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Chapter 40

It cannot be pretended that Alice was quite pleased with the way her friends took her engagement, or rather the way in which they spoke of Dan. It seemed to her that she alone, or she chiefly, ought to feel that sweetness and loveliness of which every one told her, as if she could not have known it. If he was sweet and lovely to every one, how was he different to her except in degree? Ought he not to be different in kind? She put the case to Miss Cotton, whom it puzzled, while she assured Alice that he was different in kind to her, though he might not seem so; the very fact that he was different in degree proved that he was different in kind. This logic sufficed for the moment of its expression, but it did not prevent Alice from putting the case to Dan himself. At one of those little times when she sat beside him alone and rearranged his necktie, or played with his watch chain, or passed a critical hand over his cowlick, she asked him if he did not think they ought to have an ideal in their engagement. "What ideal?" he asked. He thought it was all solid ideal through and through. "Oh," she said, "be more and more to each other." He said he did not see how that could be; if there was anything more of him, she was welcome to it, but he rather thought she had it all. She explained that she meant being less to others; and he asked her to explain that.

"Well, when we're anywhere together, don't you think we ought to show how different we are to each other from what we are to any one else."

Dan laughed. "I'm afraid we do, Alice; I always supposed one ought to hide that little preference as much as possible. You don't want me to be dangling after you every moment?"

"No-o-o. But not—dangle after others."

Dan sighed a little—a little impatiently. "Do I dangle after others?"

"Of course not. But show that we're thoroughly united in all our tastes and feelings, and—like and dislike the same persons."

"I don't think that will be difficult," said Dan.

She was silent a moment, and then she said; "You don't like to have me bring up such things?"

"Oh yes, I do. I wish to be and do just what you wish."

"But I can see, I can understand, that you would sooner pass the time without talking of them. You like to be perfectly happy, and not to have any cares when—when you're with me this way?"

"Well, yes, I suppose I do," said Dan, laughing again. "I suppose I rather do like to keep pleasure and duty apart. But there's nothing you can wish, Alice, that isn't a pleasure to me."

"I'm very different," said the girl. "I can't be at peace unless I know that I have a right to be so. But now, after this, I'm going to do your way. If it's your way, it'll be the right way—for me." She looked sublimely resolved, with a grand lift of the eyes, and Dan caught her to him in a rapture, breaking into laughter.

"Oh, don't! Mine's a bad way—the worst kind of a way," he cried.

"It makes everybody like you, and mine makes nobody like me."

"It makes me like you, and that's quite enough. I don't want other people to like you!"

"Yes, that's what I mean!" cried Alice; and now she flung herself on his neck, and the tears came. "Do you suppose it can be very pleasant to have everybody talking of you as if everybody loved you as much—as much as I do?" She clutched him tighter and sobbed.

"O Alice! Alice! Alice! Nobody could ever be what you are to me!" He soothed and comforted her with endearing words and touches; but before he could have believed her half consoled she pulled away from him, and asked, with shining eyes, "Do you think Mr. Boardman is a good influence in your life?"

"Boardman!" cried Mavering, in astonishment. "Why, I thought you liked Boardman?"

"I do; and I respect him very much. But that isn't the question. Don't you think we ought to ask ourselves how others influence us?"

"Well, I don't see much of Boardy nowadays; but I like to drop down and touch earth in Boardy once in a while—I'm in the air so much. Board has more common-sense, more solid chunk-wisdom, than anybody I know. He's kept me from making a fool of myself more times—"

"Wasn't he with you that day with—with those women in Portland?"

Dan winced a little, and then laughed. "No, he wasn't. That was the trouble. Boardman was off on the press boat. I thought I told you. But if you object to Boardman—"

"I don't. You mustn't think I object to people when I ask you about them. All that I wished was that you should think yourself what sort of influence he was. I think he's a very good influence."

"He's a splendid fellow, Boardman is, Alice!" cried Dan. "You ought to have seen how he fought his way through college on such a little money, and never skulked or felt mean. He wasn't appreciated for it; the men don't notice these things much; but he didn't want to have it noticed; always acted as if it was neither here nor there; and now I guess he sends out home whatever he has left after keeping soul and body together every week."

He spoke, perhaps, with too great an effect of relief. Alice listened, as it seemed, to his tone rather than his words, and said absently—

"Yes, that's grand. But I don't want you to act as if you were afraid of me in such things."

"Afraid?" Dan echoed.

"I don't mean actually afraid, but as if you thought I couldn't be reasonable; as if you supposed I didn't expect you to make mistakes or to be imperfect."

"Yes, I know you're very reasonable, and you're more patient with me than I deserve; I know all that, and it's only my wish to come up to your standard, I suppose, that gives me that apprehensive appearance."

"That was what vexed me with you there at Campobello, when you—asked me—"

"Yes, I know."

"You ought to have understood me better. You ought to know now that I don't wish you to do anything on my account, but because it's something we owe to others."

"Oh, excuse me! I'd much rather do it for you," cried Dan; but Alice looked so grave, so hurt, that he hastened on: "How in the world does it concern others whether we are devoted or not, whether we're harmonious and two-souls-with-but-a-single-thought, and all that?" He could not help being light about it.

"How?" Alice repeated. "Won't it give them an idea of what—what—of how much—how truly—if we care for each other—how people ought to care? We don't do it for ourselves. That would be selfish and disgusting. We do it because it's something that we owe to the idea of being engaged—of having devoted our lives to each other, and would show—would teach—"

"Oh yes! I know what you mean," said Dan, and he gave way in a sputtering laugh. "But they wouldn't understand. They'd only think we were spoons on each other; and if they noticed that I cooled off toward people I'd liked, and warmed up toward those you liked, they'd say you made me."

"Should you care?" asked Alice sublimely, withdrawing a little from his arm.

"Oh no! only on your account," he answered, checking his laugh.

"You needn't on my account," she returned. "If we sacrifice some little preferences to each other, isn't that right? I shall be glad to sacrifice all of mine to you. Isn't our—marriage to be full of such sacrifices? I expect to give up everything to you." She looked at him with a sad severity.

He began to laugh again. "Oh no, Alice! Don't do that! I couldn't stand it. I want some little chance at the renunciations myself."

She withdrew still further from his side, and said, with a cold anger, "It's that detestable Mrs. Brinkley."

"Mrs. Brinkley!" shouted Dan.

"Yes; with her pessimism. I have heard her talk. She influences you. Nothing is sacred to her. It was she who took up with those army women that night."

"Well, Alice, I must say you can give things as ugly names as the next one. I haven't seen Mrs. Brinkley the whole winter, except in your company. But she has more sense than all the other women I know."

"Oh, thank you!"

"You know I don't mean you," he pushed on. "And she isn't a pessimist. She's very kindhearted, and that night she was very polite and good to those army women, as you call them, when you had refused to say a word or do anything for them."

"I knew it had been rankling in your mind all along," said the girl "I expected it to coma out sooner or later. And you talk about renunciation! You never forget nor forgive the slightest thing. But I don't ask your forgiveness."

"Alice!"

"No. You are as hard as iron. You have that pleasant outside manner that makes people think you're very gentle and yielding, but all the time you're like adamant. I would rather die than ask your forgiveness for anything, and you'd rather let me than give it."

"Well, then, I ask your forgiveness, Alice, and I'm sure you won't let me die without it."

They regarded each other a moment. Then the tenderness gushed up in their hearts, a passionate tide, and swept them into each other's arms.

"O Dan," she cried, "how sweet you are! how good! how lovely! Oh, how wonderful it is! I wanted to hate you, but I couldn't. I couldn't do anything but love you. Yes, now I understand what love is, and how it can do everything, and last for ever."

William Dean Howells