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Chapter 9

Mrs. Pasmer's husband looked a great deal older than herself, and, by operation of a well-known law of compensation, he was lean and silent, while she was plump and voluble. He had thick eyebrows, which remained black after his hair and beard had become white, and which gave him an aspect of fierceness, expressive of nothing in his character. It was from him that their daughter got her height, and, as Mrs. Pasmer freely owned, her distinction.

Soon after their marriage the Pasmers had gone to live in Paris, where they remained faithful to the fortunes of the Second Empire till its fall, with intervals of return to their own country of a year or two years at a time. After the fall of the Empire they made their sojourn in England, where they lived upon the edges and surfaces of things, as Americans must in Europe everywhere, but had more permanency of feeling than they had known in France, and something like a real social status. At one time it seemed as if they might end their days there; but that which makes Americans different from all other peoples, and which finally claims their allegiance for their own land, made them wish to come back to America, and to come back to Boston. After all, their place in England was strictly inferior, and must be. They knew titles, and consorted with them, but they had none themselves, and the English constancy which kept their friends faithful to them after they had become an old story, was correlated with the English honesty which never permitted them to mistake themselves for even the lowest of the nobility. They went out last, and they did not come in first, ever.

The invitations, upon these conditions, might have gone on indefinitely, but they did not imply a future for the young girl in whom the interests of her parents centred. After being so long a little girl, she had become a great girl, and then all at once she had become a young lady. They had to ask themselves, the mother definitely and the father formlessly, whether they wished their daughter to marry an Englishman, and their hearts answered them, like true Republican hearts, Not an untitled Englishman, while they saw no prospect of her getting any other. Mrs. Pasmer philosophised the case with a clearness and a courage which gave her husband a series of twinges analogous to the toothache, for a man naturally shrinks from such bold realisations. She said Alice had the beauty of a beauty, and she had the distinction of a beauty, but she had not the principles of a beauty; there was no use pretending that she had. For this reason the Prince of Wales's set, so accessible to American loveliness with the courage of its convictions, was beyond her; and the question was whether there was money enough for a younger son, or whether, if there was, a younger son was worth it.

However this might be, there was no question but there was now less money than there had been, and a great deal less. The investments had not turned out as they promised; not only had dividends been passed, but there had been permanent shrinkages. What was once an amiable competency from the pooling of their joint resources had dwindled to a sum that needed a careful eye both to the income and the outgo. Alice's becoming a young lady had increased their expenses by the suddenly mounting cost of her dresses, and of the dresses which her mother must now buy for the different role she had to sustain in society. They began to ask themselves what it was for, and to question whether, if she could not marry a noble Englishman, Alice had not better marry a good American.

Even with Mrs. Pasmer this question was tacit, and it need not be explained to any one who knows our life that in her most worldly dreams she intended at the bottom of her heart that her daughter should marry for love. It is the rule that Americans marry for love, and the very rare exception that they marry for anything else; and if our divorce courts are so busy in spite of this fact, it is perhaps because the Americans also unmarry for love, or perhaps because love is not so sufficient in matters of the heart as has been represented in the literature of people who have not been able to give it so fair a trial. But whether it is all in all in marriage, or only a very marked essential, it is certain that Mrs. Pasmer expected her daughter's marriage to involve it. She would have shrunk from intimating anything else to her as from a gross indecency; and she could not possibly, by any finest insinuation, have made her a partner in her design for her happiness. That, so far as Alice was concerned, was a thing which was to fall to her as from heaven; for this also is part of the American plan. We are the children of the poets, the devotees of the romancers, so far as that goes; and however material and practical we are in other things, in this we are a republic of shepherds and shepherdesses, and we live in a golden age; which if it sometimes seems an age of inconvertible paper, is certainly so through no want of faith in us.

Though the Pasmers said that they ought to go home for Alice's sake, they both understood that they were going home experimentally, and not with the intention of laying their bones in their native soil, unless they liked it, or found they could afford it. Mrs. Pasmer had no illusions in regard to it. She had learned from her former visits home that it was frightfully expensive; and, during the fifteen years which they had spent chiefly abroad, she had observed the decay of that distinction which formerly attended returning sojourners from Europe. She had seen them cease gradually from the romantic reverence which once clothed them, and decline through a gathering indifference into something like slight and compassion, as people who have not been able to make their place or hold their own at home; and she had taught herself so well how to pocket the superiority natural to the Europeanised American before arriving at consciousness of this disesteem, that she paid a ready tribute to people who had always stayed at home.

In fact Mrs. Pasmer was a flatterer, and it cannot be claimed for her that she flattered adroitly always. But adroitness in flattery is not necessary for its successful use. There is no morsel of it too gross for the condor gullet and the ostrich stomach of human vanity; there is no society in which it does not give the utterer instant honour and acceptance in greater or less degree. Mrs. Pasmer, who was very good-natured, employed it because she liked it herself, and knowing how absolutely worthless it was from her own tongue, prized it from others. She could have rested perfectly safe without it in her social position, which she found unchanged by years of absence. She had not been a Hibbins for nothing, and she was not a Pasmer for nothing, though why she should have been either for something it would not be easy to say.

But while confessing the foibles of Mrs. Pasmer, it would not be fair to omit from the tale of her many virtues the final conscientiousness of her openly involuted character. Not to mention other things, she instituted and practised economies as alien to her nature as to her husband's, and in their narrowing affairs she kept him out of debt. She was prudent; she was alert; and while presenting to the world all the outward effect of a butterfly, she possessed some of the best qualities of the bee.

With his senatorial presence, his distinction of person and manner, Mr. Pasmer was inveterately selfish in that province of small personal things where his wife left him unmolested. In what related to his own comfort and convenience he was undisputed lord of himself. It was she who ordered their comings and goings, and decided in which hemisphere they should sojourn from time to time, and in what city, street, and house, but always with the understanding that the kitchen and all the domestic appointments were to her husband's mind. He was sensitive to degrees of heat and cold, and luxurious in the matter of lighting, and he had a fine nose for plumbing. If he had not occupied himself so much with these details, he was the sort of man to have thought Mrs. Pasmer, with her buzz of activities and pretences, rather a tedious little woman. He had some delicate tastes, if not refined interests, and was expensively fond of certain sorts of bric-a-brac: he spent a great deal of time in packing and unpacking it, and he had cases stored in Rome and London and Paris; it had been one of his motives in consenting to come home that he might get them out, and set up the various objects of bronze and porcelain in cabinets. He had no vices, unless absolute idleness ensuing uninterruptedly upon a remotely demonstrated unfitness for business can be called a vice. Like other people who have always been idle, he did not consider his idleness a vice. He rather plumed himself upon it, for the man who has done nothing all his life naturally looks down upon people who have done or are doing something. In Europe he had not all the advantage of this superiority which such a man has here; he was often thrown with other idle people, who had been useless for so many generations that they had almost ceased to have any consciousness of it. In their presence Pasmer felt that his uselessness had not that passive elegance which only ancestral uselessness can give; that it was positive, and to that degree vulgar.

A life like this was not one which would probably involve great passions or affections, and it would be hard to describe exactly the feeling with which he regarded his daughter. He liked her, of course, and he had naturally expected certain things of her, as a ladylike intelligence, behaviour, and appearance; but he had never shown any great tenderness for her, or even pride in her. She had never given him any displeasure, however, and he had not shared his wife's question of mind at a temporary phase of Alice's development when she showed a decided inclination for a religious life. He had apparently not observed that the girl had a pensive temperament in spite of the effect of worldly splendour which her mother contrived for her, and that this pensiveness occasionally deepened to gloom. He had certainly never seen that in a way of her own she was very romantic. Mrs. Pasmer had seen it, with amusement sometimes, and sometimes with anxiety, but always with the courage to believe that she could cope with it when it was necessary.

Whenever it was necessary she had all the moral courage she wanted; it seemed as if she could have it or not as she liked; and in coming home she had taken a flat instead of a house, though she had not talked with her friends three minutes without perceiving that the moment when flats had promised to assert their social equality with houses in Boston was past for ever. There were, of course, cases in which there could be no question of them; but for the most part they were plainly regarded as makeshifts, the resorts of people of small means, or the defiances or errors of people who had lived too much abroad. They stamped their occupants as of transitory and fluctuant character; good people might live in them, and did, as good people sometimes boarded; but they could not be regarded as forming a social base, except in rare instances. They presented peculiar difficulties in calling, and for any sort of entertainment they were too—not public, perhaps, but—evident.

In spite of these objections Mrs. Pasmer took a flat in the Cavendish, and she took it furnished from people who were going abroad for a year.

William Dean Howells