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Chapter 42

Eunice Mavering acknowledged Alice's first letter. She said that her mother read it aloud to them all, and had been delighted with the good account she gave of Dan, and fascinated with all the story of their daily doings and sayings. She wished Eunice to tell Alice how fully she appreciated her thoughtfulness of a sick old woman, and that she was going to write herself and thank her. But Eunice added that Alice must not be surprised if her mother was not very prompt in this, and she sent messages from all the family, affectionate for Alice, and polite for her father and mother.

Alice showed Dan the letter, and he seemed to find nothing noticeable in it. "She says your mother will write later," Alice suggested.

"Yes. You ought to feel very much complimented by that. Mother's autographs are pretty uncommon," he said, smiling.

"Why, doesn't she write? Can't she? Does it tire her?" asked Alice.

"Oh yes, she can write, but she hates to. She gets Eunice or Minnie to write usually."

"Dan," cried Alice intensely, "why didn't you tell me?"

"Why, I thought you knew it," he explained easily. "She likes to read, and likes to talk, but it bores her to write. I don't suppose I get more than two or three pencil scratches from her in the course of a year. She makes the girls write. But you needn't mind her not writing. You may be sure she's glad of your letters."

"It makes me seem very presumptuous to be writing to her when there's no chance of her answering," Alice grieved. "It's as if I had passed over your sisters' heads. I ought to have written to them."

"Oh, well, you can do that now," said Dan soothingly.

"No. No, I can't do it now. It would be ridiculous." She was silent, and presently she asked, "Is there anything else about your mother that I ought to know?" She looked at him with a sort of impending discipline in her eyes which he had learned to dread; it meant such a long course of things, such a very great variety of atonement and expiation for him, that he could not bring himself to confront it steadily.

His heart gave a feeble leap; he would have gladly told her all that was in it, and he meant to do so at the right time, but this did not seem the moment. "I can't say that there is," he answered coldly.

In that need of consecrating her happiness which Alice felt, she went a great deal to church in those days. Sometimes she felt the need almost of defence against her happiness, and a vague apprehension mixed with it. Could it be right to let it claim her whole being, as it seemed to do? Than was the question which she once asked Dan, and it made him laugh, and catch her to him in a rapture that served for the time, and then left her to more morbid doubts. Evidently he could not follow her in them; he could not even imagine them; and while he was with her they seemed to have no verity or value. But she talked them over very hypothetically and impersonally with Miss Cotton, in whose sympathy they resumed all their import, and gained something more. In the idealisation which the girl underwent in this atmosphere all her thoughts and purposes had a significance which she would not of herself, perhaps, have attached to them. They discussed them and analysed them with a satisfaction in the result which could not be represented without an effect of caricature. They measured Alice's romance together, and evolved from it a sublimation of responsibility, of duty, of devotion, which Alice found it impossible to submit to Dan when he came with his simple-hearted, single-minded purpose of getting Mrs. Pasmer out of the room, and sitting down with his arm around Alice's waist. When he had accomplished this it seemed sufficient in itself, and she had to think, to struggle to recall things beyond it, above it. He could not be made to see at such times how their lives could be more in unison than they were. When she proposed doing something for him which he knew was disagreeable to her, he would not let her; and when she hinted at anything she wished him to do for her because she knew it was disagreeable to him, he consented so promptly, so joyously, that she perceived he could not have given the least thought to it.

She felt every day that they were alien in their tastes and aims; their pleasures were not the same, and though it was sweet, though it was charming, to have him give up so willingly all his preferences, she felt, without knowing that the time must come when this could not be so, that it was all wrong.

"But these very differences, these antagonisms, if you wish to call them so," suggested Miss Cotton, in talking Alice's misgivings over with her, "aren't they just what will draw you together more and more? Isn't it what attracted you to each other? The very fact that you are such perfect counterparts—"

"Yes," the girl assented, "that's what we're taught to believe." She meant by the novels, to which we all trust our instruction in such matters, and her doubt doubly rankled after she had put it to silence.

She kept on writing to Dan's mother, though more and more perfunctorily; and now Eunice and now Minnie Mavering acknowledged her letters. She knew that they must think she was silly, but having entered by Dan's connivance upon her folly, she was too proud to abandon it.

At last, after she had ceased to expect it, came a letter from his mother, not a brief note, but a letter which the invalid had evidently tasked herself to make long and full, in recognition of Alice's kindness in writing to her so much. The girl opened it, and, after a verifying glance at the signature, began to read it with a thrill of tender triumph, and the fond prevision of the greater pleasure of reading it again with Dan.

But after reading it once through, she did not wait for him before reading it again and again. She did this with bewilderment, intershot with flashes of conviction, and then doubts of this conviction. When she could misunderstand no longer, she rose quietly and folded the letter, and put it carefully back into its envelope and into her writing desk, where she sat down and wrote, in her clearest and firmest hand, this note to Mavering—

"I wish to see you immediately.

"ALICE PASMER."

William Dean Howells