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Chapter 34

"She's a cat, Dan," said his mother quietly, and not without liking, when he looked in for his goodnight kiss after the rest were gone; "a perfect tabby. But your Alice is sublime."

"O mother—"

"She's a little too sublime for me. But you're young, and you can stand it."

Dan laughed with delight. "Yes, I think I can, mother. All I ask is the chance."

"Oh, you're very much in love, both of you; there's no doubt about that. What I mean is that she's very high strung, very intense. She has ideals—any one can see that."

Dan took it all for praise. "Yes," he said eagerly, "that's what I told you. And that will be the best thing about it for me. I have no ideals."

"Well, you must find out what hers are, and live up to them."

"Oh, there won't be any trouble about that," said Dan buoyantly.

"You must help her to find them out too." He looked puzzled. "You mustn't expect the child to be too definite at first, nor to be always right, even when she's full of ideals. You must be very patient with her, Dan."

"Oh, I will, mother! You know that. How could I ever be impatient with Alice?"

"Very forbearing, and very kind, and indefatigably forgiving. Ask your father how to behave."

Dan promised to do so, with a laugh at the joke. It had never occurred to him that his father was particularly exemplary in these things, or that his mother idolised him for what seemed to Dan simply a matter-of-course endurance of her sick whims and freaks and moods. He broke forth into a vehement protest of his good intentions, to which his mother did not seem very attentive. After a while she asked—

"Is she always so silent, Dan?"

"Well, not with me, mother. Of course she was a little embarrassed; she didn't know exactly what to say, I suppose—"

"Oh, I rather liked that. At least she isn't a rattle-pate. And we shall get acquainted; we shall like each other. She will understand me when you bring her home here to live with us, and—"

"Yes," said Dan, rising rather hastily, and stooping over to his mother. "I'm not going to let you talk any more now, or we shall have to suffer for it to-morrow night."

He got gaily away before his mother could amplify a suggestion which spoiled a little of his pleasure in the praises—he thought they were unqualified and enthusiastic praises—she had been heaping upon Alice. He wished to go to bed with them all sweet and unalloyed in his thought, to sleep, to dream upon his perfect triumph.

Mrs. Pasmer was a long time in undressing, and in calming down after the demands which the different events of the evening had made upon her resources.

"It has certainly been a very mixed evening, Alice," she said, as she took the pins out of her back hair and let it fall; and she continued to talk as she went back and forth between their rooms. "What do you think of banjo-playing for young ladies? Isn't it rather rowdy? Decidedly rowdy, I think. And Dan's Yankee story! I expected to see the old gentleman get up and perform some trick."

"I suppose they do it to amuse Mrs. Mavering," said Alice, with cold displeasure.

"Oh, it's quite right," tittered Mrs. Pasmer. "It would be as much as their lives are worth if they didn't. You can see that she rules them with a rod of iron. What a will! I'm glad you're not going to come under her sway; I really think you couldn't be safe from her in the same hemisphere; it's well you're going abroad at once. They're a very self-concentrated family, don't you think—very self-satisfied? Of course that's the danger of living off by themselves as they do: they get to thinking there's nobody else in the world. You would simply be absorbed by them: it's a hair-breadth escape.

"How splendidly Dan contrasts with the others! Oh, he's delightful; he's a man of the world. Give me the world, after all! And he's so considerate of their rustic conceit! What a house! It's perfectly baronial—and ridiculous. In any other country it would mean something—society, entertainments, troops of guests; but here it doesn't mean anything but money. Not that money isn't a very good thing; I wish we had more of it. But now you see how very little it can do by itself. You looked very well, Alice, and behaved with great dignity; perhaps too much. You ought to enter a little more into the spirit of things, even if you don't respect them. That oldest girl isn't particularly pleased, I fancy, though it doesn't matter really."

Alice replied to her mother from time to time with absent Yeses and Noes; she sat by the window looking out on the hillside lawn before the house; the moon had risen, and poured a flood of snowy light over it, in which the cold statues dimly shone, and the firs, in clumps and singly, blackened with an inky solidity. Beyond wandered the hills, their bare pasturage broken here and there by blotches of woodland.

After her mother had gone to bed she turned her light down and resumed her seat by the window, pressing her hot forehead against the pane, and losing all sense of the scene without in the whirl of her thoughts.

After this, evening of gay welcome in Dan's family, and those moments of tenderness with him, her heart was troubled. She now realised her engagement as something exterior to herself and her own family, and confronted for the first time its responsibilities, its ties, and its claims. It was not enough to be everything to Dan; she could not be that unless she were something to his family. She did not realise this vividly, but with the remoteness which all verities except those of sensation have for youth.

Her uneasiness was full of exultation, of triumph; she knew she had been admired by Dan's family, and she experienced the sweetness of having pleased them for his sake; his happy eyes shone before her; but she was touched in her self-love by what her mother had coarsely characterised in them. They had regarded her liking them as a matter of course; his mother had ignored her even in pretending to decry Dan to her. But again this was very remote, very momentary. It was no nearer, no more lasting on the surface of her happiness, than the flying whiff's of thin cloud that chased across the moon and lost themselves in the vast blue around it.

William Dean Howells