The night had been fine and warm, and it was now noon on a fine September day when the train from Paris reached St. Michael, on the route to Italy by Mont Cenis; as all the world knows St. Michael is, or was a year or two back, the end of the railway travelling in that direction. At the time Mr Fell’s grand project of carrying a line of rails over the top of the mountain was only in preparation, and the journey from St. Michael to Susa was still made by the diligences those dear old continental coaches which are now nearly as extinct as our own, but which did not deserve death so fully as did our abominable vehicles. The coupe of a diligence, or, better still, the banquette, was a luxurious mode of travelling as compared with anything that our coaches offered. There used indeed to be a certain halo of glory round the occupant of the box of a mail-coach. The man who had secured that seat was supposed to know something about the world, and to be such a one that the passengers sitting behind him would be proud to be allowed to talk to him. But the prestige of the position was greater than the comfort. A night on the box of a mail-coach was but a bad time, and a night inside a mail-coach was a night in purgatory. Whereas a seat up above, on the banquette of a diligence passing over the Alps, with room for the feet, and support for the back, with plenty of rugs and plenty of tobacco, used to be on the Mont Cenis, and still is on some other mountain passes, a very comfortable mode of seeing a mountain route. For those desirous of occupying the coupe, or the three front seats of the body of the vehicle, it must be admitted that difficulties frequently arose; and that such difficulties were very common at St. Michael. There would be two or three of those enormous vehicles preparing to start for the mountain, whereas it would appear that twelve or fifteen passengers had come down from Paris armed with tickets assuring them that this preferable mode of travelling should be theirs. And then assertions would be made, somewhat recklessly, by the officials, to the effect that all the diligence was coupe. It would generally be the case that some middle-aged Englishman who could not speak French would go to the wall, together with his wife. Middle-aged Englishmen with their wives, who can’t speak French, can nevertheless be very angry, and threaten loudly, when they suppose themselves to be ill-treated. A middle-aged Englishman, though he can’t speak a word of French, won’t believe a French official who tells him that the diligence is all coupe, when he finds himself with his unfortunate partner in a roundabout place behind with two priests, a dirty man who looks like a brigand, a sick maid-servant, and three agricultural labourers. The attempt, however, was frequently made, and thus there used to be occasionally a little noise round the bureau at St. Michael.
On the morning of which we are speaking, two Englishmen had just made good their claim, each independently of the other, each without having heard or seen the other, when two American ladies, coming up very tardily, endeavoured to prove their rights. The ladies were without other companions, and were not fluent with their French, but were clearly entitled to their seats. They were told that the conveyance was all coupe, but perversely would not believe the statement. The official shrugged his shoulders and signified that his ultimatum had been pronounced. What can an official do in such circumstances, when more coupe passengers are sent to him than the coupes at his command will hold? ‘But we have paid for the coupe,’ said the elder American lady, with considerable indignation, though her French was imperfect, for American ladies understand their rights. ‘Bah; yes; you have paid and you shall go. What would you have?’ ‘We would have what we have paid for,’ said the American lady. Then the official rose from his stool and shrugged his shoulders again, and made a motion with both his hands, intended to shew that the thing was finished. ‘It is a robbery,’ said the elder American lady to the younger. ‘I should not mind, only you are so unwell.’ ‘It will not kill me, I dare say,’ said the younger. Then one of the English gentlemen declared that his place was very much at the service of the invalid and the other Englishman declared that his also was at the service of the invalid’s companion. Then, and not till then, the two men recognised each other. One was Mr Glascock, on his way to Naples, and the other was Mr Trevelyan, on his way he knew not whither.
Upon this, of course, they spoke to each other. In London they had been well acquainted, each having been an intimate guest at the house of old Lady Milborough. And each knew something of the other’s recent history. Mr Glascock was aware, as was all the world, that Trevelyan had quarrelled with his wife; and Trevelyan was aware that Mr Glascock had been spoken of as a suitor to his own sister-inlaw. Of that visit which Mr Glascock had made to Nuncombe Putney, and of the manner in which Nora had behaved to her lover, Trevelyan knew nothing. Their greetings spoken, their first topic of conversation was, of course, the injury proposed to be done to the American ladies, and which would now fall upon them. They went into the waiting-room together, and during such toilet as they could make there, grumbled furiously. They would take post horses over the mountain, not from any love of solitary grandeur, but in order that they might make the company pay for its iniquity. But it was soon apparent to them that they themselves had no ground of complaint, and as everybody was very civil, and as a seat in the banquette over the heads of the American ladies was provided for them, and as the man from the bureau came and apologised, they consented to be pacified, and ended, of course, by tipping half-a-dozen of the servants about the yard. Mr Glascock had a man of his own with him, who was very nearly being put on to the same seat with his master as an extra civility; but this inconvenience was at last avoided. Having settled these little difficulties, they went into breakfast in the buffet.
There could be no better breakfast than used to be given in the buffet at the railway terminus at St. Michael. The company might occasionally be led into errors about that question of coupe seats, but in reference to their provisions, they set an example which might be of great use to us here in England. It is probably the case that breakfasts for travellers are not so frequently needed here as they are on the Continent; but, still, there is often to be found a crowd of people ready to eat if only the wherewithal were there. We are often told in our newspapers that England is disgraced by this and by that; by the unreadiness of our army, by the unfitness of our navy, by the irrationality of our laws, by the immobility of our prejudices, and what not; but the real disgrace of England is the railway sandwich — that whited sepulchre, fair enough outside, but so meagre, poor, and spiritless within, such a thing of shreds and parings, such a dab of food, telling us that the poor bone whence it was scraped had been made utterly bare before it was sent into the kitchen for the soup pot. In France one does get food at the railway stations, and at St. Michael the breakfast was unexceptional.
Our two friends seated themselves near to the American ladies, and were, of course, thanked for their politeness. American women are taught by the habits of their country to think that men should give way to them more absolutely than is in accordance with the practices of life in Europe. A seat in a public conveyance in the States, when merely occupied by a man, used to be regarded by any woman as being at her service as completely as though it were vacant. One woman indicating a place to another would point with equal freedom to a man or a space. It is said that this is a little altered now, and that European views on this subject are spreading themselves. Our two ladies, however, who were pretty, clever-looking, and attractive even after the night’s journey, were manifestly more impressed with the villainy of the French officials than they were with the kindness of their English neighbours.
‘And nothing can be done to punish them?’ said the younger of them to Mr Glascock.
‘Nothing, I should think,’ said he. ‘Nothing will, at any rate.’
‘And you will not get back your money?’ said the elder who, though the elder, was probably not much above twenty.
‘Well no. Time is money, they say. It would take thrice the value of the time in money, and then one would probably fail. They have done very well for us, and I suppose there are difficulties.’
‘It couldn’t have taken place in our country,’ said the younger lady. ‘All the same, we are very much obliged to you. It would not have been nice for us to have to go up into the banquette.’
‘They would have put you into the interior.’
‘And that would have been worse. I hate being put anywhere as if I were a sheep. It seems so odd to us, that you here should be all so tame.’
‘Do you mean the English, or the French, or the world in general on this side of the Atlantic?’
‘We mean Europeans,’ said the younger lady, who was better after her breakfast. ‘But then we think that the French have something of compensation, in their manners, and their ways of life, their climate, the beauty of their cities, and their general management of things.’
‘They are very great in many ways, no doubt,’ said Mr Glascock.
‘They do understand living better than you do,’ said the elder.
‘Everything is so much brighter with them,’ said the younger.
‘They contrive to give a grace to every-day existence,’ said the elder.
‘There is such a welcome among them for strangers,’ said the younger.
‘Particularly in reference to places taken in the coupe,’ said Trevelyan, who had hardly spoken before.
‘Ah, that is an affair of honesty,’ said the elder. ‘If we want honesty, I believe we must go back to the stars and stripes.’
Mr Glascock looked up from his plate almost aghast. He said nothing, however, but called for the waiter, and paid for his breakfast. Nevertheless, there was a considerable amount of travelling friendship engendered between the ladies and our two friends before the diligence had left the railway yard. They were two Miss Spaldings, going on to Florence, at which place they had an uncle, who was minister from the States to the kingdom of Italy; and they were not at all unwilling to receive such little civilities as gentlemen can give to ladies when travelling. The whole party intended to sleep at Turin that night, and they were altogether on good terms with each other when they started on the journey from St. Michael.
‘Clever women those,’ said Mr Glascock, as soon as they had arranged their legs and arms in the banquette.
‘American women always are clever and are almost always pretty.’
‘I do not like them,’ said Trevelyan who in these days was in a mood to like nothing. ‘They are exigent and then they are so hard. They want the weakness that a woman ought to have.’
‘That comes from what they would call your insular prejudice. We are accustomed to less self-assertion on the part of women than is customary with them. We prefer women to rule us by seeming to yield. In the States, as I take it, the women never yield, and the men have to fight their own battles with other tactics.’
‘I don’t know what their tactics are.’
‘They keep their distance. The men live much by themselves, as though they knew they would not have a chance in the presence of their wives and daughters. Nevertheless they don’t manage these things badly. You very rarely hear of an American being separated from his wife.’
The words were no sooner out of his mouth, than Mr Glascock knew, and remembered, and felt what he had said. There are occasions in which a man sins so deeply against fitness and the circumstances of the hour, that it becomes impossible for him to slur over his sin as though it had not been committed. There are certain little peccadilloes in society which one can manage to throw behind one perhaps with some difficulty, and awkwardness; but still they are put aside, and conversation goes on, though with a hitch. But there are graver offences, the gravity of which strikes the offender so seriously that it becomes impossible for him to seem even to ignore his own iniquity. Ashes must be eaten publicly, and sackcloth worn before the eyes of men. It was so now with poor Mr Glascock. He thought about it for a moment whether or no it was possible that he should continue his remarks about the American ladies, without betraying his own consciousness of the thing that he had done; and he found that it was quite impossible. He knew that he was red up to his hairs, and hot, and that his blood tingled. His blushes, indeed, would not be seen in the seclusion of the banquette; but he could not overcome the heat and the tingling. There was silence for about three minutes, and then he felt that it would be best for him to confess his own fault. ‘Trevelyan,’ he said, ‘I am very sorry for the allusion that I made. I ought to have been less awkward, and I beg your pardon.’
‘It does not matter,’ said Trevelyan. ‘Of course I know that everybody is talking of it behind my back. I am not to expect that people will be silent because I am unhappy.’
‘Nevertheless I beg your pardon,’ said the other.
There was but little further conversation between them till they reached Lanslebourg, at the foot of the mountain, at which place they occupied themselves with getting coffee for the two American ladies. The Miss Spaldings took their coffee almost with as much grace as though it had been handed to them by Frenchmen. And indeed they were very gracious, as is the nature of American ladies in spite of that hardness of which Trevelyan had complained. They assume an intimacy readily, with no appearance of impropriety, and are at their ease easily. When, therefore, they were handed out of their carriage by Mr Glascock, the bystanders at Lanslebourg might have thought that the whole party had been travelling together from New York. ‘What should we have done if you hadn’t taken pity on us?’ said the elder lady. ‘I don’t think we could have climbed up into that high place; and look at the crowd that have come out of the interior. A man has some advantages after all.’
‘I am quite in the dark as to what they are,’ said Mr Glascock.
‘He can give up his place to a lady, and can climb up into a banquette.’
‘And he can be a member of Congress,’‘said the younger. ‘I’d sooner be senator from Massachusetts than be the Queen of England.’
‘So would I,’ said Mr Glascock. ‘I’m glad we can agree about one thing.’
The two gentlemen agreed to walk up the mountain together, and with some trouble induced the conductor to permit them to do so. Why conductors of diligences should object to such relief to their horses the ordinary Englishman can hardly understand. But in truth they feel so deeply the responsibility which attaches itself to their shepherding of their sheep, that they are always fearing lest some poor lamb should go astray on the mountain side. And though the road be broad and very plainly marked, the conductor never feels secure that his passenger will find his way safely to the summit. He likes to know that each of his flock is in his right place, and disapproves altogether of an erratic spirit. But Mr Glascock at last prevailed, and the two men started together up the mountain. When the permission has been once obtained the walker may be sure that his guide and shepherd will not desert him.
‘Of course I know,’ said Trevelyan, when the third twist up the mountain had been overcome, ‘that people talk about me and my wife. It is a part of the punishment for the mistake that one makes.’
‘It is a sad affair altogether.’
‘The saddest in the world. Lady Milborough has no doubt spoken to you about it.’
‘Well yes; she has.’
‘How could she help it? I am not such a fool as to suppose that people are to hold their tongues about me more than they do about others. Intimate as she is with you, of course she has spoken to you.’
‘I was in hopes that something might have been done by this time.’
‘Nothing has been done. Sometimes I think I shall put an end to myself, it makes me so wretched.’
‘Then why don’t you agree to forget and forgive and have done with it?’
‘That is so easily said, so easily said.’ After this they walked on in silence for a considerable distance. Mr Glascock was not anxious to talk about Trevelyan’s wife, but he did wish to ask a question or two about Mrs Trevelyan’s sister, if only this could be done without telling too much of his own secret. ‘There’s nothing I think so grand as walking up a mountain,’ he said after a while.
‘It’s all very well,’ said Trevelyan, in a tone which seemed to imply that to him in his present miserable condition all recreations, exercises, and occupations were mere leather and prunella.
‘I don’t mean, you know, in the Alpine Club way, said Glascock. ‘I’m too old and too stiff for that. But when the path is good, and the air not too cold, and when it is neither snowing, nor thawing, nor raining, and when the sun isn’t hot, and you’ve got plenty of time, and know that you can stop any moment you like and be pushed up by a carriage, I do think walking up a mountain is very fine if you’ve got proper shoes, and a good stick, and it isn’t too soon after dinner. There’s nothing like the air of Alps.’ And Mr Glascock renewed his pace, and stretched himself against the hill at the rate of three miles an hour.
‘I used to be very fond of Switzerland,’ said Trevelyan, ‘but I don’t care about it now. My eye has lost all its taste.’
‘It isn’t the eye,’ said Glascock.
‘Well; no. The truth is that when one is absolutely unhappy one cannot revel in the imagination. I don’t believe in the miseries of poets.’
‘I think myself,’ said Glascock, ‘that a poet should have a good digestion. By-the-bye, Mrs Trevelyan and her sister went down to Nuncombe Putney, in Devonshire.’
‘They did go there.’
‘Have they moved since? A very pretty place is Nuncombe Putney.’
‘You have been there, then?’
Mr Glascock blushed again. He was certainly an awkward man, saying things that he ought not to say, and telling secrets which ought not to have been told. ‘Well yes. I have been there as it happens.’
‘Just lately do you mean?’
Mr Glascock paused, hoping to find his way out of the scrape, but soon perceived that there was no way out. He could not lie, even in an affair of love, and was altogether destitute of those honest subterfuges, subterfuges honest in such position of which a dozen would have been at once at the command of any woman, and with one of which, sufficient for the moment, most men would have been able to arm themselves. ‘Indeed, yes,’ he said, almost stammering as he spoke. ‘It was lately since your wife went there.’ Trevelyan, though he had been told of the possibility of Mr Glascock’s courtship, felt himself almost aggrieved by this man’s intrusion on his wife’s retreat. Had he not sent her there that she might be private; and what right had any one to invade such privacy? ‘I suppose I had better tell the truth at once,’ said Mr Glascock. ‘I went to see Miss Rowley.’
‘My secret will be safe with you, I know.’
‘I did not know that there was a secret,’ said Trevelyan. ‘I should have thought that they would have told me.’
‘I don’t see that. However, it doesn’t matter much. I got nothing by my journey. Are the ladies still at Nuncombe Putney?’
‘No, they have moved from there to London.’
‘Not back to Curzon Street?’
‘Oh dear, no. There is no house in Curzon Street for them now.’ This was said in a tone so sad that it almost made Mr Glascock weep. ‘They are staying with an aunt of theirs out to the east of the city.’
‘At St. Diddulph’s?’
‘Yes with Mr Outhouse, the clergyman there. You can’t conceive what it is not to be able to see your own child; and yet, how can I take the boy from her?’
‘Of course not. He’s only a baby.’
‘And yet all this is brought on me solely by her obstinacy. God knows, however, I don’t want to say a word against her. People choose to say that I am to blame, and they may say so for me. Nothing that any one may say can add anything to the weight that I have to bear.’ Then they walked to the top of the mountain in silence, and in due time were picked up by their proper shepherd and carried down to Susa at a pace that would give an English coachman a concussion of the brain.
Why passengers for Turin, who reach Susa dusty, tired, and sleepy, should be detained at that place for an hour and a half instead of being forwarded to their beds in the great city, is never made very apparent. All travelling officials on the continent of Europe are very slow in their manipulation of luggage; but as they are equally correct we will find the excuse for their tardiness in the latter quality. The hour and a half, however, is a necessity, and it is very grievous. On this occasion the two Miss Spaldings ate their supper, and the two gentlemen waited on them. The ladies had learned to regard at any rate Mr Glascock as their own property, and received his services, graciously indeed, but quite as a matter of course. When he was sent from their peculiar corner of the big, dirty refreshment room to the supper-table to fetch an apple, and then desired to change it because the one which he had brought was spotted, he rather liked it. And when he sat down with his knees near to theirs, actually trying to eat a large Italian apple himself simply because they had eaten one and discussed with them the passage over the Mont Cenis, he began to think that Susa was, after all, a place in which an hour and a half might be whiled away without much cause for complaint.
‘We only stay one night at Turin,’ said Caroline Spalding, the elder.
‘And we shall have to start at ten to get through to Florence tomorrow,’ said Olivia, the younger. ‘Isn’t it cruel, wasting all this time when we might be in bed?’
‘It is not for me to complain of the cruelty,’ said Mr Glascock.
‘We should have fared infinitely worse if we hadn’t met you,’ said Caroline Spalding.
‘But our republican simplicity won’t allow us to assert that even your society is better than going to bed, after a journey of thirty hours,’ said Olivia.
In the meantime Trevelyan was roaming about the station moodily by himself, and the place is one not apt to restore cheerfulness to a moody man by any resources of its own. When the time for departure came Mr Glascock sought him and found him; but Trevelyan had chosen a corner for himself in a carriage, and declared that he would rather avoid the ladies for the present. ‘Don’t think me uncivil to leave you,’ he said, ‘but the truth is, I don’t like American ladies.’
‘I do rather,’ said Mr Glascock.
‘You can say that I’ve got a headache,’ said Trevelyan. So Mr Glascock returned to his friends, and did say that Mr Trevelyan had a headache. It was the first time that a name had been mentioned between them.
‘Mr Trevelyan! What a pretty name. It sounds like a novel,’ said Olivia.
‘A very clever man,’ said Mr Glascock, ‘and much liked by his own circle. But he has had trouble, and is unhappy.’
‘He looks unhappy,’ said Caroline.
‘The most miserable looking man I ever saw in my life,’ said Olivia. Then it was agreed between them as they went up to Trompetta’s hotel, that they would go on together by the ten o’clock train to Florence.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14