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Chapter 39

A period of entire harmony and tenderness followed the episode which seemed to threaten the lovers with the loss of each other. Mavering forbore to make Alice feel that in attempting a sacrifice which consulted only his good and ignored his happiness, and then failing in it so promptly, she had played rather a silly part. After one or two tentative jokes in that direction he found the ground unsafe, and with the instinct which served him in place of more premeditated piety he withdrew, and was able to treat the affair with something like religious awe. He was obliged, in fact, to steady Alice's own faith in it, and to keep her from falling under dangerous self-condemnation in that and other excesses of uninstructed self-devotion. This brought no fatigue to his robust affection, whatever it might have done to a heart more tried in such exercises. Love acquaints youth with many things in character and temperament which are none the less interesting because it never explains them; and Dan was of such a make that its revelations of Alice were charming to him because they were novel. He had thought her a person of such serene and flawless wisdom that it was rather a relief to find her subject to gusts of imprudence, to unexpected passions and resentments, to foibles and errors, like other people. Her power of cold reticence; which she could employ at will, was something that fascinated him almost as much as that habit of impulsive concession which seemed to came neither from her will nor her reason. He was a person himself who was so eager to give other people pleasure that he quivered with impatience to see them happy through his words or acts; he could not bear to think that any one to whom he was speaking was not perfectly comfortable in regard to him; and it was for this reason perhaps that he admired a girl who could prescribe herself a line of social conduct, and follow it out regardless of individual pangs—who could act from ideals and principles, and not from emotions and sympathies. He knew that she had the emotions and sympathies, for there were times when she lavished them on him; and that she could seem without them was another proof of that depth of nature which he liked to imagine had first attracted him to her. Dan Mavering had never been able to snub any one in his life; it gave him a great respect for Alice that it seemed not to cost her an effort or a regret, and it charmed him to think that her severity was part of the unconscious sham which imposed her upon the world for a person of inflexible design and invariable constancy to it. He was not long in seeing that she shared this illusion, if it was an illusion, and that perhaps the only person besides himself who was in the joke was her mother. Mrs. Pasmer and he grew more and more into each other's confidence in talking Alice over, and he admired the intrepidity of this lady, who was not afraid of her daughter even in the girl's most topping moments of self-abasement. For his own part, these moods of hers never failed to cause him confusion and anxiety. They commonly intimated themselves parenthetically in the midst of some blissful talk they were having, and overcast his clear sky with retrospective ideals of conduct or presentimental plans for contingencies that might never occur. He found himself suddenly under condemnation for not having reproved her at a given time when she forced him to admit she had seemed unkind or cold to others; she made him promise that even at the risk of alienating her affections he would make up for her deficiencies of behaviour in such matters whenever he noticed them. She now praised him for what he had done for Mrs. Frobisher and her sister at Mrs. Bellingham's reception; she said it was generous, heroic. But Mavering rested satisfied with his achievement in that instance, and did not attempt anything else of the kind. He did not reason from cause to effect in regard to it: a man's love is such that while it lasts he cannot project its object far enough from him to judge it reasonable or unreasonable; but Dan's instincts had been disciplined and his perceptions sharpened by that experience. Besides, in bidding him take this impartial and even admonitory course toward her, she stipulated that they should maintain to the world a perfect harmony of conduct which should be an outward image of the union of their lives. She said that anything less than a continued self-sacrifice of one to the other was not worthy of the name of love, and that she should not be happy unless he required this of her. She said that they ought each to find out what was the most distasteful thing which they could mutually require, and then do it; she asked him to try to think what she most hated, and let her do that for him; as for her, she only asked to ask nothing of him.

Mavering could not worship enough this nobility of soul in her, and he celebrated it to Boardman with the passionate need of imparting his rapture which a lover feel. Boardman acquiesced in silence, with a glance of reserved sarcasm, or contented himself with laconic satire of his friend's general condition, and avoided any comment that might specifically apply to the points Dan made. Alice allowed him to have this confidant, and did not demand of him a report of all he said to Boardman. A main fact of their love, she said, must be their utter faith in each other. She had her own confidante, and the disparity of years between her and Miss Cotton counted for nothing in the friendship which their exchange of trust and sympathy cemented. Miss Cotton, in the freshness of her sympathy and the ideality of her inexperience, was in fact younger than Alice, at whose feet, in the things of soul and character, she loved to sit. She never said to her what she believed: that a girl of her exemplary principles, a nature conscious of such noble ideals, so superior to other girls, who in her place would be given up to the happiness of the moment, and indifferent to the sense of duty to herself and to others, was sacrificed to a person of Mavering's gay, bright nature and trivial conception of life. She did not deny his sweetness; that was perhaps the one saving thing about him; and she confessed that he simply adored Alice; that counted for everything, and it was everything in his favour that he could appreciate such a girl. She hoped, she prayed, that Alice might never realise how little depth he had; that she might go through life and never suspect it. If she did so, then they might be happy together to the end, or at least Alice might never know she was unhappy.

Miss Cotton never said these things in so many words; it is doubtful if she ever said them in any form of words; with her sensitive anxiety not to do injustice to any one, she took Dan's part against those who viewed the engagement as she allowed it to appear only to her secret heart. She defended him the more eagerly because she felt that it was for Alice's sake, and that everything must be done to keep her from knowing how people looked at the affair, even to changing people's minds. She said to all who spoke to her of it that of course Alice was superior to him, but he was devoted to her, and he would grow into an equality with her. He was naturally very refined, she said, and, if he was not a very serious person, he was amiable beyond anything. She alleged many little incidents of their acquaintance at Campobello in proof of her theory that he had an instinctive appreciation of Alice, and she was sure that no one could value her nobleness of character more than he. She had seen them a good deal together since their engagement, and it was beautiful to see his manner with her. They were opposites, but she counted a good deal upon that very difference in their temperaments to draw them to each other.

It was an easy matter to see Dan and Alice together. Their engagement came out in the usual way: it had been announced to a few of their nearest friends, and intelligence of it soon spread from their own set through society generally; it had been published in the Sunday papers while it was still in the tender condition of a rumour, and had been denied by some of their acquaintance and believed by all.

The Pasmer cousinship had been just in the performance of the duties of blood toward Alice since the return of her family from Europe, and now did what was proper in the circumstances. All who were connected with her called upon her and congratulated her; they knew Dan, the younger of them, much better than they knew her; and though he had shrunk from the nebulous bulk of social potentiality which every young man is to that much smaller nucleus to which definite betrothal reduces him, they could be perfectly sincere in calling him the sweetest fellow that ever was, and too lovely to live.

In such a matter Mr. Pasmer was naturally nothing; he could not be less than he was at other times, but he was not more; and it was Mrs. Pasmer who shared fully with her daughter the momentary interest which the engagement gave Alice with all her kindred. They believed, of course, that they recognised in it an effect of her skill in managing; they agreed to suppose that she had got Mavering for Alice, and to ignore the beauty and passion of youth as factors in the case. The closest of the kindred, with the romantic delicacy of Americans in such things, approached the question of Dan's position and prospects, and heard with satisfaction the good accounts which Mrs. Pasmer was able to give of his father's prosperity. There had always been more or less apprehension among them of a time when a family subscription would be necessary for Bob Pasmer, and in the relief which the new situation gave them some of them tried to remember having known Dan's father in College, but it finally came to their guessing that they must have heard John Munt speak of him.

Mrs. Pasmer had a supreme control in the affair. She believed with the rest—so deeply is this delusion seated—that she had made the match; but knowing herself to have used no dishonest magic in the process, she was able to enjoy it with a clean conscience. She grew fonder of Dan; they understood each other; she was his refuge from Alice's ideals, and helped him laugh off his perplexity with them. They were none the less sincere because they were not in the least frank with each other. She let Dan beat about the bush to his heart's content, and waited for him at the point which she knew he was coming to, with an unconsciousness which he knew was factitious; neither of them got tired of this, or failed freshly to admire the other's strategy.

William Dean Howells