Tonight George began a jubilant warfare upon his Aunt Fanny, opening the campaign upon his return home at about eleven o'clock. Fanny had retired, and was presumably asleep, but George, on the way to his own room, paused before her door, and serenaded her in a full baritone:
“As I walk along the Boy de Balong With my independent air, The people all declare, 'He must be a millionaire!' Oh, you hear them sigh, and wish to die, And see them wink the other eye. At the man that broke the bank at Monte Carlo!”
Isabel came from George's room, where she had been reading, waiting for him. “I'm afraid you'll disturb your father, dear. I wish you'd sing more, though—in the daytime! You have a splendid voice.”
“Good-night, old lady!”
“I thought perhaps I—Didn't you want me to come in with you and talk a little?”
“Not to-night. You go to bed. Good-night, old lady!”
He kissed her hilariously, entered his room with a skip, closed his door noisily; and then he could be heard tossing things about, loudly humming “The Man that Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.”
Smiling, his mother knelt outside his door to pray; then, with her “Amen,” pressed her lips to the bronze door-knob; and went silently to her own apartment.
After breakfasting in bed, George spent the next morning at his grandfather's and did not encounter his Aunt Fanny until lunch, when she seemed to be ready for him.
“Thank you so much for the serenade, George!” she said. “Your poor father tells me he'd just got to sleep for the first time in two nights, but after your kind attentions he lay awake the rest of last night.”
“Perfectly true,” Mr. Minafer said grimly.
“Of course, I didn't know, sir,” George hastened to assure him. “I'm awfully sorry. But Aunt Fanny was so gloomy and excited before I went out, last evening, I thought she needed cheering up.”
“I!” Fanny jeered. “I was gloomy? I was excited? You mean about that engagement?”
“Yes. Weren't you? I thought I heard you worrying over somebody's being engaged. Didn't I hear you say you'd heard Mr. Eugene Morgan was engaged to marry some pretty little seventeen-year-old girl?”
Fanny was stung, but she made a brave effort. “Did you ask Lucy?” she said, her voice almost refusing the teasing laugh she tried to make it utter. “Did you ask her when Fred Kinney and she—”
“Yes. That story wasn't true. But the other one—” Here he stared at Fanny, and then affected dismay. “Why, what's the matter with your face, Aunt Fanny? It seems agitated!”
“Agitated!” Fanny said disdainfully, but her voice undeniably lacked steadiness. “Agitated!”
“Oh, come!” Mr. Minafer interposed. “Let's have a little peace!”
“I'm willing,” said George. “I don't want to see poor Aunt Fanny all stirred up over a rumour I just this minute invented myself. She's so excitable—about certain subjects—it's hard to control her.” He turned to his mother. “What's the matter with grandfather?”
“Didn't you see him this morning?” Isabel asked.
“Yes. He was glad to see me, and all that, but he seemed pretty fidgety. Has he been having trouble with his heart again?”
“Not lately. No.”
“Well, he's not himself. I tried to talk to him about the estate; it's disgraceful—it really is—the way things are looking. He wouldn't listen, and he seemed upset. What's he upset over?”
Isabel looked serious; however, it was her husband who suggested gloomily, “I suppose the Major's bothered about this Sydney and Amelia business, most likely.”
“What Sydney and Amelia business?” George asked.
“Your mother can tell you, if she wants to,” Minafer said. “It's not my side of the family, so I keep off.”
“It's rather disagreeable for all of us, Georgie,” Isabel began. “You see, your Uncle Sydney wanted a diplomatic position, and he thought brother George, being in Congress, could arrange it. George did get him the offer of a South American ministry, but Sydney wanted a European ambassadorship, and he got quite indignant with poor George for thinking he'd take anything smaller—and he believes George didn't work hard enough for him. George had done his best, of course, and now he's out of Congress, and won't run again—so there's Sydney's idea of a big diplomatic position gone for good. Well, Sydney and your Aunt Amelia are terribly disappointed, and they say they've been thinking for years that this town isn't really fit to live in—'for a gentleman,' Sydney says—and it is getting rather big and dirty. So they've sold their house and decided to go abroad to live permanently; there's a villa near Florence they've often talked of buying. And they want father to let them have their share of the estate now, instead of waiting for him to leave it to them in his will.”
“Well, I suppose that's fair enough,” George said. “That is, in case he intended to leave them a certain amount in his will.”
“Of course that's understood, Georgie. Father explained his will to us long ago; a third to them, and a third to brother George, and a third to us.”
Her son made a simple calculation in his mind. Uncle George was a bachelor, and probably would never marry; Sydney and Amelia were childless. The Major's only grandchild appeared to remain the eventual heir of the entire property, no matter if the Major did turn over to Sydney a third of it now. And George had a fragmentary vision of himself, in mourning, arriving to take possession of a historic Florentine villa—he saw himself walking up a cypress-bordered path, with ancient carven stone balustrades in the distance, and servants in mourning livery greeting the new signore. “Well, I suppose it's grandfather's own affair. He can do it or not, just as he likes. I don't see why he'd mind much.”
“He seemed rather confused and pained about it,” Isabel said. “I think they oughtn't to urge it. George says that the estate won't stand taking out the third that Sydney wants, and that Sydney and Amelia are behaving like a couple of pigs.” She laughed, continuing, “Of course I don't know whether they are or not: I never have understood any more about business myself than a little pig would! But I'm on George's side, whether he's right or wrong; I always was from the time we were children: and Sydney and Amelia are hurt with me about it, I'm afraid. They've stopped speaking to George entirely. Poor father Family rows at his time of life.”
George became thoughtful. If Sydney and Amelia were behaving like pigs, things might not be so simple as at first they seemed to be. Uncle Sydney and Aunt Amelia might live an awful long while, he thought; and besides, people didn't always leave their fortunes to relatives. Sydney might die first, leaving everything to his widow, and some curly-haired Italian adventurer might get round her, over there in Florence; she might be fool enough to marry again—or even adopt somebody!
He became more and more thoughtful, forgetting entirely a plan he had formed for the continued teasing of his Aunt Fanny; and, an hour after lunch, he strolled over to his grandfather's, intending to apply for further information, as a party rightfully interested.
He did not carry out this intention, however. Going into the big house by a side entrance, he was informed that the Major was upstairs in his bedroom, that his sons Sydney and George were both with him, and that a serious argument was in progress. “You kin stan' right in de middle dat big, sta'y-way,” said Old Sam, the ancient negro, who was his informant, “an' you kin heah all you a-mind to wivout goin' on up no fudda. Mist' Sydney an' Mist' Jawge talkin' louduh'n I evuh heah nobody ca'y on in nish heah house! Quollin', honey, big quollin'!”
“All right,” said George shortly. “You go on back to your own part of the house, and don't make any talk. Hear me?”
“Yessuh, yessuh,” Sam chuckled, as he shuffled away. “Plenty talkin' wivout Sam! Yessuh!”
George went to the foot of the great stairway. He could hear angry voices overhead—those of his two uncles—and a plaintive murmur, as if the Major tried to keep the peace. Such sounds were far from encouraging to callers, and George decided not to go upstairs until this interview was over. His decision was the result of no timidity, nor of a too sensitive delicacy. What he felt was, that if he interrupted the scene in his grandfather's room, just at this time, one of the three gentlemen engaging in it might speak to him in a peremptory manner (in the heat of the moment) and George saw no reason for exposing his dignity to such mischances. Therefore he turned from the stairway, and going quietly into the library, picked up a magazine—but he did not open it, for his attention was instantly arrested by his Aunt Amelia's voice, speaking in the next room. The door was open and George heard her distinctly.
“Isabel does? Isabel!” she exclaimed, her tone high and shrewish. “You needn't tell me anything about Isabel Minafer, I guess, my dear old Frank Bronson! I know her a little better than you do, don't you think?”
George heard the voice of Mr. Bronson replying—a voice familiar to him as that of his grandfather's attorney-in-chief and chief intimate as well. He was a contemporary of the Major's, being over seventy, and they had been through three years of the War in the same regiment. Amelia addressed him now, with an effect of angry mockery, as “my dear old Frank Bronson”; but that (without the mockery) was how the Amberson family almost always spoke of him: “dear old Frank Bronson.” He was a hale, thin old man, six feet three inches tall, and without a stoop.
“I doubt your knowing Isabel,” he said stiffly. “You speak of her as you do because she sides with her brother George, instead of with you and Sydney.”
“Pooh!” Aunt Amelia was evidently in a passion. “You know what's been going on over there, well enough, Frank Bronson!”
“I don't even know what you're talking about.”
“Oh, you don't? You don't know that Isabel takes George's side simply because he's Eugene Morgan's best friend?”
“It seems to me you're talking pure nonsense,” said Bronson sharply. “Not impure nonsense, I hope!”
Amelia became shrill. “I thought you were a man of the world: don't tell me you're blind! For nearly two years Isabel's been pretending to chaperone Fanny Minafer with Eugene, and all the time she's been dragging that poor fool Fanny around to chaperone her and Eugene! Under the circumstances, she knows people will get to thinking Fanny's a pretty slim kind of chaperone, and Isabel wants to please George because she thinks there'll be less talk if she can keep her own brother around, seeming to approve. 'Talk!' She'd better look out! The whole town will be talking, the first thing she knows! She—”
Amelia stopped, and stared at the doorway in a panic, for her nephew stood there.
She kept her eyes upon his white face for a few strained moments, then, regaining her nerve, looked away and shrugged her shoulders.
“You weren't intended to hear what I've been saying, George,” she said quietly. “But since you seem to—”
“Yes, I did.”
“So!” She shrugged her shoulders again. “After all, I don't know but it's just as well, in the long run.”
He walked up to where she sat. “You—you—” he said thickly. “It seems—it seems to me you're—you're pretty common!”
Amelia tried to give the impression of an unconcerned person laughing with complete indifference, but the sounds she produced were disjointed and uneasy. She fanned herself, looking out of the open window near her. “Of course, if you want to make more trouble in the family than we've already got, George, with your eavesdropping, you can go and repeat—”
Old Bronson had risen from his chair in great distress. “Your aunt was talking nonsense because she's piqued over a business matter, George,” he said. “She doesn't mean what she said, and neither she nor any one else gives the slightest credit to such foolishness—no one in the world!”
George gulped, and wet lines shone suddenly along his lower eyelids. “They—they'd better not!” he said, then stalked out of the room, and out of the house. He stamped fiercely across the stone slabs of the front porch, descended the steps, and halted abruptly, blinking in the strong sunshine.
In front of his own gate, beyond the Major's broad lawn, his mother was just getting into her victoria, where sat already his Aunt Fanny and Lucy Morgan. It was a summer fashion-picture: the three ladies charmingly dressed, delicate parasols aloft; the lines of the victoria graceful as those of a violin; the trim pair of bays in glistening harness picked out with silver, and the serious black driver whom Isabel, being an Amberson, dared even in that town to put into a black livery coat, boots, white breeches, and cockaded hat. They jingled smartly away, and, seeing George standing on the Major's lawn, Lucy waved, and Isabel threw him a kiss.
But George shuddered, pretending not to see them, and stooped as if searching for something lost in the grass, protracting that posture until the victoria was out of hearing. And ten minutes later, George Amberson, somewhat in the semblance of an angry person plunging out of the Mansion, found a pale nephew waiting to accost him.
“I haven't time to talk, Georgie.”
“Yes, you have. You'd better!”
“What's the matter, then?”
His namesake drew him away from the vicinity of the house. “I want to tell you something I just heard Aunt Amelia say, in there.”
“I don't want to hear it,” said Amberson. “I've been hearing entirely too much of what 'Aunt Amelia, says, lately.”
“She says my mother's on your side about this division of the property because you're Eugene Morgan's best friend.”
“What in the name of heaven has that got to do with your mother's being on my side?”
“She said—” George paused to swallow. “She said—” He faltered.
“You look sick,” said his uncle; and laughed shortly. “If it's because of anything Amelia's been saying, I don't blame you! What else did she say?”
George swallowed again, as with nausea, but under his uncle's encouragement he was able to be explicit. “She said my mother wanted you to be friendly to her about Eugene Morgan. She said my mother had been using Aunt Fanny as a chaperone.”
Amberson emitted a laugh of disgust. “It's wonderful what tommy-rot a woman in a state of spite can think of! I suppose you don't doubt that Amelia Amberson created this specimen of tommy-rot herself?”
“I know she did.”
“Then what's the matter?”
“She said—” George faltered again. “She said—she implied people were—were talking about it.”
“Of all the damn nonsense!” his uncle exclaimed. George looked at him haggardly. “You're sure they're not?”
“Rubbish! Your mother's on my side about this division because she knows Sydney's a pig and always has been a pig, and so has his spiteful wife. I'm trying to keep them from getting the better of your mother as well as from getting the better of me, don't you suppose? Well, they're in a rage because Sydney always could do what he liked with father unless your mother interfered, and they know I got Isabel to ask him not to do what they wanted. They're keeping up the fight and they're sore—and Amelia's a woman who always says any damn thing that comes into her head! That's all there is to it.”
“But she said,” George persisted wretchedly; “she said there was talk. She said—”
“Look here, young fellow!” Amberson laughed good-naturedly. “There probably is some harmless talk about the way your Aunt Fanny goes after poor Eugene, and I've no doubt I've abetted it myself. People can't help being amused by a thing like that. Fanny was always languishing at him, twenty-odd years ago, before he left here. Well, we can't blame the poor thing if she's got her hopes up again, and I don't know that I blame her, myself, for using your mother the way she does.”
“How do you mean?”
Amberson put his hand on George's shoulder. “You like to tease Fanny,” he said, “but I wouldn't tease her about this, if I were you. Fanny hasn't got much in her life. You know, Georgie, just being an aunt isn't really the great career it may sometimes appear to you! In fact, I don't know of anything much that Fanny has got, except her feeling about Eugene. She's always had it—and what's funny to us is pretty much life-and-death to her, I suspect. Now, I'll not deny that Eugene Morgan is attracted to your mother. He is; and that's another case of 'always was'; but I know him, and he's a knight, George—a crazy one, perhaps, if you've read 'Don Quixote.' And I think your mother likes him better than she likes any man outside her own family, and that he interests her more than anybody else—and 'always has.' And that's all there is to it, except—”
“Except what?” George asked quickly, as he paused.
“Except that I suspect—” Amberson chuckled, and began over: “I'll tell you in confidence. I think Fanny's a fairly tricky customer, for such an innocent old girl! There isn't any real harm in her, but she's a great diplomatist—lots of cards up her lace sleeves, Georgie! By the way, did you ever notice how proud she is of her arms? Always flashing 'em at poor Eugene!” And he stopped to laugh again.
“I don't see anything confidential about that,” George complained. “I thought—”
“Wait a minute! My idea is—don't forget it's a confidential one, but I'm devilish right about it, young Georgie!—it's this: Fanny uses your mother for a decoy duck. She does everything in the world she can to keep your mother's friendship with Eugene going, because she thinks that's what keeps Eugene about the place, so to speak. Fanny's always with your mother, you see; and whenever he sees Isabel he sees Fanny. Fanny thinks he'll get used to the idea of her being around, and some day her chance may come! You see, she's probably afraid—perhaps she even knows, poor thing!—that she wouldn't get to see much of Eugene if it weren't for Isabel's being such a friend of his. There! D'you see?”
“Well—I suppose so.” George's brow was still dark, however. “If you're sure whatever talk there is, is about Aunt Fanny. If that's so—”
“Don't be an ass,” his uncle advised him lightly, moving away. “I'm off for a week's fishing to forget that woman in there, and her pig of a husband.” (His gesture toward the Mansion indicated Mr. and Mrs. Sydney Amberson.) “I recommend a like course to you, if you're silly enough to pay any attention to such rubbishings! Good-bye!”
George was partially reassured, but still troubled: a word haunted him like the recollection of a nightmare. “Talk!”
He stood looking at the houses across the street from the Mansion; and though the sunshine was bright upon them, they seemed mysteriously threatening. He had always despised them, except the largest of them, which was the home of his henchman, Charlie Johnson. The Johnsons had originally owned a lot three hundred feet wide, but they had sold all of it except the meager frontage before the house itself, and five houses were now crowded into the space where one used to squire it so spaciously. Up and down the street, the same transformation had taken place: every big, comfortable old brick house now had two or three smaller frame neighbours crowding up to it on each side, cheap-looking neighbours, most of them needing paint and not clean—and yet, though they were cheap looking, they had cost as much to build as the big brick houses, whose former ample yards they occupied. Only where George stood was there left a sward as of yore; the great, level, green lawn that served for both the Major's house and his daughter's. This serene domain—unbroken, except for the two gravelled carriage-drives—alone remained as it had been during the early glories of the Amberson Addition.
George stared at the ugly houses opposite, and hated them more than ever; but he shivered. Perhaps the riffraff living in those houses sat at the windows to watch their betters; perhaps they dared to gossip—
He uttered an exclamation, and walked rapidly toward his own front gate. The victoria had returned with Miss Fanny alone; she jumped out briskly and the victoria waited.
“Where's mother?” George asked sharply, as he met her.
“At Lucy's. I only came back to get some embroidery, because we found the sun too hot for driving. I'm in a hurry.”
But, going into the house with her, he detained her when she would have hastened upstairs.
“I haven't time to talk now, Georgie; I'm going right back. I promised your mother—”
“You listen!” said George.
“What on earth—”
He repeated what Amelia had said. This time, however, he spoke coldly, and without the emotion he had exhibited during the recital to his uncle: Fanny was the one who showed agitation during this interview, for she grew fiery red, and her eyes dilated. “What on earth do you want to bring such trash to me for?” she demanded, breathing fast.
“I merely wished to know two things: whether it is your duty or mine to speak to father of what Aunt Amelia—”
Fanny stamped her foot. “You little fool!” she cried. “You awful little fool!”
“Decline, my hat! Your father's a sick man, and you—”
“He doesn't seem so to me.”
“Well, he does to me! And you want to go troubling him with an Amberson family row! It's just what that cat would love you to do!”
“Tell your father if you like! It will only make him a little sicker to think he's got a son silly enough to listen to such craziness!”
“Then you're sure there isn't any talk?” Fanny disdained a reply in words. She made a hissing sound of utter contempt and snapped her fingers. Then she asked scornfully: “What's the other thing you wanted to know?”
George's pallor increased. “Whether it mightn't be better, under the circumstances,” he said, “if this family were not so intimate with the Morgan family—at least for a time. It might be better—”
Fanny stared at him incredulously. “You mean you'd quit seeing Lucy?”
“I hadn't thought of that side of it, but if such a thing were necessary on account of talk about my mother, I—I—” He hesitated unhappily. “I suggested that if all of us—for a time—perhaps only for a time—it might be better if—”
“See here,” she interrupted. “We'll settle this nonsense right now. If Eugene Morgan comes to this house, for instance, to see me, your mother can't get up and leave the place the minute he gets here, can she? What do you want her to do: insult him? Or perhaps you'd prefer she'd insult Lucy? That would do just as well. What is it you're up to, anyhow? Do you really love your Aunt Amelia so much that you want to please her? Or do you really hate your Aunt Fanny so much that you want to—that you want to—”
She choked and sought for her handkerchief; suddenly she began to cry.
“Oh, see here,” George said. “I don't hate you,” Aunt Fanny. “That's silly. I don't—”
“You do! You do! You want to—you want to destroy the only thing—that I—that I ever—” And, unable to continue, she became inaudible in her handkerchief.
George felt remorseful, and his own troubles were lightened: all at once it became clear to him that he had been worrying about nothing. He perceived that his Aunt Amelia was indeed an old cat, and that to give her scandalous meanderings another thought would be the height of folly. By no means unsusceptible to such pathos as that now exposed before him, he did not lack pity for Fanny, whose almost spoken confession was lamentable; and he was granted the vision to understand that his mother also pitied Fanny infinitely more than he did. This seemed to explain everything.
He patted the unhappy lady awkwardly upon her shoulder. “There, there!” he said. “I didn't mean anything. Of course the only thing to do about Aunt Amelia is to pay no attention to her. It's all right, Aunt Fanny. Don't cry. I feel a lot better now, myself. Come on; I'll drive back there with you. It's all over, and nothing's the matter. Can't you cheer up?”
Fanny cheered up; and presently the customarily hostile aunt and nephew were driving out Amberson Boulevard amiably together in the hot sunshine.