When George regained some measure of his presence of mind, Miss Lucy Morgan's cheek, snowy and cold, was pressing his nose slightly to one side; his right arm was firmly about her neck; and a monstrous amount of her fur boa seemed to mingle with an equally unplausible quantity of snow in his mouth. He was confused, but conscious of no objection to any of these juxtapositions. She was apparently uninjured, for she sat up, hatless, her hair down, and said mildly:
Though her father had been under his machine when they passed, he was the first to reach them. He threw himself on his knees beside his daughter, but found her already laughing, and was reassured. “They're all right,” he called to Isabel, who was running toward them, ahead of her brother and Fanny Minafer. “This snowbank's a feather bed—nothing the matter with them at all. Don't look so pale!”
“Georgie!” she gasped. “Georgie!”
Georgie was on his feet, snow all over him.
“Don't make a fuss, mother! Nothing's the matter. That darned silly horse—”
Sudden tears stood in Isabel's eyes. “To see you down underneath—dragging—oh—” Then with shaking hands she began to brush the snow from him.
“Let me alone,” he protested. “You'll ruin your gloves. You're getting snow all over you, and—”
“No, no!” she cried. “You'll catch cold; you mustn't catch cold!” And she continued to brush him.
Amberson had brought Lucy's hat; Miss Fanny acted as lady's-maid; and both victims of the accident were presently restored to about their usual appearance and condition of apparel. In fact, encouraged by the two older gentlemen, the entire party, with one exception, decided that the episode was after all a merry one, and began to laugh about it. But George was glummer than the December twilight now swiftly closing in.
“That darned horse!” he said.
“I wouldn't bother about Pendennis, Georgie,” said his uncle. “You can send a man out for what's left of the cutter tomorrow, and Pendennis will gallop straight home to his stable: he'll be there a long while before we will, because all we've got to depend on to get us home is Gene Morgan's broken-down chafing-dish yonder.”
They were approaching the machine as he spoke, and his friend, again underneath it, heard him. He emerged, smiling. “She'll go,” he said.
He offered his hand to Isabel. She was smiling but still pale, and her eyes, in spite of the smile, kept upon George in a shocked anxiety. Miss Fanny had already mounted to the rear seat, and George, after helping Lucy Morgan to climb up beside his aunt, was following. Isabel saw that his shoes were light things of patent leather, and that snow was clinging to them. She made a little rush toward him, and, as one of his feet rested on the iron step of the machine, in mounting, she began to clean the snow from his shoe with her almost aerial lace handkerchief. “You mustn't catch cold!” she cried.
“Stop that!” George shouted, and furiously withdrew his foot.
“Then stamp the snow off,” she begged. “You mustn't ride with wet feet.”
“They're not!” George roared, thoroughly outraged. “For heaven's sake get in! You're standing in the snow yourself. Get in!”
Isabel consented, turning to Morgan, whose habitual expression of apprehensiveness was somewhat accentuated. He climbed up after her, George Amberson having gone to the other side. “You're the same Isabel I used to know!” he said in a low voice. “You're a divinely ridiculous woman.”
“Am I, Eugene?” she said, not displeased. “'Divinely' and 'ridiculous' just counterbalance each other, don't they? Plus one and minus one equal nothing; so you mean I'm nothing in particular?”
“No,” he answered, tugging at a lever. “That doesn't seem to be precisely what I meant. There!” This exclamation referred to the subterranean machinery, for dismaying sounds came from beneath the floor, and the vehicle plunged, then rolled noisily forward.
“Behold!” George Amberson exclaimed. “She does move! It must be another accident.”
“Accident?” Morgan shouted over the din. “No! She breathes, she stirs; she seems to feel a thrill of life along her keel!” And he began to sing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Amberson joined him lustily, and sang on when Morgan stopped. The twilight sky cleared, discovering a round moon already risen; and the musical congressman hailed this bright presence with the complete text and melody of “The Danube River.”
His nephew, behind, was gloomy. He had overheard his mother's conversation with the inventor: it seemed curious to him that this Morgan, of whom he had never heard until last night, should be using the name “Isabel” so easily; and George felt that it was not just the thing for his mother to call Morgan “Eugene;” the resentment of the previous night came upon George again. Meanwhile, his mother and Morgan continued their talk; but he could no longer hear what they said; the noise of the car and his uncle's songful mood prevented. He marked how animated Isabel seemed; it was not strange to see his mother so gay, but it was strange that a man not of the family should be the cause of her gaiety. And George sat frowning.
Fanny Minafer had begun to talk to Lucy. “Your father wanted to prove that his horseless carriage would run, even in the snow,” she said. “It really does, too.”
“It's so interesting! He's been telling us how he's going to change it. He says he's going to have wheels all made of rubber and blown up with air. I don't understand what he means at all; I should think they'd explode—but Eugene seems to be very confident. He always was confident, though. It seems so like old times to hear him talk!”
She became thoughtful, and Lucy turned to George. “You tried to swing underneath me and break the fall for me when we went over,” she said. “I knew you were doing that, and—it was nice of you.”
“Wasn't any fall to speak of,” he returned brusquely. “Couldn't have hurt either of us.”
“Still it was friendly of you—and awfully quick, too. I'll not—I'll not forget it!”
Her voice had a sound of genuineness, very pleasant; and George began to forget his annoyance with her father. This annoyance of his had not been alleviated by the circumstance that neither of the seats of the old sewing-machine was designed for three people, but when his neighbour spoke thus gratefully, he no longer minded the crowding—in fact, it pleased him so much that he began to wish the old sewing-machine would go even slower. And she had spoken no word of blame for his letting that darned horse get the cutter into the ditch. George presently addressed her hurriedly, almost tremulously, speaking close to her ear:
“I forgot to tell you something: you're pretty nice! I thought so the first second I saw you last night. I'll come for you tonight and take you to the Assembly at the Amberson Hotel. You're going, aren't you?”
“Yes, but I'm going with papa and the Sharons I'll see you there.”
“Looks to me as if you were awfully conventional,” George grumbled; and his disappointment was deeper than he was willing to let her see—though she probably did see. “Well, we'll dance the cotillion together, anyhow.”
“I'm afraid not. I promised Mr. Kinney.”
“What!” George's tone was shocked, as at incredible news. “Well, you could break that engagement, I guess, if you wanted to! Girls always can get out of things when they want to. Won't you?”
“I don't think so.”
“Because I promised him. Several days ago.”
George gulped, and lowered his pride, “I don't—oh, look here! I only want to go to that thing tonight to get to see something of you; and if you don't dance the cotillion with me, how can I? I'll only be here two weeks, and the others have got all the rest of your visit to see you. Won't you do it, please?”
“See here!” said the stricken George. “If you're going to decline to dance that cotillion with me simply because you've promised a—a—a miserable red-headed outsider like Fred Kinney, why we might as well quit!”
“You know perfectly well what I mean,” he said huskily.
“Well, you ought to!”
“But I don't at all!”
George, thoroughly hurt, and not a little embittered, expressed himself in a short outburst of laughter: “Well, I ought to have seen it!”
“That you might turn out to be a girl who'd like a fellow of the red-headed Kinney sort. I ought to have seen it from the first!”
Lucy bore her disgrace lightly. “Oh, dancing a cotillion with a person doesn't mean that you like him—but I don't see anything in particular the matter with Mr. Kinney. What is?”
“If you don't see anything the matter with him for yourself,” George responded, icily, “I don't think pointing it out would help you. You probably wouldn't understand.”
“You might try,” she suggested. “Of course I'm a stranger here, and if people have done anything wrong or have something unpleasant about them, I wouldn't have any way of knowing it, just at first. If poor Mr. Kinney—”
“I prefer not to discuss it,” said George curtly. “He's an enemy of mine.”
“I prefer not to discuss it.”
“I prefer not to discuss it!”
“Very well.” She began to hum the air of the song which Mr. George Amberson was now discoursing, “O moon of my delight that knows no wane”—and there was no further conversation on the back seat.
They had entered Amberson Addition, and the moon of Mr. Amberson's delight was overlaid by a slender Gothic filagree; the branches that sprang from the shade trees lining the street. Through the windows of many of the houses rosy lights were flickering; and silver tinsel and evergreen wreaths and brilliant little glass globes of silver and wine colour could be seen, and glimpses were caught of Christmas trees, with people decking them by firelight—reminders that this was Christmas Eve. The ride-stealers had disappeared from the highway, though now and then, over the gasping and howling of the horseless carriage, there came a shrill jeer from some young passer-by upon the sidewalk:
“Mister, fer heaven's sake go an' git a hoss! Git a hoss! Git a hoss!”
The contrivance stopped with a heart-shaking jerk before Isabel's house. The gentlemen jumped down, helping Isabel and Fanny to descend; there were friendly leavetakings—and one that was not precisely friendly.
“It's 'au revoir,' till to-night, isn't it?” Lucy asked, laughing.
“Good afternoon!” said George, and he did not wait, as his relatives did, to see the old sewing machine start briskly down the street, toward the Sharons'; its lighter load consisting now of only Mr. Morgan and his daughter. George went into the house at once.
He found his father reading the evening paper in the library. “Where are your mother and your Aunt Fanny?” Mr. Minafer inquired, not looking up.
“They're coming,” said his son; and, casting himself heavily into a chair, stared at the fire.
His prediction was verified a few moments later; the two ladies came in cheerfully, unfastening their fur cloaks. “It's all right, Georgie,” said Isabel. “Your Uncle George called to us that Pendennis got home safely. Put your shoes close to the fire, dear, or else go and change them.” She went to her husband and patted him lightly on the shoulder, an action which George watched with sombre moodiness. “You might dress before long,” she suggested. “We're all going to the Assembly, after dinner, aren't we? Brother George said he'd go with us.”
“Look here,” said George abruptly. “How about this man Morgan and his old sewing-machine? Doesn't he want to get grandfather to put money into it? Isn't he trying to work Uncle George for that? Isn't that what he's up to?”
It was Miss Fanny who responded. “You little silly!” she cried, with surprising sharpness. “What on earth are you talking about? Eugene Morgan's perfectly able to finance his own inventions these days.”
“I'll bet he borrows money of Uncle George,” the nephew insisted.
Isabel looked at him in grave perplexity. “Why do you say such a thing, George?” she asked.
“He strikes me as that sort of man,” he answered doggedly. “Isn't he, father?”
Minafer set down his paper for the moment. “He was a fairly wild young fellow twenty years ago,” he said, glancing at his wife absently. “He was like you in one thing, Georgie; he spent too much money—only he didn't have any mother to get money out of a grandfather for him, so he was usually in debt. But I believe I've heard he's done fairly well of late years. No, I can't say I think he's a swindler, and I doubt if he needs anybody else's money to back his horseless carriage.”
“Well, what's he brought the old thing here for, then? People that own elephants don't take them elephants around with 'em when they go visiting. What's he got it here for?”
“I'm sure I don't know,” said Mr. Minafer, resuming his paper. “You might ask him.”
Isabel laughed, and patted her husband's shoulder again. “Aren't you going to dress? Aren't we all going to the dance?”
He groaned faintly. “Aren't your brother and Georgie escorts enough for you and Fanny?”
“Wouldn't you enjoy it at all?”
“You know I don't.”
Isabel let her hand remain upon his shoulder a moment longer; she stood behind him, looking into the fire, and George, watching her broodingly, thought there was more colour in her face than the reflection of the flames accounted for. “Well, then,” she said indulgently, “stay at home and be happy. We won't urge you if you'd really rather not.”
“I really wouldn't,” he said contentedly.
Half an hour later, George was passing through the upper hall, in a bath-robe stage of preparation for the evening's' gaieties, when he encountered his Aunt Fanny. He stopped her. “Look here!” he said.
“What in the world is the matter with you?” she demanded, regarding him with little amiability. “You look as if you were rehearsing for a villain in a play. Do change your expression!”
His expression gave no sign of yielding to the request; on the contrary, its somberness deepened. “I suppose you don't know why father doesn't want to go tonight,” he said solemnly. “You're his only sister, and yet you don't know!”
“He never wants to go anywhere that I ever heard of,” said Fanny. “What is the matter with you?”
“He doesn't want to go because he doesn't like this man Morgan.”
“Good gracious!” Fanny cried impatiently. “Eugene Morgan isn't in your father's thoughts at all, one way or the other. Why should he be?”
George hesitated. “Well—it strikes me—Look here, what makes you and—and everybody—so excited over him?”
“Excited!” she jeered. “Can't people be glad to see an old friend without silly children like you having to make a to-do about it? I've just been in your mother's room suggesting that she might give a little dinner for them—”
“For whom, Georgie! For Mr. Morgan and his daughter.”
“Look here!” George said quickly. “Don't do that! Mother mustn't do that. It wouldn't look well.”
“Wouldn't look well!” Fanny mocked him; and her suppressed vehemence betrayed a surprising acerbity. “See here, Georgie Minafer, I suggest that you just march straight on into your room and finish your dressing! Sometimes you say things that show you have a pretty mean little mind!”
George was so astounded by this outburst that his indignation was delayed by his curiosity. “Why, what upsets you this way?” he inquired.
“I know what you mean,” she said, her voice still lowered, but not decreasing in sharpness. “You're trying to insinuate that I'd get your mother to invite Eugene Morgan here on my account because he's a widower!”
“I am?” George gasped, nonplussed. “I'm trying to insinuate that you're setting your cap at him and getting mother to help you? Is that what you mean?”
Beyond a doubt that was what Miss Fanny meant. She gave him a white-hot look. “You attend to your own affairs!” she whispered fiercely, and swept away.
George, dumfounded, returned to his room for meditation.
He had lived for years in the same house with his Aunt Fanny, and it now appeared that during all those years he had been thus intimately associating with a total stranger. Never before had he met the passionate lady with whom he had just held a conversation in the hall. So she wanted to get married! And wanted George's mother to help her with this horseless-carriage widower!
“Well, I will be shot!” he muttered aloud. “I will—I certainly will be shot!” And he began' to laugh. “Lord 'lmighty!”
But presently, at the thought of the horseless-carriage widower's daughter, his grimness returned, and he resolved upon a line of conduct for the evening. He would nod to her carelessly when he first saw her; and, after that, he would notice her no more: he would not dance with her; he would not favour her in the cotillion—he would not go near her!
He descended to dinner upon the third urgent summons of a coloured butler, having spent two hours dressing—and rehearsing.