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Chapter 29

A family of rich people in the country, apart from intellectual interests, is apt to gormandise; and the Maverings always sat down to a luxurious table, which was most abundant and tempting at the meal they called tea, when the invention of the Portuguese man-cook was taxed to supply the demands of appetites at once eager and fastidious. They prolonged the meal as much as possible in winter, and Dan used to like to get home just in time for tea when he came up from Harvard; it was always very jolly, and he brought a boy's hunger to its abundance. The dining-room, full of shining light, and treated from the low-down grate, was a pleasant place. But now his spirits failed to rise with the physical cheer; he was almost bashfully silent; he sat cowed in the presence of his sisters, and careworn in the place where he used to be so gay and bold. They were waiting to have him begin about himself, as he always did when he had been away, and were ready to sympathise with his egotism, whatever new turn it took. He mystified them by asking about them and their affairs, and by dealing in futile generalities, instead of launching out with any business that he happened at the time to be full of. But he did not attend to their answers to his questions; he was absent-minded, and only knew that his face was flushed, and that he was obviously ill at ease.

His younger sister turned from him impatiently at last. "Father, what is the matter with Dan?"

Her bold recognition of their common constraint broke it down. Dan looked at his father with helpless consent, and his father said quietly, "He tells me he's engaged."

"What nonsense!" said his sister Eunice.

"Why, Dan!" cried Minnie; and he felt a reproach in her words which the words did not express. A silence followed, in which the father along went on with his supper. The girls sat staring at Dan with incredulous eyes. He became suddenly angry.

"I don't know what's so very extraordinary about it, or why there should be such a pother," he began; and he knew that he was insolently ignoring abundant reasons for pother, if there had been any pother. "Yes, I'm engaged."

He expected now that they would believe him, and ask whom he was engaged to; but apparently they were still unable to realise it. He was obliged to go on. "I'm engaged to Miss Pasmer."

"To Miss Pasmer!" repeated Eunice.

"But I thought—" Minnie began, and then stopped.

Dan commanded his temper by a strong effort, and condescended to explain. "There was a misunderstanding, but it's all right now; I only met her yesterday, and—it's all right." He had to keep on ignoring what had passed between him and his sisters during the month he spent at home after his return from Campobello. He did not wish to do so; he would have been glad to laugh over that epoch of ill-concealed heart-break with them; but the way they had taken the fact of his engagement made it impossible. He was forced to keep them at a distance; they forced him. "I'm glad," he added bitterly, "that the news seems to be so agreeable to my family. Thank you for your cordial congratulations." He swallowed a large cup of tea, and kept looking down.

"How silly!" said Eunice, who was much the oldest of the three. "Did you expect us to fall upon your neck before we could believe it wasn't a hoax of father's?"

"A hoax!" Dan burst out.

"I suppose," said Minnie, with mock meekness, "that if we're to be devoured, it's no use saying we didn't roil the brook. I'm sure I congratulate you, Dan, with all my heart," she added, with a trembling voice.

"I congratulate Miss Pasmer," said Eunice, "on securing such a very reasonable husband."

When Eunice first became a young lady she was so much older than Dan that in his mother's absence she sometimes authorised herself to box his ears, till she was finally overthrown in battle by the growing boy. She still felt herself so much his tutelary genius that she could not let the idea of his engagement awe her, or keep her from giving him a needed lesson. Dan jumped to his feet, and passionately threw his napkin on his chair.

"There, that will do, Eunice!" interposed the father. "Sit down, Dan, and don't be an ass, if you are engaged. Do you expect to come up here with a bombshell in your pocket, and explode it among us without causing any commotion? We all desire your happiness, and we are glad if you think you've found it, but we want to have time to realise it. We had only adjusted our minds to the apparent fact that you hadn't found it when you were here before." His father began very severely, but when he ended with this recognition of what they had all blinked till then, they laughed together.

"My pillow isn't dry yet, with the tears I shed for you, Dan," said Minnie demurely.

"I shall have to countermand my mourning," said Eunice, "and wear louder colours than ever. Unless," she added, "Miss Pasmer changes her mind again."

This divination of the past gave them all a chance for another laugh, and Dan's sisters began to reconcile themselves to the fact of his engagement, if not to Miss Pasmer. In what was abstractly so disagreeable there was the comfort that they could joke about his happiness; they had not felt free to make light of his misery when he was at home before. They began to ask all the questions they could think of as to how and when, and they assimilated the fact more and more in acquiring these particulars and making a mock of them and him.

"Of course you haven't got her photograph," suggested Eunice. "You know we've never had the pleasure of meeting the young lady yet."

"Yes," Dan owned, blushing, "I have. She thought I might like to show it to mother: But it isn't—"

"A very good one—they never are," said Minnie.

"And it was taken several years ago—they always are," said Eunice.

"And she doesn't photograph well, anyway."

"And this one was just after a long fit of sickness."

Dan drew it out of his pocket, after some fumbling for it, while he tolerated their gibes.

Eunice put her nose to it. "I hope it's your cigarettes it smells of," she said.

"Yes; she doesn't use the weed," answered Dan.

"Oh, I didn't mean that, exactly," returned his sister, holding the picture off at arm's length, and viewing it critically with contracted eyes.

Dan could not help laughing. "I don't think it's been near any other cigar-case," he answered tranquilly.

Minnie looked at it very near to, covering all but the face with her hand. "Dan, she's lovely!" she cried, and Dan's heart leaped into his throat As he gratefully met his sister's eyes.

"You'll like her, Min."

Eunice took the photograph from her for a second scrutiny. "She's certainly very stylish. Rather a beak of a nose, and a little too bird—like on the whole. But she isn't so bad. Is it like her?" she asked with a glance at her father.

"I might say—after looking," he replied.

"True! I didn't know but Dan had shown it to you as soon as you met. He seemed to be in such a hurry to let us all know."

The father said, "I don't think it flatters her," and he looked at it more carefully. "Not much of her mother there?" he suggested to Dan.

"No, sir; she's more like her father."

"Well, after all this excitement, I believe I'll have another cup of tea, and take something to eat, if Miss Pasmer's photograph doesn't object," said Eunice, and she replenished her cup and plate.

"What coloured hair and eyes has she, Dan?" asked Minnie.

He had to think so as to be exact. "Well, you might say they were black, her eyebrows are so dark. But I believe they're a sort of greyish-blue."

"Not an uncommon colour for eyes," said Eunice, "but rather peculiar for hair."

They got to making fun of the picture, and Dan told them about Alice and her family; the father left them at the table, and then came back with word from Dan's mother that she was ready to see him.

William Dean Howells