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Chapter 30

By eight o'clock in the evening the pain with which every day began for Mrs. Mavering was lulled, and her jarred nerves were stayed by the opiates till she fell asleep about midnight. In this interval the family gathered into her room, and brought her their news and the cheer of their health. The girls chattered on one side of her bed, and their father sat with his newspaper on the other, and read aloud the passages which he thought would interest her, while she lay propped among her pillows, brilliantly eager for the world opening this glimpse of itself to her shining eyes. That was on her good nights, when the drugs did their work, but there were times when they failed, and the day's agony prolonged itself through the evening, and the sleep won at last was a heavy stupor. Then the sufferer's temper gave way under the stress; she became the torment she suffered, and tore the hearts she loved. Most of all, she afflicted the man who had been so faithful to her misery, and maddened him to reprisals, of which he afterward abjectly repented. Her tongue was sharpened by pain, and pitilessly skilled to inculpate and to punish; it pierced and burned like fire but when a good day came again she made it up to the victims by the angelic sweetness and sanity which they felt was her real self; the cruelty was only the mask of her suffering.

When she was better they brought to her room anybody who was staying with them, and she liked them to be jolly in the spacious chamber. The pleasantest things of the house were assembled, and all its comforts concentrated, in the place which she and they knew she should quit but once. It was made gay with flowers and pictures; it was the salon for those fortunate hours when she became the lightest and blithest of the company in it, and made the youngest guest forget that there was sickness or pain in the world by the spirit with which she ignored her own. Her laugh became young again; she joked; she entered into what they were doing and reading and thinking, and sent them away full of the sympathy which in this mood of hers she had for every mood in others. Girls sighed out their wonder and envy to her daughters when they left her; the young men whom she captivated with her divination of their passions or ambitions went away celebrating her supernatural knowledge of human nature. The next evening after some night of rare and happy excitement, the family saw her nurse carrying the pictures and flowers and vases out of her room, in sign of her renunciation of them all, and assembled silently, shrinkingly, in her chamber, to take each their portion of her anguish, of the blame and the penalty. The household adjusted itself to her humours, for she was supreme in it.

When Dan used to come home from Harvard she put on a pretty cap for him, and distinguished him as company by certain laces hiding her wasted frame, and giving their pathetic coquetry to her transparent wrists. He was her favourite, and the girls acknowledged him so, and made their fun of her for spoiling him. He found out as he grew up that her broken health dated from his birth, and at first this deeply affected him; but his young life soon lost the keenness of the impression, and he loved his mother because she loved him, and not because she had been dying for him so many years.

As he now came into her room, and the waiting-woman went out of it with her usual, "Well, Mr. Dan!" the tenderness which filled him at sight of his mother was mixed with that sense of guilt which had tormented him at times ever since he met his sisters. He was going to take himself from her; he realised that.

"Well, Dan!" she called, so gaily that he said to himself, "No, father hasn't told her anything about it," and was instantly able to answer her as cheerfully, "Well, mother!"

He bent over her to kiss her, and the odour of the clean linen mingling with that of the opium, and the cologne with which she had tried to banish its scent, opened to him one of those vast reaches of associations which perfumes can unlock, and he saw her lying there through those years of pain, as many as half his life, and suddenly the tears gushed into his eyes, and he fell on his knees, and hid his face in the bed-clothes and sobbed.

She kept smoothing his head, which shook under her thin hand, and saying, "Poor Dan! poor Dan!" but did not question him. He knew that she knew what he had come to tell her, and that his tears, which had not been meant for that, had made interest with her for him and his cause, and that she was already on his side.

He tried boyishly to dignify the situation when he lifted his face, and he said, "I didn't mean to come boohooing to you in this way, and I'm ashamed of myself."

"I know, Dan; but you've been wrought up, and I don't wonder. You mustn't mind your father and your sisters. Of course, they're rather surprised, and they don't like your taking yourself from them—we, none of us do."

At these honest words Dan tried to become honest too. At least he dropped his pretence of dignity, and became as a little child in his simple greed for sympathy. "But it isn't necessarily that; is it, mother?"

"Yes, it's all that, Dan; and it's all right, because it's that. We don't like it, but our not liking it has nothing to do with its being right or wrong."

"I supposed that father would have been pleased, anyway; for he has seen her, and—and. Of course the girls haven't, but I think they might have trusted my judgment a little. I'm not quite a fool."

His mother smiled. "Oh, it isn't a question of the wisdom of your choice; it's the unexpectedness. We all saw that you were very unhappy when you were here before, and we supposed it had gone wrong."

"It had, mother," said Dan. "She refused me at Campobello. But it was a misunderstanding, and as soon as we met—"

"I knew you had met again, and what you had come home for, and I told your father so, when he came to say you were here."

"Did you, mother?" he asked, charmed at her having guessed that.

"Yes. She must be a good girl to send you straight home to tell us."

"You knew I wouldn't have thought of that myself," said Dan joyously. "I wanted to write; I thought that would do just as well. I hated to leave her, but she made me come. She is the best, and the wisest, and the most unselfish—O mother, I can't tell you about her! You must see her. You can't realise her till you see her, mother. You'll like each other, I'm sure of that. You're just alike." It seemed to Dan that they were exactly alike.

"Then perhaps we sha'n't," suggested his mother. "Let me see her picture."

"How did you know I had it? If it hadn't been for her, I shouldn't have brought any. She put it into my pocket just as I was leaving. She said you would all want to see what she looked like."

He had taken it out of his pocket, and he held it, smiling fondly upon it. Alice seemed to smile back at him. He had lost her in the reluctance of his father and sisters; and now his mother—it was his mother who had given her to him again. He thought how tenderly he loved his mother.

When he could yield her the photograph, she looked long and silently at it. "She has a great deal of character, Dan."

"There you've hit it, mother! I'd rather you would have said that than anything else. But don't you think she's beautiful? She's the gentlest creature, when you come to know her! I was awfully afraid of her at first. I thought she was very haughty. But she isn't at all. She's really very self-depreciatory; she thinks she isn't good enough for me. You ought to hear her talk, mother, as I have. She's full of the noblest ideals—of being of some use in the world, of being self-devoted, and—all that kind of thing. And you can see that she's capable of it. Her aunt's in a Protestant sisterhood," he said, with a solemnity which did not seem to communicate itself to his mother, for Mrs. Mavering smiled. Dan smiled too, and said: "But I can't tell you about Alice, mother. She's perfect." His heart overflowed with proud delight in her, and he was fool enough to add, "She's so affectionate!"

His mother kept herself from laughing. "I dare say she is, Dan—with you." Then she hid all but her eyes with the photograph, and gave way.

"What a donkey!" said Dan, meaning himself. "If I go on, I shall disgust you with her. What I mean is that she isn't at all proud, as I used to think she was."

"No girl is, under the circumstances. She has all she can do to be proud of you."

"Do you think so, mother?" he said, enraptured with the notion. "I've done my best—or my worst—not to give her any reason to be so."

"She doesn't 'want any—the less the better. You silly boy! Don't you suppose she wants to make you out of whole cloth just as you do with her? She doesn't want any facts to start with; they'd be in the way. Well, now, I can make out, with your help, what the young lady is; but what are the father and mother? They're rather important in these cases."

"Oh, they're the nicest kind of people," said Dan, in optimistic generalisation. "You'd like Mrs. Pasmer. She's awfully nice."

"Do you say that because you think I wouldn't?" asked his mother. "Isn't she rather sly and hum-bugging?"

"Well, yes, she is, to a certain extent," Dan admitted, with a laugh. "But she doesn't mean any harm by it. She's extremely kind-hearted."

"To you? I dare say. And Mr. Pasmer is rather under her thumb?"

"Well, yes, you might say thumb," Dan consented, feeling it useless to defend the Pasmers against this analysis.

"We won't say heel," returned his mother; "we're too polite. And your father says he had the reputation in college of being one of the most selfish fellows in the world. He's never done anything since but lose most of his money. He's been absolutely idle and useless all his days." She turned her vivid blue eyes suddenly upon her son's.

Dan winced. "You know how hard father is upon people who haven't done anything. It's a mania of his. Of course Mr. Pasmer doesn't show to advantage where there's no—no leisure class."

"Poor man!"

Dan was going to say, "He's very amiable, though," but he was afraid of his mother's retorting, "To you?" and he held his peace, looking chapfallen.

Whether his mother took pity on him or not, her next sally was consoling. "But your Alice may not take after either of them. Her father is the worst of his breed, it seems; the rest are useful people, from what your father knows, and there's a great deal to be hoped for collaterally. She had an uncle in college at the same time who was everything that her father was not."

"One of her aunts is in one of those Protestant religious houses in England," repeated Dan.

"Oh!" said his mother shortly, "I don't know that I like that particularly. But probably she isn't useless there. Is Alice very religious?"

"Well, I suppose," said Dan, with a smile for the devotions that came into his thought, "she's what would be called 'Piscopal pious."

Mrs. Mavering referred to the photograph, which she still held in her hand. "Well, she's pure and good, at any rate. I suppose you look forward to a long engagement?"

Dan was somewhat taken aback at a supposition so very contrary to what was in his mind. "Well, I don't know. Why?"

"It might be said that you are very young. How old is Agnes—Alice, I mean?"

"Twenty-one. But now, look here, mother! It's no use considering such a thing in the abstract, is it?"

"No," said his mother, with a smile for what might be coming.

"This is the way I've been viewing it; I may say it's the way Alice has been viewing it—or Mrs. Pasmer, rather."

"Decidedly Mrs. Pasmer, rather. Better be honest, Dan."

"I'll do my best. I was thinking, hoping, that is, that as I'm going right into the business—have gone into it already, in fact—and could begin life at once, that perhaps there wouldn't be much sense in waiting a great while."

"Yes?"

"That's all. That is, if you and father are agreed." He reflected upon this provision, and added, with a laugh of confusion and pleasure: "It seems to be so very much more of a family affair than I used to think it was."

"You thought it concerned just you and her?" said his mother, with arch sympathy.

"Well, yes."

"Poor fellow! She knew better than that, you may be sure. At any rate, her mother did."

"What Mrs. Pasmer doesn't know isn't probably worth knowing," said Dan, with an amused sense of her omniscience.

"I thought so," sighed his mother, smiling too. "And now you begin to find out that it concerns the families in all their branches on both sides."

"Oh, if it stopped at the families and their ramifications! But it seems to take in society and the general public."

"So it does—more than you can realise. You can't get married to yourself alone, as young people think; and if you don't marry happily, you sin against the peace and comfort of the whole community."

"Yes, that's what I'm chiefly looking out for now. I don't want any of those people in Central Africa to suffer. That's the reason I want to marry Alice at the earliest opportunity. But I suppose there'll have to be a Mavering embassy to the high contracting powers of the other part now?"

"Your father and one of the girls had better go down."

"Yes?"

"And invite Mr. and Mrs. Pasmer and their daughter to come up here."

"All on probation?"

"Oh no. If you're pleased, Dan—"

"I am, mother—measurably." They both laughed at this mild way of putting it.

"Why, then it's to be supposed that we're all pleased. You needn't bring the whole Pasmer family home to live with you, if you do marry them all."

"No," said Dan, and suddenly he became very distraught. It flashed through him that his mother was expecting him to come home with Alice to live, and that she would not be at all pleased with his scheme of a European sojourn, which Mrs. Pasmer had so cordially adopted. He was amazed that he had not thought of that, but he refused to see any difficulty which his happiness could not cope with.

"No, there's that view of it," he said jollily; and he buried his momentary anxiety out of sight, and, as it were, danced upon its grave. Nevertheless, he had a desire to get quickly away from the spot. "I hope the Mavering embassy won't be a great while getting ready to go," he said. "Of course it's all right; but I shouldn't want an appearance of reluctance exactly, you know, mother; and if there should be much of an interval between my getting back and their coming on, don't you know, why, the cat might let herself out of the bag."

"What cat?" asked his mother demurely.

"Well, you know, you haven't received my engagement with unmingled enthusiasm, and—and I suppose they would find it out from me—from my manner; and—and I wish they'd come along pretty soon, mother."

"Poor boy! I'm afraid the cat got out of the bag when Mrs. Pasmer came to the years of discretion. But you sha'n't be left a prey to her. They shall go back with you. Ring the bell, and let's talk it over with them now."

Dan joyfully obeyed. He could see that his mother was all on fire with interest in his affair, and that the idea of somehow circumventing Mrs. Pasmer by prompt action was fascinating her.

His sisters came up at once, and his father followed a moment later. They all took their cue from the mother's gaiety, and began talking and laughing, except the father, who sat looking on with a smile at their lively spirits and the jokes of which Dan became the victim. Each family has its own fantastic medium, in which it gets affairs to relieve them of their concrete seriousness, and the Maverings now did this with Dan's engagement, and played with it as an airy abstraction. They debated the character of the embassy which was to be sent down to Boston on their behalf, and it was decided that Eunice had better go with her father, as representing more fully the age and respectability of the family: at first glance the Pasmers would take her for Dan's mother, and this would be a tremendous advantage.

"And if I like the ridiculous little chit," said Eunice, "I think I shall let Dan marry her at once. I see no reason why he shouldn't and I couldn't stand a long engagement; I should break it off."

"I guess there are others who will have something to say about that," retorted the younger sister. "I've always wanted a long engagement in this family, and as there seems to be no chance for it with the ladies, I wish to make the most of Dan's. I always like it where the hero gets sick and the heroine nurses him. I want Dan to get sick, and have Alice come here and take care of him."

"No; this marriage must take place at once. What do you say, father?" asked Eunice.

Her father sat, enjoying the talk, at the foot of the bed, with a tendency to doze. "You might ask Dan," he said, with a lazy cast of his eye toward his son.

"Dan has nothing to do with it."

"Dan shall not be consulted."

The two girls stormed upon their father with their different reasons.

"Now I will tell you Girls, be still!" their mother broke in. "Listen to me: I have an idea."

"Listen to her: she has an idea!" echoed Eunice, in recitative.

"Will you be quiet?" demanded the mother.

"We will be du-u-mb!"

When they became so, at the verge of their mother's patience, of which they knew the limits, she went on: "I think Dan had better get married at once."

"There, Minnie!"

"But what does Dan say?"

"I will—make the sacrifice," said Dan meekly.

"Noble boy! That's exactly what Washington said to his mother when she asked him not to go to sea," said Minnie.

"And then he went into the militia, and made it all right with himself that way," said Eunice. "Dan can't play his filial piety on this family. Go on, mother."

"I want him to bring his wife home, and live with us," continued his mother.

"In the L part!" cried Minnie, clasping her hands in rapture. "I've always said what a perfect little apartment it was by itself."

"Well, don't say it again, then," returned her sister. "Always is often enough. Well, in the L part Go on, mother! Don't ask where you were, when it's so exciting."

"I don't care whether it's in the L part or not. There's plenty of room in the great barn of a place everywhere."

"But what about his taking care of the business in Boston?" suggested Eunice, looking at her father.

"There's no hurry about that."

"And about the excursion to aesthetic centres abroad?" Minnie added.

"That could be managed," said her father, with the same ironical smile.

The mother and the girls went on wildly planning Dan's future for him. It was all in a strain of extravagant burlesque. But he could not take his part in it with his usual zest. He laughed and joked too, but at the bottom of his heart was an uneasy remembrance of the different future he had talked over with Mrs. Pasmer so confidently. But he said to himself buoyantly at last that it would come out all right. His mother would give in, or else Alice could reconcile her mother to whatever seemed really best.

He parted from his mother with fond gaiety. His sisters came out of the room with him.

"I'm perfectly sore with laughing," said Minnie. "It seems like old times—doesn't it, Dan?—such a gale with mother."

William Dean Howells