Isabel's uneasiness about her husband's health—sometimes reflected in her letters to George during the winter that followed—had not been alleviated when the accredited Senior returned for his next summer vacation, and she confided to him in his room, soon after his arrival, that “something” the doctor had said to her lately had made her more uneasy than ever.
“Still worrying over his rolling-mills investments?” George asked, not seriously impressed.
“I'm afraid it's past that stage from what Dr Rainey says. His worries only aggravate his condition now. Dr. Rainey says we ought to get him away.”
“Well, let's do it, then.”
“He won't go.”
“He's a man awfully set in his ways; that's true,” said George. “I don't think there's anything much the matter with him, though, and he looks just the same to me. Have you seen Lucy lately? How is she?”
“Hasn't she written you?”
“Oh, about once a month,” he answered carelessly. “Never says much about herself. How's she look?”
“She looks—pretty!” said Isabel. “I suppose she wrote you they've moved?”
“Yes; I've got her address. She said they were building.”
“They did. It's all finished, and they've been in it a month. Lucy is so capable; she keeps house exquisitely. It's small, but oh, such a pretty little house!”
“Well, that's fortunate,” George said. “One thing I've always felt they didn't know a great deal about is architecture.”
“Don't they?” asked Isabel, surprised. “Anyhow, their house is charming. It's way out beyond the end of Amberson Boulevard; it's quite near that big white house with a gray-green roof somebody built out there a year or so ago. There are any number of houses going up, out that way; and the trolley-line runs within a block of them now, on the next street, and the traction people are laying tracks more than three miles beyond. I suppose you'll be driving out to see Lucy to-morrow.”
“I thought—” George hesitated. “I thought perhaps I'd go after dinner this evening.”
At this his mother laughed, not astonished. “It was only my feeble joke about 'to-morrow,' Georgie! I was pretty sure you couldn't wait that long. Did Lucy write you about the factory?”
“No. What factory?”
“The automobile shops. They had rather a dubious time at first, I'm afraid, and some of Eugene's experiments turned out badly, but this spring they've finished eight automobiles and sold them all, and they've got twelve more almost finished, and they're sold already! Eugene's so gay over it!”
“What do his old sewing-machines look like? Like that first one he had when they came here?”
“No, indeed! These have rubber tires blown up with air—pneumatic! And they aren't so high; they're very easy to get into, and the engine's in front—Eugene thinks that's a great improvement. They're very interesting to look at; behind the driver's seat there's a sort of box where four people can sit, with a step and a little door in the rear, and—”
“I know all about it,” said George. “I've seen any number like that, East. You can see all you want of 'em, if you stand on Fifth Avenue half an hour, any afternoon. I've seen half-a-dozen go by almost at the same time—within a few minutes, anyhow; and of course electric hansoms are a common sight there any day. I hired one, myself, the last time I was there. How fast do Mr. Morgan's machines go?”
“Much too fast! It's very exhilarating—but rather frightening; and they do make a fearful uproar. He says, though, he thinks he sees a way to get around the noisiness in time.”
“I don't mind the noise,” said George. “Give me a horse, for mine, though, any day. I must get up a race with one of these things: Pendennis'll leave it one mile behind in a two-mile run. How's grandfather?”
“He looks well, but he complains sometimes of his heart: I suppose that's natural at his age—and it's an Amberson trouble.” Having mentioned this, she looked anxious instantly. “Did you ever feel any weakness there, Georgie?”
“No!” he laughed.
“Are you sure, dear?”
“No!” And he laughed again. “Did you?”
“Oh, I think not—at least, the doctor told me he thought my heart was about all right. He said I needn't be alarmed.”
“I should think not! Women do seem to be always talking about health: I suppose they haven't got enough else to think of!”
“That must be it,” she said gayly. “We're an idle lot!”
George had taken off his coat. “I don't like to hint to a lady,” he said, “but I do want to dress before dinner.”
“Don't be long; I've got to do a lot of looking at you, dear!” She kissed him and ran away singing.
But his Aunt Fanny was not so fond; and at the dinner-table there came a spark of liveliness into her eye when George patronizingly asked her what was the news in her own “particular line of sport.”
“What do you mean, Georgie?” she asked quietly.
“Oh I mean: What's the news in the fast set generally? You been causing any divorces lately?”
“No,” said Fanny, the spark in her eye getting brighter. “I haven't been causing anything.”
“Well, what's the gossip? You usually hear pretty much everything that goes on around the nooks and crannies in this town, I hear. What's the last from the gossips' corner, auntie?”
Fanny dropped her eyes, and the spark was concealed, but a movement of her lower lip betokened a tendency to laugh, as she replied. “There hasn't been much gossip lately, except the report that Lucy Morgan and Fred Kinney are engaged—and that's quite old, by this time.”
Undeniably, this bit of mischief was entirely successful, for there was a clatter upon George's plate. “What—what do you think you're talking about?” he gasped.
Miss Fanny looked up innocently. “About the report of Lucy Morgan's engagement to Fred Kinney.”
George turned dumbly to his mother, and Isabel shook her head reassuringly. “People are always starting rumours,” she said. “I haven't paid any attention to this one.”
“But you—you've heard it?” he stammered.
“Oh, one hears all sorts of nonsense, dear. I haven't the slightest idea that it's true.”
“Then you have heard it!”
“I wouldn't let it take my appetite,” his father suggested drily. “There are plenty of girls in the world!”
George turned pale.
“Eat your dinner, Georgie,” his aunt said sweetly. “Food will do you good. I didn't say I knew this rumour was true. I only said I'd heard it.”
“When? When did you hear it!”
“Oh, months ago!” And Fanny found any further postponement of laughter impossible.
“Fanny, you're a hard-hearted creature,” Isabel said gently. “You really are. Don't pay any attention to her, George. Fred Kinney's only a clerk in his uncle's hardware place: he couldn't marry for ages—even if anybody would accept him!”
George breathed tumultuously. “I don't care anything about 'ages'! What's that got to do with it?” he said, his thoughts appearing to be somewhat disconnected. “Ages,' don't mean anything! I only want to know—I want to know—I want—” He stopped.
“What do you want?” his father asked crossly.
“Why don't you say it? Don't make such a fuss.”
“I'm not—not at all,” George declared, pushing his chair back from the table.
“You must finish your dinner, dear,” his mother urged. “Don't—”
“I have finished. I've eaten all I want. I don't want any more than I wanted. I don't want—I—” He rose, still incoherent. “I prefer—I want—Please excuse me!”
He left the room, and a moment later the screens outside the open front door were heard to slam:
“Fanny! You shouldn't—”
“Isabel, don't reproach me, he did have plenty of dinner, and I only told the truth: everybody has been saying—”
“But there isn't any truth in it.”
“We don't actually know there isn't,” Miss Fanny insisted, giggling. “We've never asked Lucy.”
“I wouldn't ask her anything so absurd!”
“George would,” George's father remarked. “That's what he's gone to do.”
Mr. Minafer was not mistaken: that was what his son had gone to do. Lucy and her father were just rising from their dinner table when the stirred youth arrived at the front door of the new house. It was a cottage, however, rather than a house; and Lucy had taken a free hand with the architect, achieving results in white and green, outside, and white and blue, inside, to such effect of youth and daintiness that her father complained of “too much spring-time!” The whole place, including his own bedroom, was a young damsel's boudoir, he said, so that nowhere could he smoke a cigar without feeling like a ruffian. However, he was smoking when George arrived, and he encouraged George to join him in the pastime, but the caller, whose air was both tense and preoccupied, declined with something like agitation.
“I never smoke—that is, I'm seldom—I mean, no thanks,” he said. “I mean not at all. I'd rather not.”
“Aren't you well, George?” Eugene asked, looking at him in perplexity. “Have you been overworking at college? You do look rather pa—”
“I don't work,” said George. “I mean I don't work. I think, but I don't work. I only work at the end of the term. There isn't much to do.”
Eugene's perplexity was little decreased, and a tinkle of the door-bell afforded him obvious relief. “It's my foreman,” he said, looking at his watch. “I'll take him out in the yard to talk. This is no place for a foreman.” And he departed, leaving the “living room” to Lucy and George. It was a pretty room, white panelled and blue curtained—and no place for a foreman, as Eugene said. There was a grand piano, and Lucy stood leaning back against it, looking intently at George, while her fingers, behind her, absently struck a chord or two. And her dress was the dress for that room, being of blue and white, too; and the high colour in her cheeks was far from interfering with the general harmony of things—George saw with dismay that she was prettier than ever, and naturally he missed the reassurance he might have felt had he been able to guess that Lucy, on her part, was finding him better looking than ever. For, however unusual the scope of George's pride, vanity of beauty was not included; he did not think about his looks.
“What's wrong, George?” she asked softly.
“What do you mean: 'What's wrong?”
“You're awfully upset about something. Didn't you get though your examination all right?”
“Certainly I did. What makes you think anything's 'wrong' with me?”
“You do look pale, as papa said, and it seemed to me that the way you talked sounded—well, a little confused.”
“Confused'! I said I didn't care to smoke. What in the world is confused about that?”
“See here!” George stepped close to her. “Are you glad to see me?”
“You needn't be so fierce about it!” Lucy protested, laughing at his dramatic intensity. “Of course I am! How long have I been looking forward to it?”
“I don't know,” he said sharply, abating nothing of his fierceness. “How long have you?”
“Why—ever since you went away!”
“Is that true? Lucy, is that true?”
“You are funny!” she said. “Of course it's true. Do tell me what's the matter with you, George!”
“I will!” he exclaimed. “I was a boy when I saw you last. I see that now, though I didn't then. Well, I'm not a boy any longer. I'm a man, and a man has a right to demand a totally different treatment.”
“Why has he?”
“I don't seem to be able to understand you at all, George. Why shouldn't a boy be treated just as well as a man?”
George seemed to find himself at a loss. “Why shouldn't—Well, he shouldn't, because a man has a right to certain explanations.”
“Whether he's been made a toy of!” George almost shouted. “That's what I want to know!”
Lucy shook her head despairingly. “You are the queerest person! You say you're a man now, but you talk more like a boy than ever. What does make you so excited?”
“'Excited!'” he stormed. “Do you dare to stand there and call me 'excited'? I tell you, I never have been more calm or calmer in my life! I don't know that a person needs to be called 'excited' because he demands explanations that are his simple due!”
“What in the world do you want me to explain?”
“Your conduct with Fred Kinney!” George shouted.
Lucy uttered a sudden cry of laughter; she was delighted. “It's been awful!” she said. “I don't know that I ever heard of worse misbehaviour! Papa and I have been twice to dinner with his family, and I've been three times to church with Fred—and once to the circus! I don't know when they'll be here to arrest me!”
“Stop that!” George commanded fiercely. “I want to know just one thing, and I mean to know it, too!”
“Whether I enjoyed the circus?”
“I want to know if you're engaged to him!”
“No!” she cried and lifting her face close to his for the shortest instant possible, she gave him a look half merry, half defiant, but all fond. It was an adorable look.
“Lucy!” he said huskily.
But she turned quickly from him, and ran to the other end of the room. He followed awkwardly, stammering:
“Lucy, I want—I want to ask you. Will you—will you—will you be engaged to me?”
She stood at a window, seeming to look out into the summer darkness, her back to him.
“Will you, Lucy?”
“No,” she murmured, just audibly.
“I'm older than you.”
“You're too young.”
“Is that—” he said, gulping—“is that the only reason you won't?”
She did not answer.
As she stood, persistently staring out of the window, with her back to him, she did not see how humble his attitude had become; but his voice was low, and it shook so that she could have no doubt of his emotion. “Lucy, please forgive me for making such a row,” he said, thus gently. “I've been—I've been terribly upset—terribly! You know how I feel about you, and always have felt about you. I've shown it in every single thing I've done since the first time I met you, and I know you know it. Don't you?”
Still she did not move or speak.
“Is the only reason you won't be engaged to me you think I'm too young, Lucy?”
“It's—it's reason enough,” she said faintly.
At that he caught one of her hands, and she turned to him: there were tears in her eyes, tears which he did not understand at all.
“Lucy, you little dear!” he cried. “I knew you—”
“No, no!” she said, and she pushed him away, withdrawing her hand. “George, let's not talk of solemn things.”
“Solemn things!' Like what?”
But George had become altogether jubilant, and he laughed triumphantly. “Good gracious, that isn't solemn!”
“It is, too!” she said, wiping her eyes. “It's too solemn for us.”
“No, it isn't! I—”
“Let's sit down and be sensible, dear,” she said. “You sit over there—”
“I will if you'll call me, 'dear' again.”
“No,” she said. “I'll only call you that once again this summer—the night before you go away.”
“That will have to do, then,” he laughed, “so long as I know we're engaged.”
“But we're not!” she protested. “And we never will be, if you don't promise not to speak of it again until—until I tell you to!”
“I won't promise that,” said the happy George. “I'll only promise not to speak of it till the next time you call me 'dear'; and you've promised to call me that the night before I leave for my senior year.”
“Oh, but I didn't!” she said earnestly, then hesitated. “Did I?”
“I don't think I meant it,” she murmured, her wet lashes flickering above troubled eyes.
“I know one thing about you,” he said gayly, his triumph increasing. “You never went back on anything you said, yet, and I'm not afraid of this being the first time!”
“But we mustn't let—” she faltered; then went on tremulously, “George, we've got on so well together, we won't let this make a difference between us, will we?” And she joined in his laughter.
“It will all depend on what you tell me the night before I go away. You agree we're going to settle things then, don't you, Lucy?”
“I don't promise.”
“Yes, you do! Don't you?”