02 Nov The Escapade of a Grandfather
The Escapade of a Grandfather culled from The Daughter of the Storage by William Dean Howells.
The Escapade Of A Grandfather
“Well, what are you doing here?” the younger of the two sages asked, with a resolute air of bonhomie, as he dragged himself over the asphalt path, and sank, gasping, into the seat beside the other in the Park. His senior lifted his head and looked him carefully over to make sure of his identity, and then he said:
“I suppose, to answer your fatuous question, I am waiting here to get my breath before I move on; and in the next place, I am watching the feet of the women who go by in their high-heeled shoes.”
“How long do you think it will take you to get your breath in the atmosphere of these motors?” the younger sage pursued. “And you don’t imagine that these women are of the first fashion, do you?”
“No, but I imagine their shoes are. I have been calculating that their average heel is from an inch and a half to two inches high, and touches the ground in the circumference of a twenty-five-cent piece. As you seem to be fond of asking questions, perhaps you will like to answer one. Why do you think they do it?”
“Wear shoes like that?” the younger returned, cheerily, and laughed as he added, “Because the rest do.”
“Mmm!” the elder grumbled, not wholly pleased, and yet not refusing the answer. He had been having a little touch of grippe, and was somewhat broken from his wonted cynicism. He said: “It’s very strange, very sad. Just now there was such a pretty young girl, so sweet and fine, went tottering by as helpless, in any exigency, as the daughter of a thousand years of bound-feet Chinese women. While she tilted on, the nice young fellow with her swept forward with one stride to her three on the wide soles and low heels of nature-last boots, and kept himself from out-walking her by a devotion that made him grit his teeth. Probably she was wiser and better and brighter than he, but she didn’t look it; and I, who voted to give her the vote the other day, had my misgivings. I think I shall satisfy myself for the next five years by catching cold in taking my hat off to her in elevators, and getting killed by automobiles in helping her off the cars, where I’ve given her my seat.”
“But you must allow that if her shoes are too tight, her skirts are not so tight as they were. Or have you begun sighing for the good old hobble-skirts, now they’re gone?”
“The hobble-skirts were prettier than I thought they were when they were with us, but the ‘tempestuous petticoat’ has its charm, which I find I’d been missing.”
“Well, at least it’s a change,” the younger sage allowed, “and I haven’t found the other changes in our dear old New York which I look for when I come back in the fall.”
The sages were enjoying together the soft weather which lingered with us a whole month from the middle of October onward, and the afternoon of their meeting in the Park was now softly reddening to the dim sunset over the westward trees.
“Yes,” the elder assented. “I miss the new sky-scrapers which used to welcome me back up and down the Avenue. But there are more automobiles than ever, and the game of saving your life from them when you cross the street is madder and merrier than I have known it before.”
“The war seems to have stopped building because people can’t afford it,” the other suggested, “but it has only increased automobiling.”
“Well, people can’t afford that, either. Nine-tenths of them are traveling the road to ruin, I’m told, and apparently they can’t get over the ground too fast. Just look!” and the sages joined in the amused and mournful contemplation of the different types of motors innumerably whirring up and down the drive before them, while they choked in the fumes of the gasolene.
The motors were not the costliest types, except in a few instances, and in most instances they were the cheaper types, such as those who could not afford them could at least afford best. The sages had found a bench beside the walk where the statue of Daniel Webster looks down on the confluence of two driveways, and the stream of motors, going and coming, is like a seething torrent either way.
“The mystery is,” the elder continued, “why they should want to do it in the way they do it. Are they merely going somewhere and must get there in the shortest time possible, or are they arriving on a wager? If they are taking a pleasure drive, what a droll idea of pleasure they must have! Maybe they are trying to escape Black Care, but they must know he sits beside the chauffeur as he used to sit behind the horseman, and they know that he has a mortgage in his pocket, and can foreclose it any time on the house they have hypothecated to buy their car. Ah!” The old man started forward with the involuntary impulse of rescue. But it was not one of the people who singly, or in terrorized groups, had been waiting at the roadside to find their way across; it was only a hapless squirrel of those which used to make their way safely among the hoofs and wheels of the kind old cabs and carriages, and it lay instantly crushed under the tire of a motor. “He’s done for, poor little wretch! They can’t get used to the change. Some day a policeman will pick _me_ up from under a second-hand motor. I wonder what the great Daniel from his pedestal up there would say if he came to judgment.”
“He wouldn’t believe in the change any more than that squirrel. He would decide that he was dreaming, and would sleep on, forgetting and forgotten.”
“Forgotten,” the elder sage assented. “I remember when his fame filled the United States, which was then the whole world to me. And now I don’t imagine that our hyphenated citizens have the remotest consciousness of him. If Daniel began delivering one of his liberty-and-union-now-and-forever-one-and-inseparable speeches, they wouldn’t know what he was talking about.” The sage laughed and champed his toothless jaws together, as old men do in the effort to compose their countenances after an emotional outbreak.
“Well, for one thing,” the younger observed, “they wouldn’t understand what he said. You will notice, if you listen to them going by, that they seldom speak English. That’s getting to be a dead language in New York, though it’s still used in the newspapers.” He thought to hearten the other with his whimsicality, for it seemed to him that the elder sage was getting sensibly older since their last meeting, and that he would be the gayer for such cheer as a man on the hither side of eighty can offer a man on the thither. “Perhaps the Russian Jews would appreciate Daniel if he were put into Yiddish for them. They’re the brightest intelligences among our hyphenates. And they have the old-fashioned ideals of liberty and humanity, perhaps because they’ve known so little of either.”
His gaiety did not seem to enliven his senior much. “Ah, the old ideals!” he sighed. “The old ideal of an afternoon airing was a gentle course in an open carriage on a soft drive. Now it’s a vertiginous whirl on an asphalted road, round and round and round the Park till the victims stagger with their brains spinning after they get out of their cars.”
The younger sage laughed. “You’ve been listening to the pessimism of the dear old fellows who drive the few lingering victorias. If you’d believe them, all these people in the motors are chauffeurs giving their lady-friends joy-rides.”
“Few?” the elder retorted. “There are lots of them. I’ve counted twenty in a single round of the Park. I was proud to be in one of them, though my horse left something to be desired in the way of youth and beauty. But I reflected that I was not very young or beautiful myself.”
As the sages sat looking out over the dizzying whirl of the motors they smoothed the tops of their sticks with their soft old hands, and were silent oftener than not. The elder seemed to drowse off from the time and place, but he was recalled by the younger saying, “It is certainly astonishing weather for this season of the year.”
The elder woke up and retorted, as if in offense: “Not at all. I’ve seen the cherries in blossom at the end of October.”
“They didn’t set their fruit, I suppose.”
“Ah! Well, I saw a butterfly up here in the sheep-pasture the other day. I could have put out my hand and caught it. It’s the soft weather that brings your victorias out like the belated butterflies. Wait till the first cold snap, and there won’t be a single victoria or butterfly left.”
“Yes,” the elder assented, “we butterflies and victorias belong to the youth of the year and the world. And the sad thing is that we won’t have our palingenesis.”
“Why not?” the younger sage demanded. “What is to prevent your coming back in two or three thousand years?”
“Well, if we came back in a year even, we shouldn’t find room, for one reason. Haven’t you noticed how full to bursting the place seems? Every street is as packed as lower Fifth Avenue used to be when the operatives came out of the big shops for their nooning. The city’s shell hasn’t been enlarged or added to, but the life in it has multiplied past its utmost capacity. All the hotels and houses and flats are packed. The theaters, wherever the plays are bad enough, swarm with spectators. Along up and down every side-streets the motors stand in rows, and at the same time the avenues are so dense with them that you are killed at every crossing. There has been no building to speak of during the summer, but unless New York is overbuilt next year we must appeal to Chicago to come and help hold it. But I’ve an idea that the victorias are remaining to stay; if some sort of mechanical horse could be substituted for the poor old animals that remind me of my mortality, I should be sure of it. Every now and then I get an impression of permanence in the things of the Park. As long as the peanut-men and the swan-boats are with us I sha’n’t quite despair. And the other night I was moved almost to tears by the sight of a four-in-hand tooling softly down the Fifth Avenue drive. There it was, like some vehicular phantom, but how, whence, when? It came, as if out of the early eighteen-nineties; two middle-aged grooms, with their arms folded, sat on the rumble (if it’s the rumble), but of all the young people who ought to have flowered over the top none was left but the lady beside the gentleman-driver on the box. I’ve tried every evening since for that four-in-hand, but I haven’t seen it, and I’ve decided it wasn’t a vehicular phantom, but a mere dream of the past.”
“Four-horse dream,” the younger sage commented, as if musing aloud.
The elder did not seem quite pleased. “A joke?” he challenged.
“Not necessarily. I suppose I was the helpless prey of the rhyme.”
“I didn’t know you were a poet.”
“I’m not, always. But didn’t it occur to you that danger for danger your four-in-hand was more dangerous than an automobile to the passing human creature?”
“It might have been if it had been multiplied by ten thousand. But there was only one of it, and it wasn’t going twenty miles an hour.”
“That’s true,” the younger sage assented. “But there was always a fearful hazard in horses when we had them. We supposed they were tamed, but, after all, they were only _trained_ animals, like Hagenback’s.”
“And what is a chauffeur?”
“Ah, you have me there!” the younger said, and he laughed generously. “Or you would have if I hadn’t noticed something like amelioration in the chauffeurs. At any rate, the taxis are cheaper than they were, and I suppose something will be done about the street traffic some time. They’re talking now about subway crossings. But I should prefer overhead foot-bridges at all the corners, crossing one another diagonally. They would look like triumphal arches, and would serve the purpose of any future Dewey victory if we should happen to have another hero to win one.”
“Well, we must hope for the best. I rather like the notion of the diagonal foot-bridges. But why not Rows along the second stories as they have them in Chester? I should be pretty sure of always getting home alive if we had them. Now if I’m not telephoned for at a hospital before I’m restored to consciousness, I think myself pretty lucky. And yet it seems but yesterday, as the people used to say in the plays, since I had a pride in counting the automobiles as I walked up the Avenue. Once I got as high as twenty before I reached Fifty-ninth Street. Now I couldn’t count as many horse vehicles.”
The elder sage mocked himself in a feeble laugh, but the younger tried to be serious. “We don’t realize the absolute change. Our streets are not streets any more; they are railroad tracks with locomotives let loose on them, and no signs up to warn people at the crossings. It’s pathetic to see the foot-passengers saving themselves, especially the poor, pretty, high-heeled women, looking this way and that in their fright, and then tottering over as fast as they can totter.”
“Well, I should have said it was outrageous, humiliating, insulting, once, but I don’t any more; it would be no use.”
“No; and so much depends upon the point of view. When I’m on foot I feel all my rights invaded, but when I’m in a taxi it amuses me to see the women escaping; and I boil with rage in being halted at every other corner by the policeman with his new-fangled semaphore, and it’s “Go” and “Stop” in red and blue, and my taxi-clock going round all the time and getting me in for a dollar when I thought I should keep within seventy cents. Then I feel that pedestrians of every age and sex ought to be killed.”
“Yes, there’s something always in the point of view; and there’s some comfort when you’re stopped in your taxi to feel that they often _do_ get killed.”
The sages laughed together, and the younger said: “I suppose when we get aeroplanes in common use, there’ll be annoying traffic regulations, and policemen anchored out at intervals in the central blue to enforce them. After all–”
What he was going to add in amplification cannot be known, for a girlish voice, trying to sharpen itself from its native sweetness to a conscientious severity, called to them as its owner swiftly advanced upon the elder sage: “Now, see here, grandfather! This won’t do at all. You promised not to leave that bench by the Indian Hunter, and here you are away down by the Falconer, and we’ve been looking everywhere for you. It’s too bad! I shall be afraid to trust you at all after this. Why, it’s horrid of you, grandfather! You might have got killed crossing the drive.”
The grandfather looked up and verified the situation, which seemed to include a young man, tall and beautiful, but neither so handsome nor so many heads high as the young men in the advertisements of ready-to-wear clothing, who smiled down on the young girl as if he had arrived with her, and were finding an amusement in her severity which he might not, later. She was, in fact, very pretty, and her skirt flared in the fashion of the last moment, as she stooped threateningly yet fondly over her grandfather.
The younger sage silently and somewhat guiltily escaped from the tumult of emotion which ignored him, and shuffled slowly down the path. The other finally gave an “Oh!” of recognition, and then said, for all explanation and excuse, “I didn’t know what had become of you,” and then they all laughed.
URLPosted at 03:21h, 07 November
Read More: hqwords.com/the-escapade-of-a-grandfather/