The Magnificent Ambersons

by Booth Tarkington

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Chapter XVII

Young George paid his respects to his grandfather the following morning, having been occupied with various affairs and engagements on Sunday until after the Major's bedtime; and topics concerned with building or excavations were not introduced into the conversation, which was a cheerful one until George lightly mentioned some new plans of his. He was a skillful driver, as the Major knew, and he spoke of his desire to extend his proficiency in this art: in fact, be entertained the ambition to drive a four-in-hand. However, as the Major said nothing, and merely sat still, looking surprised, George went on to say that he did not propose to “go in for coaching just at the start”; he thought it would be better to begin with a tandem. He was sure Pendennis could be trained to work as a leader; and all that one needed to buy at present, he said, would be “comparatively inexpensive—a new trap, and the harness, of course, and a good bay to match Pendennis.” He did not care for a special groom; one of the stablemen would do.

At this point the Major decided to speak. “You say one of the stablemen would do?” he inquired, his widened eyes remaining fixed upon his grandson. “That's lucky, because one's all there is, just at present, George. Old fat Tom does it all. Didn't you notice, when you took Pendennis out, yesterday?”

“Oh, that will be all right, sir. My mother can lend me her man.”

“Can she?” The old gentleman smiled faintly. “I wonder—” He paused.

“What, sir?”

“Whether you mightn't care to go to law-school somewhere perhaps. I'd be glad to set aside a sum that would see you through.”

This senile divergence from the topic in hand surprised George painfully. “I have no interest whatever in the law,” he said. “I don't care for it, and the idea of being a professional man has never appealed to me. None of the family has ever gone in for that sort of thing, to my knowledge, and I don't care to be the first. I was speaking of driving a tandem—”

“I know you were,” the Major said quietly.

George looked hurt. “I beg your pardon. Of course if the idea doesn't appeal to you—” And he rose to go.

The Major ran a tremulous hand through his hair, sighing deeply. “I—I don't like to refuse you anything, Georgie,” he said. “I don't know that I often have refused you whatever you wanted—in reason—”

“You've always been more than generous, sir,” George interrupted quickly. “And if the idea of a tandem doesn't appeal to you, why—of course—” And he waved his hand, heroically dismissing the tandem.

The Major's distress became obvious. “Georgie, I'd like to, but—but I've an idea tandems are dangerous to drive, and your mother might be anxious. She—”

“No, sir; I think not. She felt it would be rather a good thing—help to keep me out in the open air. But if perhaps your finances—”

“Oh, it isn't that so much,” the old gentleman said hurriedly. “I wasn't thinking of that altogether.” He laughed uncomfortably. “I guess we could still afford a new horse or two, if need be—”

“I thought you said—”

The Major waved his hand airily. “Oh, a few retrenchments where things were useless; nothing gained by a raft of idle darkies in the stable—nor by a lot of extra land that might as well be put to work for us in rentals. And if you want this thing so very much—”

“It's not important enough to bother about, really, of course.”

“Well, let's wait till autumn then,” said the Major in a tone of relief. “We'll see about it in the autumn, if you're still in the mind for it then. That will be a great deal better. You remind me of it, along in September—or October. We'll see what can be done.” He rubbed his hands cheerfully. “We'll see what can be done about it then, Georgie. We'll see.”

And George, in reporting this conversation to his mother, was ruefully humorous. “In fact, the old boy cheered up so much,” he told her, “you'd have thought he'd got a real load off his mind. He seemed to think he'd fixed me up perfectly, and that I was just as good as driving a tandem around his library right that minute! Of course I know he's anything but miserly; still I can't help thinking he must be salting a lot of money away. I know prices are higher than they used to be, but he doesn't spend within thousands of what he used to, and we certainly can't be spending more than we always have spent. Where does it all go to? Uncle George told me grandfather had sold some pieces of property, and it looks a little queer. If he's really 'property poor,' of course we ought to be more saving than we are, and help him out. I don't mind giving up a tandem if it seems a little too expensive just now. I'm perfectly willing to live quietly till he gets his bank balance where he wants it. But I have a faint suspicion, not that he's getting miserly—not that at all—but that old age has begun to make him timid about money. There's no doubt about it, he's getting a little queer: he can't keep his mind on a subject long. Right in the middle of talking about one thing he'll wander off to something else; and I shouldn't be surprised if he turned out to be a lot better off than any of us guess. It's entirely possible that whatever he's sold just went into government bonds, or even his safety deposit box. There was a friend of mine in college had an old uncle like that: made the whole family think he was poor as dirt—and then left seven millions. People get terribly queer as they get old, sometimes, and grandfather certainly doesn't act the way he used to. He seems to be a totally different man. For instance, he said he thought tandem driving might be dangerous—”

“Did he?” Isabel asked quickly. “Then I'm glad he doesn't want you to have one. I didn't dream—”

“But it's not. There isn't the slightest—”

Isabel had a bright idea. “Georgie! Instead of a tandem wouldn't it interest you to get one of Eugene's automobiles?”

“I don't think so. They're fast enough, of course. In fact, running one of those things is getting to be quite on the cards for sport, and people go all over the country in 'em. But they're dirty things, and they keep getting out of order, so that you're always lying down on your back in the mud, and—”

“Oh, no,” she interrupted eagerly. “Haven't you noticed? You don't see nearly so many people doing that nowadays as you did two or three years ago, and, when you do, Eugene says it's apt to be one of the older patterns. The way they make them now, you can get at most of the machinery from the top. I do think you'd be interested, dear.”

George remained indifferent. “Possibly—but I hardly think so. I know a lot of good people are really taking them up, but still—”

“But still' what?” she said as he paused.

“But still—well, I suppose I'm a little old-fashioned and fastidious, but I'm afraid being a sort of engine driver never will appeal to me, mother. It's exciting, and I'd like that part of it, but still it doesn't seem to me precisely the thing a gentleman ought to do. Too much overalls and monkey-wrenches and grease!”

“But Eugene says people are hiring mechanics to do all that sort of thing for them. They're beginning to have them just the way they have coachmen; and he says it's developing into quite a profession.”

“I know that, mother, of course; but I've seen some of these mechanics, and they're not very satisfactory. For one thing, most of them only pretend to understand the machinery and they let people break down a hundred miles from nowhere, so that about all these fellows are good for is to hunt up a farmer and hire a horse to pull the automobile. And friends of mine at college that've had a good deal of experience tell me the mechanics who do understand the engines have no training at all as servants. They're awful! They say anything they like, and usually speak to members of the family as 'Say!' No, I believe I'd rather wait for September and a tandem, mother.”

Nevertheless, George sometimes consented to sit in an automobile, while waiting for September, and he frequently went driving in one of Eugene's cars with Lucy and her father. He even allowed himself to be escorted with his mother and Fanny through the growing factory, which was now, as the foreman of the paint shop informed the visitors, “turning out a car and a quarter a day.” George had seldom been more excessively bored, but his mother showed a lively interest in everything, wishing to have all the machinery explained to her. It was Lucy who did most of the explaining, while her father looked on and laughed at the mistakes she made, and Fanny remained in the background with George, exhibiting a bleakness that overmatched his boredom.

From the factory Eugene took them to lunch at a new restaurant, just opened in the town, a place which surprised Isabel with its metropolitan air, and, though George made fun of it to her, in a whisper, she offered everything the tribute of pleased exclamations; and her gayety helped Eugene's to make the little occasion almost a festive one.

George's ennui disappeared in spite of himself, and he laughed to see his mother in such spirits. “I didn't know mineral waters could go to a person's head,” he said. “Or perhaps it's this place. It might pay to have a new restaurant opened somewhere in town every time you get the blues.”

Fanny turned to him with a wan smile. “Oh, she doesn't 'get the blues,' George!” Then she added, as if fearing her remark might be thought unpleasantly significant, “I never knew a person of a more even disposition. I wish I could be like that!” And though the tone of this afterthought was not so enthusiastic as she tried to make it, she succeeded in producing a fairly amiable effect.

“No,” Isabel said, reverting to George's remark, and overlooking Fanny's. “What makes me laugh so much at nothing is Eugene's factory. Wouldn't anybody be delighted to see an old friend take an idea out of the air like that—an idea that most people laughed at him for—wouldn't any old friend of his be happy to see how he'd made his idea into such a splendid, humming thing as that factory—all shiny steel, clicking and buzzing away, and with all those workmen, such muscled looking men and yet so intelligent looking?”

“Hear! Hear!” George applauded. “We seem to have a lady orator among us. I hope the waiters won't mind.”

Isabel laughed, not discouraged. “It's beautiful to see such a thing,” she said. “It makes us all happy, dear old Eugene!”

And with a brave gesture she stretched out her hand to him across the small table. He took it quickly, giving her a look in which his laughter tried to remain, but vanished before a gratitude threatening to become emotional in spite of him. Isabel, however, turned instantly to Fanny. “Give him your hand, Fanny,” she said gayly; and, as Fanny mechanically obeyed, “There!” Isabel cried. “If brother George were here, Eugene would have his three oldest and best friends congratulating him all at once. We know what brother George thinks about it, though. It's just beautiful, Eugene!”

Probably if her brother George had been with them at the little table, he would have made known what he thought about herself, for it must inevitably have struck him that she was in the midst of one of those “times” when she looked “exactly fourteen years old.” Lucy served as a proxy for Amberson, perhaps, when she leaned toward George and whispered: “Did you ever see anything so lovely?”

“As what?” George inquired, not because he misunderstood, but because he wished to prolong the pleasant neighbourliness of whispering.

“As your mother! Think of her doing that! She's a darling! And papa”—here she imperfectly repressed a tendency to laugh—“papa looks as if he were either going to explode or utter loud sobs!”

Eugene commanded his features, however, and they resumed their customary apprehensiveness. “I used to write verse,” he said—“if you remember—”

“Yes,” Isabel interrupted gently. “I remember.”

“I don't recall that I've written any for twenty years or so,” he continued. “But I'm almost thinking I could do it again, to thank you for making a factory visit into such a kind celebration.”

“Gracious!” Lucy whispered, giggling. “Aren't they sentimental”

“People that age always are,” George returned. “They get sentimental over anything at all. Factories or restaurants, it doesn't matter what!”

And both of them were seized with fits of laughter which they managed to cover under the general movement of departure, as Isabel had risen to go.

Outside, upon the crowded street, George helped Lucy into his runabout, and drove off, waving triumphantly, and laughing at Eugene who was struggling with the engine of his car, in the tonneau of which Isabel and Fanny had established themselves. “Looks like a hand-organ man grinding away for pennies,” said George, as the runabout turned the corner and into National Avenue. “I'll still take a horse, any day.”

He was not so cocksure, half an hour later, on an open road, when a siren whistle wailed behind him, and before the sound had died away, Eugene's car, coming from behind with what seemed fairly like one long leap, went by the runabout and dwindled almost instantaneously in perspective, with a lace handkerchief in a black-gloved hand fluttering sweet derision as it was swept onward into minuteness—a mere white speck—and then out of sight.

George was undoubtedly impressed. “Your Father does know how to drive some,” the dashing exhibition forced him to admit. “Of course Pendennis isn't as young as he was, and I don't care to push him too hard. I wouldn't mind handling one of those machines on the road like that, myself, if that was all there was to it—no cranking to do, or fooling with the engine. Well, I enjoyed part of that lunch quite a lot, Lucy.”

“The salad?”

“No. Your whispering to me.”


George made no response, but checked Pendennis to a walk. Whereupon Lucy protested quickly: “Oh, don't!”

“Why? Do you want him to trot his legs off?”

“No, but—”

“No, but'—what?”

She spoke with apparent gravity: “I know when you make him walk it's so you can give all your attention to—to proposing to me again!”

And as she turned a face of exaggerated color to him, “By the Lord, but you're a little witch!” George cried.

“George, do let Pendennis trot again!”

“I won't!”

She clucked to the horse. “Get up, Pendennis! Trot! Go on! Commence!”

Pendennis paid no attention; she meant nothing to him, and George laughed at her fondly. “You are the prettiest thing in this world, Lucy!” he exclaimed. “When I see you in winter, in furs, with your cheeks red, I think you're prettiest then, but when I see you in summer, in a straw hat and a shirtwaist and a duck skirt and white gloves and those little silver buckled slippers, and your rose-coloured parasol, and your cheeks not red but with a kind of pinky glow about them, then I see I must have been wrong about the winter! When are you going to drop the 'almost' and say we're really engaged?”

“Oh, not for years! So there's the answer, and Let's trot again.”

But George was persistent; moreover, he had become serious during the last minute or two. “I want to know,” he said. “I really mean it.”

“Let's don't be serious, George,” she begged him hopefully. “Let's talk of something pleasant.”

He was a little offended. “Then it isn't pleasant for you to know that I want to marry you?”

At this she became as serious as he could have asked; she looked down, and her lip quivered like that of a child about to cry. Suddenly she put her hand upon one of his for just an instant, and then withdrew it.

“Lucy!” he said huskily. “Dear, what's the matter? You look as if you were going to cry. You always do that,” he went on plaintively, “whenever I can get you to talk about marrying me.”

“I know it,” she murmured.

“Well, why do you?”

Her eyelids flickered, and then she looked up at him with a sad gravity, tears seeming just at the poise. “One reason's because I have a feeling that it's never going to be.”


“It's just a feeling.”

“You haven't any reason or—”

“It's just a feeling.”

“Well, if that's all,” George said, reassured, and laughing confidently, “I guess I won't be very much troubled!” But at once he became serious again, adopting the tone of argument. “Lucy, how is anything ever going to get a chance to come of it, so long as you keep sticking to 'almost'? Doesn't it strike you as unreasonable to have a 'feeling' that we'll never be married, when what principally stands between us is the fact that you won't be really engaged to me? That does seem pretty absurd! Don't you care enough about me to marry me?”

She looked down again, pathetically troubled. “Yes.”

“Won't you always care that much about me?”

“I'm—yes—I'm afraid so, George. I never do change much about anything.”

“Well, then, why in the world won't you drop the 'almost'?”

Her distress increased. “Everything is—everything—”

“What about 'everything'?”

“Everything is so—so unsettled.”

And at that he uttered an exclamation of impatience. “If you aren't the queerest girl! What is 'unsettled'?”

“Well, for one thing,” she said, able to smile at his vehemence, “you haven't settled on anything to do. At least, if you have you've never spoken of it.”

As she spoke, she gave him the quickest possible side glance of hopeful scrutiny; then looked away, not happily. Surprise and displeasure were intentionally visible upon the countenance of her companion; and he permitted a significant period of silence to elapse before making any response. “Lucy,” he said, finally, with cold dignity, “I should like to ask you a few questions.”


“The first is: Haven't you perfectly well understood that I don't mean to go into business or adopt a profession?”

“I wasn't quite sure,” she said gently. “I really didn't know—quite.”

“Then of course it's time I did tell you. I never have been able to see any occasion for a man's going into trade, or being a lawyer, or any of those things if his position and family were such that he didn't need to. You know, yourself, there are a lot of people in the East—in the South, too, for that matter—that don't think we've got any particular family or position or culture in this part of the country. I've met plenty of that kind of provincial snobs myself, and they're pretty galling. There were one or two men in my crowd at college, their families had lived on their income for three generations, and they never dreamed there was anybody in their class out here. I had to show them a thing or two, right at the start, and I guess they won't forget it! Well, I think it's time all their sort found out that three generations can mean just as much out here as anywhere else. That's the way I feel about it, and let me tell you I feel it pretty deeply!”

“But what are you going to do, George?” she cried.

George's earnestness surpassed hers; he had become flushed and his breathing was emotional. As he confessed, with simple genuineness, he did feel what he was saying “pretty deeply”; and in truth his state approached the tremulous. “I expect to live an honourable life,” he said. “I expect to contribute my share to charities, and to take part in—in movements.”

“What kind?”

“Whatever appeals to me,” he said.

Lucy looked at him with grieved wonder. “But you really don't mean to have any regular business or profession at all?”

“I certainly do not!” George returned promptly and emphatically.

“I was afraid so,” she said in a low voice.

George continued to breathe deeply throughout another protracted interval of silence. Then he said, “I should like to revert to the questions I was asking you, if you don't mind.”

“No, George. I think we'd better—”

“Your father is a business man—”

“He's a mechanical genius,” Lucy interrupted quickly. “Of course he's both. And he was a lawyer once—he's done all sorts of things.”

“Very well. I merely wished to ask if it's his influence that makes you think I ought to 'do' something?”

Lucy frowned slightly. “Why, I suppose almost everything I think or say must be owing to his influence in one way or another. We haven't had anybody but each other for so many years, and we always think about alike, so of course—”

“I see!” And George's brow darkened with resentment. “So that's it, is it? It's your father's idea that I ought to go into business and that you oughtn't to be engaged to me until I do.”

Lucy gave a start, her denial was so quick. “No! I've never once spoken to him about it. Never!”

George looked at her keenly, and he jumped to a conclusion not far from the truth. “But you know without talking to him that it's the way he does feel about it? I see.”

She nodded gravely. “Yes.”

George's brow grew darker still. “Do you think I'd be much of a man,” he said, slowly, “if I let any other man dictate to me my own way of life?”

“George! Who's 'dictating' your—”

“It seems to me it amounts to that!” he returned.

“Oh, no! I only know how papa thinks about things. He's never, never spoken unkindly, or 'dictatingly' of you.” She lifted her hand in protest, and her face was so touching in its distress that for the moment George forgot his anger. He seized that small, troubled hand.

“Lucy,” he said huskily. “Don't you know that I love you?”

“Yes—I do.”

“Don't you love me?”

“Yes—I do.”

“Then what does it matter what your father thinks about my doing something or not doing anything? He has his way, and I have mine. I don't believe in the whole world scrubbing dishes and selling potatoes and trying law cases. Why, look at your father's best friend, my Uncle George Amberson—he's never done anything in his life, and—”

“Oh, yes, he has,” she interrupted. “He was in politics.”

“Well, I'm glad he's out,” George said. “Politics is a dirty business for a gentleman, and Uncle George would tell you that himself. Lucy, let's not talk any more about it. Let me tell mother when I get home that we're engaged. Won't you, dear?”

She shook her head.

“Is it because—”

For a fleeting instant she touched to her cheek the hand that held hers. “No,” she said, and gave him a sudden little look of renewed gayety. “Let's let it stay 'almost'.”

“Because your father—”

“Oh, because it's better!”

George's voice shook. “Isn't it your father?”

“It's his ideals I'm thinking of—yes.”

George dropped her hand abruptly and anger narrowed his eyes. “I know what you mean,” he said. “I dare say I don't care for your father's ideals any more than he does for mine!”

He tightened the reins, Pendennis quickening eagerly to the trot; and when George jumped out of the runabout before Lucy's gate, and assisted her to descend, the silence in which they parted was the same that had begun when Pendennis began to trot.


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