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Chapter 22

Mavering sprang at him with a demand for the reason of his being there.

"I thought it was you as I passed," said Boardman, "but I couldn't make sure—so dark back here."

"And I thought it was you, but I couldn't believe it," said Mavering, with equal force, cutting short an interior conversation with Mr. Pasmer, which had begun to hold itself since his first glimpse of Boardman.

"I came down here to do a sort of one-horse yacht race to-day," Boardman explained.

"Going to be a yacht race? Better have some breakfast. Or better not—here. Flies under your bacon."

"Rough on the flies," said Boardman, snapping the bell which summoned the spectre in the black jersey, and he sat down. "What are you doing in Portland?"

Mavering told him, and then Boardman asked him how he had left the Pasmers. Mavering needed no other hint to speak, and he spoke fully, while Boardman listened with an agreeable silence, letting the hero of the tale break into self-scornful groans and doleful laughs, and ease his heart with grotesque, inarticulate noises, and made little or no comments.

By the time his breakfast came, Boardman was ready to say, "I didn't suppose it was so much of a mash."

"I didn't either," said Mavering, "when I left Boston. Of course I knew I was going down there to see her, but when I got there it kept going on, just like anything else, up to the last moment. I didn't realise till it came to the worst that I had become a mere pulp."

"Well, you won't stay so," said Boardman, making the first vain attempt at consolation. He lifted the steak he had ordered, and peered beneath it. "All right this time, any way."

"I don't know what you mean by staying so," replied Mavering, with gloomy rejection of the comfort offered.

"You'll see that it's all for the best; that you're well out of it. If she could throw you over, after leading you on—"

"But she didn't lead me on!" exclaimed Mavering. "Don't you understand that it was all my mistake from the first? If I hadn't been perfectly besotted I should have seen that she was only tolerating me. Don't you see? Why, hang it, Boardman, I must have had a kind of consciousness of it under my thick-skinned conceit, after all, for when I came to the point—when I did come to the point—I hadn't the sand to stick to it like a man, and I tried to get her to help me. Yes, I can see that I did now. I kept fooling about, and fooling about, and it was because I had that sort of prescience—of whatever you call it—that I was mistaken about it from the very beginning."

He wished to tell Boardman about the events of the night before; but he could not. He said to himself that he did not care about their being hardly to his credit; but he did not choose to let Alice seem to have resented anything in them; it belittled her, and claimed too much for him. So Boardman had to proceed upon a partial knowledge of the facts.

"I don't suppose that boomerang way of yours, if that's what you mean, was of much use," he said.

"Use? It ruined me! But what are you going to do? How are you going to presuppose that a girl like Miss Pasmer is interested in an idiot like you? I mean me, of course." Mavering broke off with a dolorous laugh. "And if you can't presuppose it, what are you going to do when it comes to the point? You've got to shillyshally, and then you've got to go it blind. I tell you it's a leap in the dark."

"Well, then, if you've got yourself to blame—"

"How am I to blame, I should like to know?" retorted Mavering, rejecting the first offer from another of the censure which he had been heaping upon himself: the irritation of his nerves spoke. "I did speak out at last—when it was too late. Well, let it all go," he groaned aimlessly. "I don't care. But she isn't to blame. I don't think I could admire anybody very much who admired me. No, sir. She did just right. I was a fool, and she couldn't have treated me differently."

"Oh, I guess it'll come out all right," said Boardman, abandoning himself to mere optimism.

"How come all right?" demanded Mavering, flattered by the hope he refused. "It's come right now. I've got my deserts; that's all."

"Oh no, you haven't. What harm have you done? It's all right for you to think small beer of yourself, and I don't see how you could think anything else just at present. But you wait awhile. When did it happen?"

Mavering took out his watch. "One day, one hour, twenty minutes, and fifteen seconds ago."

"Sure about the seconds? I suppose you didn't hang round a great while afterward?"

"Well, people don't, generally," said Mavering, with scorn.

"Never tried it," said Boardman, looking critically at his fried potatoes before venturing upon them. "If you had stayed, perhaps she might have changed her mind," he added, as if encouraged to this hopeful view by the result of his scrutiny.

"Where did you get your fraudulent reputation for common-sense, Boardman?" retorted Mavering, who had followed his examination of the potatoes with involuntary interest. "She won't change her mind; she isn't one of that kind. But she's the one woman in this world who could have made a man of me, Boardman."

"Is that so?" asked Boardman lightly. "Well, she is a good-looking girl."

"She's divine!"

"What a dress that was she had on Class Day!"

"I never think what she has on. She makes everything perfect, and then makes you forget it."

"She's got style; there's no mistake about that."

"Style!" sighed Mavering; but he attempted no exemplification.

"She's awfully graceful. What a walk she's got!"

"Oh, don't, don't, Boardman! All that's true, and all that's nothing—nothing to her goodness. She's so good, Boardman! Well, I give it up! She's religious. You wouldn't think that, may be; you can't imagine a pretty girl religious. And she's all the more intoxicating when she's serious; and when she's forgotten your whole worthless existence she's ten thousand times more fascinating than and other girl when she's going right for you. There's a kind of look comes into her eyes—kind of absence, rapture, don't you know—when she's serious, that brings your heart right into your mouth. She makes you think of some of those pictures—I want to tell you what she said the other day at a picnic when we were off getting blueberries, and you'll understand that she isn't like other girls—that she has a soul fall of—of—you know what, Boardman. She has high thoughts about everything. I don't believe she's ever had a mean or ignoble impulse—she couldn't have." In the business of imparting his ideas confidentially, Mavering had drawn himself across the table toward Boardman, without heed to what was on it.

"Look out! You'll be into my steak first thing you know."

"Oh, confound your steak?" cried Mavering, pushing the dish away. "What difference does it make? I've lost her, anyway."

"I don't believe you've lost her," said Boardman.

"What's the reason you don't?" retorted Mavering, with contempt.

"Because, if she's the serious kind of a girl you say she is, she wouldn't let you come up there and dangle round a whole fortnight without letting you know she didn't like it, unless she did like it. Now you just go a little into detail."

Mavering was quite willing. He went so much into detail that he left nothing to Boardman's imagination. He lost the sense of its calamitous close in recounting the facts of his story at Campobello; he smiled and blushed and laughed in telling certain things; he described Miss Anderson and imitated her voice; he drew heads of some of the ladies on the margin of a newspaper, and the tears came into his eyes when he repeated the cruel words which Alice had used at their last meeting.

"Oh, well, you must brace up," said Boardman. "I've got to go now. She didn't mean it, of course."

"Mean what?"

"That you were ungentlemanly. Women don't know half the time how hard they're hitting."

"I guess she meant that she didn't want me, anyway," said Mavering gloomily.

"Ah, I don't know about that. You'd better ask her the next time you see her. Good-bye." He had risen, and he offered his hand to Mavering, who was still seated.

"Why, I've half a mind to go with you."

"All right, come along. But I thought you might be going right on to Boston."

"No; I'll wait and go on with you. How, do you go to the race?"

"In the press boat."

"Any women?"

"No; we don't send them on this sort of duty."

"That settles it. I have got all I want of that particular sex for the time being." Mavering wore a very bitter air as he said this; it seemed to him that he would always be cynical; he rose, and arranged to leave his bag with the restaurateur, who put it under the counter, and then he went out with his friend.

The sun had come out, and the fog was burning away; there was life and lift in the air, which the rejected lover could not refuse to feel, and he said, looking round, and up and down the animated street. "I guess you're going to have a good day for it."

The pavement was pretty well filled with women who had begun shopping. Carriages were standing beside the pavement; a lady crossed the pavement from a shop door toward a coupe just in front of them, with her hand full of light packages; she dropped one of them, and Mavering sprang forward instinctively and picked it up for her.

"Oh, thank you!" she said, with the deep gratitude which society cultivates for the smallest services. Then she lifted her drooped eyelashes, and, with a flash of surprise, exclaimed, "Mr. Mavering!" and dropped all her packages that she might shake hands with him.

Boardman sauntered slowly on, but saw with a backward glance Mavering carrying the lady's packages to the coupe for her; saw him lift his hat there, and shake hands with somebody in the coupe, and then stand talking beside it. He waited at the corner of the block for Mavering to come up, affecting an interest in the neck-wear of a furnisher's window.

In about five minutes Mavering joined him.

"Look here, Boardman! Those ladies have snagged onto me."

"Are there two of them?"

"Yes, one inside. And they want me to go with then to see the race. Their father's got a little steam-yacht. They want you to go too."

Boardman shook his head.

"Well, that's what I told them—told them that you had to go on the press boat. They said they wished they were going on the press boat too. But I don't see how I can refuse. They're ladies that I met Class Day, and I ought to have shown them a little more attention then; but I got so taken up with—"

"I see," said Boardman, showing his teeth, fine and even as grains of pop-corn, in a slight sarcastic smile. "Sort of poetical justice," he suggested.

"Well, it is—sort of," said Mavering, with a shamefaced consciousness. "What train are you going back on?"

"Seven o'clock."

"I'll be there."

He hurried back to rejoin the ladies, and Boardman saw him, after some parley and laughter, get into the coupe, from which he inferred that they had turned down the little seat in front, and made him take it; and he inferred that they must be very jolly, sociable girls.

He did not see Mavering again till the train was on its way, when he came in, looking distraughtly about for his friend. He was again very melancholy, and said dejectedly that they had made him stay to dinner, and had then driven him down to the station, bag and all. "The old gentleman came too. I was in hopes I'd find you hanging round somewhere, so that I could introduce you. They're awfully nice. None of that infernal Boston stiffness. The one you saw me talking with is married, though."

Boardman was writing out his report from a little book with shorthand notes in it. There were half a dozen other reporters in the car busy with their work. A man who seemed to be in authority said to one of them, "Try to throw in a little humour."

Mavering pulled his hat over his eyes, and leaned his head on the back of his seat, and tried to sleep.

William Dean Howells