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Chapter 38

Mrs. Pasmer was genuinely surprised to see Mavering, and he pursued his advantage—if it was an advantage—by coming directly to the point. He took it for granted that she knew all about the matter, and he threw himself upon her mercy without delay.

"Mrs. Pasmer, you must help me about this business with Alice," he broke out at once. "I don't know what to make of it; but I know I can explain it. Of course," he added, smiling ruefully, "the two statements don't hang together; but what I mean is that if I can find out what the trouble is, I can make it all right, because there's nothing wrong about it; don't you see?"

Mrs. Pasmer tried to keep the mystification out of her eye; but she could not even succeed in seeming to do so, which she would have liked almost as well.

"Don't you know what I mean?" asked Dan.

Mrs. Pasmer chanced it. "That Alice was a little out of sorts last night?" she queried leadingly.

"Yes," said Mavering fervently. "And about her—her writing to me."

"Writing to you?" Mrs. Pasmer was going to ask, when Dan gave her the letter.

"I don't know whether I ought to show it, but I must. I must have your help, and I can't, unless you understand the case."

Mrs. Pasmer had begun to read the note. It explained what the girl herself had refused to give any satisfactory reason for—her early retirement from the reception, her mysterious disappearance into her own room on reaching home, and her resolute silence on the way. Mrs. Pasmer had known that there must be some trouble with Dan, and she had suspected that Alice was vexed with him on account of those women; but it was beyond her cheerful imagination that she should go to such lengths in her resentment. She could conceive of her wishing to punish him, to retaliate her suffering on him; but to renounce him for it was another thing; and she did not attribute to her daughter any other motive than she would have felt herself. It was always this way with Mrs. Pasmer: she followed her daughter accurately up to a certain point; beyond that she did not believe the girl knew herself what she meant; and perhaps she was not altogether wrong. Girlhood is often a turmoil of wild impulses, ignorant exaltations, mistaken ideals, which really represent no intelligent purpose, and come from disordered nerves, ill-advised reading, and the erroneous perspective of inexperience. Mrs. Pasmer felt this, and she was tempted to break into a laugh over Alice's heroics; but she preferred to keep a serious countenance, partly because she did not feel the least seriously. She was instantly resolved not to let this letter accomplish anything more than Dan's temporary abasement, and she would have preferred to shorten this to the briefest moment possible. She liked him, and she was convinced that Alice could never do better, if half so well. She would now have preferred to treat him with familiar confidence, to tell him that she had no idea of Alice's writing him that nonsensical letter, and he was not to pay the least attention to it; for of course it meant nothing; but another principle of her complex nature came into play, and she silently folded the note and returned it to Dan, trembling before her.

"Well?" he quavered.

"Well," returned Mrs. Pasmer judicially, while she enjoyed his tremor, whose needlessness inwardly amused her—"well, of course, Alice was—"

"Annoyed, I know. And it was all my fault—or my misfortune. But I assure you, Mrs. Pasmer, that I thought I was doing something that would please her—in the highest and noblest way. Now don't you know I did?"

Mrs. Pasmer again wished to laugh, but in the face of Dan's tragedy she had to forbear. She contented herself with saying: "Of course. But perhaps it wasn't the best time for pleasing her just in that way."

"It was then or never. I can see now—why, I could see all the time—just how it might look; but I supposed Alice wouldn't care for that, and if I hadn't tried to make some reparation then to Mrs. Frobisher and her sister, I never could. Don't you see?"

"Yes, certainly. But—"

"And Alice herself told me to go and look after them," interposed Mavering. He suppressed, a little uncandidly, the fact of her first reluctance.

"But you know it was the first time you had been out together?"

"Yes."

"And naturally she would wish to have you a good deal to herself, or at least not seeming to run after other people."

"Yes, yes; I know that."

"And no one ever likes to be taken at their word in a thing like that."

"I ought to have thought of that, but I didn't. I wish I had gone to you first, Mrs. Pasmer. Somehow it seems to me as if I were very young and inexperienced; I didn't use to feel so. I wish you were always on hand to advise me, Mrs. Pasmer." Dan hung his head, and his face, usually so gay, was blotted with gloom.

"Will you take my advice now?" asked Mrs. Pasmer.

"Indeed I will!" cried the young fellow, lifting his head. "What is it?"

"See Alice about this."

Dan jumped to his feet, and the sunshine broke out over his face again. "Mrs. Pasmer, I promised to take your advice, and I'll do it. I will see her. But how? Where? Let me have your advice on that point too."

They began to laugh together, and Dan was at once inexpressibly happy. Those two light natures thoroughly comprehended each other.

Mrs. Pasmer had proposed his seeing Alice with due seriousness, but now she had a longing to let herself go; she felt all the pleasure that other people felt in doing Dan Mavering a pleasure, and something more, because he was so perfectly intelligible to her. She let herself go.

"You might stay to breakfast."

"Mrs. Pasmer, I will—I will do that too. I'm awfully hungry, and I put myself in your hands."

"Let me see," said Mrs. Pasmer thoughtfully, "how it can be contrived."

"Yes;" said Mavering, ready for a panic. "How? She wouldn't stand a surprise?"

"No; I had thought of that."

"No behind-a-screen or next-room business?"

"No," said Mrs. Pasmer, with a light sigh. "Alice is peculiar. I'm afraid she wouldn't like it."

"Isn't there any little ruse she would like?"

"I can't think of any. Perhaps I'd better go and tell her you're here and wish to see her."

"Do you think you'd better?" asked Dan doubtfully. "Perhaps she won't come."

"She will come," said Mrs. Pasmer confidently.

She did not say that she thought Alice would be curious to know why he had come, and that she was too just to condemn him unheard.

But she was right about the main point. Alice came, and Dan could see with his own weary eyes that she had not slept either.

She stopped just inside the portiere, and waited for him to speak. But he could not, though a smile from his sense of the absurdity of their seriousness hovered about his lips. His first impulse was to rush upon her and catch her in his arms, and perhaps this might have been well, but the moment for it passed, and then it became impossible.

"Well?" she said at last, lifting her head, and looking at him with impassioned solemnity. "You wished to see me? I hoped you wouldn't. It would have spared me something. But perhaps I had no right to your forbearance."

"Alice, how can you say such things to me?" asked the young fellow, deeply hurt.

She responded to his tone. "I'm sorry if it wounds you. But I only mean what I say."

"You've a right to my forbearance, and not only that, but to my—my life; to everything that I am," cried Dan, in a quiver of tenderness at the sight of her and the sound of her voice. "Alice, why did you write me that letter?—why did you send me back my ring?"

"Because," she said, looking him seriously in the face—"because I wished you to be free, to be happy."

"Well, you've gone the wrong way about it. I can never be free from you; I never can be happy without you."

"I did it for your good, then, which ought to be above your happiness. Don't think I acted hastily. I thought it over all night long. I didn't sleep—"

"Neither did I," interposed Dan.

"And I saw that I had no claim to you; that you never could be truly happy with me—"

"I'll take the chances," he interrupted. "Alice, you don't suppose I cared for those women any more than the ground under your feet, do you? I don't suppose I should ever have given them a second thought if you hadn't seemed to feel so badly about my neglecting them; and I thought you'd be pleased to have me try to make it up to them if I could."

"I know your motive was good—the noblest. Don't think that I did you injustice, or that I was vexed because you went away with them."

"You sent me."

"Yes; and now I give you up to them altogether. It was a mistake, a crime, for me to think we could be anything to each other when our love began with a wrong to some one else."

"With a wrong to some one else?"

"You neglected them on Class Day after you saw me."

"Why, of course I did. How could I help it?"

A flush of pleasure came into the girl's pale face; but she banished it, and continued gravely, "Then at Portland you were with them all day."

"You'd given me up—you'd thrown me over, Alice," he pleaded.

"I know that; I don't blame you. But you made them believe that you were very much interested in them."

"I don't know what I did. I was perfectly desperate."

"Yes; it was my fault. And then, when they came to meet you at the Museum, I had made you forget them; I'd made you wound them and insult them again. No. I've thought it all out, and we never could be happy. Don't think that I do it from any resentful motive."

"Alice? how could I think that?—Of you!"

"I have tried—prayed—to be purified from that, and I believe that I have been."

"You never had a selfish thought."

"And I have come to see that you were perfectly right in what you did last night. At first I was wounded."

"Oh, did I wound you, Alice?" he grieved.

"But afterward I could see that you belonged to them, and not me, and—and I give you up to them. Yes, freely, fully."

Alice stood there, beautiful, pathetic, austere; and Dan had halted in the spot to which he had advanced, when her eye forbade him to approach nearer. He did not mean to joke, and it was in despair that he cried out: "But which, Alice? There are two of them."

"Two?" she repeated vaguely.

"Yes; Mrs. Frobisher and Miss Wrayne. You can't give me up to both of them."

"Both?" she repeated again. She could not condescend to specify; it would be ridiculous, and as it was, she felt her dignity hopelessly shaken. The tears came into her eyes.

"Yes. And neither of them wants me—they haven't got any use for me. Mrs. Frobisher is married already, and Miss Wrayne took the trouble last night to let me feel that, so far as she was concerned, I hadn't made it all right, and couldn't. I thought I had rather a cold parting with you, Alice, but it was quite tropical to what you left me to." A faint smile, mingled with a blush of relenting, stole into her face, and he hurried on. "I don't suppose I tried very hard to thaw her out. I wasn't much interested. If you must give me up, you must give me up to some one else, for they don't want me, and I don't want them." Alice's head dropped lover, and he could come nearer now without her seeming to know it. "But why need you give me up? There's really no occasion for it, I assure you."

"I wished," she explained, "to show you that I loved you for something above yourself and myself—far above either—"

She stopped and dropped the hand which she had raised to fend him off; and he profited by the little pause she made to take her in his arms without seeming to do so. "Well," he said, "I don't believe I was formed to be loved on a very high plane. But I'm not too proud to be loved for my own sake; and I don't think there's anything above you, Alice."

"Oh yes, there is! I don't deserve to be happy, and that's the reason why I'm not allowed to be happy in any noble way. I can't bear to give you up; you know I can't; but you ought to give me up—indeed you ought. I have ideals, but I can't live up to them. You ought to go. You ought to leave me." She accented each little sentence by vividly pressing herself to his heart, and he had the wisdom or the instinct to treat their reconciliation as nothing settled, but merely provisional in its nature.

"Well, we'll see about that. I don't want to go till after breakfast, anyway; your mother says I may stay, and I'm awfully hungry. If I see anything particularly base in you, perhaps I sha'n't come back to lunch."

Dan would have liked to turn it alt off into a joke, now that the worst was apparently over; but Alice freed herself from him, and held him off with her hand set against his breast. "Does mamma know about it?" she demanded sternly.

"Well, she knows there's been some misunderstanding," said Dan, with a laugh that was anxious, in view of the clouds possibly gathering again.

"How much?"

"Well, I can't say exactly." He would not say that he did not know, but he felt that he could truly say that he could not say.

She dropped her hand, and consented to be deceived. Dan caught her again to his breast; but he had an odd, vague sense of doing it carefully, of using a little of the caution with which one seizes the stem of a rose between the thorns.

"I can bear to be ridiculous with you," she whispered, with an implication which he understood.

"You haven't been ridiculous, dearest," he said; and his tension gave way in a convulsive laugh, which partially expressed his feeling of restored security, and partly his amusement in realising how the situation would have pleased Mrs. Pasmer if she could have known it.

Mrs. Pasmer was seated behind her coffee biggin at the breakfast-table when he came into the room with Alice, and she lifted an eye from its glass bulb long enough to catch his flying glance of exultation and admonition. Then, while she regarded the chemical struggle in the bulb, with the rapt eye of a magician reading fate in his crystal ball, she questioned herself how much she should know, and how much she should ignore. It was a great moment for Mrs. Pasmer, full of delicious choice. "Do you understand this process, Mr. Mavering?" she said, glancing up at him warily for farther instruction.

"I've seen it done," said Dan, "but I never knew how it was managed. I always thought it was going to blow up; but it seemed to me that if you were good and true and very meek, and had a conscience void of offence, it wouldn't."

"Yes, that's what it seems to depend upon," said Mrs. Pasmer, keeping her eye on the bulb. She dodged suddenly forward, and put out the spirit-lamp. "Now have your coffee!" she cried, with a great air of relief. "You must need it by this time," she said with a low cynical laugh—"both of you!"

"Did you always make coffee with a biggin in France, Mrs. Pasmer?" asked Dan; and he laughed out the last burden that lurked in his heart.

Mrs. Pasmer joined him. "No, Mr. Mavering. In France you don't need a biggin. I set mine up when we went to England."

Alice looked darkly from one of these light spirits to the other, and then they all shrieked together.

They went on talking volubly from that, and they talked as far away from what they were thinking about as possible. They talked of Europe, and Mrs. Pasmer said where they would live and what they would do when they all got back there together. Dan abetted her, and said that they must cross in June. Mrs. Pasmer said that she thought June was a good month. He asked if it were not the month of the marriages too, and she answered that he must ask Alice about that. Alice blushed and laughed her sweet reluctant laugh, and said she did not know; she had never been married.

It was silly, but it was delicious; it made them really one family. Deep in his consciousness a compunction pierced and teased Dan. But he said to himself that it was all a joke about their European plans, or else his people would consent to it if he really wished it.

William Dean Howells