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Chapter 43

Dan had learned, with a lover's keenness, to read Alice's moods in the most colourless wording of her notes. She was rather apt to write him notes, taking back or reaffirming the effect of something that had just passed between them. Her note were tempered to varying degrees of heat and cold, so fine that no one else would have felt the difference, but sensible to him in their subtlest intention.

Perhaps a mere witness of the fact would have been alarmed by a note which began without an address, except that on the envelope, and ended its peremptory brevity with the writer's name signed in full. Dan read calamity in it, and he had all the more trouble to pull himself together to meet it because he had parted with unusual tenderness from Alice the night before, after an evening in which it seemed to him that their ideals had been completely reconciled.

The note came, as her notes were apt to come, while Dan was at breakfast, which he was rather luxurious about for so young a man, and he felt formlessly glad afterward that he had drunk his first cup of coffee before he opened it, for it chilled the second cup, and seemed to take all character out of the omelet.

He obeyed it, wondering what the doom menaced in it might be, but knowing that it was doom, and leaving his breakfast half-finished, with a dull sense of the tragedy of doing so.

He would have liked to ask for Mrs. Pasmer first, and interpose a moment of her cheerful unreality between himself and his interview with Alice, but he decided that he had better not do this, and they met at once, with the width of the room between them. Her look was one that made it impassable to the simple impulse he usually had to take her in his arms and kiss her. But as she stood holding out a letter to him, with the apparent intention that he should come and take it, he traversed the intervening space and took it.

"Why, it's from mother!" he said joyously, with a glance at the handwriting.

"Will you please explain it?" said Alice, and Dan began to read it.

It began with a good many excuses for not having written before, and went on with a pretty expression of interest in Alice's letters and gratitude for them; Mrs. Mavering assured the girl that she could not imagine what a pleasure they had been to her. She promised herself that they should be great friends, and she said that she looked forward eagerly to the time, now drawing near, when Dan should bring her home to them. She said she knew Alice would find it dull at the Falls except for him, but they would all do their best, and she would find the place very different from what she had seen it in the winter. Alice could make believe that she was there just for the summer, and Mrs. Mavering hoped that before the summer was gone she would be so sorry for a sick old woman that she would not even wish to go with it. This part of the letter, which gave Dan away so hopelessly, as he felt, was phrased so touchingly, that he looked up from it with moist eyes to the hard cold judgment in the eyes of Alice.

"Will you please explain it?" she repeated.

He tried to temporise. "Explain what?"

Alice was prompt to say, "Had you promised your mother to take me home to live?"

Dan did not answer.

"You promised my mother to go abroad. What else have you promised?" He continued silent, and she added, "You are a faithless man." They were the words of Romola, in the romance, to Tito; she had often admired them; and they seemed to her equally the measure of Dan's offence.

"Alice—"

"Here are your letters and remembrances, Mr. Mavering." Dan mechanically received the packet she had been holding behind her; with a perverse freak of intelligence he observed that, though much larger now, it was tied up with the same ribbon which had fastened it when Alice returned his letters and gifts before. "Good-bye. I wish you every happiness consistent with your nature."

She bowed coldly, and was about to leave him, as she had planned; but she had not arranged that he should be standing in front of the door, and he was there, with no apparent intention of moving.

"Will you allow me to pass?" she was forced to ask, however, haughtily.

"No!" he retorted, with a violence that surprised him. "I will not let you pass till you have listened to me—till you tell me why you treat me so. I won't stand it—I've had enough of this kind of thing."

It surprised Alice too a little, and after a moment's hesitation she said, "I will listen to you," so much more gently than she had spoken before that Dan relaxed his imperative tone, and began to laugh. "But," she added, and her face clouded again, "it will be of no use. My mind is made up this time. Why should we talk?"

"Why, because mine isn't," said Dan. "What is the matter, Alice? Do you think I would force you, or even ask you, to go home with me to live unless you were entirely willing? It could only be a temporary arrangement anyway."

"That isn't the question," she retorted. "The question is whether you've promised your mother one thing and me another."

"Well, I don't know about promising," said Dan, laughing a little more uneasily, but still laughing. "As nearly as I can remember, I wasn't consulted about the matter. Your mother proposed one thing, and my mother proposed another."

"And you agreed to both. That is quite enough—quite characteristic!"

Dan flushed, and stopped laughing. "I don't know what you mean by characteristic. The thing didn't have to be decided at once, and I didn't suppose it would be difficult for either side to give way, if it was judged best. I was sure my mother wouldn't insist."

"It seems very easy for your family to make sacrifices that are not likely to be required of them."

"You mustn't criticise my mother!" cried Dan.

"I have not criticised her. You insinuate that we would be too selfish to give up, if it were for the best."

"I do nothing of the kind, and unless you are determined to quarrel with me you wouldn't say so."

"I don't wish a quarrel; none is necessary," said Alice coldly.

"You accuse me of being treacherous—"

"I didn't say treacherous!"

"Faithless, then. It's a mere quibble about words. I want you to take that back."

"I can't take it back; it's the truth. Aren't you faithless, if you let us go on thinking that you're going to Europe, and let your mother think that we're coming home to live after we're married?"

"No! I'm simply leaving the question open!"

"Yes," said the girl—sadly, "you like to leave questions open. That's your way."

"Well, I suppose I do till it's necessary to decide them. It saves the needless effusion of talk," said Dan, with a laugh; and then, as people do in a quarrel, he went back to his angry mood, and said "Besides, I supposed you would be glad of the chance to make some sacrifice for me. You're always asking for it."

"Thank you, Mr. Mavering," said Alice, "for reminding me of it; nothing is sacred to you, it seems. I can't say that you have ever sought any opportunities of self-sacrifice."

"I wasn't allowed time to do so; they were always presented."

"Thank you again, Mr. Mavering. All this is quite a revelation. I'm glad to know how you really felt about things that you seemed so eager for."

"Alice, you know that I would do anything for you!" cried Dan, rueing his precipitate words.

"Yes; that's what you've repeatedly told me. I used to believe it."

"And I always believed what you said. You said at the picnic that day that you thought I would like to live at Ponkwasset Falls if my business was there—"

"That is not the point!"

"And now you quarrel with me because my mother wishes me to do so."

Alice merely said: "I don't know why I stand here allowing you to intimidate me in my father's house. I demand that you shall stand aside and let me pass."

"I'll not oblige you to leave the room," said Dan. "I will go. But if I go, you will understand that I don't come back."

"I hope that," said the girl.

"Very well. Good morning, Miss Pasmer."

She inclined her head slightly in acknowledgment of his bow, and he whirled out of the room and down the dim narrow passageway into the arms of Mrs. Pasmer, who had resisted as long as she could her curiosity to know what the angry voices of himself and Alice meant.

"O Mr. Mavering, is it you?" she buzzed; and she flung aside one pretence for another in adding, "Couldn't Alice make you stay to breakfast?"

Dan felt a rush of tenderness in his heart at the sound of the kind, humbugging little voice. "No, thank you, Mrs. Pasmer, I couldn't stay, thank you. I—I thank you very much. I—good-bye, Mrs. Pasmer." He wrung her hand, and found his way out of the apartment door, leaving her to clear up the mystery of his flight and his broken words as she could.

"Alice," she said, as she entered the room, where the girl had remained, "what have you been doing now?"

"Oh, nothing," she said, with a remnant of her scorn for Dan qualifying her tone and manner to her mother. "I've dismissed Mr. Mavering."

"Then you want him to come to lunch?" asked her mother. "I should advise him to refuse."

"I don't think he'd accept," said Alice. Then, as Mrs. Pasmer stood in the door, preventing her egress, as Dan had done before, she asked meekly "Will you let me pass, mamma? My head aches."

Mrs. Pasmer, whose easy triumphs in so many difficult circumstances kept her nearly always in good temper, let herself go, at these words, in vexation very uncommon with her. "Indeed I shall not!" she retorted. "And you will please sit down here and tell me what you mean by dismissing Mr. Mavering. I'm tired of your whims and caprices."

"I can't talk," began the girl stubbornly.

"Yes, I think you can," said her mother. "At any rate, I can. Now what is it all?"

"Perhaps this letter, will explain," said Alice, continuing to dignify her enforced submission with a tone of unabated hauteur; and she gave her mother Mrs. Mavering's letter, which Dan had mechanically restored to her.

Mrs. Pasmer read it, not only without indignation, but apparently without displeasure. But, she understood perfectly what the trouble was, when she looked up and asked, cheerfully, "Well?"

"Well!" repeated Alice, with a frown of astonishment. "Don't you see that he's promised us one thing and her another, and that he's false to both?"

"I don't know," said Mrs. Pasmer, recovering her good-humour in view of a situation that she felt herself able to cope with. "Of course he has to temporise, to manage a little. She's an invalid, and of course she's very exacting. He has to humour her. How do you know he has promised her? He hasn't promised us."

"Hasn't promised us?" Alice gasped.

"No. He's simply fallen in with what we've said. It's because he's so sweet and yielding, and can't bear to refuse. I can understand it perfectly."

"Then if he hasn't promised us, he's deceived us all the more shamefully, for he's made us think he had."

"He hasn't me," said Mrs. Pasmer, smiling at the stormy virtue in her daughter's face. "And what if you should go home awhile with him—for the summer, say? It couldn't last longer, much; and it wouldn't hurt us to wait. I suppose he hoped for something of that kind."

"Oh, it isn't that," groaned the girl, in a kind of bewilderment. "I could have gone there with him joyfully, and lived all my days, if he'd only been frank with me."

"Oh no, you couldn't," said her mother, with cosy security. "When it comes to it, you don't like giving up any more than other people. It's very hard for you to give up; he sees that—he knows it, and he doesn't really like to ask any sort of sacrifice from you. He's afraid of you."

"Don't I know that?" demanded Alice desolately: "I've known it from the first, and I've felt it all the time. It's all a mistake, and has been. We never could understand each other. We're too different."

"That needn't prevent you understanding him. It needn't prevent you from seeing how really kind and good he is—how faithful and constant he is."

"Oh, you say that—you praise him—because you like him."

"Of course I do. And can't you?"

"No. The least grain of deceit—of temporising, you call it—spoils everything. It's over," said the girl, rising, with a sigh, from the chair she had dropped into. "We're best apart; we could only have been wretched and wicked together."

"What did you say to him, Alice?" asked her mother, unshaken by her rhetoric.

"I told him he was a faithless person."

"Then you were a cruel girl," cried Mrs. Pasmer, with sudden indignation; "and if you were not my daughter I could be glad he had escaped you. I don't know where you got all those silly, romantic notions of yours about these things. You certainly didn't get them from me," she continued, with undeniable truth, "and I don't believe you get them from your Church, It's just as Miss Anderson said: your Church makes allowance for human nature, but you make none."

"I shouldn't go to Julia Anderson for instruction in such matters," said the girl, with cold resentment.

"I wish you would go to her for a little commonsense—or somebody," said Mrs. Pasmer. "Do you know what talk this will make?"

"I don't care for the talk. It would be worse than talk to marry a man whom I couldn't trust—who wanted to please me so much that he had to deceive me, and was too much afraid of me to tell me the truth."

"You headstrong girl!" said her mother impartially, admiring at the same time the girl's haughty beauty.

There was an argument in reserve in Mrs. Pasmer's mind which perhaps none but an American mother would have hesitated to urge; but it is so wholly our tradition to treat the important business of marriage as a romantic episode that even she could not bring herself to insist that her daughter should not throw away a chance so advantageous from every worldly point of view. She could only ask, "If you break this engagement, what do you expect to do?"

"The engagement is broken. I shall go into a sisterhood."

"You will do nothing of the kind, with my consent," said Mrs. Pasmer. "I will have no such nonsense. Don't flatter yourself that I will. Even if I approved of such a thing, I should think it wicked to let you do it. You're always fancying yourself doing something very devoted, but I've never seen you ready to give up your own will, or your own comfort even, in the slightest degree. And Dan Mavering, if he were twice as temporising and circuitous"—the word came to her from her talk with him—"would be twice too good for you. I'm going to breakfast."

William Dean Howells