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Chapter 44

The difficulty in life is to bring experience to the level of expectation, to match our real emotions in view of any great occasion with the ideal emotions which we have taught ourselves that we ought to feel. This is all the truer when the occasion is tragical: we surprise ourselves in a helplessness to which the great event, death, ruin, lost love, reveals itself slowly, and at first wears the aspect of an unbroken continuance of what has been, or at most of another incident in the habitual sequence.

Dan Mavering came out into the bright winter morning knowing that his engagement was broken, but feeling it so little that he could not believe it. He failed to realise it, to seize it for a fact, and he could not let it remain that dumb and formless wretchedness, without proportion or dimensions, which it now seemed to be, weighing his life down. To verify it, to begin to outlive it, he must instantly impart it, he must tell it, he must see it with others' eyes. This was the necessity of his youth and of his sympathy, which included himself as well as the rest of the race in its activity. He had the usual environment of a young man who has money. He belonged to clubs, and he had a large acquaintance among men of his own age, who lived a life of greater leisure; or were more absorbed in business, but whom he met constantly in society. For one reason or another, or for no other reason than that he was Dan Mavering and liked every one, he liked them all. He thought himself great friends with them; he dined and lunched with them; and they knew the Pasmers, and all about his engagement. But he did not go to any of them now, with the need he felt to impart his calamity, to get the support of come other's credence and opinion of it. He went to a friend whom, in the way of his world, he met very seldom, but whom he always found, as he said, just where he had left him.

Boardman never made any sign of suspecting that he was put on and off, according to Dan's necessity or desire for comfort or congratulation; but it was part of their joke that Dan's coming to him always meant something decisive in his experiences. The reporter was at his late breakfast, which his landlady furnished him in his room, though, as Mrs. Mash said, she never gave meals, but a cup of coffee and an egg or two, yes.

"Well?" he said, without looking up.

"Well, I'm done for!" cried Dan.

"Again?" asked Boardman.

"Again! The other time was nothing, Boardman—I knew it wasn't anything; but this—this is final."

"Go on," said Boardman, looking about for his individual salt-cellar, which he found under the edge of his plate; and Mavering laid the whole case before him. As he made no comment on it for a while, Dan was obliged to ask him what he thought of it. "Well," he said, with the smile that showed the evenness of his pretty teeth, "there's a kind of wild justice in it." He admitted this, with the object of meeting Dan's views in an opinion.

"So you think I'm a faithless man too, do you?" demanded Mavering stormily.

"Not from your point of view," said Boardman, who kept on quietly eating and drinking.

Mavering was too amiable not to feel Boardman's innocence of offence in his unperturbed behaviour. "There was no faithlessness about it, and you know it," he went on, half laughing, half crying, in his excitement, and making Boardman the avenue of an appeal really addressed to Alice. "I was ready to do what either side decided."

"Or both," suggested Boardman.

"Yes, or both," said Dan, boldly accepting the suggestion. "It wouldn't have cost me a pang to give up if I'd been in the place of either."

"I guess that's what she could never understand," Boardman mused aloud.

"And I could never understand how any one could fail to see that that was what I intended—expected: that it would all come out right of itself—naturally." Dan was still addressing Alice in this belated reasoning. "But to be accused of bad faith—of trying to deceive any one—"

"Pretty rough," said Boardman.

"Rough? It's more than I can stand!"

"Well, you don't seem to be asked to stand it," said Boardman, and Mavering laughed forlornly with him at his joke, and then walked away and looked out of Boardman's dormer-window on the roofs below, with their dirty, smoke-stained February snow. He pulled out his handkerchief, and wiped his face with it. When he turned round, Boardman looked keenly at him, and asked, with an air of caution, "And so it's all up?"

"Yes, it's all up," said Dan hoarsely.

"No danger of a relapse?"

"What do you mean?"

"No danger of having my sympathy handed over later to Miss Pasmer for examination?"

"I guess you can speak up freely, Boardman," said Dan, "if that's what you mean. Miss Pasmer and I are quits."

"Well, then, I'm glad of it. She wasn't the one for you. She isn't fit for you."

"What's the reason she isn't?" cried Dan. "She's the most beautiful and noble girl in the world, and the most conscientious, and the best—if she is unjust to me."

"No doubt of that. I'm not attacking her, and I'm not defending you."

"What are you doing then?"

"Simply saying that I don't believe you two would ever understand each other. You haven't got the same point of view, and you couldn't make it go. Both out of a scrape."

"I don't know what you mean by a scrape," said Dan, resenting the word more than the idea. Boardman tacitly refused to modify or withdraw it, and Dan said, after a sulky silence, in which he began to dramatise a meeting with his family: "I'm going home; I can't stand it here. What's the reason you can't come with me, Boardman?"

"Do you mean to your rooms?"

"No; to the Falls."

"Thanks. Guess not."

"Why not?"

"Don't care about being a fifth wheel."

"Oh, pshaw, now, Boardman! Look here, you must go. I want you to go. I—I want your support. That's it. I'm all broken up, and I couldn't stand that three hours' pull alone. They'll be glad to see you—all of them. Don't you suppose they'll be glad to see you? They're always glad; and they'll understand."

"I don't believe you want me to go yourself. You just think you do."

"No. I really do want you, Boardman. I want to talk it over with you. I do want you. I'm not fooling."

"Don't think I could get away." Yet he seemed to be pleased with the notion of the Falls; it made him smile.

"Well, see," said Mavering disconsolately. "I'm going round to my rooms now, and I'll be there till two o'clock; train's at 2.30." He went towards the door, where he faced about. "And you don't think it would be of any use?"

"Any use—what?"

"Trying to—to—to make it up."

"How should I know?"

"No, no; of course you couldn't," said Dan, miserably downcast. All the resentment which Alice's injustice had roused in him had died out; he was suffering as helplessly and hopelessly as a child. "Well," he sighed, as he swung out of the door.

Boardman found him seated at his writing-desk in his smoking-jacket when he came to him, rather early, and on the desk were laid out the properties of the little play which had come to a tragic close. There were some small bits of jewellery, among the rest a ring of hers which Alice had been letting him wear; a lock of her hair which he had kept, for the greater convenience of kissing, in the original parcel, tied with crimson ribbon; a succession of flowers which she had worn, more and more dry and brown with age; one of her gloves, which he had found and kept from the day they first met in Cambridge; a bunch of withered bluebells tied with sweet-grass, whose odour filled the room, from the picnic at Campobello; scraps of paper with her writing on them, and cards; several photographs of her, and piles of notes and letters.

"Look here," said Dan, knowing it was Boardman without turning round, "what am I to do about these things?"

Boardman respectfully examined them over his shoulder. "Don't know what the usual ceremony is," he said, he ventured to add, referring to the heaps of letters, "Seems to have been rather epistolary, doesn't she?"

"Oh, don't talk of her as if she were dead!" cried Dan. "I've been feeling as if she were." All at once he dropped his head among these witnesses of his loss, and sobbed.

Boardman appeared shocked, and yet somewhat amused; he made a soft low sibilation between his teeth.

Dan lifted his head. "Boardman, if you ever give me away!"

"Oh, I don't suppose it's very hilarious," said Boardman, with vague kindness. "Packed yet?" he asked, getting away from the subject as something he did not feel himself fitted to deal with consecutively.

"I'm only going to take a bag," said Mavering, going to get some clothes down from a closet where his words had a sepulchral reverberation.

"Can't I help?" asked Boardman, keeping away from the sad memorials of Dan's love strewn about on the desk, and yet not able to keep his eyes off them across the room.

"Well, I don't know," said Dan. He came out with his armful of coats and trousers, and threw them on the bed. "Are you going?"

"If I could believe you wanted me to."

"Good!" cried Mavering, and the fact seemed to brighten him immediately. "If you want to, stuff these things in, while I'm doing up these other things." He nodded his head side-wise toward the desk.

"All right," said Boardman.

His burst of grief must have relieved Dan greatly. He set about gathering up the relics on the desk, and getting a suitable piece of paper to wrap them in. He rejected several pieces as inappropriate.

"I don't know what kind of paper to do these things up in," he said at last.

"Any special kind of paper required?" Boardman asked, pausing in the act of folding a pair of pantaloons so as not to break the fall over the boot.

"I didn't know there was, but there seems to be," said Dan.

"Silver paper seems to be rather more for cake and that sort of thing," suggested Boardman. "Kind of mourning too, isn't it—silver?"

"I don't know," said Dan. "But I haven't got any silver paper."

"Newspaper wouldn't do?"

"Well, hardly, Boardman," said Dan, with sarcasm.

"Well," said Boardman, "I should have supposed that nothing could be simpler than to send back a lot of love-letters; but the question of paper seems insuperable. Manila paper wouldn't do either. And then comes string. What kind of string are you going to tie it up with?"

"Well, we won't start that question till we get to it," answered Dan, looking about. "If I could find some kind of a box—"

"Haven't you got a collar box? Be the very thing!" Boardman had gone back to the coats and trousers, abandoning Dan to the subtler difficulties in which he was involved.

"They've all got labels," said Mavering, getting down one marked "The Tennyson" and another lettered "The Clarion," and looking at them with cold rejection.

"Don't see how you're going to send these things back at all, then. Have to keep them, I guess." Boardman finished his task, and came back to Dan.

"I guess I've got it now," said Mavering, lifting the lid of his desk, and taking out a large stiff envelope, in which a set of photographic views had come.

"Seems to have been made for it," Boardman exulted, watching the envelope, as it filled up, expand into a kind of shapely packet. Dan put the things silently in, and sealed the parcel with his ring. Then he turned it over to address it, but the writing of Alice's name for this purpose seemed too much for him, in spite of Boardman's humorous support throughout.

"Oh, I can't do it," he said, falling back in his chair.

"Let me," said his friend, cheerfully ignoring his despair. He philosophised the whole transaction, as he addressed the package, rang for a messenger, and sent it away, telling him to call a cab for ten minutes past two.

"Mighty good thing in life that we move by steps. Now on the stage, or in a novel, you'd have got those things together and addressed 'em, and despatched 'em, in just the right kind of paper, with just the right kind of string round it, at a dash; and then you'd have had time to go up and lean your head against something and soliloquise, or else think unutterable things. But here you see how a merciful Providence blocks your way all along. You've had to fight through all sort of sordid little details to the grand tragic result of getting off Miss Pasmer's letters, and when you reach it you don't mind it a bit."

"Don't I?" demanded Dan, in as hollow a voice as he could. "You'd joke at a funeral, Boardman."

"I've seen some pretty cheerful funerals," said Boardman. "And it's this principle of steps, of degrees, of having to do this little thing, and that little thing, that keeps funerals from killing the survivors. I suppose this is worse than a funeral—look at it in the right light. You mourn as one without hope, don't you? Live through it too, I suppose."

He made Dan help get the rest of his things into his bag, and with one little artifice and another prevented him from stagnating in despair. He dissented from the idea of waiting over another day to see if Alice would not relent when she got her letters back, and send for Dan to come and see her.

"Relent a good deal more when she finds you've gone out of town, if she sends for you," he argued; and he got Dan into the cab and off to the station, carefully making him an active partner in the whole undertaking, even to checking his own bag.

Before he bought his own ticket he appealed once more to Dan.

"Look here! I feel like a fool going off with you on this expedition. Be honest for once, now, Mavering, and tell me you've thought better of it, and don't want me to go!"

"Yes—yes, I do. Oh yes, you've got to go. I I do want you. I—you make me see things in just the right light, don't you know. That idea of yours about little steps—it's braced me all up. Yes—"

"You're such an infernal humbug," said Boardman, "I can't tell whether you want me or not. But I'm in for it now, and I'll go." Then he bought his ticket.

William Dean Howells