The next morning Dan Mavering knocked at Boardman's door before the reporter was up. This might have been any time before one o'clock, but it was really at half-past nine. Boardman wanted to know who was there, and when Mavering had said it was he, Boardman seemed to ponder the fact awhile before Mavering heard him getting out of bed and coming barefooted to the door. He unlocked it, and got back into bed; then he called out, "Come in," and Mavering pushed the door open impatiently. But he stood blank and silent, looking helplessly at his friend. A strong glare of winter light came in through the naked sash—for Boardman apparently not only did not close his window-blinds, but did not pull down his curtains, when he went to bed—and shone upon his gay, shrewd face where he lay, showing his pop-corn teeth in a smile at Mavering.
"Prefer to stand?" he asked by and by, after Mavering had remained standing in silence, with no signs of proposing to sit down or speak. Mavering glanced at the only chair in the room: Boardman's clothes dripped and dangled over it. "Throw 'em on the bed," he said, following Mavering's glance.
"I'll take the bed myself," said Mavering; and he sat down on the side of it, and was again suggestively silent.
Boardman moved his head on the pillow, as he watched Mavering's face, with the agreeable sense of personal security which we all feel in viewing trouble from the outside: "You seem balled up about something."
Mavering sighed heavily. "Balled up? It's no word for it. Boardman, I'm done for. Yesterday I was the happiest fellow in the world, and now—Yes, it's all over with me, and it's my own fault, as usual. Look; at that!" He jerked Boardman a note which he had been holding fast in his band, and got up and went to look himself at the wide range of chimney-pots and slated roofs which Boardman's dormer-window commanded.
"Want me to read it?" Boardman asked; and Mavering nodded without glancing round. It dispersed through the air of Boardman's room, as he unfolded it, a thin, elect perfume, like a feminine presence, refined and strict; and Boardman involuntarily passed his hand over his rumpled hair, as if to make himself a little more personable before reading the letter.
"DEAR MR. MAVERING,—I enclose the ring you gave me the other day, and I release you from the promise you gave with it. I am convinced that you wronged yourself in offering either without your whole heart, and I care too much for your happiness to let you persist in your sacrifice.
"In begging that you will not uselessly attempt to see me, but that you will consider this note final, I know you will do me the justice not to attribute an ungenerous motive to me. I shall rejoice to hear of any good that may befall you; and I shall try not to envy any one through whom it comes.—Yours sincerely,"
"P.S.—I say nothing of circumstances or of persons; I feel that any comment of mine upon them would be idle."
Mavering looked up at the sound Boardman made in refolding the letter. Boardman grinned, with sparkling eyes. "Pretty neat," he said.
"Pretty infernally neat," roared Mavering.
"Do you suppose she means business?"
"Of course she means business. Why shouldn't she?"
"I don't know. Why should she?"
"Well, I'll tell you, Boardman. I suppose I shall have to tell you if I'm going to get any good out of you; but it's a dose." He came away from the window, and swept Boardman's clothes off the chair preparatory to taking it.
Boardman lifted his head nervously from the pillow.
"Oh; I'll put them on the bed, if you're so punctilious!" cried Mavering.
"I don't mind the clothes," said Boardman. "I thought I heard my watch knock on the floor in my vest pocket. Just take it out, will you, and see if you've stopped it?"
"Oh, confound your old Waterbury! All the world's stopped; why shouldn't your watch stop too?" Mavering tugged it out of the pocket, and then shoved it back disdainfully. "You couldn't stop that thing with anything short of a sledgehammer; it's rattling away like a mowing-machine. You know those Portland women—those ladies I spent the day with when you were down there at the regatta—the day I came from Campobello—Mrs. Frobisher and her sister?" He agglutinated one query to another till he saw a light of intelligence dawn in Boardman's eye. "Well, they're at the bottom of it, I suppose. I was introduced to them on Class Day, and I ought to have shown them some attention there; but the moment I saw Alice—Miss Pasmer—I forgot all about 'em. But they didn't seem to have noticed it much, and I made it all right with 'em that day at Portland; and they came up in the fall, and I made an appointment with them to drive out to Cambridge and show them the place. They were to take me up at the Art Museum; but that was the day I met Miss Pasmer, and I—I forgot about those women again."
Boardman was one of those who seldom laugh; but his grin expressed all the malicious enjoyment he felt. He said nothing in the impressive silence which Mavering let follow at this point.
"Oh, you think it was funny?" cried Mavering. "I thought it was funny too; but Alice herself opened my eyes to what I'd done, and I always intended to make it all right with them when I got the chance. I supposed she wished me too."
Boardman grinned afresh.
"She told me I must; though she seemed to dislike my having been with them the day after she'd thrown me over. But if"—Mavering interrupted himself to say, as the grin widened on Boardman's face—"if you think it was any case of vulgar jealousy, you're very much mistaken, Boardman. She isn't capable of it, and she was so magnanimous about it that I made up my mind to do all I could to retrieve myself. I felt that it was my duty to her. Well, last night at Mrs. Jim Bellingham's reception—"
A look of professional interest replaced the derision in Boardman's eyes. "Any particular occasion for the reception? Given in honour of anybody?"
"I'll contribute to your society notes some other time, Boardman," said Mavering haughtily. "I'm speaking to a friend, not an interviewer. Well, whom should I see after the first waltz—I'd been dancing with Alice, and we were taking a turn through the drawing-room, and she hanging on my arm, and I knew everybody saw how it was, and I was feeling well—whom should I see but these women. They were in a corner by themselves, looking at a picture, and trying to look as if they were doing it voluntarily. But I could see at a glance that they didn't know anybody; and I knew they had better be in the heart of the Sahara without acquaintances than where they were; and when they bowed forlornly across the room to me, my heart was in my mouth, I felt so sorry for them; and I told Alice who they were; and I supposed she'd want to rush right over to them with me—"
"And did she rush?" asked Boardman, filling up a pause which Mavering made in wiping his face.
"How infernally hot you have it in here!" He went to the window and threw it up; and then did not sit down again, but continued to walk back and forth as he talked. "She didn't seem to know who they were at first, and when I made her understand she hung back, and said, 'Those showy things?' and I must say I think she was wrong; they were dressed as quietly as nine-tenths of the people there; only they are rather large, handsome women. I said I thought we ought to go and speak to them, they seemed stranded there; but she didn't seem to see it; and, when I persisted, she said, 'Well, you go if you think best; but take me to mamma.' And I supposed it was all right; and I told Mrs. Pasmer I'd be back in a minute, and then I went off to those women. And after I'd talked with them a while I saw Mrs. Brinkley sitting with old Bromfield Corey in another corner, and I got them across and introduced them; after I'd explained to Mrs. Brinkley who they were; and they began to have a good time, and I—didn't."
"Just so," said Boardman.
"I thought I hadn't been gone any while at all from Alice; but the weather had changed by the time I had got back. Alice was pretty serious, and she was engaged two or three dances deep; and I could see her looking over the fellows' shoulders, as she went round and round, pretty pale. I hung about till she was free; but then she couldn't dance with me; she said her head ached, and she made her mother take her home before supper; and I mooned round like my own ghost a while, and then I went home. And as if that wasn't enough, I could see by the looks of those other women—old Corey forgot Miss Wrayne in the supper-room, and I had to take her back—that I hadn't made it right with them, even; they were as hard and smooth as glass. I'd ruined myself, and ruined myself for nothing."
Mavering flung Boardman's chair over, and seated himself on its rungs.
"I went to bed, and waited for the next thing to happen. I found my thunderbolt waiting for me when I woke up. I didn't know what it was going to be, but when I felt a ring through the envelope of that note I knew what it was. I mind-read that note before I opened it."
"Give it to the Society for Psychical Research," suggested Boardman. "Been to breakfast?"
"Breakfast!" echoed Mavering. "Well, now, Boardman, what use do you suppose I've got for breakfast under the circumstances?"
"Well, not very much; but your story's made me pretty hungry. Would you mind turning your back, or going out and sitting on the top step of the stairs' landing, or something, while I get up and dress?"
"Oh, I can go, if you want to get rid of me," said Mavering, with unresentful sadness. "But I hoped you might have something to suggest, Boardy.'
"Well, I've suggested two things, and you don't like either. Why not go round and ask to see the old lady?"
"Well, I thought of that. But I didn't like to mention it, for fear you'd sit on it. When would you go?"
"Well, about as quick as I could get there. It's early for a call, but it's a peculiar occasion, and it'll show your interest in the thing. You can't very well let it cool on your hands, unless you mean to accept the situation."
"What do you mean?" demanded Mavering, getting up and standing over Boardman. "Do you think I could accept the situation, as you call it, and live?"
"You did once," said Boardman. "You couldn't, unless you could fix it up with Mrs. Frobisher's sister."
Mavering blushed. "It was a different thing altogether then. I could have broken off then, but I tell you it would kill me now. I've got in too deep. My whole life's set on that girl. You can't understand, Boardman, because you've never been there; but I couldn't give her up."
"All right. Better go and see the old lady without loss of time; or the old man, if you prefer."
Mavering sat down on the edge of the bed again. "Look here, Boardman, what do you mean?"
"By being so confoundedly heartless. Did you suppose that I wanted to pay those women any attention last night from an interested motive?"
"Seems to have been Miss Pasmer's impression."
"Well, you're mistaken. She had no such impression. She would have too much self-respect, too much pride—magnanimity. She would know that after such a girl as she is I couldn't think of any other woman; the thing is simply impossible."
"That's the theory."
"Theory? It's the practice!"
"There's no exception in my case. No, sir! I tell you this thing is for all time—for eternity. It makes me or it mars me, once for all. She may listen to me or she may not listen, but as long as she lives there's no other woman alive for me."
"Better go and tell her so. You're wasting your arguments on me."
"Because I'm convinced already. Because people always marry their first and only loves. Because people never marry twice for love. Because I've never seen you hit before, and I know you never could be again. Now go and convince Miss Pasmer. She'll believe you, because she'll know that she can never care for any one but you, and you naturally can't care for anybody but her. It's a perfectly clear case. All you've got to do is to set it before her."
"If I were you, I wouldn't try to work that cynical racket, Boardman," said Mavering. He rose, but he sighed drearily, and regarded Boardman's grin with lack-lustre absence. But he went away without saying anything more; and walked mechanically toward the Cavendish. As he rang at the door of Mrs. Pasmer's apartments he recalled another early visit he had paid there; he thought how joyful and exuberant he was then, and how crushed and desperate now. He was not without youthful satisfaction in the disparity of his different moods; it seemed to stamp him as a man of large and varied experience.
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