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Chapter 45

Boardman put himself in charge of Mavering, and took him into the smoking car. It was impossible to indulge a poetic gloom there without becoming unpleasantly conspicuous in the smoking and euchre and profanity. Some of the men were silent and dull, but no one was apparently very unhappy, and perhaps if Dan had dealt in absolute sincerity with himself, even he would not have found himself wholly so. He did not feel as he had felt when Alice rejected him. Then he was wounded to the quick through his vanity, and now; in spite of all, in spite of the involuntary tender swaying of his heart toward her through the mere force of habit, in spite of some remote compunctions for his want of candour with her, he was supported by a sense of her injustice, her hardness. Related with this was an obscure sense of escape, of liberation, which, however he might silence and disown it, was still there. He could not help being aware that he had long relinquished tastes customs, purposes, ideals, to gain a peace that seemed more and more fleeting and uncertain, and that he had submitted to others which, now that the moment of giving pleasure by his submission was past, he recognised as disagreeable. He felt a sort of guilt in his enlargement; he knew, by all that he had, ever heard or read of people in his position, that he ought to be altogether miserable; and yet this consciousness of relief persisted. He told himself that a very tragical thing had befallen him; that this broken engagement was the ruin of his life and the end of his youth, and that he must live on an old and joyless man, wise with the knowledge that comes to decrepitude and despair; he imagined a certain look for himself, a gait, a name, that would express this; but all the same he was aware of having got out of something. Was it a bondage, a scrape, as Boardman called it? He thought he must be a very light, shallow, and frivolous nature not to be utterly broken up by his disaster.

"I don't know what I'm going home for," he said hoarsely to Boardman.

"Kind of a rest, I suppose," suggested his friend.

"Yes, I guess that's it," said Dan. "I'm tired."

It seemed to him that this was rather fine; it was a fatigue of the soul that he was to rest from. He remembered the apostrophic close of a novel in which the heroine dies after much emotional suffering. "Quiet, quiet heart!" he repeated to himself. Yes, he too had died to hope, to love, to happiness.

As they drew near their journey's end he said, "I don't know how I'm going to break it to them."

"Oh, probably break itself," said Boardman. "These things usually do."

"Yes, of course," Dan assented.

"Know from your looks that something's up. Or you might let me go ahead a little and prepare them."

Dan laughed. "It was awfully good of you to come, Boardman. I don't know what I should have done without you."

"Nothing I like more than these little trips. Brightens you up to sere the misery of others; makes you feel that you're on peculiarly good terms with Providence. Haven't enjoyed myself so much since that day in Portland." Boardman's eyes twinkled.

"Yes," said Dan, with a deep sigh, "it's a pity it hadn't ended there."

"Oh, I don't know. You won't have to go through with it again. Something that had to come, wasn't it? Never been satisfied if you hadn't tried it. Kind of aching void before, and now you've got enough."

"Yes, I've got enough," said Dan, "if that's all."

When they got out of the train at Ponkwasset Falls, and the conductor and the brakeman, who knew Dan as his father's son, and treated him with the distinction due a representative of an interest valued by the road, had bidden him a respectfully intimate good-night, and he began to climb the hill to his father's house, he recurred to the difficulty before him in breaking the news to his family. "I wish I could have it over in a flash. I wish I'd thought to telegraph it to them."

"Wouldn't have done," said Boardman. "It would have given 'em time to formulate questions and conjectures, and now the astonishment will take their breath away till you can get your second wind, and then—you'll be all right."

"You think so?" asked Dan submissively.

"Know so. You see, if you could have had it over in a flash, it would have knocked you flat. But now you've taken all the little steps, and you've got a lot more to take, and you're all braced up. See? You're like rock, now—adamant." Dan laughed in forlorn perception of Boardman's affectionate irony. "Little steps are the thing. You'll have to go in now and meet your family, and pass the time of day with each one, and talk about the weather, and account for my being along, and ask how they all are; and by the time you've had dinner, and got settled with your legs out in front of the fire, you'll be just in the mood for it. Enjoy telling them all about it."

"Don't, Boardman," pleaded Dan. "Boardy, I believe if I could get in and up to my room without anybody's seeing me, I'd let you tell them. There don't seem to be anybody about, and I think we could manage it."

"It wouldn't work," said Boardman. "Got to do it yourself."

"Well, then, wait a minute," said Dan desperately; and Boardman knew that he was to stay outside while Dan reconnoitred the interior. Dan opened one door after another till he stood within the hot brilliantly lighted hall. Eunice Mavering was coming down the stairs, hooded and wrapped for a walk on the long verandahs before supper.

"Dan!" she cried.

"It's all up, Eunice," he said at once, as if she had asked him about it. "My engagement's off."

"Oh, I'm so glad!" She descended upon him with outstretched arms, but stopped herself before she reached him. "It's a hoax. What do you mean? Do you really mean it, Dan?"

"I guess I mean it. But don't—Hold on! Where's Minnie?"

Eunice turned, and ran back upstairs. "Minnie! Min!" she called on her way. "Dan's engagement's off."

"I don't believe it!" answered Minnie's voice joyously, from within some room. It was followed by her presence, with successive inquiries. "How do you know? Did you get a letter? When did it happen? Oh, isn't it too good?"

Minnie was also dressed for the verandah promenade, which they always took when the snow was too deep. She caught sight of her brother as she came down. "Why, Dan's here! Dan, I've been thinking about you all day." She kissed him, which Eunice was now reminded to do too.

"Yes, it's true, Minnie," said Dan gravely. "I came up to tell you. It don't seem to distress you much."

"Dan!" said his sister reproachfully. "You know I didn't mean to say anything I only felt so glad to have you back again."

"I understand, Minnie—I don't blame you. It's all right. How's mother? Father up from the works yet? I'm going to my room."

"Indeed you're not!" cried Eunice, with elder sisterly authority. "You shall tell us about it first."

"Oh no! Let him go, Eunice!" pleaded Minnie, "Poor Dan! And I don't think we ought to go to walk when—"

Dan's eyes dimmed, and his voice weakened a little at her sympathy. "Yes, go. I'm tired—that's all. There isn't anything to tell you, hardly. Miss Pasmer—"

"Why, he's pale!" cried Minnie. "Eunice!"

"Oh, it's just the heat in here." Dan really felt a little sick and faint with it, but he was not sorry to seem affected by the day's strain upon his nerves.

The girls began to take off their wraps. "Don't. I'll go with you. Boardman's out there."

"Boardman! What nonsense!" exclaimed Eunice.

"He'll like to hear your opinion of it," Dan began; but his sister pulled the doors open, and ran out to see if he really meant that too.

Whether Boardman had heard her, or had discreetly withdrawn out of earshot at the first sound of voices, she could not tell, but she found him some distance away from the snow-box on the piazza. "Dan's just managed to tell us you were here," she said, giving him her hand. "I'm glad to see you. Do come in."

"Come along as a sort of Job's comforter," Boardman explained, as he followed her in; and he had the silly look that the man who feels himself superfluous must wear.

"Then you know about it?" said Eunice, while Minnie Mavering and he were shaking hands.

"Yes, Boardman knows; he can tell you about it," said Dan, from the hall chair he had dropped into. He rose and made his way to the stairs, with the effect of leaving the whole thing to them.

His sisters ran after him, and got him upstairs and into his room, with Boardman's semi-satirical connivance, and Eunice put up the window, while Minnie went to get some cologne to wet his forehead. Their efforts were so successful that he revived sufficiently to drive them out of his room, and make them go and show Boardman to his.

"You know the way, Mr. Boardman," said Eunice, going before him, while Minnie followed timorously, but curious for what he should say. She lingered on the threshold, while her sister went in and pulled the electric apparatus which lighted the gas-burners. "I suppose Dan didn't break it?" she said, turning sharply upon him.

"No; and I don't think he was to blame," said Boardman, inferring her reserved anxiety.

"Oh, I'm quite sure of that," said Eunice, rejecting what she had asked for. "You'll find everything, Mr. Boardman. It was kind of you to come with Dan. Supper's at seven."

"How severe you were with him!" murmured Minnie, following her away.

"Severe with Dan?"

"No—with Mr. Boardman."

"What nonsense! I had to be. I couldn't let him defend Dan to me. Couple of silly boys!"

After a moment Minnie said, "I don't think he's silly."

"Who?"

"Mr. Boardman."

"Well, Dan is, then, to bring him at such a time. But I suppose he felt that he couldn't get here without him. What a boy! Think of such a child being engaged! I hope we shan't hear any more of such nonsense for one while again—at least till Dan's got his growth."

They went down into the library, where, in their excitement, they sat down with most of their outdoor things on.

Minnie had the soft contrary-mindedness of gentle natures. "I should like to know how you would have had Dan bear it," she said rebelliously.

"How? Like a man. Or like a woman. How do you suppose Miss Pasmer's bearing it? Do you suppose she's got some friend to help her?"

"If she's broken it, she doesn't need any one," urged Minnie.

"Well," said Eunice, with her high scorn of Dan unabated, "I never could have liked that girl, but I certainly begin to respect her. I think I could have got on with her—now that it's no use. I declare," she broke off, "we're sitting here sweltering to death! What are we keeping our things on for?" She began to tear hers violently off and to fling them on chairs, scolding, and laughing at the same time with Minnie, at their absent-mindedness.

A heavy step sounded on the verandah without.

"There's father!" she cried vividly, jumping to her feet and running to the door, while Minnie, in a nervous bewilderment, ran off upstairs to her room. Eunice flung the door open. "Well, father, we've got Dan back again." And at a look of quiet question in his eye she hurried on: "His engagement's broken, and he's come up here to tell us, and brought Mr. Boardman along to help."

"Where is he?" asked the father, with his ruminant quiet, pulling off first one sleeve of his overcoat, and pausing for Eunice's answer before he pulled off the other.

William Dean Howells