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Chapter 17

It was still so early that I had my doubts whether I should find Kendricks up after the last night's revelry, but he met me half-way between our hotel and his. He said he was coming to see how Mrs. March was bearing Miss Gage's immense success at the ball; but perhaps this was not his sole motive. He asked frankly how the young lady was, and whether I thought Mrs. March would consider a lunch at a restaurant by the lake a good notion. When I said I had very little doubt she would, and proposed taking a turn in the park before I went back with him, he looked at his watch and laughed, and said he supposed it WAS rather early yet, and came very willingly with me.

We had the pretty place almost to ourselves at that hour. There were a half-dozen or so nursemaids, pushing their perambulators about, or standing the vehicles across the walk in front of the benches where they sat, in the simple belief of all people who have to do with babies that the rest of the world may be fitly discommoded in their behalf. But they did not actively molest us, and they scarcely circumscribed our choice of seats. We were by no means driven to the little kiosk in the lake for them, and I should rather say that we were fatefully led there, so apt were the associations of the place to my purpose. Nothing could have been more natural than that I should say, as we sat down there, "This was where I first saw Miss Gage with her friends"; and it was by a perfectly natural transition that I should go on to speak, in a semi-humorous strain, of the responsibility which Mrs. March and myself had incurred by letting our sympathy for her run away with us. I said I supposed that if we had not been willing from the first to try to realise for her some of the expectations we imagined she had in coming to Saratoga, she never would have fallen to our charge; that people really brought a great many more things upon themselves than they were willing to own; and that fate was perhaps more the fulfilment of our tacit ambitions than our overt acts. This bit of philosophy, which I confess I thought fine, did not seem to impress Kendricks. He merely said that it must be great fun to have the chance of baffling the malice of circumstance in a case like that, and I perceived that he felt nothing complex in the situation. In fact, I doubt whether youth perceives anything complex in life. To the young, life is a very plain case. To be sure, they are much more alarmed than their elders at getting tangled up in its web at times, but that is because they have not had our experience in getting untangled, and think they are never going to get out alive. When they do, they think that it is the only tangle they are ever going to be in, and do not know that they are simply going on from one to another as long as there is enough of them left to be caught in a mesh. To Kendricks we Marches were simply two amiable people, who had fancied doing a pleasant thing for a beautiful girl that accident had thrown it in our power to befriend, and were by no means the trembling arbiters of her destiny we felt ourselves to be. The difference between his objective sense and my subjective sense was the difference between his twenty-seven years and my fifty-two, and while this remained I saw that it would be useless to try to get on common ground with him, or to give him our point of view. If I were to speak to him at all, it must be with authority, with the right of one who stood in the place of the girl's parents, and had her happiness at heart. That is, it was something like that; but my words say it too bluntly. I found myself beginning, "I have rather had a notion that her father might come on, and take the enterprise off our hands," though, to tell the truth, I had never imagined such a thing, which came into my head at that moment through an association with the thought of parents.

"Have you any idea what sort of man he is?" asked Kendricks.

"Oh, some little local magnate, president of the village and president of the village bank; I fancy the chief figure in the place, but probably as ignorant of our world as a Cherokee."

"Well, I don't know," said the young fellow. "Do you think that follows because he doesn't live in it?" I could see that he did not quite like what I had said. "I suppose ours is rather a small world."

"The smallest of all worlds," I answered. "And in the eyes of Papa Gage, if they could once be focused upon it, our world would shrivel to an atom."

"Do you think," he asked, with a manifest anxiety, "that it would in hers?"

"No; she is not the American people, and her father is, as I fancy him. I make out from the vague hints that Brother Deering (as Fulkerson would call him) dropped when he talked about him that Papa Gage is a shrewd, practical, home-keeping business man, with an eye single to the main chance, lavish, but not generous, Philistine to the backbone, blindly devoted to his daughter, and contemptuous of all the myriad mysteries of civilisation that he doesn't understand. I don't know why I should be authorised to imagine him personally long and lank, with possibly a tobacco habit of some sort. His natural history, upon no better authority, is that of a hard-headed farmer, who found out that farming could never be more than a livelihood, and came into the village, and began to lend money, and get gain, till he was in a position to help found the De Witt Point National Bank, and then, by weight of his moneyed solidity, imposed himself upon the free and independent voters of the village—a majority of them under mortgage to him—and became its president. It isn't a pleasant type, but it's ideally American."

"Yes," said Kendricks ruefully.

"But his daughter," I continued, "is probably altogether different. There is something fine about her—really fine. Our world wouldn't shrivel in her eye; it would probably swell up and fill the universe," I added by an impulse that came from nowhere irresistibly upon me: "that is, if she could see YOU in it."

"What do you mean?" he asked with a start.

"Oh, now I must tell you what I mean," I said desperately. "It's you that have complicated this case so dreadfully for us. Can't you think why?"

"No, I can't," he said; but he had to say that.

His fine, sensitive face flamed at once so fire-red that it could only turn pale for a change when I plunged on: "I'm afraid we've trifled with her happiness"; and this formulation of the case disgusted me so much that I laughed wildly, and added, "unless we've trifled with yours, too."

"I don't know why you call it trifling with happiness," he returned with dignity, but without offence. "If you will leave her out of the question, I will say that you have given me the greatest happiness of my life in introducing me to Miss Gage."

"Now," I demanded, "may I ask what YOU mean? You know I wouldn't if I didn't feel bound for her sake, and if you hadn't said just what you have said. You needn't answer me unless you like! It's pleasant to know that you've not been bored, and Mrs. March and I are infinitely obliged to you for helping us out."

Kendricks made as if he were going to say something, and then he did not. He hung his head lower and lower in the silence which I had to break for him—"I hope I haven't been intrusive, my dear fellow. This is something I felt bound to speak of. You know we couldn't let it go on. Mrs. March and I have blamed ourselves a good deal, and we couldn't let it go on. But I'm afraid I haven't been as delicate with you—"

"Oh! delicate!" He lifted his head and flashed a face of generous self-reproach upon me. "It's I that haven't been delicate with YOU. I've been monstrously indelicate. But I never meant to be, and—and—I was coming to see you just now when we met—to see you— Miss Gage—and ask her—tell her that we—I—must tell you and Mrs. March—Mr. March! At the hop last night I asked her to be my wife, and as soon as she can hear from her father—But the first thing when I woke this morning, I saw that I must tell Mrs. March and you. And you—you must forgive us—or me, rather; for it was my fault— for not telling you last night—at once—oh, thank you! thank you!"

I had seized his hand, and was wringing it vehemently in expression of my pleasure in what he had told me. In that first moment I felt nothing but pure joy and an immeasurable relief. I drew my breath, a very deep and full one, in a sudden, absolute freedom from anxieties which had been none the less real and constant because so often burlesqued. Afterward considerations presented themselves to alloy my rapture, but for that moment, as I say, it was nothing but rapture. There was no question in it of the lovers' fitness for each other, of their acceptability to their respective families, of their general conduct, or of their especial behaviour toward us. All that I could realise was that it was a great escape for both of us, and a great triumph for me. I had been afraid that I should not have the courage to speak to Kendricks of the matter at all, much less ask him to go away; and here I had actually spoken to him, with the splendid result that I need only congratulate him on his engagement to the lady whose unrequited affections I had been wishing him to spare. I don't remember just the terms I used in doing this, but they seemed satisfactory to Kendricks; probably a repetition of the letters of the alphabet would have been equally acceptable. At last I said, "Well, now I must go and tell the great news to Mrs. March," and I shook hands with him again; we had been shaking hands at half-minutely intervals ever since the first time.

William Dean Howells

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