Isabel did more for Fanny than telling her to cheer up. Everything that Fanny inherited from her father, old Aleck Minafer, had been invested in Wilbur's business; and Wilbur's business, after a period of illness corresponding in dates to the illness of Wilbur's body, had died just before Wilbur did. George Amberson and Fanny were both “wiped out to a miracle of precision,” as Amberson said. They “owned not a penny and owed not a penny,” he continued, explaining his phrase. “It's like the moment just before drowning: you're not under water and you're not out of it. All you know is that you're not dead yet.”
He spoke philosophically, having his “prospects” from his father to fall back upon; but Fanny had neither “prospects” nor philosophy. However, a legal survey of Wilbur's estate revealed the fact that his life insurance was left clear of the wreck; and Isabel, with the cheerful consent of her son, promptly turned this salvage over to her sister-in-law. Invested, it would yield something better than nine hundred dollars a year, and thus she was assured of becoming neither a pauper nor a dependent, but proved to be, as Amberson said, adding his efforts to the cheering up of Fanny, “an heiress, after all, in spite of rolling mills and the devil.” She was unable to smile, and he continued his humane gayeties. “See what a wonderfully desirable income nine hundred dollars is, Fanny: a bachelor, to be in your class, must have exactly forty-nine thousand one hundred a year. Then, you see, all you need to do, in order to have fifty thousand a year, is to be a little encouraging when some bachelor in your class begins to show by his haberdashery what he wants you to think about him!”
She looked at him wanly, murmured a desolate response—she had “sewing to do”—and left the room; while Amberson shook his head ruefully at his sister. “I've often thought that humor was not my forte,” he sighed. “Lord! She doesn't 'cheer up' much!”
The collegian did not return to his home for the holidays. Instead, Isabel joined him, and they went South for the two weeks. She was proud of her stalwart, good-looking son at the hotel where they stayed, and it was meat and drink to her when she saw how people stared at him in the lobby and on the big verandas—indeed, her vanity in him was so dominant that she was unaware of their staring at her with more interest and an admiration friendlier than George evoked. Happy to have him to herself for this fortnight, she loved to walk with him, leaning upon his arm, to read with him, to watch the sea with him—perhaps most of all she liked to enter the big dining room with him.
Yet both of them felt constantly the difference between this Christmastime and other Christmas-times of theirs—in all, it was a sorrowful holiday. But when Isabel came East for George's commencement, in June, she brought Lucy with her—and things began to seem different, especially when George Amberson arrived with Lucy's father on Class Day. Eugene had been in New York, on business; Amberson easily persuaded him to this outing; and they made a cheerful party of it, with the new graduate of course the hero and center of it all.
His uncle was a fellow alumnus. “Yonder was where I roomed when I was here,” he said, pointing out one of the university buildings to Eugene. “I don't know whether George would let my admirers place a tablet to mark the spot, or not. He owns all these buildings now, you know.”
“Didn't you, when you were here? Like uncle, like nephew.”
“Don't tell George you think he's like me. Just at this time we should be careful of the young gentleman's feelings.”
“Yes,” said Eugene. “If we weren't he mightn't let us exist at all.”
“I'm sure I didn't have it so badly at his age,” Amberson said reflectively, as they strolled on through the commencement crowd. “For one thing, I had brothers and sisters, and my mother didn't just sit at my feet as George's does; and I wasn't an only grandchild, either. Father's always spoiled Georgie a lot more than he did any of his own' children.”
Eugene laughed. “You need only three things to explain all that's good and bad about Georgie.”
“He's Isabel's only child. He's an Amberson. He's a boy.”
“Well, Mister Bones, of these three things which are the good ones and which are the bad ones?”
“All of them,” said Eugene.
It happened that just then they came in sight of the subject of their discourse. George was walking under the elms with Lucy, swinging a stick and pointing out to her various objects and localities which had attained historical value during the last four years. The two older men marked his gestures, careless and graceful; they observed his attitude, unconsciously noble, his easy proprietorship of the ground beneath his feet and round about, of the branches overhead, of the old buildings beyond, and of Lucy.
“I don't know,” Eugene said, smiling whimsically. “I don't know. When I spoke of his being a human being—I don't know. Perhaps it's more like deity.”
“I wonder if I was like that!” 'Amberson groaned.' “You don't suppose every Amberson has had to go through it, do you?”
“Don't worry! At least half of it is a combination of youth, good looks, and college; and even the noblest Ambersons get over their nobility and come to be people in time. It takes more than time, though.”
“I should say it did take more than time!” his friend agreed, shaking a rueful head.
Then they walked over to join the loveliest Amberson, whom neither time nor trouble seemed to have touched. She stood alone, thoughtful under the great trees, chaperoning George and Lucy at a distance; but, seeing the two friends approaching, she came to meet them.
“It's charming, isn't it!” she said, moving her black-gloved hand to indicate the summery dressed crowd strolling about them, or clustering in groups, each with its own hero. “They seem so eager and so confident, all these boys—it's touching. But of course youth doesn't know it's touching.”
Amberson coughed. “No, it doesn't seem to take itself as pathetic, precisely! Eugene and I were just speaking of something like that. Do you know what I think whenever I see these smooth, triumphal young faces? I always think: 'Oh, how you're going to catch it'!”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “Life's most ingenious: it's got a special walloping for every mother's son of 'em!”
“Maybe,” said Isabel, troubled—“maybe some of the mothers can take the walloping for them.”
“Not one!” her brother assured her, with emphasis. “Not any more than she can take on her own face the lines that are bound to come on her son's. I suppose you know that all these young faces have got to get lines on 'em?”
“Maybe they won't,” she said, smiling wistfully. “Maybe times will change, and nobody will have to wear lines.”
“Times have changed like that for only one person that I know,” Eugene said. And as Isabel looked inquiring, he laughed, and she saw that she was the “only one person.” His implication was justified, moreover, and she knew it. She blushed charmingly.
“Which is it puts the lines on the faces?” Amberson asked. “Is it age or trouble? Of course we can't decide that wisdom does it—we must be polite to Isabel.”
“I'll tell you what puts the lines there,” Eugene said. “Age puts some, and trouble puts some, and work puts some, but the deepest are carved by lack of faith. The serenest brow is the one that believes the most.”
“In what?” Isabel asked gently.
She looked at him inquiringly, and he laughed as he had a moment before, when she looked at him that way. “Oh, yes, you do!” he said.
She continued to look at him inquiringly a moment or two longer, and there was an unconscious earnestness in her glance, something trustful as well as inquiring, as if she knew that whatever he meant it was all right. Then her eyes drooped thoughtfully, and she seemed to address some inquiries to herself. She looked up suddenly. “Why, I believe,” she said, in a tone of surprise, “I believe I do!”
And at that both men laughed. “Isabel!” her brother exclaimed. “You're a foolish person! There are times when you look exactly fourteen years old!”
But this reminded her of her real affair in that part of the world. “Good gracious!” she said. “Where have the children got to? We must take Lucy pretty soon, so that George can go and sit with the Class. We must catch up with them.”
She took her brother's arm, and the three moved on, looking about them in the crowd.
“Curious,” Amberson remarked, as they did not immediately discover the young people they sought. “Even in such a concourse one would think we couldn't fail to see the proprietor.”
“Several hundred proprietors today,” Eugene suggested.
“No; they're only proprietors of the university,” said George's uncle. “We're looking for the proprietor of the universe.”
“There he is!” cried Isabel fondly, not minding this satire at all. “And doesn't he look it!”
Her escorts were still laughing at her when they joined the proprietor of the universe and his pretty friend, and though both Amberson and Eugene declined to explain the cause of their mirth, even upon Lucy's urgent request, the portents of the day were amiable, and the five made a happy party—that is to say, four of them made a happy audience for the fifth, and the mood of this fifth was gracious and cheerful.
George took no conspicuous part in either the academic or the social celebrations of his class; he seemed to regard both sets of exercises with a tolerant amusement, his own “crowd” “not going in much for either of those sorts of things,” as he explained to Lucy. What his crowd had gone in for remained ambiguous; some negligent testimony indicating that, except for an astonishing reliability which they all seemed to have attained in matters relating to musical comedy, they had not gone in for anything. Certainly the question one of them put to Lucy, in response to investigations of hers, seemed to point that way: “Don't you think,” he said, “really, don't you think that being things is rather better than doing things?”
He said “rahthuh bettuh” for “rather better,” and seemed to do it deliberately, with perfect knowledge of what he was doing. Later, Lucy mocked him to George, and George refused to smile: he somewhat inclined to such pronunciations, himself. This inclination was one of the things that he had acquired in the four years.
What else he had acquired, it might have puzzled him to state, had anybody asked him and required a direct reply within a reasonable space of time. He had learned how to pass examinations by “cramming”; that is, in three or four days and nights he could get into his head enough of a selected fragment of some scientific or philosophical or literary or linguistic subject to reply plausibly to six questions out of ten. He could retain the information necessary for such a feat just long enough to give a successful performance; then it would evaporate utterly from his brain, and leave him undisturbed. George, like his “crowd,” not only preferred “being things” to “doing things,” but had contented himself with four years of “being things” as a preparation for going on “being things.” And when Lucy rather shyly pressed him for his friend's probable definition of the “things” it seemed so superior and beautiful to be, George raised his eyebrows slightly, meaning that she should have understood without explanation; but he did explain: “Oh, family and all that—being a gentleman, I suppose.”
Lucy gave the horizon a long look, but offered no comment.