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Chapter 20

The next morning Alice was walking slowly along the road toward the fishing village, when she heard rapid, plunging strides down the wooded hillside on her right. She knew them for Mavering's, and she did not affect surprise when he made a final leap into the road, and shortened his pace beside her.

"May I join you, Miss Pasmer?"

"I am only going down to the herring-houses," she began.

"And you'll let me go with you?" said the young fellow. "The fact is—you're always so frank that you make everything else seem silly—I've been waiting up there in the woods for you to come by. Mrs. Pasmer told me you had started this way, and I cut across lots to overtake you, and then, when you came in sight, I had to let you pass before I could screw my courage up to the point of running after you. How is that for open-mindedness?"

"It's a very good beginning, I should think."

"Well, don't you think you ought to say now that you're sorry you were so formidable?"

"Am I so formidable?" she asked, and then recognised that she had been trapped into a leading question.

"You are to me. Because I would like always to be sure that I had pleased you, and for the last twelve hours I've only been able to make sure that I hadn't. That's the consolation I'm going away with. I thought I'd get you to confirm my impression explicitly. That's why I wished to join you."

"Are you—were you going away?"

"I'm going by the next boat. What's the use of staying? I should only make bad worse. Yesterday I hoped But last night spoiled everything. 'Miss Pasmer,'" he broke out, with a rush of feeling, "you must know why I came up here to Campobello."

His steps took him a little ahead of her, and he could look back into her face as he spoke. But apparently he saw nothing in it to give him courage to go on, for he stopped, and then continued, lightly: "And I'm going away because I feel that I've made a failure of the expedition. I knew that you were supremely disgusted with me last night; but it will be a sort of comfort if you'll tell me so."

"Oh," said Alice, "everybody thought it was very brilliant, I'm sure."

"And you thought it was a piece of buffoonery. Well, it was. I wish you'd say so, Miss Pasmer; though I didn't mean the playing entirely. It would be something to start from, and I want to make a beginning—turn over a new leaf. Can't you help me to inscribe a good resolution of the most iron-clad description on the stainless page? I've lain awake all night composing one. Wouldn't you like to hear it?"

"I can't see what good that would do," she said, with some relenting toward a smile, in which he instantly prepared himself to bask.

"But you will when I've done it. Now listen!"

"Please don't go on." She cut him short with a return to her severity, which he would not recognise.

"Well, perhaps I'd better not," he consented. "It's rather a long resolution, and I don't know that I've committed it perfectly yet. But I do assure you that if you were disgusted last night, you were not the only one. I was immensely disgusted myself; and why I wanted you to tell me so, was because when I have a strong pressure brought to bear I can brace up, and do almost anything," he said, dropping into earnest. Then he rose lightly again, and added, "You have no idea how unpleasant it is to lie awake all night throwing dust in the eyes of an accusing conscience."

"It must have been, if you didn't succeed," said Alice drily.

"Yes, that's it—that's just the point. If I'd succeeded, I should be all right, don't you see. But it was a difficult case." She turned her face away, but he saw the smile on her cheek, and he laughed as if this were what he had been trying to make her do. "I got beaten. I had to give up, and own it. I had to say that I had thrown my chance away, and I had better take myself off." He looked at her with a real anxiety in his gay eyes.

"The boat goes just after lunch, I believe," she said indifferently.

"Oh yes, I shall have time to get lunch before I go," he said, with bitterness. "But lunch isn't the only thing; it isn't even the main thing, Miss Pasmer."

"No?" She hardened her heart.

He waited for her to say something more, and then he went on. "The question is whether there's time to undo last night, abolish it, erase it from the calendar of recorded time—sponge it out, in short—and get back to yesterday afternoon." She made no reply to this. "Don't you think it was a very pleasant picnic, Miss Pasmer?" he asked, with pensive respectfulness.

"Very," she answered drily.

He cast a glance at the woods that bordered the road on either side. "That weird forest—I shall never forget it."

"No; it was something to remember," she said.

"And the blueberry patch? We mustn't forget the blueberry patch."

"There were a great many blueberries."

She walked on, and he said, "And that bridge—you don't have that feeling of having been here before?"

"No."

"Am I walking too fast for you, Miss Pasmer?"

"No; I like to walk fast."

"But wouldn't you like to sit down? On this wayside log, for example?" He pointed it out with his stick. "It seems to invite repose, and I know you must be tired."

"I'm not tired."

"Ah, that shows that you didn't lie awake grieving over your follies all night. I hope you rested well, Miss Pasmer." She said nothing. "If I thought—if I could hope that you hadn't, it would be a bond of sympathy, and I would give almost anything for a bond of sympathy just now, Miss Pasmer. Alice!" he said, with sudden seriousness. "I know that I'm not worthy even to think of you, and that you're whole worlds above me in every way. It's that that takes all heart out of me, and leaves me without a word to say when I'd like to say so much. I would like to speak—tell you—"

She interrupted him. "I wish to speak to you, Mr. Mavering, and tell you that—I'm very tired, and I'm going back to the hotel. I must ask you to let me go back alone."

"Alice, I love you."

"I'm sorry you said it—sorry, sorry."

"Why?" he asked, with hopeless futility.

"Because there can be no love between us—not friendship even—not acquaintance."

"I shouldn't have asked for your acquaintance, your friendship, if—" His words conveyed a delicate reproach, and they stung her, because they put her in the wrong.

"No matter," she began wildly. "I didn't mean to wound you. But we must part, and we must never see each other again:"

He stood confused, as if he could not make it out or believe it. "But yesterday—"

"It's to-day now."

"Ah, no! It's last night. And I can explain."

"No!" she cried. "You shall not make me out so mean and vindictive. I don't care for last night, nor for anything that happened." This was not true, but it seemed so to her at the moment; she thought that she really no longer resented his association with Miss Anderson and his separation from herself in all that had taken place.

"Then what is it?"

"I can't tell you. But everything is over between us—that's all."

"But yesterday—and all these days past—you seemed—"

"It's unfair of you to insist—it's ungenerous, ungentlemanly."

That word, which from a woman's tongue always strikes a man like a blow in the face, silenced Mavering. He set his lips and bowed, and they parted. She turned upon her way, and he kept the path which she had been going.

It was not the hour when the piazzas were very full, and she slipped into the dim hotel corridor undetected, or at least undetained. She flung into her room, and confronted her mother.

Mrs. Pasmer was there looking into a trunk that had overflowed from her own chamber. "What is the matter?" she said to her daughter's excited face.

"Mr. Mavering—"

"Well?"

"And I refused him."

Mrs. Pasmer was one of those ladies who in any finality have a keen retrovision of all the advantages of a different conclusion. She had been thinking, since she told Dan Mavering which way Alice had gone to walk, that if he were to speak to her now, and she were to accept him, it would involve a great many embarrassing consequences; but she had consoled herself with the probability that he would not speak so soon after the effects of last night, but would only try at the furthest to make his peace with Alice. Since he had spoken, though, and she had refused him, Mrs. Pasmer instantly saw all the pleasant things that would have followed in another event. "Refused him?" she repeated provisionally, while she gathered herself for a full exploration of all the facts.

"Yes, mamma; and I can't talk about it. I wish never to hear his name again, or to see him, or to speak to him."

"Why, of course not," said Mrs. Pasmer, with a fine smile, from the vantage-ground of her superior years, "if you've refused him." She left the trunk which she had been standing over, and sat down, while Alice swept to and fro before her excitedly. "But why did you refuse him, my dear?"

"Why? Because he's detestable—perfectly ignoble."

Her mother probably knew how to translate these exalted expressions into the more accurate language of maturer life. "Do you mean last night?"

"Last night?" cried Alice tragically. "No. Why should I care for last night?"

"Then I don't understand what you mean," retorted Mrs. Pasmer. "What did he say?" she demanded, with authority.

"Mamma, I can't talk about it—I won't."

"But you must, Alice. It's your duty. Of course I must know about it. What did he say?"

Alice walked up and down the room with her lips firmly closed—like Mavering's lips, it occurred to her; and then she opened them, but without speaking.

"What did he say?" persisted her mother, and her persistence had its effect.

"Say?" exclaimed the girl indignantly. "He tried to make me say."

"I see," said Mrs. Pasmer. "Well?"

"But I forced him to speak, and then—I rejected him. That's all."

"Poor fellow!" said Mrs. Pasmer. "He was afraid of you."

"And that's what made it the more odious. Do you think I wished him to be afraid of me? Would that be any pleasure? I should hate myself if I had to quell anybody into being unlike themselves." She sat down for a moment, and then jumped up again, and went to the window, for no reason, and came back.

"Yes," said her mother impartially, "he's light, and he's roundabout. He couldn't come straight at anything."

"And would you have me accept such a—being?"

Mrs. Pasmer smiled a little at the literary word, and continued: "But he's very sweet, and he's as good as the day's long, and he's very fond of you, and—I thought you liked him."

The girl threw up her arms across her eyes. "Oh, how can you say such a thing, mamma?"

She dropped into a chair at the bedside, and let her face fall into her hands, and cried.

Her mother waited for the gust of tears to pass before she said, "But if you feel so about it—"

"Mamma!" Alice sprang to her feet.

"It needn't come from you. I could make some excuse to see him—write him a little note—"

"Never!" exclaimed Alice grandly. "What I've done I've done from my reason, and my feelings have nothing to do with it."

"Oh, very well," said her mother, going out of the room, not wholly disappointed with what she viewed as a respite, and amused by her daughter's tragics. "But if you think that the feelings have nothing to do with such a matter, you're very much mistaken." If she believed that her daughter did not know her real motives in rejecting Dan Mavering, or had not been able to give them, she did not say so.

The little group of Aliceolaters on the piazza, who began to canvass the causes of Mavering's going before the top of his hat disappeared below the bank on the path leading to the ferry-boat, were of two minds. One faction held that he was going because Alice had refused him, and that his gaiety up to the last moment was only a mask to hide his despair. The other side contended that, if he and Alice were not actually engaged, they understood each other, and he was going away because he wanted to tell his family, or something of that kind. Between the two opinions Miss Cotton wavered with a sentimental attraction to either. "What do you really think?" she asked Mrs. Brinkley, arriving from lunch at the corner of the piazza where the group was seated.

"Oh, what does it matter, at their age?" she demanded.

"But they're just of the age when it does happen to matter," suggested Mrs. Stamwell.

"Yes," said Mrs. Brinkley, "and that's what makes the whole thing so perfectly ridiculous. Just think of two children, one of twenty and the other of twenty-three, proposing to decide their lifelong destiny in such a vital matter! Should we trust their judgment in regard to the smallest business affair? Of course not. They're babes in arms, morally and mentally speaking. People haven't the data for being wisely in love till they've reached the age when they haven't the least wish to be so. Oh, I suppose I thought that I was a grown woman too when I was twenty; I can look back and see that I did; and, what's more preposterous still, I thought Mr. Brinkley was a man at twenty-four. But we were no more fit to accept or reject each other at that infantile period—"

"Do you really think so?" asked Miss Cotton, only partially credulous of Mrs. Brinkley's irony.

"Yes, it does seem out of all reason," admitted Mrs. Stamwell.

"Of course it is," said Mrs. Brinkley. "If she has rejected him, she's done a very safe thing. Nobody should be allowed to marry before fifty. Then, if people married, it would be because they knew that they loved each other."

Miss Cotton reflected a moment. "It is strange that such an important question should have to be decided at an age when the judgment is so far from mature. I never happened to look at it in that light before."

"Yes," said Mrs. Brinkley—and she made herself comfortable in an arm chair commanding a stretch of the bay over which the ferry-boat must pass—"but it's only part and parcel of the whole affair. I'm sure that no grown person can see the ridiculous young things—inexperienced, ignorant, featherbrained—that nature intrusts with children, their immortal little souls and their extremely perishable little bodies, without rebelling at the whole system. When you see what most young mothers are, how perfectly unfit and incapable, you wonder that the whole race doesn't teeth and die. Yes, there's one thing I feel pretty sure of—that, as matters are arranged now, there oughtn't to be mothers at all, there ought to be only grandmothers."

The group all laughed, even Miss Cotton, but she was the first to become grave. At the bottom of her heart there was a doubt whether so light a way of treating serious things was not a little wicked.

"Perhaps," she said, "we shall have to go back to the idea that engagements and marriages are not intended to be regulated by the judgment, but by the affections."

"I don't know what's intended," said Mrs. Brinkley, "but I know what is. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the affections have it their own way, and I must say I don't think the judgment could make a greater mess of it. In fact," she continued, perhaps provoked to the excess by the deprecation she saw in Miss Cotton's eye, "I consider every broken engagement nowadays a blessing in disguise."

Miss Cotton said nothing. The other ladies said, "Why, Mrs. Brinkley!"

"Yes. The thing has gone altogether too far. The pendulum has swung in that direction out of all measure. We are married too much. And as a natural consequence we are divorced too much. The whole case is in a nutshell: if there were no marriages, there would be no divorces, and that great abuse would be corrected, at any rate."

All the ladies laughed, Miss Cotton more and more sorrowfully. She liked to have people talk as they do in genteel novels. Mrs. Brinkley's bold expressions were a series of violent shocks to her nature, and imparted a terrible vibration to the fabric of her whole little rose-coloured ideal world; if they had not been the expressions of a person whom a great many unquestionable persons accepted, who had such an undoubted standing, she would have thought them very coarse. As it was, they had a great fascination for her. "But in a case like that of"—she looked round and lowered her voice—"our young friends, I'm sure you couldn't rejoice if the engagement were broken off."

"Well, I'm not going to be 'a mush of concession,' as Emerson says, Miss Cotton. And, in the first place, how do you know they're engaged?"

"Ah, I don't; I didn't mean that they were. But wouldn't it be a little pathetic if, after all that we've seen going on, his coming here expressly on her account, and his perfect devotion to her for the past two weeks, it should end in nothing?"

"Two weeks isn't a very long time to settle the business of a lifetime."

"No."

"Perhaps she's proposed delay; a little further acquaintance."

"Oh, of course that would be perfectly right. Do you think she did?"

"Not if she's as wise as the rest of us would have been at her age. But I think she ought."

"Yes?" said Miss Cotton semi-interrogatively.

"Do you think his behaviour last night would naturally impress her with his wisdom and constancy?"

"No, I can't say that it would, but—"

"And this Alice of yours is rather a severe young person. She has her ideas, and I'm afraid they're rather heroic. She'd be just with him, of course. But there's nothing a man dreads so much as justice—some men."

"Yes," pursued Miss Cotton, "but that very disparity—I know they're very unlike—don't you think—"

"Oh yes, I know the theory about that. But if they were exactly alike in temperament, they'd be sufficiently unlike for the purposes of counterparts. That was arranged once for all when 'male and female created He them.' I've no doubt their fancy was caught by all the kinds of difference they find in each other; that's just as natural as it's silly. But the misunderstanding, the trouble, the quarrelling, the wear and tear of spirit, that they'd have to go through before they assimilated—it makes me tired, as the boys say. No: I hope, for the young man's own sake, he's got his conge."

"But he's so kind, so good—"

"My dear, the world is surfeited with kind, good men. There are half a dozen of them at the other end of the piazza smoking; and there comes another to join them," she added, as a large figure, semicircular in profile, advanced itself from a doorway toward a vacant chair among the smokers. "The very soul of kindness and goodness." She beckoned toward her husband, who caught sight of her gesture. "Now I can tell you all his mental processes. First, surprise at seeing some one beckoning; then astonishment that it's I, though who else should beckon him?—then wonder what I can want; then conjecture that I may want him to come here; then pride in his conjecture; rebellion; compliance."

The ladies were in a scream of laughter as Mr. Brinkley lumbered heavily to their group.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Do you believe in broken engagements? Now quick—off-hand!"

"Who's engaged?"

"No matter."

"Well, you know Punch's advice to those about to marry?"

"I know—chestnuts," said his wife scornfully. They dismissed each other with tender bluntness, and he went in to get a match.

"Ah, Mrs. Brinkley," said one of the ladies, "it would be of no use for you to preach broken engagements to any one who saw you and Mr. Brinkley together." They fell upon her, one after another, and mocked her with the difference between her doctrine and practice; and they were all the more against her because they had been perhaps a little put down by her whimsical sayings.

"Yes," she admitted. "But we've been thirty years coming to the understanding that you all admire so much; and do you think it was worth the time?"

William Dean Howells