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Chapter 48

The relations between Dan and his father had always been kindly and trustful; they now became, in a degree that touched and flattered the young fellow, confidential. With the rest of the family there soon ceased to be any reference to his engagement; his sisters were glad, each in her way, to have him back again; and, whatever they may have said between themselves, they said nothing to him about Alice. His mother appeared to have finished with the matter the first night; she had her theory, and she did it justice; and when Mrs. Mavering had once done a thing justice, she did not bring it up again unless somebody disputed it. But nobody had defended Mrs. Pasmer after Dan's feeble protest in her behalf; Mrs. Mavering's theory was accepted with obedience if not conviction; the whole affair dropped, except between Dan and his father.

Dan was certainly not so gay as he used to be; he was glad to find that he was not so gay. There had been a sort of mercy in the suddenness of the shock; it benumbed him, and the real stress and pain came during the long weeks that followed, when nothing occurred to vary the situation in any manner; he did not hear a word about Alice from Boston, nor any rumour of her people.

At first he had intended to go back with Boardman and face it out; but there seemed no use in this, and when it came to the point he found it impossible. Boardman went back alone, and he put Dan's things together in his rooms at Boston and sent them to him, so that Dan remained at home.

He set about helping his father at the business with unaffected docility. He tried not to pose, and he did his best to bear his loss and humiliation with manly fortitude. But his whole life had not set so strongly in one direction that it could be sharply turned aside now, and not in moments of forgetfulness press against the barriers almost to bursting. Now and then, when he came to himself from the wonted tendency, and remembered that Alice and he, who had been all in all to each other, were now nothing, the pain was so sharp, so astonishing, that he could not keep down a groan, which he then tried to turn off with a cough, or a snatch of song, or a whistle, looking wildly round to see if any one had noticed.

Once this happened when his father and he were walking silently home from the works, and his father said, without touching him or showing his sympathy except in his tone of humorously frank recognition, "Does it still hurt a little occasionally, Dan?"

"Yes, sir, it hurts," said the son; and he turned his face aside, and whistled through his teeth.

"Well, it's a trial, I suppose," said his father, with his gentle, soft half-lisp. "But there are greater trials."

"How, greater?" asked Dan, with sad incredulity. "I've lost all that made life worth living; and it's all my own fault, too."

"Yes," said his father; "I think she was a good girl."

"Good!" cried Dan; the word seemed to choke him.

"Still, I doubt if it's all your fault." Dan looked round at him. He added, "And I think it's perhaps for the best as it is."

Dan halted, and then said, "Oh, I suppose so," with dreary resignation, as they walked on.

"Let us go round by the paddock," said his father, "and see if Pat's put the horses up yet. You can hardly remember your mother, before she became an invalid, I suppose," he added, as Dan mechanically turned aside with him from the path that led to the house into that leading to the barn.

"No; I was such a little fellow," said Dan.

"Women give up a great deal when they marry," said the elder. "It's not strange that they exaggerate the sacrifice, and expect more in return than it's in the nature of men to give them. I should have been sorry to have you marry a woman of an exacting disposition."

"I'm afraid she was exacting," said Dan. "But she never asked more than was right."

"And it's difficult to do all that's right," suggested the elder.

"I'm sure you always have, father," said the son.

The father did not respond. "I wish you could remember your mother when she was well," he said. Presently he added, "I think it isn't best for a woman to be too much in love with her husband."

Dan took this to himself, and he laughed harshly. "She's been able to dissemble her love at last."

His father went on, "Women keep the romantic feeling longer than men; it dies out of us very soon—perhaps too soon."

"You think I couldn't have come to time?" asked Dan. "Well, as it's turned out, I won't have to."

"No man can be all a woman wishes him to be," said his father. "It's better for the disappointment to come before it's too late."

"I was to blame," said Dan stoutly. "She was all right."

"You were to blame in the particular instance," his father answered. "But in general the fault was in her—or her temperament. As long as the romance lasted she might have deluded herself, and believed you were all she imagined you; but romance can't last, even with women. I don like your faults, and I don't want you to excuse them to yourself. I don't like your chancing things, and leaving them to come out all right of themselves; but I've always tried to make you children see all your qualities in their true proportion and relation."

"Yes; I know that, sir," said Dan.

"Perhaps," continued his father, as they swung easily along, shoulder to shoulder, "I may have gone too far in that direction because I was afraid that you might take your mother too seriously in the other—that you might not understand that she judged you from her nerves and not her convictions. It's part of her malady, of her suffering, that her inherited Puritanism clouds her judgment, and makes her see all faults as of one size and equally damning. I wish you to know that she was not always so, but was once able to distinguish differences in error, and to realise that evil is of ill-will."

"Yes; I know that," said Dan. "She is now—when she feels well."

"Harm comes from many things, but evil is of the heart. I wouldn't have you condemn yourself too severely for harm that you didn't intend—that's remorse—that's insanity; and I wouldn't have you fall under the condemnation of another's invalid judgment."

"Thank you, father," said Dan.

They had come up to the paddock behind the barn, and they laid their arms on the fence while they looked over at the horses, which were still there. The beasts, in their rough winter coats, some bedaubed with frozen clots of the mud in which they had been rolling earlier in the afternoon, stood motionless in the thin, keen breeze that crept over the hillside from the March sunset, and blew their manes and tails out toward Dan and his father. Dan's pony sent him a gleam of recognition from under his frowsy bangs, but did not stir.

"Bunch looks like a caterpillar," he said, recalling the time when his father had given him the pony; he was a boy then, and the pony was as much to him, it went through his mind, as Alice had ever been. Was it all a jest, an irony? he asked himself.

"He's getting pretty old," said his father. "Let's see: you were only twelve."

"Ten," said Dan. "We've had him thirteen years."

Some of the horses pricked up their ears at the sound of their voices. One of them bit another's neck; the victim threw up his heels and squealed.

Pat called from the stable, "Heigh, you divils!"

"I think he'd better take them in," said Dan's father; and he continued, as if it were all the same subject, "I hope you'll have seen something more of the world before you fall in love the next time."

"Thank you; there won't be any next time. But do you consider the world such a school of morals; then? I supposed it was a very bad place."

"We seem to have been all born into it," said the father. He lifted his arms from the fence, and Dan mechanically followed him into the stable. A warm, homely smell of hay and of horses filled the place; a lantern glimmered, a faint blot, in the loft where Pat was pitching some hay forward to the edge of the boards; the naphtha gas weakly flared from the jets beside the harness-room, whence a smell of leather issued and mingled with the other smell. The simple, earthy wholesomeness of the place appealed to Dan and comforted him. The hay began to tumble from the loft with a pleasant rustling sound.

His father called up to Pat, "I think you'd better take the horses in now."

"Yes, sir: I've got the box-stalls ready for 'em."

Dan remembered how he and Eunice used to get into the box-stall with his pony, and play at circus with it; he stood up on the pony, and his sister was the ring-master. The picture of his careless childhood reflected a deeper pathos upon his troubled present, and he sighed again.

His father said, as they moved on through the barn: "Some of the best people I've ever known were what were called worldly people. They are apt to be sincere, and they have none of the spiritual pride, the conceit of self-righteousness, which often comes to people who are shut up by conscience or circumstance to the study of their own motives and actions."

"I don't think she was one of that kind," said Dan.

"Oh, I don't know that she was. But the chances of happiness, of goodness, would be greater with a less self-centred person—for you."

"Ah, Yes! For me!" said Dan bitterly. "Because I hadn't it in me to be frank with her. With a man like me, a woman had better be a little scampish, too! Father, I could get over the loss; she might have died, and I could have got over that; but I can't get over being to blame."

"I don't think I'd indulge in any remorse," said his father. "There's nothing so useless, so depraving, as that. If you see you're wrong, it's for your warning, not for your destruction."

Dan was not really feeling very remorseful; he had never felt that he was much to blame; but he had an intellectual perception of the case, and he thought that he ought to feel remorseful; it was this persuasion that he took for an emotion. He continued to look very disconsolate.

"Come," said his father, touching his arm, "I don't want you to brood upon these things. It can do no manner of good. I want you to go to New York next week and look after that Lafflin process. If it's what he thinks—if he can really cast his brass patterns without air-holes—it will revolutionise our business. I want to get hold of him."

The Portuguese cook was standing in the basement door which they passed at the back of the house. He saluted father and son with a glittering smile.

"Hello, Joe!" said Dan.

"Ah, Joe!" said his father; he touched his hat to the cook, who snatched his cap off.

"What a brick you are, father!" thought Dan. His heart leaped at the notion of getting away from Ponkwasset; he perceived how it had been irking him to stay. "If you think I could manage it with Lafflin—"

"Oh, I think you could. He's another slippery chap."

Dan laughed for pleasure and pain at his father's joke.

William Dean Howells