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Chapter 33

When she entered Mrs. Mavering's room Alice first saw the pictures, the bric-a-brac, the flowers, the dazzle of lights, and then the invalid propped among her pillows, and vividly expectant of her. She seemed all eager eyes to the girl, aware next of the strong resemblance to Dan in her features, and of the careful toilet the sick woman had made for her. To youth all forms of suffering are abhorrent, and Alice had to hide a repugnance at sight of this spectre of what had once been a pretty woman. Through the egotism with which so many years of flattering subjection in her little world had armed her, Mrs. Mavering probably did not feel the girl's shrinking, or, if she did, took it for the natural embarrassment which she would feel. She had satisfied herself that she was looking her best, and that her cap and the lace jacket she wore were very becoming, and softened her worst points; the hangings of her bed and the richly embroidered crimson silk coverlet were part of the coquetry of her costume, from which habit had taken all sense of ghastliness; she was proud of them, and she was not aware of the scent of drugs that insisted through the odour of the flowers.

She lifted herself on her elbow as Dan approached with Alice, and the girl felt as if an intense light had been thrown upon her from head to foot in the moment of searching scrutiny that followed. The invalid's set look broke into a smile, and she put out her hand, neither hot nor cold, but of a dry neutral, spiritual temperature, and pulled Alice down and kissed her.

"Why, child, your hand's like ice!" she exclaimed without preamble. "We used to say that came from a warm heart."

"I guess it comes from a cold grapery in this case, mother," said Dan, with his laugh. "I've just been running Alice through it. And perhaps a little excitement—"

"Excitement?" echoed his mother. "Cold grapery, I dare say, and very silly of you, Dan; but there's no occasion for excitement, as if we were strangers. Sit down in that chair, my dear. And, Dan, you go round to the other side of the bed; I want Alice all to myself. I saw your photograph a week ago, and I've thought about you for ages since, and wondered whether you would approve of your old friend."

"Oh yes," whispered the girl, suppressing a tremor; and Dan's eyes were suffused with grateful tears at his mother's graciousness.

Alice's reticence seemed to please the invalid. "I hope you'll like all your old friends here; you've begun with the worst among us, but perhaps you like him the best because he is the worst; I do."

"You may believe just half of that, Alice," cried Dan.

"Then believe the best half, or the half you like best," said Mrs. Mavering. "There must be something good in him if you like him. Have they welcomed you home, my dear?"

"We've all made a stagger at it," said Dan, while Alice was faltering over the words which were so slow to come.

"Don't try to answer my formal stupidities. You are welcome, and that's enough, and more than enough of speeches. Did you have a comfortable journey up?"

"Oh, very."

"Was it cold?"

"Not at all. The cars were very hot."

"Have you had any snow yet at Boston?"

"No, none at all yet."

"Now I feel that we're talking sense. I hope you found everything in your room? I can't look after things as I would like, and so I inquire."

"There's everything," said Alice. "We're very comfortable."

"I'm very glad. I had Dan look, he's my housekeeper; he understands me better than my girls; he's like me, more. That's what makes us so fond of each other; it's a kind of personal vanity. But he has his good points, Dan has. He's very amiable, and I was too, at his age—and till I came here. But I'm not going to tell you of his good points; I dare say you've found them out. I'll tell you about his bad ones. He says you're very serious. Are you?" She pressed the girl's hand, which she had kept in hers, and regarded her keenly.

Alice dropped her eyes at the odd question. "I don't know," she faltered. "Sometimes."

"Well, that's good. Dan's frivolous."

"Oh, sometimes—only sometimes!" he interposed.

"He's frivolous, and he's very light-minded; but he's none the worse for that."

"Oh, thank you," said Dan; and Alice, still puzzled, laughed provisionally.

"No; I want you to understand that. He's light-hearted too, and that's a great thing in this world. If you're serious you'll be apt to be heavyhearted, and then you'll find Dan of use. And I hope he'll know how, to turn your seriousness to account too, he needs something to keep him down—to keep him from blowing away. Yes, it's very well for people to be opposites. Only they must understand each other, If they do that, then they get along. Light-heartedness or heavy-heartedness comes to the same thing if they know how to use it for each other. You see, I've got to be a great philosopher lying here; nobody dares contradict me or interrupt me when I'm constructing my theories, and so I get them perfect."

"I wish I could hear them all," said Alice, with sincerity that made Mrs. Mavering laugh as light-heartedly as Dan himself, and that seemed to suggest the nest thing to her.

"You can for the asking, almost any time. Are you a very truthful person, my dear? Don't take the trouble to deny it if you are," she added, at Alice's stare. "You see, I'm not at all conventional and you needn't be. Come! tell the truth for once, at any rate. Are you habitually truthful?"

"Yes, I think I am," said Alice, still staring.

"Dan's not," said his mother quietly.

"Oh, see here, now, mother! Don't give me away!"

"He'll tell the truth in extremity, of course, and he'll tell it if it's pleasant, always; but if you don't expect much more of him you won't be disappointed; and you can make him of great use."

"You see where I got it, anyway, Alice," said Dan, laughing across the bed at her.

"Yes, you got it from me: I own it. A great part of my life was made up of making life pleasant to others by fibbing. I stopped it when I came here."

"Oh, not altogether, mother!" urged her son. "You mustn't be too hard on yourself."

She ignored his interruption: "You'll find Dan a great convenience with that agreeable habit of his. You can get him to make all your verbal excuses for you (he'll, do it beautifully), and dictate all the thousand and one little lying notes you'll have to write; he won't mind it in the least, and it will save you a great wear-and-tear of conscience."

"Go on, mother, go on," said Dan, with delighted eyes, that asked of Alice if it were not all perfectly charming.

"And you can come in with your habitual truthfulness where Dan wouldn't know what to do, poor fellow. You'll have the moral courage to come right to the point when he would like to shillyshally, and you can be frank while he's trying to think how to make y-e-s spell no."

"Any other little compliments, mother?" suggested Dan.

"No," said Mrs. Mavering; "that's all. I thought I'd better have it off my mind; I knew you'd never get it off yours, and Alice had better know the worst. It is the worst, my dear, and if I talked of him till doomsday I couldn't say any more harm of him. I needn't tell you how sweet he is; you know that, I'm sure; but you can't know yet how gentle and forbearing he is, how patient, how full of kindness to every living soul, how unselfish, how—"

She lost her voice. "Oh, come now, mother," Dan protested huskily.

Alice did not say anything; she bent over, without repugnance, and gathered the shadowy shape into her strong young arms, and kissed the wasted face whose unearthly coolness was like the leaf of a flower against her lips. "He never gave me a moment's trouble," said the mother, "and I'm sure he'll make you happy. How kind of you not to be afraid of me—"

"Afraid!" cried the girl, with passionate solemnity. "I shall never feel safe away from you!"

The door opened upon the sound of voices, and the others came in.

Mrs. Pasmer did not wait for an introduction, but with an affectation of impulse which she felt Mrs. Mavering would penetrate and respect, she went up to the bed and presented herself. Dan's mother smiled hospitably upon her, and they had some playful words about their children. Mrs. Pasmer neatly conveyed the regrets of her husband, who had hoped up to the last moment that the heavy cold he had taken would let him come with her; and the invalid made her guest sit down on the right hand of her bed, which seemed to be the place of honour, while her husband took Dan's place on the left, and admired his wife's skill in fence. At the end of her encounter with Mrs. Pasmer she called out with her strong voice, "Why don't you get your banjo, Molly, and play something?"

"A banjo? Oh, do!" cried Mrs. Pasmer. "It's so picturesque and interesting! I heard that young ladies had taken it up, and I should so like to hear it!" She had turned to Mrs. Mavering again, and she now beamed winningly upon her.

Alice regarded the girl with a puzzled frown as she brought her banjo in from another room and sat down with it. She relaxed the severity of her stare a little as Molly played one wild air after another, singing some of them with an evidence of training in her naive effectiveness. There were some Mexican songs which she had learned in a late visit to their country, and some Creole melodies caught up in a winter's sojourn to Louisiana. The elder sister accompanied her on the piano, not with the hard, resolute proficiency which one might have expected of Eunice Mavering, but with a sympathy which was perhaps the expression of her share of the family kindliness.

"Your children seem to have been everywhere," said Mrs. Pasmer, with a sigh of flattering envy. "Oh, you're not going to stop!" she pleaded, turning from Mrs. Mavering to Molly.

"I think Dan had better do the rheumatic uncle now," said Eunice, from the piano.

"Oh yes! the rheumatic uncle—do," said Mrs. Pasmer. "We know the rheumatic uncle," she added, with a glance at Alice. Dan looked at her too, as if doubtful of her approval; and then he told in character a Yankee story which he had worked up from the talk of his friend the foreman. It made them all laugh.

Mrs. Pasmer was the gayest; she let herself go, and throughout the evening she flattered right and left, and said, in her good-night to Mrs. Mavering, that she had never imagined so delightful a time. "O Mrs. Mavering, I don't wonder your children love their home. It's a revelation."

William Dean Howells