Short Stories and Essays by William Dean Howells

This etext was produced by David Widger LITERATURE AND LIFE–Short Stories and Essays by William Dean Howells CONTENTS: Worries of a Winter Walk Summer Isles of Eden Wild Flowers of the Asphalt A Circus in the Suburbs A She Hamlet The Midnight Platoon The Beach at Rockaway Sawdust in the Arena At a Dime Museum
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This etext was produced by David Widger

[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the file for those who may wish to sample the author’s ideas before making an entire meal of them. D.W.]

LITERATURE AND LIFE–Short Stories and Essays

by William Dean Howells

Worries of a Winter Walk
Summer Isles of Eden
Wild Flowers of the Asphalt
A Circus in the Suburbs
A She Hamlet
The Midnight Platoon
The Beach at Rockaway
Sawdust in the Arena
At a Dime Museum
American Literature in Exile
The Horse Show
The Problem of the Summer
Aesthetic New York Fifty-odd Years Ago From New York into New England
The Art of the Adsmith
The Psychology of Plagiarism
Puritanism in American Fiction
The What and How in Art
Politics in American Authors
“Floating down the River on the O-hi-o”


The other winter, as I was taking a morning walk down to the East River, I came upon a bit of our motley life, a fact of our piebald civilization, which has perplexed me from time to time, ever since, and which I wish now to leave with the reader, for his or her more thoughtful consideration.


The morning was extremely cold. It professed to be sunny, and there was really some sort of hard glitter in the air, which, so far from being tempered by this effulgence, seemed all the stonier for it. Blasts of frigid wind swept the streets, and buffeted each other in a fury of resentment when they met around the corners. Although I was passing through a populous tenement-house quarter, my way was not hindered by the sports of the tenement-house children, who commonly crowd one from the sidewalks; no frowzy head looked out over the fire-escapes; there were no peddlers’ carts or voices in the road-way; not above three or four shawl- hooded women cowered out of the little shops with small purchases in their hands; not so many tiny girls with jugs opened the doors of the beer saloons. The butchers’ windows were painted with patterns of frost, through which I could dimly see the frozen meats hanging like hideous stalactites from the roof. When I came to the river, I ached in sympathy with the shipping painfully atilt on the rocklike surface of the brine, which broke against the piers, and sprayed itself over them like showers of powdered quartz.

But it was before I reached this final point that I received into my consciousness the moments of the human comedy which have been an increasing burden to it. Within a block of the river I met a child so small that at first I almost refused to take any account of her, until she appealed to my sense of humor by her amusing disproportion to the pail which she was lugging in front of her with both of her little mittened hands. I am scrupulous about mittens, though I was tempted to write of her little naked hands, red with the pitiless cold. This would have been more effective, but it would not have been true, and the truth obliges me to own that she had a stout, warm-looking knit jacket on. The pail-which was half her height and twice her bulk-was filled to overflowing with small pieces of coal and coke, and if it had not been for this I might have taken her for a child of the better classes, she was so comfortably clad. But in that case she would have had to be fifteen or sixteen years old, in order to be doing so efficiently and responsibly the work which, as the child of the worse classes, she was actually doing at five or six. We must, indeed, allow that the early self-helpfulness of such children is very remarkable, and all the more so because they grow up into men and women so stupid that, according to the theories of all polite economists, they have to have their discontent with their conditions put into their heads by malevolent agitators.

From time to time this tiny creature put down her heavy burden to rest; it was, of course, only relatively heavy; a man would have made nothing of it. From time to time she was forced to stop and pick up the bits of coke that tumbled from her heaping pail. She could not consent to lose one of them, and at last, when she found she could not make all of them stay on the heap, she thriftily tucked them into the pockets of her jacket, and trudged sturdily on till she met a boy some years older, who planted himself in her path and stood looking at her, with his hands in his pockets. I do not say he was a bad boy, but I could see in his furtive eye that she was a sore temptation to him. The chance to have fun with her by upsetting her bucket, and scattering her coke about till she cried with vexation, was one which might not often present itself, and I do not know what made him forego it, but I know that he did, and that he finally passed her, as I have seen a young dog pass a little cat, after having stopped it, and thoughtfully considered worrying it.

I turned to watch the child out of sight, and when I faced about towards the river again I received the second instalment of my present perplexity. A cart, heavily laden with coke, drove out of the coal-yard which I now perceived I had come to, and after this cart followed two brisk old women, snugly clothed and tightly tucked in against the cold like the child, who vied with each other in catching up the lumps of coke that were jolted from the load, and filling their aprons with them; such old women, so hale, so spry, so tough and tireless, with the withered apples red in their cheeks, I have not often seen. They may have been about sixty years, or sixty-five, the time of life when most women are grandmothers and are relegated on their merits to the cushioned seats of their children’s homes, softly silk-gowned and lace-capped, dear visions of lilac and lavender, to be loved and petted by their grandchildren. The fancy can hardly put such sweet ladies in the place of those nimble beldams, who hopped about there in the wind-swept street, plucking up their day’s supply of firing from the involuntary bounty of the cart. Even the attempt is unseemly, and whether mine is at best but a feeble fancy, not bred to strenuous feats of any kind, it fails to bring them before me in that figure. I cannot imagine ladies doing that kind of thing; I can only imagine women who had lived hard and worked hard all their lives doing it; who had begun to fight with want from their cradles, like that little one with the pail, and must fight without ceasing to their graves. But I am not unreasonable; I understand and I understood what I saw to be one of the things that must be, for the perfectly good and sufficient reason that they always have been; and at the moment I got what pleasure I could out of the stolid indifference of the cart-driver, who never looked about him at the scene which interested me, but jolted onward, leaving a trail of pungent odors from his pipe in the freezing eddies of the air behind him.


It is still not at all, or not so much, the fact that troubles me; it is what to do with the fact. The question began with me almost at once, or at least as soon as I faced about and began to walk homeward with the wind at my back. I was then so much more comfortable that the aesthetic instinct thawed out in me, and I found myself wondering what use I could make of what I had seen in the way of my trade. Should I have something very pathetic, like the old grandmother going out day after day to pick up coke for her sick daughter’s freezing orphans till she fell sick herself? What should I do with the family in that case? They could not be left at that point, and I promptly imagined a granddaughter, a girl of about eighteen, very pretty and rather proud, a sort of belle in her humble neighborhood, who should take her grandmother’s place. I decided that I should have her Italian, because I knew something of Italians, and could manage that nationality best, and I should call her Maddalena; either Maddalena or Marina; Marina would be more Venetian, and I saw that I must make her Venetian. Here I was on safe ground, and at once the love-interest appeared to help me out. By virtue of the law of contrasts; it appeared to me in the person of a Scandinavian lover, tall, silent, blond, whom I at once felt I could do, from my acquaintance with Scandinavian lovers in Norwegian novels. His name was Janssen, a good, distinctive Scandinavian name; I do not know but it is Swedish; and I thought he might very well be a Swede; I could imagine his manner from that of a Swedish waitress we once had.

Janssen–Jan Janssen, say-drove the coke-cart which Marina’s grandmother used to follow out of the coke-yard, to pick up the bits of coke as they were jolted from it, and he had often noticed her with deep indifference. At first he noticed Marina–or Nina, as I soon saw I must call her–with the same unconcern; for in her grandmother’s hood and jacket and check apron, with her head held shamefacedly downward, she looked exactly like the old woman. I thought I would have Nina make her self-sacrifice rebelliously, as a girl like her would be apt to do, and follow the cokecart with tears. This would catch Janssen’s notice, and he would wonder, perhaps with a little pang, what the old woman was crying about, and then he would see that it was not the old woman. He would see that it was Nina, and he would be in love with her at once, for she would not only be very pretty, but he would know that she was good, if she were willing to help her family in that way.

He would respect the girl, in his dull, sluggish, Northern way. He would do nothing to betray himself. But little by little he would begin to befriend her. He would carelessly overload his cart before he left the yard, so that the coke would fall from it more lavishly; and not only this, but if he saw a stone or a piece of coal in the street he would drive over it, so that more coke would be jolted from his load.

Nina would get to watching for him. She must not notice him much at first, except as the driver of the overladen, carelessly driven cart. But after several mornings she must see that he is very strong and handsome. Then, after several mornings more, their eyes must meet, her vivid black eyes, with the tears of rage and shame in them, and his cold blue eyes. This must be the climax; and just at this point I gave my fancy a rest, while I went into a drugstore at the corner of Avenue B to get my hands warm.

They were abominably cold, even in my pockets, and I had suffered past several places trying to think of an excuse to go in. I now asked the druggist if he had something which I felt pretty sure he had not, and this put him in the wrong, so that when we fell into talk he was very polite. We agreed admirably about the hard times, and he gave way respectfully when I doubted his opinion that the winters were getting milder. I made him reflect that there was no reason for this, and that it was probably an illusion from that deeper impression which all experiences made on us in the past, when we were younger; I ought to say that he was an elderly man, too. I said I fancied such a morning as this was not very mild for people that had no fires, and this brought me back again to Janssen and Marina, by way of the coke-cart. The thought of them rapt me so far from the druggist that I listened to his answer with a glazing eye, and did not know what he said. My hands had now got warm, and I bade him good-morning with a parting regret, which he civilly shared, that he had not the thing I had not wanted, and I pushed out again into the cold, which I found not so bad as before.

My hero and heroine were waiting for me there, and I saw that to be truly modern, to be at once realistic and mystical, to have both delicacy and strength, I must not let them get further acquainted with each other. The affair must simply go on from day to day, till one morning Jan must note that it was again the grandmother and no longer the girl who was following his cart. She must be very weak from a long sickness–I was not sure whether to have it the grippe or not, but I decided upon that provisionally and she must totter after Janssen, so that he must get down after a while to speak to her under pretence of arranging the tail-board of his cart, or something of that kind; I did not care for the detail. They should get into talk in the broken English which was the only language they could have in common, and she should burst into tears, and tell him that now Nina was sick; I imagined making this very simple, but very touching, and I really made it so touching that it brought the lump into my own throat, and I knew it would be effective with the reader. Then I had Jan get back upon his cart, and drive stolidly on again, and the old woman limp feebly after.

There should not be any more, I decided, except that one very cold morning, like that; Jan should be driving through that street, and should be passing the door of the tenement house where Nina had lived, just as a little procession should be issuing from it. The fact must be told in brief sentences, with a total absence of emotionality. The last touch must be Jan’s cart turning the street corner with Jan’s figure sharply silhouetted against the clear, cold morning light. Nothing more.

But it was at this point that another notion came into my mind, so antic, so impish, so fiendish, that if there were still any Evil One, in a world which gets on so poorly without him, I should attribute it to his suggestion; and this was that the procession which Jan saw issuing from the tenement-house door was not a funeral procession, as the reader will have rashly fancied, but a wedding procession, with Nina at the head of it, quite well again, and going to be married to the little brown youth with ear-rings who had long had her heart.

With a truly perverse instinct, I saw how strong this might be made, at the fond reader’s expense, to be sure, and how much more pathetic, in such a case, the silhouetted figure on the coke-cart would really be. I should, of course, make it perfectly plain that no one was to blame, and that the whole affair had been so tacit on Jan’s part that Nina might very well have known nothing of his feeling for her. Perhaps at the very end I might subtly insinuate that it was possible he might have had no such feeling towards her as the reader had been led to imagine.


The question as to which ending I ought to have given my romance is what has ever since remained to perplex me, and it is what has prevented my ever writing it. Here is material of the best sort lying useless on my hands, which, if I could only make up my mind, might be wrought into a short story as affecting as any that wring our hearts in fiction; and I think I could get something fairly unintelligible out of the broken English of Jan and Nina’s grandmother, and certainly something novel. All that I can do now, however, is to put the case before the reader, and let him decide for himself how it should end.

The mere humanist, I suppose, might say, that I am rightly served for having regarded the fact I had witnessed as material for fiction at all; that I had no business to bewitch it with my miserable art; that I ought to have spoken to that little child and those poor old women, and tried to learn something of their lives from them, that I might offer my knowledge again for the instruction of those whose lives are easy and happy in the indifference which ignorance breeds in us. I own there is something in this, but then, on the other hand, I have heard it urged by nice people that they do not want to know about such squalid lives, that it is offensive and out of taste to be always bringing them in, and that we ought to be writing about good society, and especially creating grandes dames for their amusement. This sort of people could say to the humanist that he ought to be glad there are coke-carts for fuel to fall off from for the lower classes, and that here was no case for sentiment; for if one is to be interested in such things at all, it must be aesthetically, though even this is deplorable in the presence of fiction already overloaded with low life, and so poor in grades dames as ours.


It may be all an illusion of the map, where the Summer Islands glimmer a small and solitary little group of dots and wrinkles, remote from continental shores, with a straight line descending southeastwardly upon them, to show how sharp and swift the ship’s course is, but they seem so far and alien from my wonted place that it is as if I had slid down a steepy slant from the home-planet to a group of asteroids nebulous somewhere in middle space, and were resting there, still vibrant from the rush of the meteoric fall. There were, of course, facts and incidents contrary to such a theory: a steamer starting from New York in the raw March morning, and lurching and twisting through two days of diagonal seas, with people aboard dining and undining, and talking and smoking and cocktailing and hot-scotching and beef-teaing; but when the ship came in sight of the islands, and they began to lift their cedared slopes from the turquoise waters, and to explain their drifted snows as the white walls and white roofs of houses, then the waking sense became the dreaming sense, and the sweet impossibility of that drop through air became the sole reality.


Everything here, indeed, is so strange that you placidly accept whatever offers itself as the simplest and naturalest fact. Those low hills, that climb, with their tough, dark cedars, from the summer sea to the summer sky, might have drifted down across the Gulf Stream from the coast of Maine; but when, upon closer inspection, you find them skirted with palms and bananas, and hedged with oleanders, you merely wonder that you had never noticed these growths in Maine before, where you were so familiar with the cedars. The hotel itself, which has brought the Green Mountains with it, in every detail, from the dormer-windowed mansard-roof, and the white-painted, green-shuttered walls, to the neat, school-mistressly waitresses in the dining-room, has a clump of palmettos beside it, swaying and sighing in the tropic breeze, and you know that when it migrates back to the New England hill-country, at the end of the season, you shall find it with the palmettos still before its veranda, and equally at home, somewhere in the Vermont or New Hampshire July. There will be the same American groups looking out over them, and rocking and smoking, though, alas! not so many smoking as rocking.

But where, in that translation, would be the gold braided red or blue jackets of the British army and navy which lend their lustre and color here to the veranda groups? Where should one get the house walls of whitewashed stone and the garden walls which everywhere glow in the sun, and belt in little spaces full of roses and lilies? These things must come from some other association, and in the case of him who here confesses, the lustrous uniforms and the glowing walls rise from waters as far away in time as in space, and a long-ago apparition of Venetian Junes haunts the coral shore. (They are beginning to say the shore is not coral; but no matter.) To be sure, the white roofs are not accounted for in this visionary presence; and if one may not relate them to the snowfalls of home winters, then one must frankly own them absolutely tropical, together with the green-pillared and green-latticed galleries. They at least suggest the tropical scenery of Prue and I as one remembers seeing it through Titbottom’s spectacles; and yet, if one supplies roofs of brown-red tiles, it is all Venetian enough, with the lagoon-like expanses that lend themselves to the fond effect. It is so Venetian, indeed, that it wants but a few silent gondolas and noisy gondoliers, in place of the dark, taciturn oarsmen of the clumsy native boats, to complete the coming and going illusion; and there is no good reason why the rough little isles that fill the bay should not call themselves respectively San Giorgio and San Clemente, and Sant’ Elena and San Lazzaro: they probably have no other names!


These summer isles of Eden have this advantage over the scriptural Eden, that apparently it was not woman and her seed who were expelled, when once she set foot here, but the serpent and his seed: women now abound in the Summer Islands, and there is not a snake anywhere to be found. There are some tortoises and a great many frogs in their season, but no other reptiles. The frogs are fabled of a note so deep and hoarse that its vibration almost springs the environing mines of dynamite, though it has never yet done so; the tortoises grow to a great size and a patriarchal age, and are fond of Boston brown bread and baked beans, if their preferences may be judged from those of a colossal specimen in the care of an American family living on the islands. The observer who contributes this fact to science is able to report the case of a parrot- fish, on the same premises, so exactly like a large brown and purple cockatoo that, seeing such a cockatoo later on dry land, it was with a sense of something like cruelty in its exile from its native waters. The angel-fish he thinks not so much like angels; they are of a transparent purity of substance, and a cherubic innocence of expression, but they terminate in two tails, which somehow will not lend themselves to the resemblance.

Certainly the angel-fish is not so well named as the parrot-fish; it might better be called the ghostfish, it is so like a moonbeam in the pools it haunts, and of such a convertible quality with the iridescent vegetable growths about it. All things here are of a weird convertibility to the alien perception, and the richest and rarest facts of nature lavish themselves in humble association with the commonest and most familiar. You drive through long stretches of wayside willows, and realize only now and then that these willows are thick clumps of oleanders; and through them you can catch glimpses of banana-orchards, which look like dishevelled patches of gigantic cornstalks. The fields of Easter lilies do not quite live up to their photographs; they are presently suffering from a mysterious blight, and their flowers are not frequent enough to lend them that sculpturesque effect near to, which they wear as far off as New York. The potato-fields, on the other hand, are of a tender delicacy of coloring which compensates for the lilies’ lack, and the palms give no just cause for complaint, unless because they are not nearly enough to characterize the landscape, which in spite of their presence remains so northern in aspect. They were much whipped and torn by a late hurricane, which afflicted all the vegetation of the islands, and some of the royal palms were blown down. Where these are yet standing, as four or five of them are in a famous avenue now quite one-sided, they are of a majesty befitting that of any king who could pass by them: no sovereign except Philip of Macedon in his least judicial moments could pass between them.

The century-plant, which here does not require pampering under glass, but boldly takes its place out doors with the other trees of the garden, employs much less than a hundred years to bring itself to bloom. It often flowers twice or thrice in that space of time, and ought to take away the reproach of the inhabitants for a want of industry and enterprise: a century-plant at least could do no more in any air, and it merits praise for its activity in the breath of these languorous seas. One such must be in bloom at this very writing, in the garden of a house which this very writer marked for his own on his first drive ashore from the steamer to the hotel, when he bestowed in its dim, unknown interior one of the many multiples of himself which are now pretty well dispersed among the pleasant places of the earth. It fills the night with a heavy heliotropean sweetness, and on the herb beneath, in the effulgence of the waxing moon, the multiple which has spiritually expropriated the legal owners stretches itself in an interminable reverie, and hears Youth come laughing back to it on the waters kissing the adjacent shore, where other white houses (which also it inhabits) bathe their snowy underpinning. In this dream the multiple drives home from the balls of either hotel with the young girls in the little victorias which must pass its sojourn; and, being but a vision itself, fore casts the shapes of flirtation which shall night-long gild the visions of their sleep with the flash of military and naval uniforms. Of course the multiple has been at the dance too (with a shadowy heartache for the dances of forty years ago), and knows enough not to confuse the uniforms.


In whatever way you walk, at whatever hour, the birds are sweetly calling in the way-side oleanders and the wild sage-bushes and the cedar-tops. They are mostly cat-birds, quite like our own; and bluebirds, but of a deeper blue than ours, and redbirds of as liquid a note, but not so varied, as that of the redbirds of our woods. How came they all here, seven hundred miles from any larger land? Some think, on the stronger wings of tempests, for it is not within the knowledge of men that men brought them. Men did, indeed, bring the pestilent sparrows which swarm about their habitations here, and beat away the gentler and lovelier birds with a ferocity unknown in the human occupation of the islands. Still, the sparrows have by no means conquered, and in the wilder places the catbird makes common cause with the bluebird and the redbird, and holds its own against them. The little ground-doves mimic in miniature the form and markings and the gait and mild behavior of our turtle-doves, but perhaps not their melancholy cooing. Nature has nowhere anything prettier than these exquisite creatures, unless it be the long-tailed white gulls which sail over the emerald shallows of the landlocked seas, and take the green upon their translucent bodies as they trail their meteoric splendor against the midday sky. Full twenty-four inches they measure from the beak to the tip of the single pen that protracts them a foot beyond their real bulk; but it is said their tempers are shorter than they, and they attack fiercely anything they suspect of too intimate a curiosity concerning their nests.

They are probably the only short-tempered things in the Summer Islands, where time is so long that if you lose your patience you easily find it again. Sweetness, if not light, seems to be the prevailing human quality, and a good share of it belongs to such of the natives as are in no wise light. Our poor brethren of a different pigment are in the large majority, and they have been seventy years out of slavery, with the full enjoyment of all their civil rights, without lifting themselves from their old inferiority. They do the hard work, in their own easy way, and possibly do not find life the burden they make it for the white man, whom here, as in our own country, they load up with the conundrum which their existence involves for him. They are not very gay, and do not rise to a joke with that flashing eagerness which they show for it at home. If you have them against a background of banana-stems, or low palms, or feathery canes, nothing could be more acceptably characteristic of the air and sky; nor are they out of place on the box of the little victorias, where visitors of the more inquisitive sex put them to constant question. Such visitors spare no islander of any color. Once, in the pretty Public Garden which the multiple had claimed for its private property, three unmerciful American women suddenly descended from the heavens and began to question the multiple’s gardener, who was peacefully digging at the rate of a spadeful every five minutes. Presently he sat down on his wheelbarrow, and then shifted, without relief, from one handle of it to the other. Then he rose and braced himself desperately against the tool- house, where, when his tormentors drifted away, he seemed to the soft eye of pity pinned to the wall by their cruel interrogations, whose barbed points were buried in the stucco behind him, and whose feathered shafts stuck out half a yard before his breast.

Whether he was black or not, pity could not see, but probably he was. At least the garrison of the islands is all black, being a Jamaican regiment of that color; and when one of the warriors comes down the white street, with his swagger-stick in his hand, and flaming in scarlet and gold upon the ground of his own blackness, it is as if a gigantic oriole were coming towards you, or a mighty tulip. These gorgeous creatures seem so much readier than the natives to laugh, that you wish to test them with a joke. But it might fail. The Summer Islands are a British colony, and the joke does not flourish so luxuriantly, here as some other things.

To be sure, one of the native fruits seems a sort of joke when you hear it first named, and when you are offered a ‘loquat’, if you are of a frivolous mind you search your mind for the connection with ‘loquor’ which it seems to intimate. Failing in this, you taste the fruit, and then, if it is not perfectly ripe, you are as far from loquaciousness as if you had bitten a green persimmon. But if it is ripe, it is delicious, and may be consumed indefinitely. It is the only native fruit which one can wish to eat at all, with an unpractised palate, though it is claimed that with experience a relish may come for the pawpaws. These break out in clusters of the size of oranges at the top of a thick pole, which may have some leaves or may not, and ripen as they fancy in the indefinite summer. They are of the color and flavor of a very insipid little muskmelon which has grown too near a patch of squashes.

One may learn to like this pawpaw, yes, but one must study hard. It is best when plucked by a young islander of Italian blood whose father orders him up the bare pole in the sunny Sunday morning air to oblige the signori, and then with a pawpaw in either hand stands talking with them about the two bad years there have been in Bermuda, and the probability of his doing better in Nuova York. He has not imagined our winter, however, and he shrinks from its boldly pictured rigors, and lets the signori go with a sigh, and a bunch of pink and crimson roses.

The roses are here, budding and blooming in the quiet bewilderment which attends the flowers and plants from the temperate zone in this latitude, and which in the case of the strawberries offered with cream and cake at another public garden expresses itself in a confusion of red, ripe fruit and white blossoms on the same stem. They are a pleasure to the nose and eye rather than the palate, as happens with so many growths of the tropics, if indeed the Summer Islands are tropical, which some plausibly deny; though why should not strawberries, fresh picked from the plant in mid-March, enjoy the right to be indifferent sweet?


What remains? The events of the Summer Islands are few, and none out of the order of athletics between teams of the army and navy, and what may be called societetics, have happened in the past enchanted fortnight. But far better things than events have happened: sunshine and rain of such like quality that one could not grumble at either, and gales, now from the south and now from the north, with the languor of the one and the vigor of the other in them. There were drives upon drives that were always to somewhere, but would have been delightful the same if they had been mere goings and comings, past the white houses overlooking little lawns through the umbrage of their palm-trees. The lawns professed to be of grass, but were really mats of close little herbs which were not grass; but which, where the sparse cattle were grazing them, seemed to satisfy their inexacting stomachs. They are never very green, and in fact the landscape often has an air of exhaustion and pause which it wears with us in late August; and why not, after all its interminable, innumerable summers? Everywhere in the gentle hollows which the coral hills (if they are coral) sink into are the patches of potatoes and lilies and onions drawing their geometrical lines across the brown-red, weedless soil; and in very sheltered spots are banana-orchards which are never so snugly sheltered there but their broad leaves are whipped to shreds. The white road winds between gray walls crumbling in an amiable disintegration, but held together against ruin by a network of maidenhair ferns and creepers of unknown name, and overhung by trees where the cactus climbs and hangs in spiky links, or if another sort, pierces them with speary stems as tall and straight as the stalks of the neighboring bamboo. The loquat-trees cluster–like quinces in the garden closes, and show their pale golden, plum-shaped fruit.

For the most part the road runs by still inland waters, but sometimes it climbs to the high downs beside the open sea, grotesque with wind-worn and wave-worn rocks, and beautiful with opalescent beaches, and the black legs of the negro children paddling in the tints of the prostrate rainbow.

All this seems probable and natural enough at the writing; but how will it be when one has turned one’s back upon it? Will it not lapse into the gross fable of travellers, and be as the things which the liars who swap them cannot themselves believe? What will be said to you when you tell that in the Summer Islands one has but to saw a hole in his back yard and take out a house of soft, creamy sandstone and set it up and go to living in it? What, when you relate that among the northern and southern evergreens there are deciduous trees which, in a clime where there is no fall or spring, simply drop their leaves when they are tired of keeping them on, and put out others when they feel like it? What, when you pretend that in the absence of serpents there are centipedes a span long, and spiders the bigness of bats, and mosquitoes that sweetly sing in the drowsing ear, but bite not; or that there are swamps but no streams, and in the marshes stand mangrove-trees whose branches grow downward into the ooze, as if they wished to get back into the earth and pull in after them the holes they emerged from?

These every-day facts seem not only incredible to the liar himself, even in their presence, but when you begin the ascent of that steep slant back to New York you foresee that they will become impossible. As impossible as the summit of the slant now appears to the sense which shudderingly figures it a Bermuda pawpaw-tree seven hundred miles high, and fruiting icicles and snowballs in the March air!


Looking through Mrs. Caroline A. Creevey’s charming book on the Flowers of Field, Hill, and Swamp, the other day, I was very forcibly reminded of the number of these pretty, wilding growths which I had been finding all the season long among the streets of asphalt and the sidewalks of artificial stone in this city; and I am quite sure that any one who has been kept in New York, as I have been this year, beyond the natural time of going into the country, can have as real a pleasure in this sylvan invasion as mine, if he will but give himself up to a sense of it.


Of course it is altogether too late, now, to look for any of the early spring flowers, but I can recall the exquisite effect of the tender blue hepatica fringing the centre rail of the grip-cars, all up and down Broadway, and apparently springing from the hollow beneath, where the cable ran with such a brooklike gurgle that any damp-living plant must find itself at home there. The water-pimpernel may now be seen, by any sympathetic eye, blowing delicately along the track, in the breeze of the passing cabs, and elastically lifting itself from the rush of the cars. The reader can easily verify it by the picture in Mrs. Creevey’s book. He knows it by its other name of brook weed; and he will have my delight, I am sure, in the cardinal-flower which will be with us in August. It is a shy flower, loving the more sequestered nooks, and may be sought along the shady stretches of Third Avenue, where the Elevated Road overhead forms a shelter as of interlacing boughs. The arrow-head likes such swampy expanses as the converging surface roads form at Dead Man’s Curve and the corners of Twenty third Street. This is in flower now, and will be till September; and St.-John’s-wort, which some call the false golden- rod, is already here. You may find it in any moist, low ground, but the gutters of Wall Street, or even the banks of the Stock Exchange, are not too dry for it. The real golden-rod is not much in evidence with us, for it comes only when summer is on the wane. The other night, however, on the promenade of the Madison Square Roof Garden, I was delighted to see it growing all over the oblong dome of the auditorium, in response to the cry of a homesick cricket which found itself in exile there at the base of a potted ever green. This lonely insect had no sooner sounded its winter-boding note than the fond flower began sympathetically to wave and droop along those tarry slopes, as I have seen it on how many hill-side pastures! But this may have been only a transitory response to the cricket, and I cannot promise the visitor to the Roof Garden that he will find golden-rod there every night. I believe there is always Golden Seal, but it is the kind that comes in bottles, and not in the gloom of “deep, cool, moist woods,” where Mrs. Creevey describes it as growing, along with other wildings of such sweet names or quaint as Celandine, and Dwarf Larkspur, and Squirrel-corn, and Dutchman’s breeches, and Pearlwort, and Wood-sorrel, and Bishop’s–cap, and Wintergreen, and Indian-pipe, and Snowberry, and Adder’s-tongue, and Wakerobin, and Dragon-root, and Adam-and-Eve, and twenty more, which must have got their names from some fairy of genius. I should say it was a female fairy of genius who called them so, and that she had her own sex among mortals in mind when she invented their nomenclature, and was thinking of little girls, and slim, pretty maids, and happy young wives. The author tells how they all look, with a fine sense of their charm in her words, but one would know how they looked from their names; and when you call them over they at once transplant themselves to the depths of the dells between our sky-scrapers, and find a brief sojourn in the cavernous excavations whence other sky-scrapers are to rise.


That night on the Roof Garden, when the cricket’s cry flowered the dome with golden-rod, the tall stems of rye growing among the orchestra sloped all one way at times, just like the bows of violins, in the half-dollar gale that always blows over the city at that height. But as one turns the leaves of Mrs. Creevey’s magic book-perhaps one ought to say turns its petals–the forests and the fields come and make themselves at home in the city everywhere. By virtue of it I have been more in the country in a half-hour than if I had lived all June there. When I lift my eyes from its pictures or its letter-press my vision prints the eidolons of wild flowers everywhere, as it prints the image of the sun against the air after dwelling on his brightness. The rose-mallow flaunts along Fifth Avenue and the golden threads of the dodder embroider the house fronts on the principal cross streets; and I might think at times that it was all mere fancy, it has so much the quality of a pleasing illusion.

Yet Mrs. Creevey’s book is not one to lend itself to such a deceit by any of the ordinary arts. It is rather matter of fact in form and manner, and largely owes what magic it has to the inherent charm of its subject. One feels this in merely glancing at the index, and reading such titles of chapters as “Wet Meadows and Low Grounds”; “Dry Fields–Waste Places– Waysides”; “Hills and Rocky Woods, Open Woods”; and “Deep, Cool, Moist Woods”; each a poem in itself, lyric or pastoral, and of a surpassing opulence of suggestion. The spring and, summer months pass in stately processional through the book, each with her fillet inscribed with the names of her characteristic flowers or blossoms, and brightened with the blooms themselves.

They are plucked from where nature bade them grow in the wild places, or their own wayward wills led them astray. A singularly fascinating chapter is that called “Escaped from Gardens,” in which some of these pretty runagates are catalogued. I supposed in my liberal ignorance that the Bouncing Bet was the only one of these, but I have learned that the Pansy and the Sweet Violet love to gad, and that the Caraway, the Snapdragon, the Prince’s Feather, the Summer Savory, the Star of Bethlehem, the Day-Lily, and the Tiger-Lily, and even the sluggish Stone Crop are of the vagrant, fragrant company. One is not surprised to meet the Tiger-Lily in it; that must always have had the jungle in its heart; but that the Baby’s Breath should be found wandering by the road-sides from Massachusetts and Virginia to Ohio, gives one a tender pang as for a lost child. Perhaps the poor human tramps, who sleep in barns and feed at back doors along those dusty ways, are mindful of the Baby’s Breath, and keep a kindly eye out for the little truant.


As I was writing those homely names I felt again how fit and lovely they were, how much more fit and lovely than the scientific names of the flowers. Mrs. Creevey will make a botanist of you if you will let her, and I fancy a very good botanist, though I cannot speak from experience, but she will make a poet of you in spite of yourself, as I very well know; and she will do this simply by giving you first the familiar name of the flowers she loves to write of. I am not saying that the Day-Lily would not smell as sweet by her title of ‘Hemerocallis Fulva’, or that the homely, hearty Bouncing Bet would not kiss as deliciously in her scholar’s cap and gown of ‘Saponaria Officinalis’; but merely that their college degrees do not lend themselves so willingly to verse, or even melodious prose, which is what the poet is often after nowadays. So I like best to hail the flowers by the names that the fairies gave them, and the children know them by, especially when my longing for them makes them grow here in the city streets. I have a fancy that they would all vanish away if I saluted them in botanical terms. As long as I talk of cat-tail rushes, the homeless grimalkins of the areas and the back fences help me to a vision of the swamps thickly studded with their stiff spears; but if I called them ‘Typha Latifolia’, or even ‘Typha Angustifolia’, there is not the hardiest and fiercest prowler of the roof and the fire-escape but would fly the sound of my voice and leave me forlorn amid the withered foliage of my dream. The street sparrows, pestiferous and persistent as they are, would forsake my sylvan pageant if I spoke of the Bird-foot Violet as the ‘Viola Pedata’; and the commonest cur would run howling if he beard the gentle Poison Dogwood maligned as the ‘Rhus Venenata’. The very milk-cans would turn to their native pumps in disgust from my attempt to invoke our simple American Cowslip as the ‘Dodecatheon Meadia’.


Yet I do not deny that such scientific nomenclature has its uses; and I should be far from undervaluing this side of Mrs. Creevey’s book. In fact, I secretly respect it the more for its botanical lore, and if ever I get into the woods or fields again I mean to go up to some of the humblest flowers, such as I can feel myself on easy terms with, and tell them what they are in Latin. I think it will surprise them, and I dare say they will some of them like it, and will want their initials inscribed on their leaves, like those signatures which the medicinal plants bear, or are supposed to bear. But as long as I am engaged in their culture amid this stone and iron and asphalt, I find it best to invite their presence by their familiar names, and I hope they will not think them too familiar. I should like to get them all naturalized here, so that the thousands of poor city children, who never saw them growing in their native places, might have some notion of how bountifully the world is equipped with beauty, and how it is governed by many laws which are not enforced by policemen. I think that would interest them very much, and I shall not mind their plucking my Barmecide blossoms, and carrying them home by the armfuls. When good-will costs nothing we ought to practise it even with the tramps, and these are very welcome, in their wanderings over the city pave, to rest their weary limbs in any of my pleached bowers they come to.


We dwellers in cities and large towns, if we are well-to-do, have more than our fill of pleasures of all kinds; and for now many years past we have been used to a form of circus where surfeit is nearly as great misery as famine in that kind could be. For our sins, or some of our friends’ sins, perhaps, we have now gone so long to circuses of three rings and two raised-platforms that we scarcely realize that in the country there are still circuses of one ring and no platform at all. We are accustomed, in the gross and foolish-superfluity of these city circuses, to see no feat quite through, but to turn our greedy eyes at the most important instant in the hope of greater wonders in another ring. We have four or five clowns, in as many varieties of grotesque costume, as well as a lady clown in befitting dress; but we hear none of them speak, not even the lady clown, while in the country circus the old clown of our childhood, one and indivisible, makes the same style of jokes, if not the very same jokes, that we used to hear there. It is not easy to believe all this, and I do not know that I should quite believe it myself if I had not lately been witness of it in the suburban village where I was passing the summer.


The circus announced itself in the good old way weeks beforehand by the vast posters of former days and by a profusion of small bills which fell upon the village as from the clouds, and left it littered everywhere with their festive pink. They prophesied it in a name borne by the first circus I ever saw, which was also an animal show, but the animals must all have died during the fifty years past, for there is now no menagerie attached to it. I did not know this when I heard the band braying through the streets of the village on the morning of the performance, and for me the mangy old camels and the pimpled elephants of yore led the procession through accompanying ranks of boys who have mostly been in their graves for half a lifetime; the distracted ostrich thrust an advertising neck through the top of its cage, and the lion roared to himself in the darkness of his moving prison. I felt the old thrill of excitement, the vain hope of something preternatural and impossible, and I do not know what could have kept me from that circus as soon as I had done lunch. My heart rose at sight of the large tent (which was yet so very little in comparison with the tents of the three-ring and two- platform circuses); the alluring and illusory sideshows of fat women and lean men; the horses tethered in the background and stamping under the fly-bites; the old, weather-beaten grand chariot, which looked like the ghost of the grand chariot which used to drag me captive in its triumph; and the canvas shelters where the cooks were already at work over their kettles on the evening meal of the circus folk.

I expected to be kept a long while from the ticket-wagon by the crowd, but there was no crowd, and perhaps there never used to be much of a crowd. I bought my admittances without a moment’s delay, and the man who sold me my reserve seats had even leisure to call me back and ask to look at the change he had given me, mostly nickels. “I thought I didn’t give you enough,” he said, and he added one more, and sent me on to the doorkeeper with my faith in human nature confirmed and refreshed. It was cool enough outside, but within it was very warm, as it should be, to give the men with palm-leaf fans and ice-cold lemonade a chance. They were already making their rounds, and crying their wares with voices from the tombs of the dead past; and the child of the young mother who took my seat-ticket from me was going to sleep at full length on the lowermost tread of the benches, so that I had to step across its prostrate form. These reserved seats were carpeted; but I had forgotten how little one rank was raised above another, and how very trying they were upon the back and legs. But for the carpeting, I could not see how I was advantaged above the commoner folk in the unreserved seats, and I reflected how often in this world we paid for an inappreciable splendor. I could not see but they were as well off as I; they were much more gayly dressed, and some of them were even smoking cigars, while they were nearly all younger by ten, twenty, forty, or fifty years, and even more. They did not look like the country people whom I rather hoped and expected to see, but were apparently my fellow-villagers, in different stages of excitement. They manifested by the usual signs their impatience to have the performance begin, and I confess that I shared this, though I did not take part in the demonstration.


I have no intention of following the events seriatim. Front time to time during their progress I renewed my old one-sided acquaintance with the circus-men. They were quite the same people, I believe, but strangely softened and ameliorated, as I hope I am, and looking not a day older, which I cannot say of myself, exactly. The supernumeraries were patently farmer boys who had entered newly upon that life in a spirit of adventure, and who wore their partial liveries, a braided coat here and a pair of striped trousers there, with a sort of timorous pride, a deprecating bravado, as if they expected to be hooted by the spectators and were very glad when they were not. The man who went round with a dog to keep boys from hooking in under the curtain had grown gentler, and his dog did not look as if he would bite the worst boy in town. The man came up and asked the young mother about her sleeping child, and I inferred that the child had been sick, and was therefore unusually interesting to all the great, kind-hearted, simple circus family. He was good to the poor supes, and instructed them, not at all sneeringly, how best to manage the guy ropes for the nets when the trapeze events began.

There was, in fact, an air of pleasing domesticity diffused over the whole circus. This was, perhaps, partly an effect from our extreme proximity to its performances; I had never been on quite such intimate terms with equitation and aerostation of all kinds; but I think it was also largely from the good hearts of the whole company. A circus must become, during the season, a great brotherhood and sisterhood, especially sisterhood, and its members must forget finally that they are not united by ties of blood. I dare say they often become so, as husbands and wives and fathers and mothers, if not as brothers.

The domestic effect was heightened almost poignantly when a young lady in a Turkish-towel bath-gown came out and stood close by the band, waiting for her act on a barebacked horse of a conventional pattern. She really looked like a young goddess in a Turkish-towel bath-gown: goddesses must have worn bath-gowns, especially Venus, who was often imagined in the bath, or just out of it. But when this goddess threw off her bath-gown, and came bounding into the ring as gracefully as the clogs she wore on her slippers would let her, she was much more modestly dressed than most goddesses. What I am trying to say, however, is that, while she stood there by the band, she no more interested the musicians than if she were their collective sister. They were all in their shirt-sleeves for the sake of the coolness, and they banged and trumpeted and fluted away as indifferent to her as so many born brothers.

Indeed, when the gyrations of her horse brought her to our side of the ring, she was visibly not so youthful and not so divine as she might have been; but the girl who did the trapeze acts, and did them wonderfully, left nothing to be desired in that regard; though really I do not see why we who have neither youth nor beauty should always expect it of other people. I think it would have been quite enough for her to do the trapeze acts so perfectly; but her being so pretty certainly added a poignancy to the contemplation of her perils. One could follow every motion of her anxiety in that close proximity: the tremor of her chin as she bit her lips before taking her flight through the air, the straining eagerness of her eye as she measured the distance, the frown with which she forbade herself any shrinking or reluctance.


How strange is life, how sad and perplexing its contradictions! Why should such an exhibition as that be supposed to give pleasure? Perhaps it does not give pleasure, but is only a necessary fulfilment of one of the many delusions we are in with regard to each other in this bewildering world. They are of all sorts and degrees, these delusions, and I suppose that in the last analysis it was not pleasure I got from the clown and his clowning, clowned he ever so merrily. I remember that I liked hearing his old jokes, not because they were jokes, but because they were old and endeared by long association. He sang one song which I must have heard him sing at my first circus (I am sure it was he), about “Things that I don’t like to see,” and I heartily agreed with him that his book of songs, which he sent round to be sold, was fully worth the half-dime asked for it, though I did not buy it.

Perhaps the rival author in me withheld me, but, as a brother man, I will not allow that I did not feel for him and suffer with him because of the thick, white pigment which plentifully coated his face, and, with the sweat drops upon it, made me think of a newly painted wall in the rain. He was infinitely older than his personality, than his oldest joke (though you never can be sure how old a joke is), and, representatively, I dare say he outdated the pyramids. They must have made clowns whiten their faces in the dawn of time, and no doubt there were drolls among the antediluvians who enhanced the effect of their fun by that means. All the same, I pitied this clown for it, and I fancied in his wildest waggery the note of a real irascibility. Shall I say that he seemed the only member of that little circus who was not of an amiable temper? But I do not blame him, and I think it much to have seen a clown once more who jested audibly with the ringmaster and always got the better of him in repartee. It was long since I had known that pleasure.


Throughout the performance at this circus I was troubled by a curious question, whether it were really of the same moral and material grandeur as the circuses it brought to memory, or whether these were thin and slight, too. We all know how the places of our childhood, the heights, the distances, shrink and dwindle when we go back to them, and was it possible that I had been deceived in the splendor of my early circuses? The doubt was painful, but I was forced to own that there might be more truth in it than in a blind fealty to their remembered magnificence. Very likely circuses have grown not only in size, but in the richness and variety of their entertainments, and I was spoiled for the simple joys of this. But I could see no reflection of my dissatisfaction on the young faces around me, and I must confess that there was at least so much of the circus that I left when it was half over. I meant to go into the side-shows and see the fat woman and the living skeleton, and take the giant by the hand and the armless man by his friendly foot, if I might be so honored. But I did none of these things, and I am willing to believe the fault was in me, if I was disappointed in the circus. It was I who had shrunk and dwindled, and not it. To real boys it was still the size of the firmament, and was a world of wonders and delights. At least I can recognize this fact now, and can rejoice in the peaceful progress all over the country of the simple circuses which the towns never see, but which help to render the summer fairer and brighter to the unspoiled eyes and hearts they appeal to. I hope it will be long before they cease to find profit in the pleasure they give.


The other night as I sat before the curtain of the Garden Theatre and waited for it to rise upon the Hamlet of Mme. Bernhardt, a thrill of the rich expectation which cannot fail to precede the rise of any curtain upon any Hamlet passed through my eager frame. There is, indeed, no scene of drama which is of a finer horror (eighteenth-century horror) than that which opens the great tragedy. The sentry pacing up and down upon the platform at Elsinore under the winter night; the greeting between him and the comrade arriving to relieve him, with its hints of the bitter cold; the entrance of Horatio and Marcellus to these before they can part; the mention of the ghost, and, while the soldiers are in the act of protesting it a veridical phantom, the apparition of the ghost, taking the word from their lips and hushing all into a pulseless awe: what could be more simply and sublimely real, more naturally supernatural? What promise of high mystical things to come there is in the mere syllabling of the noble verse, and how it enlarges us from ourselves, for that time at least, to a disembodied unity with the troubled soul whose martyry seems foreboded in the solemn accents! As the many Hamlets on which the curtain had risen in my time passed in long procession through my memory, I seemed to myself so much of their world, and so little of the world that arrogantly calls itself the actual one, that I should hardly have been surprised to find myself one of the less considered persons of the drama who were seen but not heard in its course.


The trouble in judging anything is that if you have the materials for an intelligent criticism, the case is already prejudiced in your hands. You do not bring a free mind to it, and all your efforts to free your mind are a species of gymnastics more or less admirable, but not really effective for the purpose. The best way is to own yourself unfair at the start, and then you can have some hope of doing yourself justice, if not your subject. In other words, if you went to see the Hamlet of Mme. Bernhardt frankly expecting to be disappointed, you were less likely in the end to be disappointed in your expectations, and you could not blame her if you were. To be ideally fair to that representation, it would be better not to have known any other Hamlet, and, above all, the Hamlet of Shakespeare.

From the first it was evident that she had three things overwhelmingly against her–her sex, her race, and her speech. You never ceased to feel for a moment that it was a woman who was doing that melancholy Dane, and that the woman was a Jewess, and the Jewess a French Jewess. These three removes put a gulf impassable between her utmost skill and the impassioned irresolution of that inscrutable Northern nature which is in nothing so masculine as its feminine reluctances and hesitations, or so little French as in those obscure emotions which the English poetry expressed with more than Gallic clearness, but which the French words always failed to convey. The battle was lost from the first, and all you could feel about it for the rest was that if it was magnificent it was not war.

While the battle went on I was the more anxious to be fair, because I had, as it were, pre-espoused the winning side; and I welcomed, in the interest of critical impartiality, another Hamlet which came to mind, through readily traceable associations. This was a Hamlet also of French extraction in the skill and school of the actor, but as much more deeply derived than the Hamlet of Mme. Bernhardt as the large imagination of Charles Fechter transcended in its virile range the effect of her subtlest womanish intuition. His was the first blond Hamlet known to our stage, and hers was also blond, if a reddish-yellow wig may stand for a complexion; and it was of the quality of his Hamlet in masterly technique.


The Hamlet of Fechter, which rose ghostlike out of the gulf of the past, and cloudily possessed the stage where the Hamlet of Mme. Bernhardt was figuring, was called a romantic Hamlet thirty years ago; and so it was in being a break from the classic Hamlets of the Anglo-American theatre. It was romantic as Shakespeare himself was romantic, in an elder sense of the word, and not romanticistic as Dumas was romanticistic. It was, therefore, the most realistic Hamlet ever yet seen, because the most naturally poetic. Mme. Bernhardt recalled it by the perfection of her school; for Fechter’s poetic naturalness differed from the conventionality of the accepted Hamlets in nothing so much as the superiority of its self-instruction. In Mme. Bernhardt’s Hamlet, as in his, nothing was trusted to chance, or “inspiration.” Good or bad, what one saw was what was meant to be seen. When Fechter played Edmond Dantes or Claude Melnotte, he put reality into those preposterous inventions, and in Hamlet even his alien accent helped him vitalize the part; it might be held to be nearer the Elizabethan accent than ours; and after all, you said Hamlet was a foreigner, and in your high content with what he gave you did not mind its being in a broken vessel. When he challenged the ghost with “I call thee keeng, father, rawl-Dane,” you Would hardly have had the erring utterance bettered. It sufficed as it was; and when he said to Rosencrantz, “Will you pleh upon this pyip?” it was with such a princely authority and comradely entreaty that you made no note of the slips in the vowels except to have pleasure of their quaintness afterwards. For the most part you were not aware of these betrayals of his speech; and in certain high things it was soul interpreted to soul through the poetry of Shakespeare so finely, so directly, that there was scarcely a sense of the histrionic means.

He put such divine despair into the words, “Except my life, except my life, except my life!” following the mockery with which he had assured Polonius there was nothing he would more willingly part withal than his leave, that the heart-break of them had lingered with me for thirty years, and I had been alert for them with every Hamlet since. But before I knew, Mme. Bernhardt had uttered them with no effect whatever. Her Hamlet, indeed, cut many of the things that we have learned to think the points of Hamlet, and it so transformed others by its interpretation of the translator’s interpretation of Shakespeare that they passed unrecognized. Soliloquies are the weak invention of the enemy, for the most part, but as such things go that soliloquy of Hamlet’s, “To be or not to be,” is at least very noble poetry; and yet Mme. Bernhardt was so unimpressive in it that you scarcely noticed the act of its delivery. Perhaps this happened because the sumptuous and sombre melancholy of Shakespeare’s thought was transmitted in phrases that refused it its proper mystery. But there was always a hardness, not always from the translation, upon this feminine Hamlet. It was like a thick shell with no crevice in it through which the tenderness of Shakespeare’s Hamlet could show, except for the one moment at Ophelia’s grave, where he reproaches Laertes with those pathetic words

“What is the reason that you use me thus? I loved you ever; but it is no matter.”

Here Mme. Bernhardt betrayed a real grief, but as a woman would, and not a man. At the close of the Gonzago play, when Hamlet triumphs in a mad whirl, her Hamlet hopped up and down like a mischievous crow, a mischievous she-crow.

There was no repose in her Hamlet, though there were moments of leaden lapse which suggested physical exhaustion; and there was no range in her elocution expressive of the large vibration of that tormented spirit. Her voice dropped out, or jerked itself out, and in the crises of strong emotion it was the voice of a scolding or a hysterical woman. At times her movements, which she must have studied so hard to master, were drolly womanish, especially those of the whole person. Her quickened pace was a woman’s nervous little run, and not a man’s swift stride; and to give herself due stature, it was her foible to wear a woman’s high heels to her shoes, and she could not help tilting on them.

In the scene with the queen after the play, most English and American Hamlets have required her to look upon the counterfeit presentment of two brothers in miniatures something the size of tea-plates; but Mme. Bernhardt’s preferred full-length, life-size family portraits. The dead king’s effigy did not appear a flattered likeness in the scene-painter’s art, but it was useful in disclosing his ghost by giving place to it in the wall at the right moment. She achieved a novelty by this treatment of the portraits, and she achieved a novelty in the tone she took with the wretched queen. Hamlet appeared to scold her mother, but though it could be said that her mother deserved a scolding, was it the part of a good daughter to give it her?

One should, of course, say a good son, but long before this it had become impossible to think at all of Mme. Bernhardt’s Hamlet as a man, if it ever had been possible. She had traversed the bounds which tradition as well as nature has set, and violated the only condition upon which an actress may personate a man. This condition is that there shall be always a hint of comedy in the part, that the spectator shall know all the time that the actress is a woman, and that she shall confess herself such before the play is over; she shall be fascinating in the guise of a man only because she is so much more intensely a woman in it. Shakespeare had rather a fancy for women in men’s roles, which, as women’s roles in his time were always taken by pretty and clever boys, could be more naturally managed then than now. But when it came to the eclaircissement, and the pretty boys, who had been playing the parts of women disguised as men, had to own themselves women, the effect must have been confused if not weakened. If Mme. Bernhardt, in the necessity of doing something Shakespearean, had chosen to do Rosalind, or Viola, or Portia, she could have done it with all the modern advantages of women in men’s roles. These characters are, of course, “lighter motions bounded in a shallower brain” than the creation she aimed at; but she could at least have made much of them, and she does not make much of Hamlet.


The strongest reason against any woman Hamlet is that it does violence to an ideal. Literature is not so rich in great imaginary masculine types that we can afford to have them transformed to women; and after seeing Mme. Bernhardt’s Hamlet no one can altogether liberate himself from the fancy that the Prince of Denmark was a girl of uncertain age, with crises of mannishness in which she did not seem quite a lady. Hamlet is in nothing more a man than in the things to which as a man he found himself unequal; for as a woman he would have been easily superior to them. If we could suppose him a woman as Mme. Bernhardt, in spite of herself, invites us to do, we could only suppose him to have solved his perplexities with the delightful precipitation of his putative sex. As the niece of a wicked uncle, who in that case would have had to be a wicked aunt, wedded to Hamlet’s father hard upon the murder of her mother, she would have made short work of her vengeance. No fine scruples would have delayed her; she would not have had a moment’s question whether she had not better kill herself; she would have out with her bare bodkin and ended the doubt by first passing it through her aunt’s breast.

To be sure, there would then have been no play of “Hamlet,” as we have it; but a Hamlet like that imagined, a frankly feminine Hamlet, Mme. Bernhardt could have rendered wonderfully. It is in attempting a masculine Hamlet that she transcends the imaginable and violates an ideal. It is not thinkable. After you have seen it done, you say, as Mr. Clemens is said to have said of bicycling: “Yes, I have seen it, but it’s impossible. It doesn’t stand to reason.”

Art, like law, is the perfection of reason, and whatever is unreasonable in the work of an artist is inartistic. By the time I had reached these bold conclusions I was ready to deduce a principle from them, and to declare that in a true civilization such a thing as that Hamlet would be forbidden, as an offence against public morals, a violence to something precious and sacred.

In the absence of any public regulation the precious and sacred ideals in the arts must be trusted to the several artists, who bring themselves to judgment when they violate them. After Mme. Bernhardt was perversely willing to attempt the part of Hamlet, the question whether she did it well or not was of slight consequence. She had already made her failure in wishing to play the part. Her wish impugned her greatness as an artist; of a really great actress it would have been as unimaginable as the assumption of a sublime feminine role by a really great actor. There is an obscure law in this matter which it would be interesting to trace, but for the present I must leave the inquiry with the reader. I can note merely that it seems somehow more permissible for women in imaginary actions to figure as men than for men to figure as women. In the theatre we have conjectured how and why this may be, but the privilege, for less obvious reasons, seems yet more liberally granted in fiction. A woman may tell a story in the character of a man and not give offence, but a man cannot write a novel in autobiographical form from the personality of a woman without imparting the sense of something unwholesome. One feels this true even in the work of such a master as Tolstoy, whose Katia is a case in point. Perhaps a woman may play Hamlet with a less shocking effect than a man may play Desdemona, but all the same she must not play Hamlet at all. That sublime ideal is the property of the human imagination, and may not be profaned by a talent enamoured of the impossible. No harm could be done by the broadest burlesque, the most irreverent travesty, for these would still leave the ideal untouched. Hamlet, after all the horse-play, would be Hamlet; but Hamlet played by a woman, to satisfy her caprice, or to feed her famine for a fresh effect, is Hamlet disabled, for a long time, at least, in its vital essence. I felt that it would take many returns to the Hamlet of Shakespeare to efface the impression of Mme. Bernhardt’s Hamlet; and as I prepared to escape from my row of stalls in the darkening theatre, I experienced a noble shame for having seen the Dane so disnatured, to use Mr. Lowell’s word. I had not been obliged to come; I had voluntarily shared in the wrong done; by my presence I had made myself an accomplice in the wrong. It was high ground, but not too high for me, and I recovered a measure of self-respect in assuming it.


He had often heard of it. Connoisseurs of such matters, young newspaper men trying to make literature out of life and smuggle it into print under the guard of unwary editors, and young authors eager to get life into their literature, had recommended it to him as one of the most impressive sights of the city; and he had willingly agreed with them that he ought to see it. He imagined it very dramatic, and he was surprised to find it in his experience so largely subjective. If there was any drama at all it was wholly in his own consciousness. But the thing was certainly impressive in its way.


He thought it a great piece of luck that he should come upon it by chance, and so long after he had forgotten about it that he was surprised to recognize it for the spectacle he had often promised himself the pleasure of seeing.

Pleasure is the right word; for pleasure of the painful sort that all hedonists will easily imagine was what he expected to get from it; though upon the face of it there seems no reason why a man should delight to see his fellow-men waiting in the winter street for the midnight dole of bread which must in some cases be their only meal from the last midnight to the next midnight. But the mere thought of it gave him pleasure, and the sight of it, from the very first instant. He was proud of knowing just what it was at once, with the sort of pride which one has in knowing an earthquake, though one has never felt one before. He saw the double file of men stretching up one street, and stretching down the other from the corner of the bakery where the loaves were to be given out on the stroke of twelve, and he hugged himself in a luxurious content with his perspicacity.

It was all the more comfortable to do this because he was in a coup, warmly shut against the sharp, wholesome Christmas-week weather, and was wrapped to the chin in a long fur overcoat, which he wore that night as a duty to his family, with a conscience against taking cold and alarming them for his health. He now practised another piece of self-denial: he let the cabman drive rapidly past the interesting spectacle, and carry him to the house where he was going to fetch away the child from the Christmas party. He wished to be in good time, so as to save the child from anxiety about his coming; but he promised himself to stop, going back, and glut his sensibility in a leisurely study of the scene. He got the child, with her arms full of things from the Christmas-tree, into the coup, and then he said to the cabman, respectfully leaning as far over from his box to listen as his thick greatcoat would let him: “When you get up there near that bakery again, drive slowly. I want to have a look at those men.”

“All right, sir,” said the driver intelligently, and he found his why skilfully out of the street among the high banks of the seasonable Christmas-week snow, which the street-cleaners had heaped up there till they could get round to it with their carts.

When they were in Broadway again it seemed lonelier and silenter than it was a few minutes before. Except for their own coup, the cable-cars, with their flaming foreheads, and the mechanical clangor of their gongs at the corners, seemed to have it altogether to themselves. A tall, lumbering United States mail van rolled by, and impressed my friend in the coup with a cheap and agreeable sense of mystery relative to the letters it was carrying to their varied destination at the Grand Central Station. He listened with half an ear to the child’s account of the fun she had at the party, and he watched with both eyes for the sight of the men waiting at the bakery for the charity of the midnight loaves.

He played with a fear that they might all have vanished, and with an apprehension that the cabman might forget and whirl him rapidly by the place where he had left them. But the driver remembered, and checked his horses in good time; and there were the men still, but in even greater number than before, stretching farther up Broadway and farther out along the side street. They stood slouched in dim and solemn phalanx under the night sky, so seasonably, clear and frostily atwinkle with Christmas-week stars; two by two they stood, slouched close together, perhaps for their mutual warmth, perhaps in an unconscious effort to get near the door where the loaves were to be given out, in time to share in them before they were all gone.


My friend’s heart beat with glad anticipation. He was really to see this important, this representative thing to the greatest possible advantage. He rapidly explained to his companion that the giver of the midnight loaves got rid of what was left of his daily bread in that way: the next day it could not be sold, and he preferred to give it away to those who needed it, rather than try to find his account in it otherwise. She understood, and he tried to think that sometimes coffee was given with the bread, but he could not make sure of this, though he would have liked very much to have it done; it would have been much more dramatic. Afterwards he learned that it was done, and he was proud of having fancied it.

He decided that when he came alongside of the Broadway file he would get out, and go to the side door of the bakery and watch the men receiving the bread. Perhaps he would find courage to speak to them, and ask them about themselves. At the time it did not strike him that it would be indecent.

A great many things about them were open to reasonable conjecture. It was not probable that they were any of them there for their health, as the saying is. They were all there because they were hungry, or else they were there in behalf of some one else who was hungry. But it was always possible that some of them were impostors, and he wondered if any test was applied to them that would prove them deserving or undeserving. If one were poor, one ought to be deserving; if one were rich, it did not so much matter.

It seemed to him very likely that if he asked these men questions they would tell him lies. A fantastic association of their double files and those of the galley-slaves whom Don Quixote released, with the tonguey Gines de Passamonte at their head, came into his mind. He smiled, and then he thought how these men were really a sort of slaves and convicts –slaves to want and self-convicted of poverty. All at once he fancied them actually manacled there together, two by two, a coffle of captives taken in some cruel foray, and driven to a market where no man wanted to buy. He thought how old their slavery was; and he wondered if it would ever be abolished, as other slaveries had been. Would the world ever outlive it? Would some New-Year’s day come when some President would proclaim, amid some dire struggle, that their slavery was to be no more? That would be fine.


He noticed how still the most of them were. A few of them stepped a little out of the line, and stamped to shake off the cold; but all the rest remained motionless, shrinking into themselves, and closer together. They might have been their own dismal ghosts, they were so still, with no more need of defence from the cold than the dead have.

He observed now that not one among them had a fur overcoat on; and at a second glance he saw that there was not an overcoat of any kind among them. He made his reflection that if any of them were impostors, and not true men, with real hunger, and if they were alive to feel that stiff, wholesome, Christmas-week cold, they were justly punished for their deceit.

He was interested by the celerity, the simultaneity of his impressions, his reflections. It occurred to him that his abnormal alertness must be something like that of a drowning person, or a person in mortal peril, and being perfectly safe and well, he was obscurely flattered by the fact.

To test his condition further he took note of the fine mass of the great dry-goods store on the hither corner, blocking itself out of the blue- black night, and of the Gothic beauty of the church beyond, so near that the coffle of captives might have issued from its sculptured portal, after vain prayer.

Fragments of conjecture, of speculation, drifted through his mind. How early did these files begin to form themselves for the midnight dole of bread? As early as ten, as nine o’clock? If so, did the fact argue habitual destitution, or merely habitual leisure? Did the slaves in the coffle make acquaintance, or remain strangers to one another, though they were closely neighbored night after night by their misery? Perhaps they joked away the weary hours of waiting; they must have their jokes. Which of them were old-comers, and which novices? Did they ever quarrel over questions of precedence? Had they some comity, some etiquette, which a man forced to leave his place could appeal to, and so get it back? Could one say to his next-hand man, “Will you please keep my place?” and would this man say to an interloper, “Excuse me, this place is engaged”? How was it with them, when the coffle worked slowly or swiftly past the door where the bread and coffee were given out, and word passed to the rear that the supply was exhausted? This must sometimes happen, and what did they do then?


My friend did not quite like to think. Vague, reproachful thoughts for all the remote and immediate luxury of his life passed through his mind. If he reformed that and gave the saving to hunger and cold? But what was the use? There was so much hunger, so much cold, that it could not go round.

The cabman was obeying his orders too faithfully. He was not only walking by the Broadway coffle, he was creeping by. His action caught the notice of the slaves, and as the coups passed them they all turned and faced it, like soldiers under review making ready to salute a superior. They were perfectly silent, perfectly respectful, but their eyes seemed to pierce the coupe through and through.

My friend was suddenly aware of a certain quality of representivity; he stood to these men for all the ease and safety that they could never, never hope to know. He was Society: Society that was to be preserved because it embodies Civilization. He wondered if they hated him in his capacity of Better Classes. He no longer thought of getting out and watching their behavior as they took their bread and coffee. He would have liked to excuse that thought, and protest that he was ashamed of it; that he was their friend, and wished them well–as well as might be without the sacrifice of his own advantages or superfluities, which he could have persuaded them would be perfectly useless. He put his hand on that of his companion trembling on his arm with sympathy, or at least with intelligence.

“You mustn’t mind. What we are and what we do is all right. It’s what they are and what they suffer that’s all wrong.”


“Does that view of the situation still satisfy you?” I asked, when he had told me of this singular experience; I liked his apparently not coloring it at all.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “It seems to be the only way out.”

“Well, it’s an easy way,” I admitted, “and it’s an idea that ought to gratify the midnight platoon.”


I confess that I cannot hear people rejoice in their summer sojourn as beyond the reach of excursionists without a certain rebellion; and yet I have to confess also that after spending a Sunday afternoon of late July, four or five years ago, with the excursionists at one of the beaches near New York, I was rather glad that my own summer sojourn was not within reach of them. I know very well that the excursionists must go somewhere, and as a man and a brother I am willing they should go anywhere, but as a friend of quiet and seclusion I should be sorry to have them come much where I am. It is not because I would deny them a share of any pleasure I enjoy, but because they are so many and I am so few that I think they would get all the pleasure and I none. I hope the reader will see how this attitude distinguishes me from the selfish people who inhumanly exult in their remoteness from excursionists.


It was at Rockaway Beach that I saw these fellow-beings whose mere multitude was too much for me. They were otherwise wholly without offence towards me, and so far as I noted, towards each other; they were, in fact, the most entirely peaceable multitude I ever saw in any country, and the very quietest.

There were thousands, mounting well up towards tens of thousands, of them, in every variety of age and sex; yet I heard no voice lifted above the conversational level, except that of some infant ignorant of its privileges in a day at the sea-side, or some showman crying the attractions of the spectacle in his charge. I used to think the American crowds rather boisterous and unruly, and many years ago, when I lived in Italy, I celebrated the greater amiability and self-control of the Italian crowds. But we have certainly changed all that within a generation, and if what I saw the other day was a typical New York crowd, then the popular joy of our poorer classes is no longer the terror it once was to the peaceful observer. The tough was not visibly present, nor the toughness, either of the pure native East Side stock or of the Celtic extraction; yet there were large numbers of Americans with rather fewer recognizable Irish among the masses, who were mainly Germans, Russians, Poles, and the Jews of these several nationalities.

There was eating and drinking without limit, on every hand and in every kind, at the booths abounding in fried seafood, and at the tables under all the wide-spreading verandas of the hotels and restaurants; yet I saw not one drunken man, and of course not any drunken women. No one that I saw was even affected by drink, and no one was guilty of any rude or unseemly behavior. The crowd was, in short, a monument to the democratic ideal of life in that very important expression of life, personal conduct, I have not any notion who or what the people were, or how virtuous or vicious they privately might be; but I am sure that no society assemblage could be of a goodlier outside; and to be of a goodly outside is all that the mere spectator has a right to ask of any crowd.

I fancied, however, that great numbers of this crowd, or at least all the Americans in it, were Long-Islanders from the inland farms and villages within easy distance of the beach. They had probably the hereditary habit of coming to it, for it was a favorite resort in the time of their fathers and grandfathers, who had

–“many an hour whiled away Listening to the breakers’ roar That washed the beach at Rockaway.”

But the clothing store and the paper pattern have equalized the cheaper dress of the people so that you can no longer know citizen and countryman apart by their clothes, still less citizeness and countrywoman; and I can only conjecture that the foreign-looking folk I saw were from New York and Brooklyn. They came by boat, and came and went by the continually arriving and departing trains, and last but not least by bicycles, both sexes. A few came in the public carriages and omnibuses of the neighborhood, but by far the vaster number whom neither the boats nor the trains had brought had their own vehicles, the all-pervading bicycles, which no one seemed so poor as not to be able to keep. The bicyclers stormed into the frantic village of the beach the whole afternoon, in the proportion of one woman to five men, and most of these must have ridden down on their wheels from the great cities. Boys ran about in the roadway with bunches of brasses, to check the wheels, and put them for safekeeping in what had once been the stable-yards of the hotels; the restaurants had racks for them, where you could see them in solid masses, side by side, for a hundred feet, and no shop was without its door-side rack, which the wheelman might slide his wheel into when he stopped for a soda, a cigar, or a sandwich. All along the road the gay bicycler and bicycless swarmed upon the piazzas of the inns, munching, lunching, while their wheels formed a fantastic decoration for the underpinning of the house and a novel balustering for the steps.


The amusements provided for these throngs of people were not different from those provided for throngs of people everywhere, who must be of much the same mind and taste the world over. I had fine moments when I moved in an illusion of the Midway Plaisance; again I was at the Fete de Neuilly, with all of Paris but the accent about me; yet again the county agricultural fairs of my youth spread their spectral joys before me. At none of these places, however, was there a sounding sea or a mountainous chute, and I made haste to experience the variety these afforded, beginning with the chute, since the sea was always there, and the chute might be closed for the day if I waited to view it last. I meant only to enjoy the pleasure of others in it, and I confined my own participation to the ascent of the height from which the boat plunges down the watery steep into the oblong pool below. When I bought my ticket for the car that carried passengers up, they gave me also a pasteboard medal, certifying for me, “You have shot the chute,” and I resolved to keep this and show it to doubting friends as a proof of my daring; but it is a curious evidence of my unfitness for such deceptions that I afterwards could not find the medal. So I will frankly own that for me it was quite enough to see others shoot the chute, and that I came tamely down myself in the car. There is a very charming view from the top, of the sea with its ships, and all the mad gayety of the shore, but of course my main object was to exult in the wild absurdity of those who shot the chute. There was always a lady among the people in the clumsy flat-boat that flew down the long track, and she tried usually to be a pretty girl, who clutched her friends and lovers and shrieked aloud in her flight; but sometimes it was a sober mother of a family, with her brood about her, who was probably meditating, all the way, the inculpation of their father for any harm that came of it. Apparently no harm came of it in any case.

The boat struck the water with the impetus gained from a half- perpendicular slide of a hundred feet, bounded high into the air, struck again and again, and so flounced awkwardly across the pond to the farther shore, where the passengers debarked and went away to commune with their viscera, and to get their breath as they could. I did not ask any of them what their emotions or sensations were, but, so far as I could conjecture, the experience of shooting the chute must comprise the rare transport of a fall from a ten-story building and the delight of a tempestuous passage of the Atlantic, powerfully condensed.

The mere sight was so athletic that it took away any appetite I might have had to witness the feats of strength performed by Madame La Noire at the nearest booth on my coming out, though madame herself was at the door-to testify, in her own living picture, how much muscular force may be masked in vast masses of adipose. She had a weary, bored look, and was not without her pathos, poor soul, as few of those are who amuse the public; but I could not find her quite justifiable as a Sunday entertainment. One forgot, however, what day it was, and for the time I did not pretend to be so much better than my neighbors that I would not compromise upon a visit to, an animal show a little farther on. It was a pretty fair collection of beasts that had once been wild, perhaps, and in the cage of the lions there was a slight, sad-looking, long-haired young man, exciting them to madness by blows of a whip and pistol-shots whom I was extremely glad to have get away without being torn in pieces, or at least bitten in two. A little later I saw him at the door of the tent, very breathless, dishevelled, and as to his dress not of the spotlessness one could wish. But perhaps spotlessness is not compatible with the intimacy of lions and lionesses. He had had his little triumph; one spectator of his feat had declared that you would not see anything like that at Coney Island; and soiled and dusty as he was in his cotton tights, he was preferable to the living picture of a young lady whom he replaced as an attraction of the show. It was professedly a moral show; the manager exhorted us as we came out to say whether it was good or not; and in the box-office sat a kind and motherly faced matron who would have apparently abhorred to look upon a living picture at any distance, much less have it at her elbow.

Upon the whole, there seemed a melancholy mistake in it all; the people to whom the showmen made their appeal were all so much better, evidently, than the showmen supposed; the showmen themselves appeared harmless enough, and one could not say that there was personally any harm in the living picture; rather she looked listless and dull, but as to the face respectable enough.

I would not give the impression that most of the amusements were not in every respect decorous. As a means of pleasure, the merry-go-round, both horizontal with horses and vertical with swinging cradles, prevailed, and was none the worse for being called by the French name of carrousel, for our people aniglicize the word, and squeeze the last drop of Gallic wickedness from it by pronouncing it carousal. At every other step there were machines for weighing you and ascertaining your height; there were photographers’ booths, and X-ray apparatus for showing you the inside of your watch; and in one open tent I saw a gentleman (with his back to the public) having his fortune read in the lines of his hand by an Egyptian seeress. Of course there was everywhere soda, and places of the softer drinks abounded.


I think you could only get a hard drink by ordering something to eat and sitting down to your wine or beer at a table. Again I say that I saw no effects of drink in the crowd, and in one of the great restaurants built out over the sea on piers, where there was perpetual dancing to the braying of a brass-band, the cotillon had no fire imparted to its figures by the fumes of the bar. In fact it was a very rigid sobriety that reigned here, governing the common behavior by means of the placards which hung from the roof over the heads of the dancers, and repeatedly announced that gentlemen were not allowed to dance together, or to carry umbrellas or canes while dancing, while all were entreated not to spit on the floor.

The dancers looked happy and harmless, if not very wise or splendid; they seemed people of the same simple neighborhoods, village lovers, young wives and husbands, and parties of friends who had come together for the day’s pleasure. A slight mother, much weighed down by a heavy baby, passed, rapt in an innocent envy of them, and I think she and the child’s father meant to join them as soon as they could find a place where to lay it. Almost any place would do; at another great restaurant I saw two chairs faced together, and a baby sleeping on them as quietly amid the coming and going of lagers and frankfurters as if in its cradle at home.

Lagers and frankfurters were much in evidence everywhere, especially frankfurters, which seemed to have whole booths devoted to broiling them. They disputed this dignity with soft-shell crabs, and sections of eels, piled attractively on large platters, or sizzling to an impassioned brown in deep skillets of fat. The old acrid smell of frying brought back many holidays of Italy to me, and I was again at times on the Riva at Venice, and in the Mercato Vecchio at Florence. But the Continental Sunday cannot be felt to have quite replaced the old American Sabbath yet; the Puritan leaven works still, and though so many of our own people consent willingly to the transformation, I fancy they always enjoy themselves on Sunday with a certain consciousness of wrong-doing.


I have already said that the spectator quite lost sense of what day it was. Nothing could be more secular than all the sights and sounds. It was the Fourth of July, less the fire-crackers and the drunkenness, and it was the high day of the week. But if it was very wicked, and I must recognize that the scene would be shocking to most of my readers, I feel bound to say that the people themselves did not look wicked. They looked harmless; they even looked good, the most of them. I am sorry to say they were not very good-looking. The women were pretty enough, and the men were handsome enough; perhaps the average was higher in respect of beauty than the average is anywhere else; I was lately from New England, where the people were distinctly more hard-favored; but among all those thousands at Rockaway I found no striking types. It may be that as we grow older and our satisfaction with our own looks wanes, we become more fastidious as to the looks of others. At any rate, there seems to be much less beauty in the world than there was thirty or forty years ago.

On the other hand, the dresses seem indefinitely prettier, as they should be in compensation. When we were all so handsome we could well afford to wear hoops or peg-top trousers, but now it is different, and the poor things must eke out their personal ungainliness with all the devices of the modiste and the tailor. I do not mean that there was any distinction in the dress of the crowd, but I saw nothing positively ugly or grotesquely out of taste. The costumes were as good as the customs, and I have already celebrated the manners of this crowd. I believe I must except the costumes of the bicyclesses, who were unfailingly dumpy in effect when dismounted, and who were all the more lamentable for tottering about, in their short skirts, upon the tips of their narrow little, sharp-pointed, silly high-heeled shoes. How severe I am! But those high heels seemed to take all honesty from their daring in the wholesome exercise of the wheel, and to keep them in the tradition of cheap coquetry still, and imbecilly dependent.


I have almost forgotten in the interest of the human spectacle that there is a sea somewhere about at Rockaway Beach, and it is this that the people have come for. I might well forget that modest sea, it is so built out of sight by the restaurants and bath-houses and switch-backs and shops that border it, and by the hotels and saloons and shows flaring along the road that divides the village, and the planked streets that intersect this. But if you walk southward on any of the streets, you presently find the planks foundering in sand, which drifts far up over them, and then you find yourself in full sight of the ocean and the ocean bathing. Swarms and heaps of people in all lolling and lying and wallowing shapes strew the beach, and the water is full of slopping and shouting and shrieking human creatures, clinging with bare white arms to the life-lines that run from the shore to the buoys; beyond these the lifeguard stays himself in his boat with outspread oars, and rocks on the incoming surf.

All that you can say of it is that it is queer. It is not picturesque, or poetic, or dramatic; it is queer. An enfilading glance gives this impression and no other; if you go to the balcony of the nearest marine restaurant for a flanking eye-shot, it is still queer, with the added effect, in all those arms upstretched to the life-lines, of frogs’ legs inverted in a downward plunge.

On the sand before this spectacle I talked with a philosopher of humble condition who backed upon me and knocked my umbrella out of my hand. This made us beg each other’s pardon; he said that he did not know I was there, and I said it did not matter. Then we both looked at the bathing, and he said:

“I don’t like that.”

“Why,” I asked, “do you see any harm in it?”

“No. But I don’t like the looks of it. It ain’t nice. It’s queer.”

It was indeed like one of those uncomfortable dreams where you are not dressed sufficiently for company, or perhaps at all, and yet are making a very public appearance. This promiscuous bathing was not much in excess of the convention that governs the sea-bathing of the politest people; it could not be; and it was marked by no grave misconduct. Here and there a gentleman was teaching a lady to swim, with his arms round her; here and there a wild nereid was splashing another; a young Jew pursued a flight of naiads with a section of dead eel in his hand. But otherwise all was a damp and dreary decorum. I challenged my philosopher in vain for a specific cause of his dislike of the scene.

Most of the people on the sand were in bathing-dress, but there were a multitude of others who had apparently come for the sea-air and not the sea-bathing. A mother sat with a sick child on her knees; babies were cradled in the sand asleep, and people walked carefully round and over them. There were everywhere a great many poor mothers and children, who seemed getting the most of the good that was going.


But upon the whole, though I drove away from the beach celebrating the good temper and the good order of the scene to an applausive driver, I have since thought of it as rather melancholy. It was in fact no wiser or livelier than a society function in the means of enjoyment it afforded. The best thing about it was that it left the guests very much to their own devices. The established pleasures were clumsy and tiresome-looking; but one could eschew them. The more of them one eschewed, the merrier perhaps; for I doubt if the race is formed for much pleasure; and even a day’s rest is more than most people can bear. They endure it in passing, but they get home weary and cross, even after a twenty-mile run on the wheel. The road, by-the-by, was full of homeward wheels by this time, single and double and tandem, and my driver professed that their multitude greatly increased the difficulties of his profession.


It was in the old Roman arena of beautiful Verona that the circus events I wish to speak of took place; in fact, I had the honor and profit of seeing two circuses there. Or, strictly speaking, it was one entire circus that I saw, and the unique speciality of another, the dying glory of a circus on its last legs, the triumphal fall of a circus superb in adversity.


The entire circus was altogether Italian, with the exception of the clowns, who, to the credit of our nation, are always Americans, or advertised as such, in Italy. Its chief and almost absorbing event was a reproduction of the tournament which had then lately been held at Rome in celebration of Prince Tommaso’s coming of age, and for a copy of a copy it was really fine. It had fitness in the arena, which must have witnessed many such mediaeval shows in their time, and I am sensible still of the pleasure its effects of color gave me. There was one beautiful woman, a red blonde in a green velvet gown, who might have ridden, as she was, out of a canvas of Titian’s, if he had ever painted equestrian pictures, and who at any rate was an excellent Carpaccio. Then, the ‘Clowns Americani’ were very amusing, from a platform devoted solely to them, and it was a source of pride if not of joy with me to think that we were almost the only people present who understood their jokes. In the vast oval of the arena, however, the circus ring looked very little, not half so large, say, as the rim of a lady’s hat in front of you at the play; and on the gradines of the ancient amphitheatre we were all such a great way off that a good field-glass would have been needed to distinguish the features of the actors. I could not make out, therefore, whether the ‘Clowns Americani’ had the national expression or not, but one of them, I am sorry to say, spoke the United States language with a cockney accent. I suspect that he was an Englishman who had passed himself off upon the Italian management as a true Yankee, and who had formed himself upon our school of clowning, just as some of the recent English humorists have patterned after certain famous wits of ours. I do not know that I would have exposed this impostor, even if occasion had offered, for, after all, his fraud was a tribute to our own primacy in clowning, and the Veronese were none the worse for his erring aspirates.

The audience was for me the best part of the spectacle, as the audience always is in Italy, and I indulged my fancy in some cheap excursions concerning the place and people. I reflected that it was the same race essentially as that which used to watch the gladiatorial shows in that arena when it was new, and that very possibly there were among these spectators persons of the same blood as those Veronese patricians who had left their names carved on the front of the gradines in places, to claim this or that seat for their own. In fact, there was so little difference, probably, in their qualities, from that time to this, that I felt the process of the generations to be a sort of impertinence; and if Nature had been present, I might very well have asked her why, when she had once arrived at a given expression of humanity, she must go on repeating it indefinitely? How were all those similar souls to know themselves apart in their common eternity? Merely to have been differently circumstanced in time did not seem enough; and I think Nature would have been puzzled to answer me. But perhaps not; she may have had her reasons, as that you cannot have too much of a good thing, and that when the type was so fine in most respects as the Italian you could not do better than go on repeating impressions from it.

Certainly I myself could have wished no variation from it in the young officer of ‘bersaglieri’, who had come down from antiquity to the topmost gradine of the arena over against me, and stood there defined against the clear evening sky, one hand on his hip, and the other at his side, while his thin cockerel plumes streamed in the light wind. I have since wondered if he knew how beautiful he was, and I am sure that, if he did not, all the women there did, and that was doubtless enough for the young officer of ‘bersaglieri’.


I think that he was preliminary to the sole event of that partial circus I have mentioned. This event was one that I have often witnessed elsewhere, but never in such noble and worthy keeping. The top of the outer arena wall must itself be fifty feet high, and the pole in the centre of its oval seemed to rise fifty feet higher yet. At its base an immense net was stretched, and a man in a Prince Albert coat and a derby hat was figuring about, anxiously directing the workmen who were fixing the guy-ropes, and testing every particular of the preparation with his own hands. While this went on, a young girl ran out into the arena, and, after a bow to the spectators, quickly mounted to the top of the pole, where she presently stood in statuesque beauty that took all eyes even from the loveliness of the officer of ‘bersaglieri’. There the man in the Prince Albert coat and the derby hat stepped back from the net and looked up at her.

She called down, in English that sounded like some delocalized, denaturalized speech, it was so strange then and there, “Is it all right?”

He shouted back in the same alienated tongue, “Yes; keep to the left,” and she dived straight downward in the long plunge, till, just before she reached the net, she turned a quick somersault into its elastic mesh.

It was all so exquisitely graceful that one forgot how wickedly dangerous it was; but I think that the brief English colloquy was the great wonder of the event for me, and I doubt if I could ever have been perfectly happy again, if chance had not amiably suffered me to satisfy my curiosity concerning the speakers. A few evenings after that, I was at that copy of a copy of a tournament, and, a few gradines below me, I saw the man of the Prince Albert coat and the derby hat. I had already made up my mind that he was an American, for I supposed that an Englishman would rather perish than wear such a coat with such a hat, and as I had wished all my life to speak to a circus-man, I went down and boldly accosted him. “Are you a brother Yankee?” I asked, and he laughed, and confessed that he was an Englishman, but he said he was glad to meet any one who spoke English, and he made a place for me by his side. He was very willing to tell how he happened to be there, and he explained that he was the manager of a circus, which had been playing to very good business all winter in Spain. In an evil hour he decided to come to Italy, but he found the prices so ruinously low that he was forced to disband his company. This diving girl was all that remained to him of its many attractions, and he was trying to make a living for both in a country where the admission to a circus was six of our cents, with fifty for a reserved seat. But he was about to give it up and come to America, where he said Barnum had offered him an engagement. I hope he found it profitable, and is long since an American citizen, with as good right as any of us to wear a Prince Albert coat with a derby hat.


There used to be very good circuses in Venice, where many Venetians had the only opportunity of their lives to see a horse. The horses were the great attraction for them, and, perhaps in concession to their habitual destitution in this respect, the riding was providentially very good. It was so good that it did not bore me, as circus-riding mostly does, especially that of the silk-clad jockey who stands in his high boots, on his back-bared horse, and ends by waving an American flag in triumph at having been so tiresome.

I am at a loss to know why they make such an ado about the lady who jumps through paper hoops, which have first had holes poked in them to render her transit easy, or why it should be thought such a merit in her to hop over a succession of banners which are swept under her feet in a manner to minify her exertion almost to nothing, but I observe it is so at all circuses. At my first Venetian circus, which was on a broad expanse of the Riva degli Schiavoni, there was a girl who flung herself to the ground and back to her horse again, holding by his mane with one hand, quite like the goddess out of the bath-gown at my village circus the other day; and apparently there are more circuses in the world than circus events. It must be as hard to think up anything new in that kind as in romanticistic fiction, which circus-acting otherwise largely resembles.

At a circus which played all one winter in Florence I saw for the first time-outside of polite society–the clown in evening dress, who now seems essential to all circuses of metropolitan pretensions, and whom I missed so gladly at my village circus. He is nearly as futile as the lady clown, who is one of the saddest and strangest developments of New Womanhood.

Of the clowns who do not speak, I believe I like most the clown who catches a succession of peak-crowned soft hats on his head, when thrown across the ring by an accomplice. This is a very pretty sight always, and at the Hippodrome in Paris I once saw a gifted creature take his stand high up on the benches among the audience and catch these hats on his head from a flight of a hundred feet through the air. This made me proud of human nature, which is often so humiliating; and altogether I do not think that after a real country circus there are many better things in life than the Hippodrome. It had a state, a dignity, a smoothness, a polish, which I should not know where to match, and when the superb coach drove into the ring to convey the lady performers to the scene of their events, there was a majesty in the effect which I doubt if courts have the power to rival. Still, it should be remembered that I have never been at court, and speak from a knowledge of the Hippodrome only.