City and Country in the Fall, A Long-distance Eclogue


William Dean Howells published this dialog in The Daughter of the Storage and Other Things in Prose and Verse in 1916. An amusing phone conversation between Morrison (country) and Whetherbee (city) before the holidays in 1902.

Morrison. Hello! Hello! Is that you, Wetherbee?

Wetherbee. Yes. Who are you? What do you want with me?

Morrison. Oh, nothing much. It's Morrison, you know;
Morrison—down at Clamhurst Shortsands.

Wetherbee. Oh!
Why, Morrison, of course! Of course, I know!
How are you, Morrison? And, by the way,
Where are you? What! You never mean to say
You are down there yet? Well, by the Holy Poker!
What are you doing there, you ancient joker?

Morrison. Sticking it out over Thanksgiving Day.
I said I would. I tell you, it is gay
Down here. You ought to see the Hunter's Moon,
These silver nights, prinking in our lagoon.
You ought to see our sunsets, glassy red,
Shading to pink and violet overhead.
You ought to see our mornings, still and clear,
White silence, far as you can look and hear.
You ought to see the leaves—our oaks and ashes
Crimson and yellow, with those gorgeous splashes,
Purple and orange, against the bluish green
Of the pine woods; and scattered in between
The scarlet of the maples; and the blaze
Of blackberry-vines, along the dusty ways
And on the old stone walls; the air just balm,
And the crows cawing through the perfect calm
Of afternoons all gold and turquoise. Say,
You ought to have been with wife and me to-day,
A drive we took—it would have made you sick:
The pigeons and the partridges so thick;
And on the hill just beyond Barkin's lane,
Before you reach the barn of Widow Payne,
Showing right up against the sky, as clear
And motionless as sculpture, stood a deer!
Say, does that jar you just a little? Say,
How have you found things up there, anyway,
Since you got back? Air like a cotton string
To breathe? The same old dust on everything,
And in your teeth, and in your eyes? The smoke
From the soft coal, got long beyond a joke? 
The trolleys rather more upon your curves,
And all the roar and clatter in your nerves?
Don't you wish you had stayed here, too?

Wetherbee. Well, yes,
I do at certain times, I must confess.
I swear it is enough at times to make you swear
You would almost rather be anywhere
Than here. The building up and pulling down,
The getting to and fro about the town,
The turmoil underfoot and overhead,
Certainly make you wish that you were dead,
At first; and all the mean vulgarity
Of city life, the filth and misery
You see around you, make you want to put
Back to the country anywhere, hot-foot.
Yet—there are compensations.

Morrison. Such as?

Wetherbee. Why,
There is the club.

Morrison. The club I can't deny.
Many o' the fellows back there?

Wetherbee. Nearly all.
Over the twilight cocktails there are tall
Stories and talk. But you would hardly care;
You have the natives to talk with down there,
And always find them meaty.

Morrison. Well, so-so.
Their words outlast their ideas at times, you know,
And they have staying powers. The theaters
All open now?

Wetherbee. Yes, all. And it occurs
To me: there's one among the things that you
Would have enjoyed; an opera with the new—
Or at least the last—music by Sullivan,
And words, though not Gilbertian, that ran
Trippingly with it. Oh, I tell you what,
I'd rather that you had been there than not.

Morrison. Thanks ever so!

Wetherbee. Oh, there is nothing mean
About your early friend. That deer and autumn scene
Were kind of you! And, say, I think you like
Afternoon teas when good. I have chanced to strike
Some of the best of late, where people said
They had sent you cards, but thought you must be dead.
I told them I left you down there by the sea,
And then they sort of looked askance at me,
As if it were a joke, and bade me get
Myself some bouillon or some chocolate,
And turned the subject—did not even give
Me time to prove it is not life to live
In town as long as you can keep from freezing
Beside the autumn sea. A little sneezing,
At Clamhurst Shortsands, since the frosts set in?

Morrison. Well, not enough to make a true friend grin.
Slight colds, mere nothings. With our open fires
We've all the warmth and cheer that heart desires.
Next year we'll have a furnace in, and stay
Not till Thanksgiving, but till Christmas Day.
It's glorious in these roomy autumn nights
To sit between the firelight and the lights
Of our big lamps, and read aloud by turns
As long as kerosene or hickory burns.
We hate to go to bed.

Wetherbee. Of course you do!
And hate to get up in the morning, too—
To pull the coverlet from your frost-bit nose,
And touch the glary matting with your toes!
Are you beginning yet to break the ice
In your wash-pitchers? No? Well, that is nice.
I always hate to do it—seems as if
Summer was going; but when your hand is stiff
With cold, it can be done. Still, I prefer
To wash and dress beside my register,
When summer gets a little on, like this.
But some folks find the other thing pure bliss—
Lusty young chaps, like you.

Morrison. And some folks find
A sizzling radiator to their mind.
What else have you, there, you could recommend
To the attention of a country friend?

Wetherbee. Well, you know how it is in Madison Square,
Late afternoons, now, if the day's been fair—
How all the western sidewalk ebbs and flows
With pretty women in their pretty clo'es:
I've never seen them prettier than this year.
Of course, I know a dear is not a deer,
But still, I think that if I had to meet
One or the other in the road, or street,
All by myself, I am not sure but that
I'd choose the dear that wears the fetching hat.

Morrison. Get out! What else?

Wetherbee. Well, it is not so bad,
If you are feeling a little down, or sad,
To walk along Fifth Avenue to the Park,
When the day thinks perhaps of getting dark,
And meet that mighty flood of vehicles
Laden with all the different kinds of swells,
Homing to dinner, in their carriages—
Victorias, landaus, chariots, coupés—
There's nothing like it to lift up the heart
And make you realize yourself a part,
Sure, of the greatest show on earth.

Morrison. Oh, yes,
I know. I've felt that rapture more or less.
But I would rather put it off as long
As possible. I suppose you like the song
Of the sweet car-gongs better than the cry
Of jays and yellowhammers when the sky
Begins to redden these October mornings,
And the loons sound their melancholy warnings;
Or honk of the wild-geese that write their A
Along the horizon in the evening's gray.
Or when the squirrels look down on you and bark
From the nut trees—

Wetherbee. We have them in the Park
Plenty enough. But, say, you aged sinner,
Have you been out much recently at dinner?

Morrison. What do you mean? You know there's no one here
That dines except ourselves now.

Wetherbee. Well, that's queer!
I thought the natives— But I recollect!
It was not reasonable to expect—

Morrison. What are you driving at?

Wetherbee. Oh, nothing much.
But I was thinking how you come in touch
With life at the first dinner in the fall,
When you get back, first, as you can't at all
Later along. But you, of course, won't care
With your idyllic pleasures.

Morrison. Who was there?

Wetherbee. Oh—ha, ha! What d'you mean by there?

Morrison. Come off!

Wetherbee. What! you remain to pray that came to scoff!

Morrison. You know what I am after.

Wetherbee. Yes, that dinner.
Just a round dozen: Ferguson and Binner
For the fine arts; Bowyer the novelist;
Dr. Le Martin; the psychologist
Fletcher; the English actor Philipson;
The two newspaper Witkins, Bob and John;
A nice Bostonian, Bane the archæologer,
And a queer Russian amateur astrologer;
And Father Gray, the jolly ritualist priest,
And last your humble servant, but not least.
The food was not so filthy, and the wine
Was not so poison. We made out to dine
From eight till one A.M. One could endure
The dinner. But, oh say! The talk was poor!
Your natives down at Clamhurst—

Morrison. Look ye here!
What date does Thanksgiving come on this year?

Wetherbee. Why, I suppose—although I don't remember
Certainly—the usual 28th November.

Morrison. Novem—You should have waited to get sober!
It comes on the 11th of October!
And that's to-morrow; and if you happen down
Later, you'd better look for us in town.


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