MISS G. No, no, thank you, nothing. The porter hesitates, takes off his cap, and scratches his head with a murmur of embarrassment. Miss Galbraith looks up at him inquiringly, then suddenly takes out her porte-monnaie and fees him.
PORTER. Thank you, miss, thank you. If you want anything at all, miss, Im right dere at de end of de cah. He goes out by the narrow passage-way beside the smaller enclosed parlor. Miss Galbraith looks askance at the sleeping gentleman, and then, rising, goes to the large mirror to pin her veil, which has become loosened from her hat. She gives a little start at sight of the gentleman in the mirror, but arranges her head-gear, and returning to her place looks out of the window again. After a little while she moves about uneasily in her chair, then leans forward and tries to raise her window; she lifts it partly up, when the catch slips from her fingers and the window falls shut again with a crash.
MISS G. Oh, dear, how provoking! I suppose I must call the porter. She rises from her seat, but on attempting to move away she finds that the skirt of her polonaise has been caught in the falling window. She pulls at it, and then tries to lift the window again, but the cloth has wedged it in, and she cannot stir it. Well, I certainly think this is beyond endurance! Porter! Ahporter! Oh, hell never hear me in the racket that these wheels are making! I wish theyd stopI
MISS G. Of which you ought to be ashamed to take advantage. I wonder at your presumption in speaking to me at all. Its quite idle, I can assure you. Everything is at an end between us. It seems that I bore with you too long; but Im thankful that I had the spirit to act at last, and to act in time. And, now that chance has thrown us together, I trust that you will not force your conversation upon me. No gentleman would, and I have always given you credit for thinking yourself a gentleman. I request that you will not speak to me.
MR. R. Youve spoken ten words to me for every one of mine to you. But I wont annoy you. I cant believe it, Lucy; I can not believe it. It seems like some rascally dream, and if I had had any sleep since it happened, I should think I had dreamed it.
MR. R. Ill think so till you tell me again that our engagement is broken; that the faithful love of years is to go for nothing; that you dismiss me with cruel insult, without one word of explanation, without a word of intelligible accusation, even. Its too much! Ive been thinking it all over and over, and I cant make head or tail of it. I meant to see you again as soon as we got to town, and implore you to hear me. Come, its a mighty serious matter, Lucy. Im not a man to put on heroics and that; but I believe itll play the very deuce with me, Lucythat is to say, Miss GalbraithI do indeed. Itll give me a low opinion of woman.
MR. R. Why, youve just forbidden me to say Lucy! You must tell me, dearest, what I have done to offend you. The worst criminals are not condemned unheard, and Ive always thought you were merciful if not just. And now I only ask you to be just.
MR. R. Upon my soul, I dont know what you mean! I dont know what Ive done. When you came at me, last night, with my ring and presents and other little traps, you might have knocked me down with the lightest of the lot. I was perfectly dazed; I couldnt say anything before you were off, and all I could do was to hope that youd be more like yourself in the morning. And in the morning, when I came round to Mrs. Phillipss, I found you were gone, and I came after you by the next train.
MISS G. Mr. Richards, your personal history for the last twenty-four hours is a matter of perfect indifference to me, as it shall be for the next twenty-four hundred years. I see that you are resolved to annoy me, and since you will not leave the car, I must do so. She rises haughtily from her seat, but the imprisoned skirt of her polonaise twitches her abruptly back into her chair. She bursts into tears. Oh, what shall I do?
MR. R., dryly. You shall do whatever you like, Miss Galbraith, when Ive set you free; for I see your dress is caught in the window. When its once out, Ill shut the window, and you can call the porter to raise it. He leans forward over her chair, and while she shrinks back the length of her tether, he tugs at the window-fastening. I cant get at it. Would you be so good as to stand upall you can? Miss Galbraith stands up droopingly, and Mr. Richards makes a movement towards her, and then falls back. No, that wont do. Please sit down again. He goes round her chair and tries to get at the window from that side. I cant get any purchase on it. Why dont you cut out that piece? Miss Galbraith stares at him in dumb amazement. Well, I dont see what were to do. Ill go and get the porter. He goes to the end of the car, and returns. I cant find the porterhe must be in one of the other cars. Butbrightening with the fortunate conceptionIve just thought of something. Will it unbutton?
MR. R. Yes, and nowkneeling beside herif youll allow me toto get at the window-catchhe stretches both arms forward; she shrinks from his right into his left, and then back againand pull, while I raise the window
MISS G. Yes, yes; but do hurry, please. If any one saw us, I dont know what they would think. Its perfectly ridiculous!pulling. Its caught in the corner of the window, between the frame and the sash, and it wont come! Is my hair troubling you? Is it in your eyes?
MR. R. Well, now then, pull hard! He lifts the window with a great effort; the polonaise comes free with a start, and she strikes violently against him. In supporting the shock he cannot forbear catching her for an instant to his heart. She frees herself, and starts indignantly to her feet.
MR. R. Cowardly? Youve no idea how much courage it took. Miss Galbraith puts her handkerchief to her face, and sobs. Oh, dont cry! Bless my heartIm sorry I did it! But you know how dearly I love you, Lucy, though I do think youve been cruelly unjust. I told you I never should love any one else, and I never shall. I couldnt help it, upon my soul I couldnt. Nobody could. Dont let it vex you, my He approaches her.
MR. R. You misinterpret a very inoffensive gesture. I have no idea of touching you, but I hope I may be allowed, as a special favor, topick up my hat, which you are in the act of stepping on. Miss Galbraith hastily turns, and strikes the hat with her whirling skirts; it rolls to the other side of the parlor, and Mr. Richards, who goes after it, utters an ironical Thanks! He brushes it and puts it on, looking at her where she has again seated herself at the window with her back to him, and continues, As for any further molestation from me
MISS G., after a moment. Well, sir, you may ask your question. She remains as before, with her chin in her hand, looking tearfully out of the window; her face is turned from Mr. Richards, who hesitates a moment before he speaks.
MR. R. Oh, come now, Lucy. It breaks my heart to hear you going on so, and all for nothing. Be a little merciful to both of us, and listen to me. Ive no doubt I can explain everything if I once understand it, but its pretty hard explaining a thing if you dont understand it yourself. Do turn round. I know it makes you sick to ride in that way, and if you dont want to face methere! wheeling in his chair so as to turn his back upon heryou neednt. Though its rather trying to a fellows politeness, not to mention his other feelings. Now, what, in the name
PORTER, laughing. Well, no, sah. Fact is, dis cah dont belong on dis train. Its a Pullman that we hitched on when you got in, and wes taking it along for one of de Eastern roads. We let you in cause de drawing-rooms was all full. Same with de ladylooking sympathetically at her as he takes up his steps to go out. Can I do anything for you now, miss?
MISS G., plaintively. No, thank you; nothing whatever. She has turned while Mr. Richards and the porter have been speaking, and now faces the back of the former, but her veil is drawn closely. The porter goes out.
MR. R. He is an urbane and well-informed nobleman. At any rate, hes a man and a brother. But so am I. Miss Galbraith does not reply, and after a pause Mr. Richards resumes. Talking of gentlemen, I recollect, once, coming up on the day-boat to Poughkeepsie, there was a poor devil of a tipsy man kept following a young fellow about, and annoying him to deathtrying to fight him, as a tipsy man will, and insisting that the young fellow had insulted him. By and by he lost his balance and went overboard, and the other jumped after him and fished him out. Sensation on the part of Miss Galbraith, who stirs uneasily in her chair, looks out of the window, then looks at Mr. Richards, and drops her head. There was a young lady on board, who had seen the whole thinga very charming young lady indeed, with pale blond hair growing very thick over her forehead, and dark eyelashes to the sweetest blue eyes in the world. Well, this young ladys papa was amongst those who came up to say civil things to the young fellow when he got aboard again, and to ask the honorhe said, the honorof his acquaintance. And when he came out of his state-room in dry clothes, this infatuated old gentleman was waiting for him, and took him and introduced him to his wife and daughter. And the daughter said, with tears in her eyes, and a perfectly intoxicating impulsiveness, that it was the grandest and the most heroic and the noblest thing that she had ever seen, and she should always be a better girl for having seen it. Excuse me, Miss Galbraith, for troubling you with these facts of a personal history which, as you say, is a matter of perfect indifference to you. The young fellow didnt think at the time he had done anything extraordinary; but I dont suppose he did expect to live to have the same girl tell him he was no gentleman.
MISS G., with dignity. I am in no humor for jesting, Allen. And I can assure you that, though I consent to hear what you have to say, or ask, nothing will change my determination. All is over between us.
MR. R. Yes, I understand that perfectly. I am now asking merely for general information. I do not expect you to relent, and in fact I should consider it rather frivolous if you did. No. What I have always admired in your character, Lucy, is a firm, logical consistency; a clearness of mental vision that leaves no side of a subject unsearched; and an unwavering constancy of purpose. You may say that these traits are characteristic of all women; but they are preëminently characteristic of you, Lucy. Miss Galbraith looks askance at him, to make out whether he is in earnest or not; he continues, with a perfectly serious air. And I know now that, if youre offended with me, its for no trivial cause. She stirs uncomfortably in her chair. What I have done I cant imagine, but it must be something monstrous, since it has made life with me appear so impossible that you are ready to fling away your own happinessfor I know you did love me, Lucyand destroy mine. I will begin with the worst thing I can think of. Was it because I danced so much with Fanny Watervliet?
MR. R. Im glad to hear that there are yet depths to which you think me incapable of descending, and that Miss Watervliet is one of them. I will now take a little higher ground. Perhaps you think I flirted with Mrs. Dawes. I thought, myself, that the thing might begin to have that appearance, but I give you my word of honor that, as soon as the idea occurred to me, I dropped herrather rudely, too. The trouble was, dont you know, that I felt so perfectly safe with a married friend of yours. I couldnt be hanging about you all the time, and I was afraid I might vex you if I went with the other girls; and I didnt know what to do.
MR. R. Thats true. Thats what made me so easy about it. I knew I could leave it off any time. Well, I will not disturb you any longer, Miss Galbraith. He throws his overcoat across his arm, and takes up his travelling-bag. I have failed to guess your fatalconundrum; and I have no longer any excuse for remaining. I am going into the smoking-car. Shall I send the porter to you for anything?
MISS G. Oh, Allen, your not knowing makes it all the more hopeless and killing. It shows me that we must part; that you would go on, breaking my heart, and grinding me into the dust as long as we lived. She sobs. It shows me that you never understood me, and you never will. I know youre good and kind and all that, but that only makes your not understanding me so much the worse. I do it quite as much for your sake as my own, Allen.
MR. R., in amazement. How did I mortify you? I thought that I treated you with all the tenderness and affection that a decent regard for the feelings of others would allow. I was ashamed to find I couldnt keep away from you.
MISS G. I dare say! I dare say they wont appear vital to you, Allen. Nothing does. And if I had told you, I should have been met with ridicule, I suppose. But I knew better than to tell; I respected myself too much.
MR. R. But now you mustnt respect yourself quite so much, dearest. And I promise you I wont laugh at the most serious thing. Im in no humor for it. If it were a matter of life and death, even, I can assure you that it wouldnt bring a smile to my countenance. No, indeed! If you expect me to laugh now, you must say something particularly funny.
MR. R. Well, I wont then. But do you know what I suspect, Lucy? I wouldnt mention it to everybody, but I will to youin strict confidence: I suspect that youre rather ashamed of your grievance, if you have any. I suspect its nothing at all.
MISS G., very sternly at first, with a rising hysterical inflection. Nothing, Allen! Do you call it nothing, to have Mrs. Dawes come out with all that about your accident on your way up the river, and ask me if it didnt frighten me terribly to hear of it, even after it was all over; and I had to say you hadnt told me a word of it? Why, Lucy!angrily mimicking Mrs. Dawesyou must teach him better than that. I make Mr. Dawes tell me everything. Little simpleton! And then to have them all laughoh, dear, its too much!
MISS G., interrupting him. I saw just how it was going to be, and Im thankful, thankful that it happened. I saw that you didnt care enough for me to take me into your whole life; that you despised and distrusted me, and that it would get worse and worse to the end of our days; that we should grow further and further apart, and I should be left moping at home, while you ran about making confidantes of other women whom you considered worthy of your confidence. It all flashed upon me in an instant; and I resolved to break with you then and there; and I did, just as soon as ever I could go to my room for your things, and Im gladyesO hu, hu, hu, hu, hu! so glad I did it!
MISS G. Oh, it wasnt the first proof you had given me how little you really cared for me, but I was determined it should be the last. I dare say youve forgotten them! I dare say you dont remember telling Mamie Morris that you didnt like crocheted cigar-cases, when youd just told me that you did, and let me be such a fool as to commence one for you; but Im thankful to say that went into the fireoh, yes, instantly! And I dare say youve forgotten that you didnt tell me your brothers engagement was to be kept, and let me come out with it that night at the Rudges, and then looked perfectly aghast, so that everybody thought I had been blabbing! Time and again, Allen, you have made me suffer agonies, yes, agonies; but your power to do so is at an end. I am free and happy at last. She weeps bitterly.
MR. R., quietly. Yes, I had forgotten those crimes, and I suppose many similar atrocities. I own it, I am forgetful and careless. I was wrong about those things. I ought to have told you why I said that to Miss Morris; I was afraid she was going to work me one. As to that accident I told Mrs. Dawes of, it wasnt worth mentioning. Our boat simply walked over a sloop in the night, and nobody was hurt. I shouldnt have thought twice about it, if she hadnt happened to brag of their passing close to an iceberg on their way home from Europe; then I trotted out my pretty-near disaster as a match for hersconfound her! I wish the iceberg had sunk them! Only it wouldnt have sunk hershes so light; shed have gone bobbing about all over the Atlantic Ocean, like a cork; shes got a perfect life-preserver in that mind of hers. Miss Galbraith gives a little laugh, and then a little moan. But since you are happy, I will not repine, Miss Galbraith. I dont pretend to be very happy myself, but then, I dont deserve it. Since you are ready to let an absolutely unconscious offence on my part cancel all the past; since you let my devoted love weigh as nothing against the momentary pique that a malicious little rattle-pateshe was vexed at my leaving hercould make you feel, and choose to gratify a wicked resentment at the cost of any suffering to me, why, I can be glad and happy, too. With rising anger, Yes, Miss Galbraith. All is over between us. You can go! I renounce you!
MR. R. Well, its all the same thing. Id renounce you if I had. Good evening, Miss Galbraith. I will send back your presents as soon as I get to town; it wont be necessary to acknowledge them. I hope we may never meet again. He goes out of the door towards the front of the car, but returns directly, and glances uneasily at Miss Galbraith, who remains with her handkerchief pressed to her eyes. Ahathat isI shall be obliged to intrude upon you again. The fact is
MISS G. Then what station is this? Have they carried me by? Observing his embarrassment, Allen, what is the matter? What has happened? Tell me instantly! Are we off the track? Have we run into another train? Have we broken through a bridge? Shall we be burnt alive? Tell me, Allen, tell me!I can bear it!are we telescoped? She wrings her hands in terror.
MR. R., unsympathetically. Nothing of the kind has happened. This car has simply come uncoupled, and the rest of the train has gone on ahead, and left us standing on the track, nowhere in particular. He leans back in his chair, and wheels it round from her.
MISS G. rises and goes to the large mirror to wipe away her tears. She glances at Mr. Richards, who does not move. She sits down in a seat nearer him than the chair she has left. After some faint murmurs and hesitations, she asks, Will you please tell me why you went out just now?
MISS G. I always did justice to your good-heartedness, Allen; youre perfectly lovely that way; and I know that you would be sorry if you knew you had wounded thy feelings, however accidentally. She droops her head so as to catch a sidelong glimpse of his face, and sighs, while she nervously pinches the top of her parasol, resting the point on the floor. Mr. R. makes no answer. That about the cigar-case might have been a mistake; I saw that myself, and, as you explain it, why, it was certainly very kind and very creditable toto your thoughtfulness. It was thoughtful!
MISS G. But do you think it was exactlyit was quitenice, not to tell me that your brothers engagement was to be kept, when you know, Allen, I cant bear to blunder in such things? Tenderly, Do you? You cant say it was?
MISS G. Oh! That! That was a great while ago! I thought you meant something quite recent. A sound as of the approaching train is heard in the distance. She gives a start, and then leaves her chair again for one a little nearer his. I thought perhaps you meant aboutlast night.
MISS G., very judicially. I dont think it was rash, exactly. No, not rash. It might not have been very kind not tototrust you more, when I knew that you didnt mean anything; but No, I took the only course I could. Nobody could have done differently under the circumstances. But if I caused you any pain, Im very sorry; Oh, yes, very sorry indeed. But I was not precipitate, and I know I did right. At least I tried to act for the best. Dont you believe I did?
MISS G., becoming more and more uneasy as the noise of the approaching train grows louder. I think you have been very quick with me at times, quite as quick as I could have been with you last night. The noise is more distinctly heard. Im sure that, if I could once see it as you do, no one would be more willing to do anything in their power to atone for their rashness. Of course, I know that everything is over.
MISS G., with sudden violence. Say it, and take your revenge! I have put myself at your feet, and you do right to trample on me! Oh, this is what women may expect when they trust to mens generosity! Well, it is over now, and Im thankful, thankful! Cruel, suspicious, vindictive, youre all alike, and Im glad that Im no longer subject to your heartless caprices. And I dont care what happens after this, I shall always Oh! Youre sure its from the front, Allen? Are you sure the rear signal is out?
MISS G., running towards the rear door. Oh, I must get out! It will kill me, I know it will. Come with me! Do, do! He runs after her, and her voice is heard at the rear of the car. Oh, the outside door is locked, and we are trapped, trapped, trapped! Oh, quick! Lets try the door at the other end. They reënter the parlor, and the roar of the train announces that it is upon them. No, no! Its too late, its too late! Im a wicked, wicked girl, and this is all to punish me! Oh, its coming, its coming at full speed! He remains bewildered, confronting her. She utters a wild cry, and, as the train strikes the car with a violent concussion, she flings herself into his arms. There, there! Forgive me, Allen! Let us die together, my own, own love! She hangs fainting on his breast. Voices are heard without, and after a little delay the porter comes in with a lantern.
MR. R. I dont know what hell think now. He did think you were frightened; but you told him you were not. However, it isnt important what he thinks. Probably he thinks Im your long-lost brother. It had a kind of familiar look.
MR. R. Come, Lucytaking her handyou wished to die with me a moment ago. Dont you think you can make one more effort to live with me? I wont take advantage of words spoken in mortal peril, but I suppose you were in earnest when you called me your ownown Her head droops; he folds her in his arms a moment, then she starts away from him, as if something had suddenly occurred to her.
MISS G. Well, dont! Aunt Mary is expecting me here at SchenectadyI telegraphed herand I want you to stop here, too, and well refer the whole matter to her. Shes such a wise old head. Im not sure
MR. R., coming and standing in front of her, with his hands in his pockets. Look me in the eye, Lucy! She drops her veil over her face, and looks up at him. Did youdid you expect to find me on this train?
MR. R. Oh, I dare say! After a pause: Well, I am a poor, weak, helpless man, with no one to advise me or counsel me, and I have been cruelly deceived. How could you, Lucy, how could you? I can never get over this. He drops his head upon her shoulder.
MISS G. Why, because I think its perfectly lovely, and I should like to live in it always. It could be fitted up for a sort of summer-house, dont you know, and we could have it in the garden, and you could smoke in it.
MR. R. Admirable! It would look just like a travelling photographic saloon. No, Lucy, we wont buy it; we will simply keep it as a precious souvenir, a sacred memory, a beautiful dreamand let it go on fulfilling its destiny all the same.
MISS G., rising and adjusting her dress, and then looking about the car, while she passes her hand through her lovers arm. Oh, I do hate to leave it. Farewell, you dear, kind, good, lovely car! May you never have another accident! She kisses her hand to the car, upon which they both look back as they slowly leave it.
MISS G. Or young men who are so indifferent that they pretend to be asleep when the young ladies come in! They pause at the door and look back again. And must I leave thee, Paradise? They both kiss their hands to the car again, and, their faces being very close together, they impulsively kiss each other. Then Miss Galbraith throws back her head, and solemnly confronts him. Only think, Allen! If this car hadnt broken its engagement, we might never have mended ours.