An International Episode, by Henry James

An International Episode

1

Four years ago — in 1874 — two young Englishmen had occasion to go to the United States. They crossed the ocean at midsummer and, arriving in New York on the first day of August, were much struck with the high, the torrid temperature. Disembarking upon the wharf they climbed into one of the huge high-hung coaches that convey passengers to the hotels, and with a great deal of bouncing and bumping they took their course through Broadway. The midsummer aspect of New York is doubtless not the most engaging, though nothing perhaps could well more solicit an alarmed attention. Of quite other sense and sound from those of any typical English street was the endless rude channel, rich in incongruities, through which our two travellers advanced — looking out on either side at the rough animation of the sidewalks, at the high-coloured heterogeneous architecture, at the huge white marble façades that, bedizened with gilded lettering, seemed to glare in the strong crude light, at the multifarious awnings, banners and streamers, at the extraordinary number of omnibuses, horse-cars and other democratic vehicles, at the vendors of cooling fluids, the white trousers and big straw hats of the policemen, the tripping gait of the modish young persons on the pavement, the general brightness, newness, juvenility, both of people and things. The young men had exchanged few observations, but in crossing Union Square, in front of the monument to Washington — in the very shadow indeed projected by the image of the pater patriae— one of them remarked to the other: “Awfully rum place.”

“Ah, very odd, very odd,” said the other, who was the clever man of the two.

“Pity it’s so beastly hot,” resumed the first speaker after a pause.

“You know we’re in a low latitude,” said the clever man.

“I daresay,” remarked his friend.

“I wonder,” said the second speaker presently, “if they can give one a bath.”

“I daresay not,” the other returned.

“Oh I say!” cried his comrade.

This animated discussion dropped on their arrival at the hotel, recommended to them by an American gentleman whose acquaintance they had made — with whom, indeed, they had become very intimate — on the steamer and who had proposed to accompany them to the inn and introduce them in a friendly way to the proprietor. This plan, however, had been defeated by their friend’s finding his “partner” in earnest attendance on the wharf, with urgent claims on his immediate presence of mind. But the two Englishmen, with nothing beyond their national prestige and personal graces to recommend them, were very well received at the hotel, which had an air of capacious hospitality. They found a bath not unattainable and were indeed struck with the facilities for prolonged and reiterated immersion with which their apartment was supplied. After bathing a good deal — more indeed than they had ever done before on a single occasion — they made their way to the dining-room of the hotel, which was a spacious restaurant with a fountain in the middle, a great many tall plants in ornamental tubs and an array of French waiters. The first dinner on land, after a sea-voyage, is in any connexion a delightful hour, and there was much that ministered to ease in the general situation of our young men. They were formed for good spirits and addicted and appointed to hilarity; they were more observant than they appeared; they were, in an inarticulate accidentally dissimulative fashion, capable of high appreciation. This was perhaps especially the case with the elder, who was also, as I have said, the man of talent. They sat down at a little table which was a very different affair from the great clattering see-saw in the saloon of the steamer. The wide doors and windows of the restaurant stood open, beneath large awnings, to a wide expanse studded with other plants in tubs and rows of spreading trees — beyond which appeared a large shady square without palings and with marble-paved walks. And above the vivid verdure rose other façades of white marble and of pale chocolate-coloured stone, squaring themselves against the deep blue sky. Here, outside, in the light and the shade and the heat, was a great tinkling of the bells of innumerable street-cars and a constant strolling and shuffling and rustling of many pedestrians, extremely frequent among whom were young women in Pompadour-looking dresses. The place within was cool and vaguely lighted; with the plash of water, the odour of flowers and the flitting of French waiters, as I have said, on soundless carpets.

“It’s rather like Paris, you know,” said the younger of our two travellers.

“It’s like Paris — only more so,” his companion returned.

“I suppose it’s the French waiters,” said the first speaker. “Why don’t they have French waiters in London?”

“Ah, but fancy a French waiter at a London club!” said his friend.

The elder man stared as if he couldn’t fancy it. “In Paris I’m very apt to dine at a place where there’s an English waiter. Don’t you know, what’s-his-name’s, close to the thingumbob? They always set an English waiter at me. I suppose they think I can’t speak French.”

“No more you can!” And this candid critic unfolded his napkin.

The other paid no heed whatever to his candour. “I say,” the latter resumed in a moment, “I suppose we must learn to speak American. I suppose we must take lessons.”

“I can’t make them out, you know,” said the clever man.

“What the deuce is he saying?” asked his comrade, appealing from the French waiter.

“He’s recommending some soft-shell crabs,” said the clever man.

And so, in a desultory view of the mysteries of the new world bristling about them, the young Englishmen proceeded to dine — going in largely, as the phrase is, for cooling draughts and dishes, as to which their attendant submitted to them a hundred alternatives. After dinner they went out and slowly walked about the neighbouring streets. The early dusk of waning summer was at hand, but the heat still very great. The pavements were hot even to the stout boot-soles of the British travellers, and the trees along the kerb-stone emitted strange exotic odours. The young men wandered through the adjoining square — that queer place without palings and with marble walks arranged in black and white lozenges. There were a great many benches crowded with shabby-looking people, and the visitors remarked very justly that it wasn’t much like Grosvenor Square. On one side was an enormous hotel, lifting up into the hot darkness an immense array of open and brightly-lighted windows. At the base of this populous structure was an eternal jangle of horse-cars, and all round it, in the upper dusk, a sinister hum of mosquitoes. The ground-floor of the hotel, figuring a huge transparent cage, flung a wide glare of gaslight into the street, of which it formed a public adjunct, absorbing and emitting the passers-by promiscuously. The young Englishmen went in with every one else, from curiosity, and saw a couple of hundred men sitting on divans along a great marble-paved corridor, their legs variously stretched out, together with several dozen more standing in a queue, as at the ticket-office of a railway station, before a vast marble altar of sacrifice, a thing shaped like the counter of a huge shop. These latter persons, who carried portmanteaus in their hands, had a dejected exhausted look; their garments were not fresh, as if telling of some rush, or some fight, for life, and they seemed to render mystic tribute to a magnificent young man with a waxed moustache and a shirt front adorned with diamond buttons, who every now and then dropped a cold glance over their multitudinous patience. They were American citizens doing homage to an hotel-clerk.

“I’m glad he didn’t tell us to go there,” said one of our Englishmen, alluding to their friend on the steamer, who had told them so many things. They walked up the Fifth Avenue, where he had, for instance, told them all the first families lived. But the first families were out of town, and our friends had but the satisfaction of seeing some of the second — or perhaps even the third — taking the evening air on balconies and high flights of doorsteps in streets at right angles to the main straight channel. They went a little way down one of these side-streets and there saw young ladies in white dresses — charming-looking persons — seated in graceful attitudes on the chocolate-coloured steps. In one or two places these young ladies were conversing across the street with other young ladies seated in similar postures and costumes in front of the opposite houses, and in the warm night air their colloquial tones sounded strangely in the ears of the young Englishmen. One of the latter, nevertheless — the younger — betrayed a disposition to intercept some stray item of this interchange and see what it would lead to; but his companion observed pertinently enough that he had better be careful. They mustn’t begin by making mistakes.

“But he told us, you know — he told us,” urged the young man, alluding again to the friend on the steamer.

“Never mind what he told us!” answered his elder, who, if he had more years and a more developed wit, was also apparently more of a moralist.

By bedtime — in their impatience to taste of a terrestrial couch again our seafarers went to bed early — it was still insufferably hot, and the buzz of the mosquitoes at the open windows might have passed for an audible crepitation of the temperature. “We can’t stand this, you know,” the young Englishmen said to each other; and they tossed about all night more boisterously than they had been tossed by Atlantic billows. On the morrow their first thought was that they would reembark that day for England, but it then occurred to them they might find an asylum nearer at hand. The cave of Æolus became their ideal of comfort, and they wondered where the Americans went when wishing to cool off. They hadn’t the least idea, and resolved to apply for information to Mr. J. L. Westgate. This was the name — inscribed in a bold hand on the back of a letter carefully preserved in the pocket-book of our younger gentleman. Beneath the address, in the left-hand corner of the envelope, were the words “Introducing Lord Lambeth and Percy Beaumont Esq.” The letter had been given to the two Englishmen by a good friend of theirs in London, who had been in America two years previously and had singled out Mr. J. L. Westgate from the many friends he had left there as the consignee, as it were, of his compatriots. “He’s really very decent,” the Englishman in London had said, “and he has an awfully pretty wife. He’s tremendously hospitable — he’ll do everything in the world for you, and as he knows every one over there it’s quite needless I should give you any other introduction. He’ll make you see every one — trust him for the right kick-off. He has a tremendously pretty wife.” It was natural that in the hour of tribulation Lord Lambeth and Mr. Percy Beaumont should have bethought themselves of so possible a benefactor; all the more so that he lived in the Fifth Avenue and that the Fifth Avenue, as they had ascertained the night before, was contiguous to their hotel. “Ten to one he’ll be out of town,” said Percy Beaumont; “but we can at least find out where he has gone and can at once give chase. He can’t possibly have gone to a hotter place, you know.”

“Oh there’s only one hotter place,” said Lord Lambeth, “and I hope he hasn’t gone there.”

They strolled along the shady side of the street to the number indicated by the precious letter. The house presented an imposing chocolate-coloured expanse, relieved by facings and window-cornices of florid sculpture and by a couple of dusty rose-trees which clambered over the balconies and the portico. This last-mentioned feature was approached by a monumental flight of steps.

“Rather better than a dirty London thing,” said Lord Lambeth, looking down from this altitude after they had rung the bell.

“It depends upon what London thing you mean,” replied his companion. “You’ve a tremendous chance to get wet between the house-door and your carriage.”

“Well,” said Lord Lambeth, glancing at the blaze of the sky, “I ‘guess’ it doesn’t rain so much here!”

The door was opened by a long negro in a white jacket, who grinned familiarly when Lord Lambeth asked for Mr. Westgate. “He ain’t at home, sir; he’s down town at his office.”

“Oh at his office?” said the visitors. “And when will he be at home?”

“Well, when he goes out dis way in de mo’ning he ain’t liable to come home all day.”

This was discouraging; but the address of Mr. Westgate’s office was freely imparted by the intelligent black and was taken down by Percy Beaumont in his pocket-book. The comrades then returned, languidly enough, to their hotel and sent for a hackney-coach; and in this commodious vehicle they rolled comfortably down town. They measured the whole length of Broadway again and found it a path of fire; and then, deflecting to the left, were deposited by their conductor before a fresh light ornamental structure, ten stories high, in a street crowded with keen-faced light-limbed young men who were running about very nimbly and stopping each other eagerly at corners and in doorways. Passing under portals that were as the course of a twofold torrent, they were introduced by one of the keen-faced young men — he was a charming fellow in wonderful cream-coloured garments and a hat with a blue ribbon, who had evidently recognised them as aliens and helpless — to a very snug hydraulic elevator, in which they took their place with many other persons and which, shooting upward in its vertical socket, presently projected them into the seventh heaven, as it were, of the edifice. Here, after brief delay, they found themselves face to face with the friend of their friend in London. His office was composed of several conjoined rooms, and they waited very silently in one of these after they had sent in their letter and their cards. The letter was not one it would take Mr. Westgate very long to read, but he came out to speak to them more instantly than they could have expected; he had evidently jumped up from work. He was a tall lean personage and was dressed all in fresh white linen; he had a thin sharp familiar face, a face suggesting one of the ingenious modern objects with alternative uses, good as a blade or as a hammer, good for the deeps and for the shallows. His forehead was high but expressive, his eyes sharp but amused, and a large brown moustache, which concealed his mouth, made his chin, beneath it, look small. Relaxed though he was at this moment Lord Lambeth judged him on the spot tremendously clever.

“How do you do, Lord Lambeth, how do you do, sir?”— he held the open letter in his hand. “I’m very glad to meet you — I hope you’re very well. You had better come in here — I think it’s cooler”; and he led the way into another room, where there were law-books and papers and where windows opened wide under striped awnings. Just opposite one of the windows, on a line with his eyes, Lord Lambeth observed the weather-vane of a church-steeple. The uproar of the street sounded infinitely far below, and his lordship felt high indeed in the air. “I say it’s cooler,” pursued their host, “but everything’s relative. How do you stand the heat?”

“I can’t say we like it,” said Lord Lambeth; “but Beaumont likes it better than I.”

“Well, I guess it will break,” Mr. Westgate cheerfully declared; “there’s never anything bad over here but it does break. It was very hot when Captain Littledale was here; he did nothing but drink sherry-cobblers. He expresses some doubt in his letter whether I shall remember him — as if I don’t remember once mixing six sherry-cobblers for him in about fifteen minutes. I hope you left him well. I’d be glad to mix him some more.”

“Oh yes, he’s all right — and without them,” said Lord Lambeth.

“I’m always very glad to see your countrymen,” Mr. Westgate pursued. “I thought it would be time some of you should be coming along. A friend of mine was saying to me only a day or two ago, ‘It’s time for the water-melons and the Englishmen.’”

“The Englishmen and the water-melons just now are about the same thing,” Percy Beaumont observed with a wipe of his dripping forehead.

“Ah well, we’ll put you on ice as we do the melons. You must go down to Newport.”

“We’ll go anywhere!” said Lord Lambeth.

“Yes, you want to go to Newport; that’s what you want to do.” Mr. Westgate was very positive. “But let’s see — when did you get here?”

“Only yesterday,” said Percy Beaumont.

“Ah yes, by the Russia. Where are you staying?”

“At the Hanover, I think they call it.”

“Pretty comfortable?” inquired Mr. Westgate.

“It seems a capital place, but I can’t say we like the gnats,” said Lord Lambeth.

Mr. Westgate stared and laughed. “Oh no, of course you don’t like the gnats. We shall expect you to like a good many things over here, but we shan’t insist on your liking the gnats; though certainly you’ll admit that, as gnats, they’re big things, eh? But you oughtn’t to remain in the city.”

“So we think,” said Lord Lambeth. “If you’d kindly suggest something —”

“Suggest something, my dear sir?”— and Mr. Westgate looked him over with narrowed eyelids. “Open your mouth and shut your eyes! Leave it to me and I’ll fix you all right. It’s a matter of national pride with me that all Englishmen should have a good time, and as I’ve been through a good deal with them I’ve learned to minister to their wants. I find they generally want the true thing. So just please consider yourselves my property; and if any one should try to appropriate you please say, ‘Hands off — too late for the market.’ But let’s see,” continued the American with his face of toil, his voice of leisure and his general intention, apparently, of everything; “let’s see: are you going to make something of a stay, Lord Lambeth?”

“Oh dear no,” said the young Englishman; “my cousin was to make this little visit, so I just came with him, at an hour’s notice, for the lark.”

“Is it your first time over here?”

“Oh dear yes.”

“I was obliged to come on some business,” Percy Beaumont explained, “and I brought Lambeth along for company.”

“And you have been here before, sir?”

“Never, never!”

“I thought from your referring to business —” Mr. Westgate threw off.

“Oh you see I’m just acting for some English shareholders by way of legal advice. Some of my friends — well, if the truth must be told,” Mr. Beaumont laughed —“have a grievance against one of your confounded railways, and they’ve asked me to come and judge, if possible, on the spot, what they can hope.”

Mr. Westgate’s amused eyes grew almost tender. “What’s your railroad?” he asked.

“The Tennessee Central.”

The American tilted back his chair and poised it an instant. “Well, I’m sorry you want to attack one of our institutions. But I guess you had better enjoy yourself first!”

“I’m certainly rather afraid I can’t work in this weather,” the young emissary confessed.

“Leave that to the natives,” said Mr. Westgate. “Leave the Tennessee Central to me, Mr. Beaumont. I guess I can tell you more about it than most any one. But I didn’t know you Englishmen ever did any work — in the upper classes.”

“Oh we do a lot of work, don’t we, Lambeth?” Percy Beaumont appealed.

“I must certainly be back early for my engagements,” said his companion irrelevantly but gently.

“For the shooting, eh? or is it the yachting or the hunting or the fishing?” inquired his entertainer.

“Oh I must be in Scotland,”— and Lord Lambeth just amiably blushed.

“Well, then,” Mr. Westgate returned, “you had better amuse yourself first also. You must go right down and see Mrs. Westgate.”

“We should be so happy — if you’d kindly tell us the train,” said Percy Beaumont.

“You don’t take any train. You take a boat.”

“Oh I see. And what is the name of — a — the — a — town?”

“It’s a regular old city — don’t you let them hear you call it a village or a hamlet or anything of that kind. They’d half-kill you. Only it’s a city of pleasure — of lawns and gardens and verandahs and views and, above all, of good Samaritans,” Mr. Westgate developed. “But you’ll see what Newport is. It’s cool. That’s the principal thing. You’ll greatly oblige me by going down there and putting yourself in the hands of Mrs. Westgate. It isn’t perhaps for me to say it, but you couldn’t be in better ones. Also in those of her sister, who’s staying with her. She’s half-crazy about Englishmen. She thinks there’s nothing like them.”

“Mrs. Westgate or — a — her sister?” asked Percy Beaumont modestly, yet in the tone of a collector of characteristic facts.

“Oh I mean my wife,” said Mr. Westgate. “I don’t suppose my sister-inlaw knows much about them yet. You’ll show her anyhow. She has always led a very quiet life. She has lived in Boston.”

Percy Beaumont listened with interest. “That, I believe, is the most intellectual centre.”

“Well, yes — Boston knows it’s central and feels it’s intellectual. I don’t go there much — I stay round here,” Mr. Westgate more loosely pursued.

“I say, you know, we ought to go there,” Lord Lambeth broke out to his companion.

“Oh Lord Lambeth, wait till the great heat’s over!” Mr. Westgate interposed. “Boston in this weather would be very trying; it’s not the temperature for intellectual exertion. At Boston, you know, you have to pass an examination at the city limits, and when you come away they give you a kind of degree.”

Lord Lambeth flushed himself, in his charming way, with wonder, though his friend glanced to make sure he wasn’t looking too credulous — they had heard so much about American practices. He decided in time, at any rate, to take a safe middle course. “I daresay it’s very jolly.”

“I daresay it is,” Mr. Westgate returned. “Only I must impress on you that at present — tomorrow morning at an early hour — you’ll be expected at Newport. We have a house there — many of our most prominent citizens and society leaders go there for the summer. I’m not sure that at this very moment my wife can take you in — she has a lot of people staying with her. I don’t know who they all are — only she may have no room. But you can begin with the hotel and meanwhile you can live at my house. In that way — simply sleeping at the hotel — you’ll find it tolerable. For the rest you must make yourself at home at my place. You mustn’t be shy, you know; if you’re only here for a month that will be a great waste of time. Mrs. Westgate won’t neglect you, and you had better not undertake to resist her. I know something about that. I guess you’ll find some pretty girls on the premises. I shall write to my wife by this afternoon’s mail, and tomorrow she and Miss Alden will look out for you. Just walk right in and get into touch. Your steamer leaves from this part of the city, and I’ll send right out and get you a cabin. Then at half-past four o’clock just call for me here, and I’ll go with you and put you on board. It’s a big boat; you might get lost. A few days hence, at the end of the week, I don’t know but I’ll come down myself and see how you are.”

The two young Englishmen inaugurated the policy of not resisting Mrs. Westgate by submitting, with great docility and thankfulness, to her husband. He was evidently a clear thinker, and he made an impression on his visitors; his hospitality seemed to recommend itself consciously — with a friendly wink, as might be, hinting judicially that you couldn’t make a better bargain. Lord Lambeth and his cousin left their entertainer to his labours and returned to their hotel, where they spent three or four hours in their respective shower-baths. Percy Beaumont had suggested that they ought to see something of the town, but “Oh damn the town!” his noble kinsman had rejoined. They returned to Mr. Westgate’s office in a carriage, with their luggage, very punctually; but it must be reluctantly recorded that this time he so kept them waiting that they felt themselves miss their previous escape and were deterred only by an amiable modesty from dispensing with his attendance and starting on a hasty scramble to embark. But when at last he appeared and the carriage plunged into the purlieus of Broadway they jolted and jostled to such good purpose that they reached the huge white vessel while the bell for departure was still ringing and the absorption of passengers still active. It was indeed, as Mr. Westgate had said, a big boat, and his leadership in the innumerable and interminable corridors and cabins, with which he seemed perfectly acquainted and of which any one and every one appeared to have the entrée, was very grateful to the slightly bewildered voyagers. He showed them their state-room — a luxurious retreat embellished with gas-lamps, mirrors en pied and florid furniture — and then, long after they had been intimately convinced that the steamer was in motion and launched upon the unknown stream they were about to navigate, he bade them a sociable farewell.

“Well, good-bye, Lord Lambeth,” he said. “Goodbye, Mr. Percy Beaumont. I hope you’ll have a good time. Just let them do what they want with you. Take it as it’s meant. Renounce your own personality. I’ll come down by and by and enjoy what’s left of you.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38