Read CHAPTER VII of Their Silver Wedding Journey‚ Part I., free online book, by William Dean Howells, on ReadCentral.com.

In one of the many visits to the steamship office which his wife’s anxieties obliged him to make, March had discussed the question of seats in the dining-saloon.  At first he had his ambition for the captain’s table, but they convinced him more easily than he afterwards convinced Mrs. March that the captain’s table had become a superstition of the past, and conferred no special honor.  It proved in the event that the captain of the Norumbia had the good feeling to dine in a lower saloon among the passengers who paid least for their rooms.  But while the Marches were still in their ignorance of this, they decided to get what adventure they could out of letting the head steward put them where he liked, and they came in to breakfast with a careless curiosity to see what he had done for them.

There seemed scarcely a vacant place in the huge saloon; through the oval openings in the centre they looked down into the lower saloon and up into the music-room, as thickly thronged with breakfasters.  The tables were brightened with the bouquets and the floral designs of ships, anchors, harps, and doves sent to the lady passengers, and at one time the Marches thought they were going to be put before a steam-yacht realized to the last detail in blue and white violets.  The ports of the saloon were open, and showed the level sea; the ship rode with no motion except the tremor from her screws.  The sound of talking and laughing rose with the clatter of knives and forks and the clash of crockery; the homely smell of the coffee and steak and fish mixed with the spice of the roses and carnations; the stewards ran hither and thither, and a young foolish joy of travel welled up in the elderly hearts of the pair.  When the head steward turned out the swivel-chairs where they were to sit they both made an inclination toward the people already at table, as if it had been a company at some far-forgotten table d’hote in the later sixties.  The head steward seemed to understand as well as speak English, but the table-stewards had only an effect of English, which they eked out with “Bleace!” for all occasions of inquiry, apology, or reassurance, as the equivalent of their native “Bitte!” Otherwise there was no reason to suppose that they did not speak German, which was the language of a good half of the passengers.  The stewards looked English, however, in conformity to what seems the ideal of every kind of foreign seafaring people, and that went a good way toward making them intelligible.

March, to whom his wife mainly left their obeisance, made it so tentative that if it should meet no response he could feel that it had been nothing more than a forward stoop, such as was natural in sitting down.  He need not really have taken this precaution; those whose eyes he caught more or less nodded in return.

A nice-looking boy of thirteen or fourteen, who had the place on the left of the lady in the sofa seat under the port, bowed with almost magisterial gravity, and made the lady on the sofa smile, as if she were his mother and understood him.  March decided that she had been some time a widow; and he easily divined that the young couple on her right had been so little time husband and wife that they would rather not have it known.  Next them was a young lady whom he did not at first think so good-looking as she proved later to be, though she had at once a pretty nose, with a slight upward slant at the point, long eyes under fallen lashes, a straight forehead, not too high, and a mouth which perhaps the exigencies of breakfasting did not allow all its characteristic charm.  She had what Mrs. March thought interesting hair, of a dull black, roughly rolled away from her forehead and temples in a fashion not particularly becoming to her, and she had the air of not looking so well as she might if she had chosen.  The elderly man on her right, it was easy to see, was her father; they had a family likeness, though his fair hair, now ashen with age, was so different from hers.  He wore his beard cut in the fashion of the Second Empire, with a Louis Napoleonic mustache, imperial, and chin tuft; his neat head was cropt close; and there was something Gallic in its effect and something remotely military:  he had blue eyes, really less severe than he meant, though be frowned a good deal, and managed them with glances of a staccato quickness, as if challenging a potential disagreement with his opinions.

The gentleman on his right, who sat at the head of the table, was of the humorous, subironical American expression, and a smile at the corner of his kindly mouth, under an iron-gray full beard cut short, at once questioned and tolerated the new-comers as he glanced at them.  He responded to March’s bow almost as decidedly as the nice boy, whose mother he confronted at the other end of the table, and with his comely bulk formed an interesting contrast to her vivid slightness.  She was brilliantly dark, behind the gleam of the gold-rimmed glasses perched on her pretty nose.

If the talk had been general before the Marches came, it did not at once renew itself in that form.  Nothing was said while they were having their first struggle with the table-stewards, who repeated the order as if to show how fully they had misunderstood it.  The gentleman at the head of the table intervened at last, and then, “I’m obliged to you,” March said, for your German.  I left mine in a phrase-book in my other coat pocket.”

“Oh, I wasn’t speaking German,” said the other.  “It was merely their kind of English.”

The company were in the excitement of a novel situation which disposes people to acquaintance, and this exchange of small pleasantries made every one laugh, except the father and daughter; but they had the effect of being tacitly amused.

The mother of the nice boy said to Mrs. March, “You may not get what you ordered, but it will be good.”

“Even if you don’t know what it is!” said the young bride, and then blushed, as if she had been too bold.

Mrs. March liked the blush and the young bride for it, and she asked, “Have you ever been on one of these German boats before?  They seem very comfortable.”

“Oh, dear, no! we’ve never been on any boat before.”  She made a little petted mouth of deprecation, and added, simple-heartedly, “My husband was going out on business, and he thought he might as well take me along.”

The husband seemed to feel himself brought in by this, and said he did not see why they should not make it a pleasure-trip, too.  They put themselves in a position to be patronized by their deference, and in the pauses of his talk with the gentleman at the head of the table, March heard his wife abusing their inexperience to be unsparingly instructive about European travel.  He wondered whether she would be afraid to own that it was nearly thirty years since she had crossed the ocean; though that might seem recent to people who had never crossed at all.

They listened with respect as she boasted in what an anguish of wisdom she had decided between the Colmannia and the Norumbia.  The wife said she did not know there was such a difference in steamers, but when Mrs. March perfervidly assured her that there was all the difference in the world, she submitted and said she supposed she ought to be thankful that they, had hit upon the right one.  They had telegraphed for berths and taken what was given them; their room seemed to be very nice.

“Oh,” said Mrs. March, and her husband knew that she was saying it to reconcile them to the inevitable, “all the rooms on the Norumbia are nice.  The only difference is that if they are on the south side you have the sun.”

“I’m not sure which is the south side,” said the bride.  “We seem to have been going west ever since we started, and I feel as if we should reach home in the morning if we had a good night.  Is the ocean always so smooth as this?”

“Oh, dear, no!” said Mrs. March.  “It’s never so smooth as this,” and she began to be outrageously authoritative about the ocean weather.  She ended by declaring that the June passages were always good, and that if the ship kept a southerly course they would have no fogs and no icebergs.  She looked round, and caught her husband’s eye.  “What is it?  Have I been bragging?  Well, you understand,” she added to the bride, “I’ve only been over once, a great while ago, and I don’t really know anything about it,” and they laughed together.  “But I talked so much with people after we decided to go, that I feel as if I had been a hundred times.”

“I know,” said the other lady, with caressing intelligence.  “That is just the way with ­” She stopped, and looked at the young man whom the head steward was bringing up to take the vacant place next to March.  He came forward, stuffing his cap into the pocket of his blue serge sack, and smiled down on the company with such happiness in his gay eyes that March wondered what chance at this late day could have given any human creature his content so absolute, and what calamity could be lurking round the corner to take it out of him.  The new-comer looked at March as if he knew him, and March saw at a second glance that he was the young fellow who had told him about the mother put off after the start.  He asked him whether there was any change in the weather yet outside, and he answered eagerly, as if the chance to put his happiness into the mere sound of words were a favor done him, that their ship had just spoken one of the big Hanseatic mailboats, and she had signalled back that she had met ice; so that they would probably keep a southerly course, and not have it cooler till they were off the Banks.

The mother of the boy said, “I thought we must be off the Banks when I came out of my room, but it was only the electric fan at the foot of the stairs.”

“That was what I thought,” said Mrs. March.  “I almost sent my husband back for my shawl!” Both the ladies laughed and liked each other for their common experience.

The gentleman at the head of the table said, “They ought to have fans going there by that pillar, or else close the ports.  They only let in heat.”

They easily conformed to the American convention of jocosity in their talk; it perhaps no more represents the individual mood than the convention of dulness among other people; but it seemed to make the young man feel at home.

“Why, do you think it’s uncomfortably warm?” he asked, from what March perceived to be a meteorology of his own.  He laughed and added, “It is pretty summerlike,” as if he had not thought of it before.  He talked of the big mail-boat, and said he would like to cross on such a boat as that, and then he glanced at the possible advantage of having your own steam-yacht like the one which he said they had just passed, so near that you could see what a good time the people were having on board.  He began to speak to the Marches; his talk spread to the young couple across the table; it visited the mother on the sofa in a remark which she might ignore without apparent rejection, and without really avoiding the boy, it glanced off toward the father and daughter, from whom it fell, to rest with the gentleman at the head of the table.

It was not that the father and daughter had slighted his overture, if it was so much as that, but that they were tacitly preoccupied, or were of some philosophy concerning their fellow-breakfasters which did not suffer them, for the present, at least, to share in the common friendliness.  This is an attitude sometimes produced in people by a sense of just, or even unjust, superiority; sometimes by serious trouble; sometimes by transient annoyance.  The cause was not so deep-seated but Mrs. March, before she rose from her place, believed that she had detected a slant of the young lady’s eyes, from under her lashes, toward the young man; and she leaped to a conclusion concerning them in a matter where all logical steps are impertinent.  She did not announce her arrival at this point till the young man had overtaken her before she got out of the saloon, and presented the handkerchief she had dropped under the table.

He went away with her thanks, and then she said to her husband, “Well, he’s perfectly charming, and I don’t wonder she’s taken with him; that kind of cold girl would be, though I’m not sure that she is cold.  She’s interesting, and you could see that he thought so, the more he looked at her; I could see him looking at her from the very first instant; he couldn’t keep his eyes off her; she piqued his curiosity, and made him wonder about her.”

“Now, look here, Isabel!  This won’t do.  I can stand a good deal, but I sat between you and that young fellow, and you couldn’t tell whether he was looking at that girl or not.”

“I could!  I could tell by the expression of her face.”

“Oh, well!  If it’s gone as far as that with you, I give it up.  When are you going to have them married?”

“Nonsense!  I want you to find out who all those people are.  How are you going to do it?”

“Perhaps the passenger list will say,” he suggested.