The March Family Trilogy

Author: William Dean Howells


Burnamy, it seemed, had taken passage on the Norumbia because he found, when he arrived in New York the day before, that she was the first boat out. His train was so much behind time that when he reached the office of the Hanseatic League it was nominally shut, but he pushed in by sufferance of the janitor, and found a berth, which had just been given up, in one of the saloon-deck rooms. It was that or nothing; and he felt rich enough to pay for it himself if the Bird of Prey, who had cabled him to come out to Carlsbad as his secretary, would not stand the difference between the price and that of the lower-deck six-in-a-room berth which he would have taken if he had been allowed a choice.

With the three hundred dollars he had got for his book, less the price of his passage, changed into German bank-notes and gold pieces, and safely buttoned in the breast pocket of his waistcoat, he felt as safe from pillage as from poverty when he came out from buying his ticket; he covertly pressed his arm against his breast from time to time, for the joy of feeling his money there and not from any fear of finding it gone. He wanted to sing, he wanted to dance; he could not believe it was he, as he rode up the lonely length of Broadway in the cable-car, between the wild, irregular walls of the canyon which the cable-cars have all to themselves at the end of a summer afternoon.

He went and dined, and he thought he dined well, at a Spanish-American restaurant, for fifty cents, with a half-bottle of California claret included. When he came back to Broadway he was aware that it was stiflingly hot in the pinkish twilight, but he took a cable-car again in lack of other pastime, and the motion served the purpose of a breeze, which he made the most of by keeping his hat off. It did not really matter to him whether it was hot or cool; he was imparadised in weather which had nothing to do with the temperature. Partly because he was born to such weather, in the gayety of soul which amused some people with him, and partly because the world was behaving as he had always expected, he was opulently content with the present moment. But he thought very tolerantly of the future, and he confirmed himself in the decision he had already made, to stick to Chicago when he came back to America. New York was very well, and he had no sentiment about Chicago; but he had got a foothold there; he had done better with an Eastern publisher, he believed, by hailing from the West, and he did not believe it would hurt him with the Eastern public to keep on hailing from the West.

He was glad of a chance to see Europe, but he did not mean to come home so dazzled as to see nothing else against the American sky. He fancied, for he really knew nothing, that it was the light of Europe, not its glare that he wanted, and he wanted it chiefly on his material, so as to see it more and more objectively. It was his power of detachment from this that had enabled him to do his sketches in the paper with such charm as to lure a cash proposition from a publisher when he put them together for a book, but he believed that his business faculty had much to do with his success; and he was as proud of that as of the book itself. Perhaps he was not so very proud of the book; he was at least not vain of it; he could, detach himself from his art as well as his material.

Like all literary temperaments he was of a certain hardness, in spite of the susceptibilities that could be used to give coloring to his work. He knew this well enough, but he believed that there were depths of unprofessional tenderness in his nature. He was good to his mother, and he sent her money, and wrote to her in the little Indiana town where he had left her when he came to Chicago. After he got that invitation from the Bird of Prey, he explored his heart for some affection that he had not felt for him before, and he found a wish that his employer should not know it was he who had invented that nickname for him. He promptly avowed this in the newspaper office which formed one of the eyries of the Bird of Prey, and made the fellows promise not to give him away. He failed to move their imagination when he brought up as a reason for softening toward him that he was from Burnamy’s own part of Indiana, and was a benefactor of Tippecanoe University, from which Burnamy was graduated. But they, relished the cynicism of his attempt; and they were glad of his good luck, which he was getting square and not rhomboid, as most people seem to get their luck. They liked him, and some of them liked him for his clean young life as well as for his cleverness. His life was known to be as clean as a girl’s, and he looked like a girl with his sweet eyes, though he had rather more chin than most girls.

The conductor came to reverse his seat, and Burnamy told him he guessed he would ride back with him as far as the cars to the Hoboken Ferry, if the conductor would put him off at the right place. It was nearly nine o’clock, and he thought he might as well be going over to the ship, where he had decided to pass the night. After he found her, and went on board, he was glad he had not gone sooner. A queasy odor of drainage stole up from the waters of the dock, and mixed with the rank, gross sweetness of the bags of beet-root sugar from the freight-steamers; there was a coming and going of carts and trucks on the wharf, and on the ship a rattling of chains and a clucking of pulleys, with sudden outbreaks and then sudden silences of trampling sea-boots. Burnamy looked into the dining-saloon and the music-room, with the notion of trying for some naps there; then he went to his state-room. His room-mate, whoever he was to be, had not come; and he kicked off his shoes and threw off his coat and tumbled into his berth.

He meant to rest awhile, and then get up and spend the night in receiving impressions. He could not think of any one who had done the facts of the eve of sailing on an Atlantic liner. He thought he would use the material first in a letter to the paper and afterwards in a poem; but he found himself unable to grasp the notion of its essential relation to the choice between chicken croquettes and sweetbreads as entrees of the restaurant dinner where he had been offered neither; he knew that he had begun to dream, and that he must get up. He was just going to get up, when he woke to a sense of freshness in the air, penetrating from the new day outside. He looked at his watch and found it was quarter past six; he glanced round the state-room and saw that he had passed the night alone in it. Then he splashed himself hastily at the basin next his berth, and jumped into his clothes, and went on deck, anxious to lose no feature or emotion of the ship’s departure.

When she was fairly off he returned to his room to change the thick coat he had put on at the instigation of the early morning air. His room-mate was still absent, but he was now represented by his state-room baggage, and Burnamy tried to infer him from it. He perceived a social quality in his dress-coat case, capacious gladstone, hat-box, rug, umbrella, and sole-leather steamer trunk which he could not attribute to his own equipment. The things were not so new as his; they had an effect of polite experience, with a foreign registry and customs label on them here and there. They had been chosen with both taste and knowledge, and Burnamy would have said that they were certainly English things, if it had not been for the initials U. S. A. which followed the name of E. B. Triscoe on the end of the steamer trunk showing itself under the foot of the lower berth.

The lower berth had fallen to Burnamy through the default of the passenger whose ticket he had got at the last hour; the clerk in the steamer office had been careful to impress him with this advantage, and he now imagined a trespass on his property. But he reassured himself by a glance at his ticket, and went out to watch the ship’s passage down the stream and through the Narrows. After breakfast he came to his room again, to see what could be done from his valise to make him look better in the eyes of a girl whom he had seen across the table; of course he professed a much more general purpose. He blamed himself for not having got at least a pair of the white tennis-shoes which so many of the passengers were wearing; his russet shoes had turned shabby on his feet; but there was a, pair of enamelled leather boots in his bag which he thought might do.

His room was in the group of cabins on the upper deck; he had already missed his way to it once by mistaking the corridor which it opened into; and he was not sure that he was not blundering again when he peered down the narrow passage where he supposed it was. A lady was standing at an open state-room door, resting her hands against the jambs and leaning forward with her head within and talking to some one there. Before he could draw back and try another corridor he heard her say: "Perhaps he’s some young man, and wouldn’t care.

Burnamy could not make out the answer that came from within. The lady spoke again in a tone of reluctant assent, "No, I don’t suppose you could; but if he understood, perhaps he would offer."

She drew her head out of the room, stepping back a pace, and lingering a moment at the threshold. She looked round over her shoulder and discovered Burnamy, where he stood hesitating at the head of the passage. She ebbed before him, and then flowed round him in her instant escape; with some murmured incoherencies about speaking to her father, she vanished in a corridor on the other side of the ship, while he stood staring into the doorway of his room.

He had seen that she was the young lady for whom he had come to put on his enamelled shoes, and he saw that the person within was the elderly gentleman who had sat next her at breakfast. He begged his pardon, as he entered, and said he hoped he should not disturb him. "I’m afraid I left my things all over the place, when I got up this morning."

The other entreated him not to mention it and went on taking from his hand-bag a variety of toilet appliances which the sight of made Burnamy vow to keep his own simple combs and brushes shut in his valise all the way over. "You slept on board, then," he suggested, arresting himself with a pair of low shoes in his hand; he decided to put them in a certain pocket of his steamer bag.

"Oh, yes," Burnamy laughed, nervously: "I came near oversleeping, and getting off to sea without knowing it; and I rushed out to save myself, and so—"

He began to gather up his belongings while he followed the movements of Mr. Triscoe with a wistful eye. He would have liked to offer his lower berth to this senior of his, when he saw him arranging to take possession of the upper; but he did not quite know how to manage it. He noticed that as the other moved about he limped slightly, unless it were rather a weary easing of his person from one limb to the other. He stooped to pull his trunk out from under the berth, and Burnamy sprang to help him.

"Let me get that out for you!" He caught it up and put it on the sofa under the port. "Is that where you want it?"

"Why, yes," the other assented. "You’re very good," and as he took out his key to unlock the trunk he relented a little farther to the intimacies of the situation. "Have you arranged with the bath-steward yet? It’s such a full boat."

"No, I haven’t," said Burnamy, as if he had tried and failed; till then he had not known that there was a bath-steward. "Shall I get him for you?"

"No; no. Our bedroom-steward will send him, I dare say, thank you."

Mr. Triscoe had got his trunk open, and Burnamy had no longer an excuse for lingering. In his defeat concerning the bath-steward, as he felt it to be, he had not the courage, now, to offer the lower berth. He went away, forgetting to change his shoes; but he came back, and as soon as he got the enamelled shoes on, and shut the shabby russet pair in his bag, he said, abruptly: "Mr. Triscoe, I wish you’d take the lower berth. I got it at the eleventh hour by some fellow’s giving it up, and it isn’t as if I’d bargained for it a month ago."

The elder man gave him one of his staccato glances in which Burnamy fancied suspicion and even resentment. But he said, after the moment of reflection which he gave himself, "Why, thank you, if you don’t mind, really."

"Not at all!" cried the young man. "I should like the upper berth better. We’ll, have the steward change the sheets."

"Oh, I’ll see that he does that," said Mr. Triscoe. "I couldn’t allow you to take any trouble about it." He now looked as if he wished Burnamy would go, and leave him to his domestic arrangements.


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Chicago: William Dean Howells, "IX.," The March Family Trilogy, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in The March Family Trilogy (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909), Original Sources, accessed August 9, 2022,

MLA: Howells, William Dean. "IX." The March Family Trilogy, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in The March Family Trilogy, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909, Original Sources. 9 Aug. 2022.

Harvard: Howells, WD, 'IX.' in The March Family Trilogy, ed. . cited in 1909, The March Family Trilogy, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 9 August 2022, from