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Chapter 46

"He's up in his room, resting from the effort." She laughed nervously, and her father made no comment. He took off his articles, and then went creaking upstairs to Dan's room. But at the door he paused, with his hand on the knob, and turned away to his own room without entering.

Dan must have heard him; in a few minutes he came to him.

"Well, Dan," said his father, shaking hands.

"I suppose Eunice has told you? Well, I want to tell you why it happened."

There was something in his father that always steadied Dan and kept him to the point. He now put the whole case fairly and squarely, and his candour and openness seemed to him to react and characterise his conduct throughout. He did not realise that this was not so till his father said at the close, with mild justice, "You were to blame for letting the thing run on so at loose ends."

"Yes, of course," said Dan, seeing that he was. "But there was no intention of deceiving any one of bad faith—"

"Of course not."

"I thought it could be easily arranged whenever it came to the point."

"If you'd been older, you wouldn't have thought that. You had women to deal with on both sides. But if it's all over, I'm not sorry. I always admired Miss Pasmer, but I've been more and more afraid you were not suited to each other. Your mother doesn't know you're here?"

"No, sir, I suppose not. Do you think it will distress her?"

"How did your sisters take it?"

Dan gave a rueful laugh. "It seemed to be rather a popular move with them."

"I will see your mother first," said the father.

He left them when they went into the library after supper, and a little later Dan and Eunice left Boardman in charge of Minnie there.

He looked after their unannounced withdrawal in comic consciousness. "It's no use pretending that I'm not a pretty large plurality here," he said to Minnie.

"Oh, I'm so glad you came!" she cried, with a kindness which was as real as if it had been more sincere.

"Do you think mother will feel it much?" asked Dan anxiously, as he went upstairs with Eunice.

"Well, she'll hate to lose a correspondent—such a regular one," said Eunice, and the affair being so far beyond any other comment, she laughed the rest of the way to their mother's room.

The whole family had in some degree that foible which affects people who lead isolated lives; they come to think that they are the only people who have their virtues; they exaggerate these, and they conceive a kindness even for the qualities which are not their virtues. Mrs. Mavering's life was secluded again from the family seclusion, and their peculiarities were intensified in her. Besides, she had some very marked peculiarities of her own, and these were also intensified by the solitude to which she was necessarily left so much. She meditated a great deal upon the character of her children, and she liked to analyse and censure it both in her own mind and openly in their presence. She was very trenchant and definite in these estimates of them; she liked to ticket them, and then ticket them anew. She explored their ancestral history on both sides for the origin of their traits, and there were times when she reduced them in formula to mere congeries of inherited characteristics. If Eunice was self-willed and despotic, she was just like her grandmother Mavering; if Minnie was all sentiment and gentle stubbornness, it was because two aunts of hers, one on either side, were exactly so; if Dan loved pleasure and beauty, and was sinuous and uncertain in so many ways, and yet was so kind and faithful and good, as well as shilly-shallying and undecided, it was because her mother, and her mother's father, had these qualities in the same combination.

When she took her children to pieces before their faces, she was sharp and admonitory enough with them. She warned them to what their characters would bring them to if they did not look out; but perhaps because she beheld them so hopelessly the present effect of the accumulated tendencies of the family past, she was tender and forgiving to their actions. The mother came in there, and superseded the student of heredity: she found excuse for them in the perversity of circumstance, in the peculiar hardship of the case, in the malignant misbehaviour of others.

As Dan entered, with the precedence his father and sister yielded him as the principal actor in the scene which must follow, she lifted herself vigorously in bed, and propped herself on the elbow of one arm while she stretched the other towards him.

"I'm glad of it, Dan!" she called, at the moment he opened the door, and as he came toward her she continued, with the amazing velocity of utterance peculiar to nervous sufferers of her sex: "I know all about it, and I don't blame you a bit! And I don't blame her! Poor helpless young things! But it's a perfect mercy it's all over; it's the greatest deliverance I ever heard of! You'd have been eaten up alive. I saw it, and I knew it from the very first moment, and I've lived in fear and trembling for you. You could have got on well enough if you'd been left to yourselves, but that you couldn't have been nor hope to be as long as you breathed, from the meddling and the machinations and the malice of that unscrupulous and unconscionable old Cat!"

By the time Mrs. Mavering had hissed out the last word she had her arm round her boy's neck and was clutching him, safe and sound after his peril, to her breast; and between her kissing and crying she repeated her accusals and denunciations with violent volubility.

Dan could not have replied to them in that effusion of gratitude and tenderness he felt for his mother's partisanship; and when she went on in almost the very terms of his self-defence, and told him that he had done as he had because it was easy for him to yield, and he could not imagine a Cat who would put her daughter up to entrapping him into a promise that she knew must break his mother's heart, he found her so right on the main point that he could not help some question of Mrs. Pasmer in his soul. Could she really have been at the bottom of it all? She was very sly, and she might be very false, and it was certainly she who had first proposed their going abroad together. It looked as if it might be as his mother said, and at any rate it was no time to dispute her, and he did not say a word in behalf of Mrs. Pasmer, whom she continued to rend in a thousand pieces and scatter to the winds till she had to stop breathless.

"Yes! it's quite as I expected! She did everything she could to trap you into it. She fairly flung that poor girl at you. She laid her plans so that you couldn't say no—she understood your character from the start!—and then, when it came out by accident, and she saw that she had older heads to deal with, and you were not going to be quite at her mercy, she dropped the mask in an instant, and made Alice break with you. Oh, I could see through her from the beginning! And the next time, Dan, I advise you, as you never suspect anybody yourself, to consult with somebody who doesn't take people for what they seem, and not to let yourself be flattered out of your sensor, even if you see your father is."

Mrs. Mavering dropped back on her pillow, and her husband smiled patiently at their daughter.

Dan saw his patient smile and understood it; and the injustice which his father bore made him finally unwilling to let another remain under it. Hard as it was to oppose his mother in anything when she was praising him so sweetly and comforting him in the moment of his need, he pulled himself together to protest: "No, no, mother! I don't think Mrs. Pasmer was to blame; I don't believe she had anything to do with it. She's always stood my friend—"

"Oh, I've no doubt she's made you think so, Dan," said his mother, with unabated fondness for him; "and you think so because you're so simple and good, and never suspect evil of any one. It's this hideous optimism that's killing everything—"

A certain note in the invalid's falling voice seemed to warn her hearers of an impending change that could do no one good. Eunice rose hastily and interrupted: "Mother, Mr. Boardman's here. He came up with Dan. May Minnie come in with him?"

Mrs. Mavering shot a glance of inquiry at Dan, and then let a swift inspection range over all the details of the room, and finally concentrate itself on the silk and lace of her bed, over which she passed a smoothing hand. "Mr. Boardman?" she cried, with instantly recovered amiability. "Of course she may!"

William Dean Howells