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Chapter 28

The parting scene with Alice persisted in Mavering's thought far on the way to Ponkwasset Falls. He now succeeded in saying everything to her: how deeply he felt her giving him her photograph to cheer him in his separation from her; how much he appreciated her forethought in providing him with some answer when his mother and sisters should ask him about her looks. He took out the picture, and pretended to the other passengers to be looking very closely at it, and so managed to kiss it. He told her that now he understood what love really was; how powerful; how it did conquer everything; that it had changed him and made him already a better man. He made her refuse all merit in the work.

When he began to formulate the facts for communication to his family, love did not seem so potent; he found himself ashamed of his passion, or at least unwilling to let it be its own excuse even; he had a wish to give it almost any other appearance. Until he came in sight of the station and the Works, it had not seemed possible for any one to object to Alice. He had been going home as a matter of form to receive the adhesion of his family. But now he was forced to see that she might be considered critically, even reluctantly. This would only be because his family did not understand how perfect Alice was; but they might not understand.

With his father there would be no difficulty. His father had seen Alice and admired her; he would be all right. Dan found himself hoping this rather anxiously, as if from the instinctive need of his father's support with his mother and sisters. He stopped at the Works when he left the train, and found his father in his private office beyond the book-keeper's picket-fence, which he penetrated, with a nod to the accountant.

"Hello, Dan!" said his father, looking up; and "Hello, father!" said Dan. Being alone, the father and son not only shook hands, but kissed each other, as they used to do in meeting after an absence when Dan was younger.

He had closed his father's door with his left hand in giving his right, and now he said at once, "Father, I've come home to tell you that I'm engaged to be married."

Dan had prearranged his father's behaviour at this announcement, but he now perceived that he would have to modify the scene if it were to represent the facts. His father did not brighten all over and demand, "Miss Pasmer, of course?" he contrived to hide whatever start the news had given him, and was some time in asking, with his soft lisp, "Isn't that rather sudden, Dan?"

"Well, not for me," said Dan, laughing uneasily. "It's—you know her, father—Miss Pasmer."

"Oh yes," said his father, certainly not with displeasure, and yet not with enthusiasm.

"I've had ever since Class Day to think it over, and it—came to a climax yesterday."

"And then you stopped thinking," said his father—to gain time, it appeared to Dan.

"Yes, sir," said Dan. "I haven't thought since."

"Well," said his father, with an amusement which was not unfriendly. He added, after a moment, "But I thought that had been broken off," and Dan's instinct penetrated to the lurking fact that his father must have talked the rupture over with his mother, and not wholly regretted it.

"There was a kind of—hitch at one time," he admitted; "but it's all right now."

"Well, well," said his father, "this is great news—great news," and he seemed to be shaping himself to the new posture of affairs, while giving it a conditional recognition. "She's a beautiful creature."

"Isn't she?" cried Dan, with a little break in his voice, for he had found his father's manner rather trying. "And she's good too. I assure you that she is—she is simply perfect every way."

"Well," said the elder Mavering, rising and pulling down the rolling top of his desk, "I'm glad to hear it, for your sake, Dan. Have you been up at the house yet?"

"No; I'm just off the train."

"How is her mother—how is Mrs. Pasmer? All well?"

"Yes, sir," said Dan; "they're all very well. You don't know Mr. Pasmer, I believe, sir, do you?"

"Not since college. What sort of person is he?"

"He's very refined and quiet. Very handsome. Very courteous. Very nice indeed."

"Ah! that's good," said Elbridge Mavering, with the effect of not having been very attentive to his son's answer.

They walked up the long slope of the hillside on which the house stood, overlooking the valley where the Works were, and fronting the plateau across the river where the village of operatives' houses was scattered. The paling light of what had been a very red sunset flushed them, and brought out the picturesqueness which the architect, who designed them for a particular effect in the view from the owner's mansion, had intended.

A good carriage road followed the easiest line of ascent towards this edifice, and reached a gateway. Within it began to describe a curve bordered with asphalted footways to the broad verandah of the house, and then descended again to the gate. The grounds enclosed were planted with deciduous shrubs, which had now mostly dropped their leaves, and clumps of firs darkening in the evening light with the gleam of some garden statues shivering about the lawn next the house. The breeze grew colder and stiffer as the father and son mounted toward the mansion which Dan used to believe was like a chateau, with its Mansard-roof and dormer windows and chimneys. It now blocked its space sharply out of the thin pink of the western sky, and its lights sparkled with a wintry keenness which had often thrilled Dan when he climbed the hill from the station in former homecomings. Their brilliancy gave him a strange sinking of the heart for no reason. He and his father had kept up a sort of desultory talk about Alice, and he could not have said that his father had seemed indifferent; he had touched the affair only too acquiescently; it was painfully like everything else. When they came in full sight of the house, Dan left the subject, as he realised presently, from a reasonless fear of being overheard.

"It seems much later here, sir, than it does in Boston," he said, glancing round at the maples, which stood ragged, with half their leaves blown from them.

"Yes; we're in the hills, and we're further north," answered his father. "There's Minnie."

Dan had seen his sister on the verandah, pausing at sight of him, and puzzled to make out who was with her father. He had an impulse to hail her with a shout, but he could not. In his last walk with her he had told her that he should never marry, and they had planned to live together. It was a joke; but now he felt as if he had come to rob her of something, and he walked soberly on with his father.

"Why, Dan, you good-for-nothing fellow!" she called out when he came near enough to be unmistakable, and ran down the steps to kiss him. "What in the world are you doing here? When did you come? Why didn't you hollo, instead of letting me stand here guessing? You're not sick, are you?"

The father got himself indoors unnoticed in the excitement of the brother's arrival. This would have been the best moment for Dan to tell his sister of his engagement; he knew it, but he parried her curiosity about his coming; and then his sister Eunice came out, and he could not speak. They all went together into the house flaming with naphtha gas, and with the steam heat already on, and Dan said he would take his bag to his room, and then come down again. He knew that he had left them to think that there was something very mysterious in his coming, and while he washed away the grime of his journey he was planning how to appear perfectly natural when he should get back to his sisters. He recollected that he had not asked either them or his father how his mother was, but it was certainly not because his mind was not full of her. Alice now seemed very remote from him, further even than his gun, or his boyish collection of moths and butterflies, on which his eye fell in roving about his room. For a bitter instant it seemed to him as if they were all alike toys, and in a sudden despair he asked himself what had become of his happiness. It was scarcely half a day since he had parted in transport from Alice.

He made pretexts to keep from returning at once to his sisters, and it was nearly half an hour before he went down to them. By that time his father was with them in the library, and they were waiting tea for him.

William Dean Howells