Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 47

In Boston the rumour of Dan's broken engagement was followed promptly by a denial of it; both the rumour and the denial were apparently authoritative; but it gives the effect of a little greater sagacity to distrust rumours of all kinds, and most people went to bed, after the teas and dinners and receptions and clubs at which the fact was first debated, in the self-persuasion that it was not so. The next day they found the rumour still persistent; the denial was still in the air too, but it seemed weaker; at the end of the third day it had become a question as to which broke the engagement, and why; by the end of a week it was known that Alice had broken the engagement, but the reason could not be ascertained.

This was not for want of asking, more or less direct. Pasmer, of course, went and came at his club with perfect immunity. Men are quite as curious as women, but they set business bounds to their curiosity, and do not dream of passing these. With women who have no business of their own, and can not quell themselves with the reflection that this thing or that is not their affair, there is no question so intimate that they will not put it to some other woman; perhaps it is not so intimate, or perhaps it will not seem so; at any rate, they chance it. Mrs. Pasmer was given every opportunity to explain the facts to the ladies whom she met, and if she was much afflicted by Alice's behaviour, she had a measure of consolation in using her skill to baffle the research of her acquaintance. After each encounter of the kind she had the pleasure of reflecting that absolutely nothing more than she meant had become known. The case never became fully known through her; it was the girl herself who told it to Miss Cotton in one of those moments of confidence which are necessary to burdened minds; and it is doubtful if more than two or three people ever clearly understood it; most preferred one or other of several mistaken versions which society finally settled down to.

The paroxysm of self-doubt, almost self-accusal, in which Alice came to Miss Cotton, moved the latter to the deepest sympathy, and left her with misgivings which became an intolerable anguish to her conscience. The child was so afflicted at what she had done, not because she wished to be reconciled with her lover, but because she was afraid she had been unjust, been cruelly impatient and peremptory with him; she seemed to Miss Cotton so absolutely alone and friendless with her great trouble, she was so helpless, so hopeless, she was so anxious to do right, and so fearful she had done wrong, that Miss Cotton would not have been Miss Cotton if she had not taken her in her arms and assured her that in everything she had done she had been sublimely and nobly right, a lesson to all her sex in such matters for ever. She told her that she had always admired her, but that now she idolised her; that she felt like going down on her knees and simply worshipping her.

"Oh, don't say that, Miss Cotton!" pleaded Alice, pulling away from her embrace, but still clinging to her with her tremulous, cold little hands. "I can't bear it! I'm wicked and hard you don't know how bad I am; and I'm afraid of being weak, of doing more harm yet. Oh, I wronged him cruelly in ever letting him get engaged to me! But now what you've said will support me. If you think I've done right—It must seem strange to you that I should come to you with my trouble instead of my mother; but I've been to her, and—and we think alike on so few subjects, don't you know—"

"Yes, yes; I know, dear!" said Miss Cotton, in the tender folly of her heart, with the satisfaction which every woman feels in being more sufficient to another in trouble than her natural comforters.

"And I wanted to know how you saw it; and now, if you feel as you say, I can never doubt myself again."

She tempested out of Miss Cotton's house, all tearful under the veil she had pulled down, and as she shut the door of her coupe, Miss Cotton's heart jumped into her throat with an impulse to run after her, to recall her, to recant, to modify everything.

From that moment Miss Cotton's trouble began, and it became a torment that mounted and gave her no peace till she imparted it. She said to herself that she should suffer to the utmost in this matter, and if she spoke to any one, it must not be to same one who had agreed with her about Alice, but to some hard, skeptical nature, some one who would look at it from a totally different point of view, and would punish her for her error, if she had committed an error, in supporting and consoling Alice. All the time she was thinking of Mrs. Brinkley; Mrs. Brinkley had come into her mind at once; but it was only after repeated struggles that she could get the strength to go to her.

Mrs. Brinkley, sacredly pledged to secrecy, listened with a sufficiently dismaying air to the story which Miss Cotton told her in the extremity of her fear and doubt.

"Well," she said at the end, "have you written to Mr. Mavering?"

"Written to Mr. Mavering?" gasped Miss Cotton.

"Yes—to tell him she wants him back."

"Wants him back?" Miss Cotton echoed again.

"That's what she came to you for."

"Oh, Mrs. Brinkley!" moaned Miss Cotton, and she stared at her in mute reproach.

Mrs. Brinkley laughed. "I don't say she knew that she came for that; but there's no doubt that she did; and she went away bitterly disappointed with your consolation and support. She didn't want anything of the kind—you may comfort yourself with that reflection, Miss Cotton."

"Mrs. Brinkley," said Miss Cotton, with a severity which ought to have been extremely effective from so mild a person, "do you mean to accuse that poor child of dissimulation—of deceit—in such—a—a—"

"No!" shouted Mrs. Brinkley; "she didn't know what she was doing any more than you did; and she went home perfectly heart-broken; and I hope she'll stay so, for the good of all parties concerned."

Miss Cotton was so bewildered by Mrs. Brinkley's interpretation of Alice's latent motives that she let the truculent hostility of her aspiration pass unheeded. She looked helplessly about, and seemed faint, so that Mrs. Brinkley, without appearing to notice her state, interposed the question of a little sherry. When it had been brought, and Miss Cotton had sipped the glass that trembled in one hand while her emotion shattered a biscuit with the other, Mrs. Brinkley went on: "I'm glad the engagement is broken, and I hope it will never be mended. If what you tell me of her reason for breaking it is true—"

"Oh, I feel so guilty for telling you! I'd no right to! Please never speak of it!" pleaded Miss Cotton.

"Then I feel more than ever that it was all a mistake, and that to help it on again would be a—crime."

Miss Cotton gave a small jump at the word, as if she had already committed the crime: she had longed to do it.

"Yes; I mean to say that they are better parted than plighted. If matches are made in heaven, I believe some of them are unmade there too. They're not adapted to each other; there's too great a disparity."

"You mean," began Miss Cotton, from her prepossession of Alice's superiority, "that she's altogether his inferior, intellectually and morally."

"Oh, I can't admit that!" cried Miss Cotton, glad to have Mrs. Brinkley go too far, and plucking up courage from her excess.

"Intellectually and morally," repeated Mrs. Brinkley, with the mounting conviction which ladies seem to get from mere persistence. "I saw that girl at Campobello; I watched her."

"I never felt that you did her justice!" cried Miss Cotton, with the valour of a hen-sparrow. "There was an antipathy."

"There certainly wasn't a sympathy, I'm happy to say," retorted Mrs. Brinkley. "I know her, and I know her family, root and branch. The Pasmers are the dullest and most selfish people in the world."

"Oh, I don't think that's her character," said Miss Cotton, ruffling her feathers defensively.

"Neither do I. She has no fixed character. No girl has. Nobody has. We all have twenty different characters—more characters than gowns—and we put them on and take them off just as often for different occasions. I know you think each person is permanently this or that; but my experience is that half the time they're the other thing."

"Then why," said Miss Cotton, winking hard, as some weak people do when they thick they are making a point, "do you say that Alice is dull and selfish?"

"I don't—not always, or not simply so. That's the character of the Pasmer blood, but it's crossed with twenty different currents in her; and from some body that the Pasmer dulness and selfishness must have driven mad she got a crazy streak of piety; and that's got mixed up in her again with a nonsensical ideal of duty; and everything she does she not only thinks is right, but she thinks it's religious, and she thinks it's unselfish."

"If you'd seen her, if you'd heard her, this morning," said Miss Cotton, "you wouldn't say that, Mrs. Brinkley."

Mrs. Brinkley refused this with an impatient gesture. "It isn't what she is now, or seems to be, or thinks she is. It's what she's going to finally harden into—what's going to be her prevailing character. Now Dan Mavering has just the faults that will make such a girl think her own defects are virtues, because they're so different. I tell you Alice Pasmer has neither the head nor the heart to appreciate the goodness, the loveliness, of a fellow like Dan Mavering."

"I think she feels his sweetness fully," urged Miss Cotton. "But she couldn't endure his uncertainty. With her the truth is first of all things."

"Then she's a little goose. If she had the sense to know it, she would know that he might delay and temporise and beat about the bush, but he would be true when it was necessary. I haven't the least doubt in the world but that poor fellow was going on in perfect security, because he felt that it would be so easy for him to give up, and supposed it would be just as easy for her. I don't suppose he had a misgiving, and it must have come upon him like a thunder-clap."

"Don't you think," timidly suggested Miss Cotton, "that truth is the first essential in marriage?"

"Of course it is. And if this girl was worthy of Dan Mavering, if she were capable of loving him or anybody else unselfishly, she would have felt his truth even if she couldn't have seen it. I believe this minute that that manoeuvring, humbugging mother of hers is a better woman, a kinder woman, than she is."

"Alice says her mother took his part," said Miss Cotton, with a sigh. "She took your view of it."

"She's a sensible woman. But I hope she won't be able to get him into her toils again," continued Mrs. Brinkley, recurring to the conventional estimate of Mrs. Pasmer.

"I can't help feeling—believing—that they'll come together somehow still," murmured Miss Cotton. It seemed to her that she had all along wished this; and she tried to remember if what she had said to comfort Alice might be construed as adverse to a reconciliation.

"I hope they won't, then," said Mrs. Brinkley, "for they couldn't help being unhappy together, with their temperaments. There's one thing, Miss Cotton, that's more essential in marriage than Miss Pasmer's instantaneous honesty, and that's patience."

"Patience with wrong?" demanded Miss Cotton.

"Yes, even with wrong; but I meant patience with each other. Marriage is a perpetual pardon, concession, surrender; it's an everlasting giving up; that's the divine thing about it; and that's just what Miss Passer could never conceive of, because she is self-righteous and conceited and unyielding. She would make him miserable."

Miss Cotton rose in a bewilderment which did not permit her to go at once. There was something in her mind which she wished to urge, but she could not make it out, though she fingered in vague generalities. When she got a block away from the house it suddenly came to her. Love! If they loved each other, would not all be well with them? She would have liked to run back and put that question to Mrs. Brinkley; but just then she met Brinkley lumbering heavily homeward; she heard his hard breathing from the exertion of bowing to her as he passed.

His wife met him in the hall, and went up to kiss him. He smelt abominably of tobacco smoke.

"Hullo!" said her husband. "What are you after?"

"Nothing," said his wife, enjoying his joke. "Come in here; I want to tell you how I have just sat upon Miss Cotton."

William Dean Howells