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Chapter 13

The witnesses of Mavering's successful efforts to make everybody like him were interested in his differentiation of the attentions he offered every age and sex from those he paid Alice. But while they all agreed that there never was a sweeter fellow, they would have been puzzled to say in just what this difference consisted, and much as they liked him, the ladies of her cult were not quite satisfied with him till they decided that it was marked by an anxiety, a timidity, which was perfectly fascinating in a man so far from bashfulness as he. That is, he did nice things for others without asking; but with her there was always an explicit pause, and an implicit prayer and permission, first. Upon this condition they consented to the glamour which he had for her, and which was evident to every one probably but him.

Once agreeing that no one was good enough for Alice Pasmer, whose qualities they felt that only women could really appreciate, they were interested to see how near Mavering could come to being good enough; and as the drama played itself before their eyes, they pleased themselves in analysing its hero.

"He is not bashful, certainly," said one of a little group who sat midway of the piazza while Alice and Mavering walked up and down together. "But don't you think he's modest? There's that difference, you know."

The lady addressed waited so long before answering that the young couple came abreast of the group, and then she had to wait till they were out of hearing. "Yes," she said then, with a tender, sighing thoughtfulness, "I've felt that in him. And really think he is a very loveable nature. The only question would be whether he wasn't too loveable."

"Yes," said the first lady, with the same kind of suspiration, "I know what you mean. And I suppose they ought to be something more alike in disposition."

"Or sympathies?" suggested the other.

"Yes, or sympathies."

A third lady laughed a little. "Mr. Mavering has so many sympathies that he ought to be like her in some of them."

"Do you mean that he's too sympathetic—that he isn't sincere?" asked the first—a single lady of forty-nine, a Miss Cotton, who had a little knot of conscience between her pretty eyebrows, tied there by the unremitting effort of half a century to do and say exactly the truth, and to find it out.

Mrs. Brinkley, whom she addressed, was of that obesity which seems often to incline people to sarcasm. "No, I don't think he's insincere. I think he always means what he says and does—Well, do you think a little more concentration of good-will would hurt him for Miss Pasmer's purpose—if she has it?"

"Yes, I see," said Miss Cotton. She waited, with her kind eyes fixed wistfully upon Alice, for the young people to approach and get by. "I wonder what the men think of him?"

"You might ask Miss Anderson," said Mrs. Brinkley.

"Oh, do you think they tell her?"

"Not that exactly," said Mrs. Brinkley, shaking with good-humoured pleasure in her joke.

"Her voice—oh yes. She and Alice are great friends, of course."

"I should think," said Mrs. Stamwell, the second speaker, "that Mr. Mavering would be jealous sometimes—till he looked twice."

"Yes," said Miss Cotton, obliged to admit the force of the remark, but feeling that Mr. Mavering had been carried out of the field of her vision by the turn of the talk. "I suppose," she continued, "that he wouldn't be so well liked by other young men as she is by other girls, do you think?"

"I don't think, as a rule," said Mrs. Brinkley, "that men are half so appreciative of one another as women are. It's most amusing to see the open scorn with which two young fellows treat each other if a pretty girl introduces them."

All the ladies joined in the laugh with which Mrs. Brinkley herself led off. But Miss Cotton stopped laughing first.

"Do you mean,", she asked, "that if a gentleman were generally popular with gentlemen it would be—"

"Because he wasn't generally so with women? Something like that—if you'll leave Mr. Mavering out of the question. Oh, how very good of them!" she broke off, and all the ladies glanced at Mavering and Alice where they had stopped at the further end of the piazza, and were looking off. "Now I can probably finish before they get back here again. What I do mean, Miss Cotton, is that neither sex willingly accepts the favourites of the other."

"Yes," said Miss Cotton admissively.

"And all that saves Miss Pasmer is that she has not only the qualities that women like in women, but some of the qualities that men, like in them. She's thoroughly human."

A little sensation, almost a murmur, not wholly of assent, went round that circle which had so nearly voted Alice a saint.

"In the first place, she likes to please men."

"Oh!" came from the group.

"And that makes them like her—if it doesn't go too far, as her mother says."

The ladies all laughed, recognising a common turn of phrase in Mrs. Pasmer.

"I should think," said Mrs. Stamwell, "that she would believe a little in heredity if she noticed that in her daughter;" and the ladies laughed again.

"Then," Mrs. Brinkley resumed concerning Alice, "she has a very pretty face—an extremely pretty face; she has a tender voice, and she's very, very graceful—in rather an odd way; perhaps it's only a fascinating awkwardness. Then she dresses—or her mother dresses her—exquisitely." The ladies, with another sensation, admitted the perfect accuracy with which these points had been touched.

"That's what men like, what they fall in love with, what Mr. Mavering's in love with this instant. It's no use women's flattering themselves that they don't, for they do. The rest of the virtues and graces and charms are for women. If that serious girl could only know the silly things that that amiable simpleton is taken with in her, she'd—"

"Never speak to him again?" suggested Miss Cotton.

"No, I don't say that. But she would think twice before marrying him."

"And then do it," said Mrs. Stamwell pensively, with eyes that seemed looking far into the past.

"Yes, and quite right to do it," said Mrs. Brinkley. "I don't know that we should be very proud ourselves if we confessed just what caught our fancy in our husbands. For my part I shouldn't like to say how much a light hat that Mr. Brinkley happened to be wearing had to do with the matter."

The ladies broke into another laugh, and then checked themselves, so that Mrs. Pasmer, coming out of the corridor upon them, naturally thought they were laughing at her. She reflected that if she had been in their place she would have shown greater tact by not stopping just at that instant.

But she did not mind. She knew that they talked her over, but having a very good conscience, she simply talked them over in return. "Have you seen my daughter within a few minutes?" she asked.

"She was with Mr. Mavering at the end of the piazza a moment ago," said Mrs. Brinkley. "They must leave just gone round the corner of the building."

"Oh," said Mrs. Pasmer. She had a novel, with her finger between its leaves, pressed against her heart, after the manner of ladies coming out on hotel piazzas. She sat down and rested it on her knee, with her hand over the top.

Miss Cotton bent forward, and Mrs. Pasmer lifted her fingers to let her see the name of the book.

"Oh yes," said Miss Cotton. "But he's so terribly pessimistic, don't you think?"

"What is it?" asked Mrs. Brinkley.

"Fumee," said Mrs. Pasmer, laying the book title upward on her lap for every one to see.

"Oh yes," said Mrs. Brinkley, fanning herself. "Tourguenief. That man gave me the worst quarter of an hour with his 'Lisa' that I ever had."

"That's the same as the 'Nichee des Gentilshommes', isn't it?" asked Mrs. Pasmer, with the involuntary superiority of a woman who reads her Tourguenief in French.

"I don't know. I had it in English. I don't build my ships to cross the sea in, as Emerson says; I take those I find built."

"Ah! I was already on the other side," said Mrs. Pasmer softly. She added: "I must get Lisa. I like a good heart-break; don't you? If that's what gave you the bad moment."

"Heart-break? Heart-crush! Where Lavretsky comes back old to the scene of his love for Lisa, and strikes that chord on the piano—well, I simply wonder that I'm alive to recommend the book to you.

"Do you know," said Miss Cotton, very deferentially, "that your daughter always made me think of Lisa?"

"Indeed!" cried Mrs. Pasmer, not wholly pleased, but gratified that she was able to hide her displeasure. "You make me very curious."

"Oh, I doubt if you'll see more than a mere likeness of temperament," Mrs. Brinkley interfered bluntly. "All the conditions are so different. There couldn't be an American Lisa. That's the charm of these Russian tragedies. You feel that they're so perfectly true there, and so perfectly impossible here. Lavretsky would simply have got himself divorced from Varvara Pavlovna, and no clergyman could have objected to marrying him to Lisa."

"That's what I mean by his pessimism," said Miss Cotton. "He leaves you no hope. And I think that despair should never be used in a novel except for some good purpose; don't you, Mrs. Brinkley?"

"Well," said Mrs. Brinkley, "I was trying to think what good purpose despair could be put to, in a book or out of it."

"I don't think," said Mrs. Pasmer, referring to the book in her lap, "that he leaves you altogether in despair here, unless you'd rather he'd run off with Irene than married Tatiana."

"Oh, I certainly didn't wish that;" said Miss Cotton, in self-defence, as if the shot had been aimed at her.

"The book ends with a marriage; there's no denying that," said Mrs. Brinkley, with a reserve in her tone which caused Mrs. Pasmer to continue for her—

"And marriage means happiness—in a book."

"I'm not sure that it does in this case. The time would come, after Litvinof had told Tatiana everything, when she would have to ask herself, and not once only, what sort of man it really was who was willing to break his engagement and run off with another man's wife, and whether he could ever repent enough for it. She could make excuses for him, and would, but at the bottom of her heart—No, it seems to me that there, almost for the only time, Tourguenief permitted himself an amiable weakness. All that part of the book has the air of begging the question."

"But don't you see," said Miss Cotton, leaning forward in the way she had when very earnest, "that he means to show that her love is strong enough for all that?"

"But he doesn't, because it isn't. Love isn't strong enough to save people from unhappiness through each other's faults. Do you suppose that so many married people are unhappy in each other because they don't love each other? No; it's because they do love each other that their faults are such a mutual torment. If they were indifferent, they wouldn't mind each other's faults. Perhaps that's the reason why there are so many American divorces; if they didn't care, like Europeans, who don't marry for love, they could stand it."

"Then the moral is," said Mrs. Pasmer, at her lightest through the surrounding gravity, "that as all Americans marry for love, only Americans who have been very good ought to get married."

"I'm not sure that the have-been goodness is enough either," said Mrs. Brinkley, willing to push it to the absurd. "You marry a man's future as well as his past."

"Dear me! You are terribly exigeante, Mrs. Brinkley," said Mrs. Pasmer.

"One can afford to be so—in the abstract," answered Mrs. Brinkley.

They all stopped talking and looked at John Munt, who was coming toward them, and each felt a longing to lay the matter before him.

There was probably not a woman among them but had felt more, read more, and thought more than John Munt, but he was a man, and the mind of a man is the court of final appeal for the wisest women. Till some man has pronounced upon their wisdom, they do not know whether it is wisdom or not.

Munt drew up his chair, and addressed himself to the whole group through Mrs. Pasmer: "We are thinking of getting up a little picnic to-morrow."

William Dean Howells