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Chapter 21

Mavering kept up until he took leave of the party of young people who had come over on the ferry-boat to Eastport for the frolic of seeing him off. It was a tremendous tour de force to accept their company as if he were glad of it, and to respond to all their gay nothings gaily; to maintain a sunny surface on his turbid misery. They had tried to make Alice come with them, but her mother pleaded a bad headache for her; and he had to parry a hundred sallies about her, and from his sick heart humour the popular insinuation that there was an understanding between them, and that they had agreed together she should not come. He had to stand about on the steamboat wharf and listen to amiable innuendoes for nearly an hour before the steamer came in from St. John. The fond adieux of his friends, their offers to take any message back, lasted during the interminable fifteen minutes that she lay at her moorings, and then he showed himself at the stern of the boat, and waved his handkerchief in acknowledgment of the last parting salutations on shore.

When it was all over, he went down into his state-room, and shut himself in, and let his misery rollover him. He felt as if there were a flood of it, and it washed him to and fro, one gall of shame, of self-accusal, of bitterness, from head to foot. But in it all he felt no resentment toward Alice, no wish to wreak any smallest part of his suffering upon her. Even while he had hoped for her love, it seemed to him that he had not seen her in all that perfection which she now had in irreparable loss. His soul bowed itself fondly over the thought of her; and, stung as he was by that last cruel word of hers, he could not upbraid her. That humility which is love casting out selfishness, the most egotistic of the passions triumphing over itself—Mavering experienced it to the full. He took all the blame. He could not see that she had ever encouraged him to hope for her love, which now appeared a treasure heaven—far beyond his scope; he could only call himself fool, and fool, and fool, and wonder that he could have met her in the remoteness of that morning with the belief that but for the follies of last night she might have answered him differently. He believed now that, whatever had gone before, she must still have rejected him. She had treated his presumption very leniently; she had really spared him.

It went on, over and over. Sometimes it varied a little, as when he thought of how, when she should tell her mother, Mrs. Pasmer must laugh. He pictured them both laughing at him; and then Mr. Pasmer—he had scarcely passed a dozen words with him-coming in and asking what they were laughing at, and their saying, and his laughing too.

At other times he figured them as incensed at his temerity, which must seem to them greater and greater, as now it seemed to him. He had never thought meanly of himself, and the world so far had seemed to think well of him; but because Alice Pasmer was impossible to him, he felt that it was an unpardonable boldness in him to have dreamed of her. What must they be saying of his having passed from the ground of society compliments and light flirtation to actually telling Alice that he loved her?

He wondered what Mrs. Pasmer had thought of his telling her that he had come to Campobello to consider the question whether he should study law or go into business, and what motive she had supposed he had in telling her that. He asked himself what motive he had, and tried to pretend that he had none. He dramatised conversations with Mrs. Pasmer in which he laughed it off.

He tried to remember all that had passed the day before at the picnic, and whether Alice had done or said anything to encourage him, and he could not find that she had. All her trust and freedom was because she felt perfectly safe with him from any such disgusting absurdity as he had been guilty of. The ride home through the mist, with its sweet intimacy, that parting which had seemed so full of tender intelligence, were parts of the same illusion. There had been nothing of it on her side from the beginning but a kindliness which he had now flung away for ever.

He went back to the beginning, and tried to remember the point where he had started in this fatal labyrinth of error. She had never misled him, but he had misled himself from the first glimpse of her.

Whatever was best in his light nature, whatever was generous and self-denying, came out in this humiliation. From the vision of her derision he passed to a picture of her suffering from pity for him, and wrung with a sense of the pain she had given him. He promised himself to write to her, and beg her not to care for him, because he was not worthy of that. He framed a letter in his mind, in which he posed in some noble attitudes, and brought tears into his eyes by his magnanimous appeal to her not to suffer for the sake of one so unworthy of her serious thought. He pictured her greatly moved by some of the phrases, and he composed for her a reply, which led to another letter from him, and so to a correspondence and a long and tender friendship. In the end he died suddenly, and then she discovered that she had always loved him. He discovered that he was playing the fool again, and he rose from the berth where he had tumbled himself. The state-room had that smell of parboiled paint which state-rooms have, and reminded him of the steamer in which he had gone to Europe when a boy, with the family, just after his mother's health began to fail.

He went down on the deck near the ladies' saloon, where the second-class passengers were gathered listening to the same band of plantation negroes who had amused him so much on the eastward trip. The passengers were mostly pock marked Provincials, and many of them were women; they lounged on the barrels of apples neatly piled up, and listened to the music without smiling. One of the negroes was singing to the banjo, and another began to do the rheumatic uncle's breakdown. Mavering said to himself: "I can't stand that. Oh, what a fool I am! Alice, I love you. O merciful heavens! O infernal jackass! Ow! Gaw!"

At the bow of the boat he found a gang of Italian labourers returning to the States after some job in the Provinces. They smoked their pipes and whined their Neapolitan dialect together. It made Mavering think of Dante, of the Inferno, to which he passed naturally from his self-denunciation for having been an infernal jackass. The inscription on the gate of hell ran through his mind. He thought he would make his life—his desolate, broken life—a perpetual exile, like Dante's. At the same time he ground his teeth, and muttered: "Oh, what a fool I am! Oh, idiot! beast! Oh! oh!" The pipes reminded him to smoke, and he took out his cigarette case. The Italians looked at him; he gave all the cigarettes among them, without keeping any for himself. He determined to spend the miserable remnant of his life in going about doing good and bestowing alms.

He groaned aloud, so that the Italians noticed it, and doubtless spoke of it among themselves. He could not understand their dialect, but he feigned them saying respectfully compassionate things. Then he gnashed his teeth again, and cursed his folly. When the bell rang for supper he found himself very hungry, and ate heavily. After that he went out in front of the cabin, and walked up and down, thinking, and trying not to think. The turmoil in his mind tired him like a prodigious physical exertion.

Toward ten o'clock the night grew rougher. The sea was so phosphorescent that it broke in sheets and flakes of pale bluish flame from the bows and wheel-houses, and out in the dark the waves revealed themselves in flashes and long gleams of fire. One of the officers of the boat came and hung with Mavering over the guard. The weird light from the water was reflected on their faces, and showed them to each other.

"Well, I never saw anything like this before. Looks like hell; don't it?" said the officer.

"Yes," said Mavering. "Is it uncommon?"

"Well, I should say so. I guess we're going to have a picnic."

Mavering thought of blueberries, but he did not say anything.

"I guess it's going to be a regular circus."

Mavering did not care. He asked incuriously, "How do you find your course in such weather?"

"Well, we guess where we are, and then give her so many turns of the wheel." The officer laughed, and Mavering laughed too. He was struck by the hollow note in his laugh; it seemed to him pathetic; he wondered if he should now always laugh so, and if people would remark it. He tried another laugh; it sounded mechanical.

He went to bed, and was so worn out that he fell asleep and began to dream. A face came up out of the sea, and brooded over the waters, as in that picture of Vedder's which he calls "Memory," but the hair was not blond; it was the colour of those phosphorescent flames, and the eyes were like it. "Horrible! horrible!" he tried to shriek, but he cried, "Alice, I love you." There was a burglar in the room, and he was running after Miss Pasmer. Mavering caught him, and tried to beat him; his fists fell like bolls of cotton; the burglar drew his breath in with a long, washing sound like water.

Mavering woke deathly sick, and heard the sweep of the waves. The boat was pitching frightfully. He struggled out into the saloon, and saw that it was five o'clock. In five hours more it would be a day since he told Alice that he loved her; it now seemed very improbable. There were a good many half-dressed people in the saloon, and a woman came running out of her state-room straight to Mavering. She was in her stocking feet, and her hair hung down her back.

"Oh! are we going down?" she implored him. "Have we struck? Oughtn't we to pray—somebody? Shall I wake the children?"

"Mavering reassured her, and told her there was no danger.

"Well, then," she said, "I'll go back for my shoes."

"Yes, better get your shoes."

The saloon rose round him and sank. He controlled his sickness by planting a chair in the centre and sitting in it with his eyes shut. As he grew more comfortable he reflected how he had calmed that woman, and he resolved again to spend his life in doing good. "Yes, that's the only ticket," he said to himself, with involuntary frivolity. He thought of what the officer had said, and he helplessly added, "Circus ticket—reserved seat." Then he began again, and loaded himself with execration.

The boat got into Portland at nine o'clock, and Mavering left her, taking his hand-bag with him, and letting his trunk go on to Boston.

The officer who received his ticket at the gangplank noticed the destination on it, and said, "Got enough?"

"Yes, for one while." Mavering recognised his acquaintance of the night before.

"Don't like picnics very much."

"No," said Mavering, with abysmal gloom. "They don't agree with me. Never did." He was aware of trying to make his laugh bitter. The officer did not notice.

Mavering was surprised, after the chill of the storm at sea, to find it rather a warm, close morning in Portland. The restaurant to which the hackman took him as the best in town was full of flies; they bit him awake out of the dreary reveries he fell into while waiting for his breakfast. In a mirror opposite he saw his face. It did not look haggard; it looked very much as it always did. He fancied playing a part through life—hiding a broken heart under a smile. "O you incorrigible ass!" he said to himself, and was afraid he had said it to the young lady who brought him his breakfast, and looked haughtily at him from under her bang. She was very thin, and wore a black jersey.

He tried to find out whether he had spoken aloud by addressing her pleasantly. "It's pretty cold this morning."

"What say?"

"Pretty cool."

"Oh yes. But it's pretty clo-ose," she replied, in her Yankee cantillation. She went away and left him to the bacon and eggs he had ordered at random. There was a fly under one of the slices of bacon, and Mavering confined himself to the coffee.

A man came up in a white cap and jacket from a basement in the front of the restaurant, where confectionery was sold, and threw down a mass of malleable candy on a marble slab, and began to work it. Mavering watched him, thinking fuzzily all the time of Alice, and holding long, fatiguing dialogues with the people at the Ty'n-y-Coed, whose several voices he heard.

He said to himself that it was worse than yesterday. He wondered if it would go on getting worse every day.

He saw a man pass the door of the restaurant who looked exactly like Boardman as he glanced in. The resemblance was explained by the man's coming back, and proving to be really Boardman.

William Dean Howells