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Chapter 32

A week later, in fulfilment of the arrangement made by Mrs. Pasmer and Eunice Mavering, Alice and her mother returned the formal visit of Dan's people.

While Alice stood before the mirror in one of the sumptuously furnished rooms assigned them, arranging a ribbon for the effect upon Dan's mother after dinner, and regarding its relation to her serious beauty, Mrs. Pasmer came out of her chamber adjoining, and began to inspect the formal splendour of the place.

"What a perfect man's house!" she said, peering about. "You can see that everything has been done to order. They have their own taste; they're artistic enough for that—or the father is—and they've given orders to have things done so and so, and the New York upholsterer has come up and taken the measure of the rooms and done it. But it isn't like New York, and it isn't individual. The whole house is just like those girls' tailor-made costumes in character. They were made in New York, but they don't wear them with the New York style; there's no more atmosphere about them than if they were young men dressed up. There isn't a thing lacking in the house here; there's an awful completeness; but even the ornaments seem laid on, like the hot and cold water. I never saw a handsomer, more uninviting room than that drawing room. I suppose the etching will come some time after supper. What do you think of it all, Alice?"

"Oh, I don't know. They must be very rich," said the girl indifferently.

"You can't tell. Country people of a certain kind are apt to put everything on their backs and their walls and floors. Of course such a house here doesn't mean what it would in town." She examined the texture of the carpet more critically, and the curtains; she had no shame about a curiosity that made her daughter shrink.

"Don't, mamma!" pleaded the girl. "What if they should come?"

"They won't come," said Mrs. Pasmer; and her notice being called to Alice, she made her take off the ribbon. "You're better without it."

"I'm so nervous I don't know what I'm doing," said Alice, removing it, with a whimper.

"Well, I can't have you breaking down!" cried her mother warningly: she really wished to shake her, as a culmination of her own conflicting emotions. "Alice, stop this instant! Stop it, I say!"

"But if I don't like her?" whimpered Alice.

"You're not going to marry her. Now stop! Here, bathe your eyes; they're all red. Though I don't know that it matters. Yes, they'll expect you to have been crying," said Mrs. Pasmer, seeing the situation more and more clearly. "It's perfectly natural." But she took some cologne on a handkerchief, and recomposed Alice's countenance for her. "There, the colour becomes you, and I never saw your eyes look so bright."

There was a pathos in their brilliancy which of course betrayed her to the Mavering girls. It softened Eunice, and encouraged Minnie, who had been a little afraid of the Pasmers. They both kissed Alice with sisterly affection. Their father merely saw how handsome she looked, and Dan's heart seemed to melt in his breast with tenderness.

In recognition of the different habits of their guests, they had dinner instead of tea. The Portuguese cook had outdone himself, and course followed course in triumphal succession. Mrs. Pasmer praised it all with a sincerity that took away a little of the zest she felt in making flattering speeches.

Everything about the table was perfect, but in a man's fashion, like the rest of the house. It lacked the atmospheric charm, the otherwise indefinable grace, which a woman's taste gives. It was in fact Elbridge Mavering's taste which had characterised the whole; the daughters simply accepted and approved.

"Yes," said Eunice, "we haven't much else to do; so we eat. And Joe does his best to spoil us."

"Joe?"

"Joe's the cook. All Portuguese cooks are Joe."

"How very amusing!" said Mrs. Pasmer. "You must let me speak of your grapes. I never saw anything so—well!—except your roses."

"There you touched father in two tender spots. He cultivates both."

"Really? Alice, did you ever see anything like these roses?"

Alice looked away from Dan a moment, and blushed to find that she had been looking so long at him.

"Ah, I have," said Mavering gallantly.

"Does he often do it?" asked Mrs. Pasmer, in an obvious aside to Eunice.

Dan answered for him. "He never had such a chance before."

Between coffee, which they drank at table, and tea, which they were to take in Mrs. Mavering's room, they acted upon a suggestion from Eunice that her father should show Mrs. Pasmer his rose-house. At one end of the dining-room was a little apse of glass full of flowering plants growing out of the ground, and with a delicate fountain tinkling in their midst. Dan ran before the rest, and opened two glass doors in the further side of this half-bubble, and at the same time with a touch flashed up a succession of brilliant lights in some space beyond, from which there gushed in a wave of hothouse fragrance, warm, heavy, humid. It was a pretty little effect for guests new to the house, and was part of Elbridge Mavering's pleasure in this feature of his place. Mrs. Pasmer responded with generous sympathy, for if she really liked anything with her whole heart, it was an effect, and she traversed the half-bubble by its pebbled path, showering praises right and left with a fulness and accuracy that missed no detail, while Alice followed silently, her hand in Minnie Mavering's, and cold with suppressed excitement. The rose-house was divided by a wall, pierced with frequent doorways, over which the trees were trained and the roses hung; and on either side were ranks of rare and costly kinds, weighed down with bud and bloom. The air was thick with their breath and the pungent odours of the rich soil from which they grew, and the glass roof was misted with the mingled exhalations.

Mr. Mavering walked beside Alice, modestly explaining the difficulties of rose culture, and his method of dealing with the red spider. He had a stout knife in his hand, and he cropped long, heavy-laden stems of roses from the walls and the beds, casually giving her their different names, and laying them along his arm in a massive sheaf.

Mrs. Pasmer and Eunice had gone forward with Dan, and were waiting for them at the thither end of the rose-house.

"Alice! just imagine: the grapery is beyond this," cried the girl's mother.

"It's a cold grapery," said Mr. Mavering. "I hope you'll see it to-morrow."

"Oh, why not to-night?" shouted Dan.

"Because it's a cold grapery," said Eunice; "and after this rose-house, it's an Arctic grapery. You're crazy, Dan."

"Well, I want Alice to see it anyway," he persisted wilfully. "There's nothing like a cold grapery by starlight. I'll get some wraps." They all knew that he wished to be alone with her a moment, and the three women, consenting with their hearts, protested with their tongues, following him in his flight with their chorus, and greeting his return. He muffled her to the chin in a fur-lined overcoat, which he had laid hands on the first thing; and her mother, still protesting, helped to tie a scarf over her hair so as not to disarrange it. "Here," he pointed, "we can run through it, and it's worth seeing. Better come," he said to the others as he opened the door, and hurried Alice down the path under the keen sparkle of the crystal roof, blotched with the leaves and bunches of the vines. Coming out of the dense, sensuous, vaporous air of the rose-house into this clear, thin atmosphere, delicately penetrated with the fragrance, pure and cold, of the fruit, it was as if they had entered another world. His arm crept round her in the odorous obscurity.

"Look up! See the stars through the vines! But when she lifted her face he bent his upon it for a wild kiss.

"Don't! don't!" she murmured. "I want to think; I don't know what I'm doing."

"Neither do I. I feel as if I were a blessed ghost."

Perhaps it is only in these ecstasies of the senses that the soul ever reaches self-consciousness on earth; and it seems to be only the man-soul which finds itself even in this abandon. The woman-soul has always something else to think of.

"What shall we do," said the girl, "if we—Oh, I dread to meet your mother! Is she like either of your sisters?"

"No," he cried joyously; "she's like me. If you're not afraid of me, and you don't seem to be—"

"You're all I have—you're all I have in the world. Do you think she'll like me? Oh, do you love me, Dan?"

"You darling! you divine—" The rest was a mad embrace. "If you're not afraid of me, you won't mind mother. I wanted you here alone for just a last word, to tell you you needn't be afraid; to tell you to—But I needn't tell you how to act. You mustn't treat her as an invalid—you must treat her like any one else; that's what she likes. But you'll know what's best, Alice. Be yourself, and she'll like you well enough. I'm not afraid."

William Dean Howells