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Chapter 35

People came to the first of Mrs. James Bellingham's receptions with the expectation of pleasure which the earlier receptions of the season awaken even in the oldest and wisest. But they tried to dissemble their eagerness in a fashionable tardiness. "We get later and later," said Mrs. Brinkley to John Munt, as she sat watching the slow gathering of the crowd. By half-past eleven it had not yet hidden Mrs. Bellingham, where she stood near the middle of the room, from the pleasant corner they had found after accidentally arriving together. Mr. Brinkley had not come; he said he might not be too old for receptions, but he was too good; in either case he preferred to stay at home. "We used to come at nine o'clock, and now we come at I'm getting into a quotation from Mother Goose, I think."

"I thought it was Browning," said Munt, with his witticism manner. Neither he nor Mrs. Brinkley was particularly glad to be together, but at Mrs. James Bellingham's it was well not to fling any companionship away till you were sure of something else. Besides, Mrs. Brinkley was indolent and good-natured, and Munt was active and good-natured, and they were well fitted to get on for ten or fifteen minutes. While they talked she kept an eye out for other acquaintance, and he stood alert to escape at the first chance. "How is it we are here so early—or rather you are?" she pursued irrelevantly.

"Oh, I don't know," said Munt, accepting the implication of his superior fashion with pleasure. "I never mind being among the first. It's rather interesting to see people come in—don't you think?"

"That depends a good deal on the people. I don't find a great variety in their smirks and smiles to Mrs. Bellingham; I seem to be doing them all myself. And there's a monotony about their apprehension and helplessness when they're turned adrift that's altogether too much like my own. No, Mr. Munt, I can't agree with you that it's interesting to see people come in. It's altogether too autobiographical. What else have you to suggest?"

"I'm afraid I'm at the end of my string," said Munt. "I suppose we shall see the Pasmers and young Mavering here to-night."

Mrs. Brinkley turned and looked sharply at him.

"You've heard of the engagement?" he asked.

"No, decidedly, I haven't. And after his flight from Campobello it's the last thing I expected to hear of. When did it come out?"

"Only within a few days. They've been keeping it rather quiet. Mrs. Pasmer told me herself."

Mrs. Brinkley gave herself a moment for reflection. "Well, if he can stand it, I suppose I can."

"That isn't exactly what people are saying to Mrs. Pasmer, Mrs. Brinkley," suggested Munt, with his humorous manner.

"I dare say they're trying to make her believe that her daughter is sacrificed. That's the way. But she knows better."

"There's no doubt but she's informed herself. She put me through my catechism about the Maverings the day of the picnic down there."

"Do you know them?"

"Bridge Mavering and I were at Harvard together."

"Tell me about them." Mrs. Brinkley listened to Munt's praises of his old friend with an attention superficially divided with the people to whom she bowed and smiled. The room was filling up. "Well," she said at the end, "he's a sweet young fellow. I hope he likes his Pasmers."

"I guess there's no doubt about his liking one of them—the principal one."

"Yes, if she is the principal one." There was an implication in everything she said that Dan Mavering had been hoodwinked by Mrs. Pasmer. Mature ladies always like to imply something of the sort in these cases. They like to ignore the prime agency of youth and love, and pretend that marriage is a game that parents play at with us, as if we were in an old comedy; it is a tradition. "Will he take her home to live?"

"No. I heard that they're all going abroad—for a year, or two at least."

"Ah! I thought so," cried Mrs. Brinkley. She looked up with whimsical pleasure in the uncertainty of an old gentleman who is staring hard at her through his glasses. "Well," she said with a pleasant sharpness, "do you make me out?"

"As nearly as my belief in your wisdom will allow," said the old gentleman, as distinctly as his long white moustache and an apparent absence of teeth behind it would let him. John Munt had eagerly abandoned the seat he was keeping at Mrs. Brinkley's side, and had launched himself into the thickening crowd. The old gentleman, who was lank and tall, folded himself down into it, He continued as tranquilly as if seated quite alone with Mrs. Brinkley, and not minding that his voice, with the senile crow in it, made itself heard by others. "I'm always surprised to find sensible people at these things of Jane's. They're most extraordinary things. Jane's idea of society is to turn a herd of human beings loose in her house, and see what will come of it. She has no more sense of hospitality or responsibility than the Elements or Divine Providence. You may come here and have a good time—if you can get it; she won't object; or you may die of solitude and inanition; she'd never know it. I don't know but it's rather sublime in her. It's like the indifference of fate; but it's rather rough on those who don't understand it. She likes to see her rooms filled with pretty dresses, but she has no social instincts and no social inspiration whatever. She lights and heats and feeds her guests, and then she leaves them to themselves. She's a kind woman—Jane is a very good-natured woman, and I really think she'd be grieved if she thought any one went away unhappy, but she does nothing to make them at home in her house—absolutely nothing."

"Perhaps she does all they deserve for them. I don't know that any one acquires merit by coming to an evening party; and it's impossible to be personally hospitable to everybody in such a crowd."

"Yes, I've sometimes taken that view of it. And yet if you ask a stranger to your house, you establish a tacit understanding with him that you won't forget him after you have him there. I like to go about and note the mystification of strangers who've come here with some notion of a little attention. It's delightfully poignant; I suffer with them; it's a cheap luxury of woe; I follow them through all the turns and windings of their experience. Of course the theory is that, being turned loose here with the rest, they may speak to anybody; but the fact is, they can't. Sometimes I should like to hail some of these unfriended spirits, but I haven't the courage. I'm not individually bashful, but I have a thousand years of Anglo-Saxon civilisation behind me. There ought to be policemen, to show strangers about and be kind to them. I've just seen two pretty women cast away in a corner, and clinging to a small water-colour on the wall with a show of interest that would melt a heart of stone. Why do you come, Mrs. Brinkley? I should like to know. You're not obliged to."

"No," said Mrs. Brinkley, lowering her voice instinctively, as if to bring his down. "I suppose I come from force of habit I've been coming a long time, you know. Why do you come?"

"Because I can't sleep. If I could sleep, I should be at home in bed." A weariness came into his thin face and dim eyes that was pathetic, and passed into a whimsical sarcasm. "I'm not one of the great leisure class, you know, that voluntarily turns night into day. Do you know what I go about saying now?"

"Something amusing, I suppose."

"You'd better not be so sure of that. I've discovered a fact, or rather I've formulated an old one. I've always been troubled how to classify people here, there are so many exceptions; and I've ended by broadly generalising them as women and men."

Mrs. Brinkley was certainly amused at this. "It seems to me that there you've been anticipated by nature—not to mention art."

"Oh, not in my particular view. The women in America represent the aristocracy which exists everywhere else in both sexes. You are born to the patrician leisure; you have the accomplishments and the clothes and manners and ideals; and we men are a natural commonalty, born to business, to newspapers, to cigars, and horses. This natural female aristocracy of ours establishes the forms, usages, places, and times of society. The epicene aristocracies of other countries turn night into day in their social pleasures, and our noblesse sympathetically follows their example. You ladies, who can lie till noon next day, come to Jane's reception at eleven o'clock, and you drag along with you a herd of us brokers, bankers, merchants, lawyers, and doctors, who must be at our offices and counting-rooms before nine in the morning. The hours of us work-people are regulated by the wholesome industries of the great democracy which we're a part of; and the hours of our wives and daughters by the deleterious pleasures of the Old World aristocracy. That's the reason we're not all at home in bed."

"I thought you were not at home in bed because you couldn't sleep."

"I know it. And you've no idea how horrible a bed is that you can't sleep in." The old man's voice broke in a tremor. "Ah, it's a bed of torture! I spend many a wicked hour in mine, envying St. Lawrence his gridiron. But what do you think of my theory?"

"It's a very pretty theory. My only objection to it is that it's too flattering. You know I rather prefer to abuse my sex; and to be set up as a natural aristocracy—I don't know that I can quite agree to that, even to account satisfactorily for being at your sister-in-law's reception."

"You're too modest, Mrs. Brinkley."

"No, really. There ought to be some men among us—men without morrows. Now, why don't you and my husband set an example to your sex? Why don't you relax your severe sense of duty? Why need you insist upon being at your offices every morning at nine? Why don't you fling off these habits of lifelong industry, and be gracefully indolent in the interest of the higher civilisation?"

Bromfield Corey looked round at her with a smile of relish for her satire. Her husband was a notoriously lazy man, who had chosen to live restrictedly upon an inherited property rather than increase it by the smallest exertion.

"Do you think we could get Andy Pasmer to join us?"

"No, I can't encourage you with that idea. You must get on without Mr. Pasmer; he's going back to Europe with his son-in-law."

"Do you mean that their girl's married?"

"No-engaged. It's just out."

"Well, I must say Mrs. Pasmer has made use of her time." He too liked to imply that it was all an effect of her manoeuvring, and that the young people had nothing to do with it; this survival from European fiction dies hard. "Who is the young man?"

Mrs. Brinkley gave him an account of Dan Mavering as she had seen him at Campobello, and of his family as she just heard of them. "Mr. Munt was telling me about them as you came up."

"Why, was that John Munt?"

"Yes; didn't you know him?"

"No," said Corey sadly. "I don't know anybody nowadays. I seem to be going to pieces every way. I don't call sixty-nine such a very great age."

"Not at all!" cried Mrs. Brinkley. "I'm fifty-four myself, and Brinkley's sixty."

"But I feel a thousand years old. I don't see people, and when I do I don't know 'em. My head's in a cloud." He let it hang heavily; then he lifted it, and said: "He's a nice, comfortable fellow, Munt is. Why didn't he stop and talk a bit?"

"Well, Munt's modest, you know; and I suppose he thought he might be the third that makes company a crowd. Besides, nobody stops and talks a bit at these things. They're afraid of boring or being bored."

"Yes, they're all in as unnatural a mood as if they were posing for a photograph. I wonder who invented this sort of thing? Do you know," said the old man, "that I think it's rather worse with us than with any other people? We're a simple, sincere folk, domestic in our instincts, not gregarious or frivolous in any way; and when we're wrenched away from our firesides, and packed in our best clothes into Jane's gilded saloons, we feel vindictive; we feel wicked. When the Boston being abandons himself—or herself—to fashion, she suffers a depravation into something quite lurid. She has a bad conscience, and she hardens her heart with talk that's tremendously cynical. It's amusing," said Corey, staring round him purblindly at the groups and files of people surging and eddying past the corner where he sat with Mrs. Brinkley.

"No; it's shocking," said his companion. "At any rate, you mustn't say such things, even if you think them. I can't let you go too far, you know. These young people think it heavenly, here."

She took with him the tone that elderly people use with those older than themselves who have begun to break; there were authority and patronage in it. At the bottom of her heart she thought that Bromfield Corey should not have been allowed to come; but she determined to keep him safe and harmless as far as she could.

From time to time the crowd was a stationary mass in front of them; then it dissolved and flowed away, to gather anew; there were moments when the floor near them was quite vacant; then it was inundated again with silken trains. From another part of the house came the sound of music, and most of the young people who passed went two and two, as if they were partners in the dance, and had come out of the ball-room between dances. There was a good deal of nervous talk, politely subdued among them; but it was not the note of unearthly rapture which Mrs. Brinkley's conventional claim had implied; it was self-interested, eager, anxious; and was probably not different from the voice of good society anywhere.

William Dean Howells