He went to his room, threw off his coat, waistcoat, collar, and tie, letting them lie where they chanced to fall, and then, having violently enveloped himself in a black velvet dressing-gown, continued this action by lying down with a vehemence that brought a wheeze of protest from his bed. His repose was only a momentary semblance, however, for it lasted no longer than the time it took him to groan “Riffraff!” between his teeth. Then he sat up, swung his feet to the floor, rose, and began to pace up and down the large room.
He had just been consciously rude to his mother for the first time in his life; for, with all his riding down of populace and riffraff, he had never before been either deliberately or impulsively disregardful of her. When he had hurt her it had been accidental; and his remorse for such an accident was always adequate compensation—and more—to Isabel. But now he had done a rough thing to her; and he did not repent; rather he was the more irritated with her. And when he heard her presently go by his door with a light step, singing cheerfully to herself as she went to her room, he perceived that she had mistaken his intention altogether, or, indeed, had failed to perceive that he had any intention at all. Evidently she had concluded that he refused to speak to her and Morgan out of sheer absent-mindedness, supposing him so immersed in some preoccupation that he had not seen them or heard her calling to him. Therefore there was nothing of which to repent, even if he had been so minded; and probably Eugene himself was unaware that any disapproval had recently been expressed. George snorted. What sort of a dreamy loon did they take him to be?
There came a delicate, eager tapping at his door, not done with a knuckle but with the tip of a fingernail, which was instantly clarified to George's mind's eye as plainly as if he saw it: the long and polished white-mooned pink shield on the end of his Aunt Fanny's right forefinger. But George was in no mood for human communications, and even when things went well he had little pleasure in Fanny's society. Therefore it is not surprising that at the sound of her tapping, instead of bidding her enter, he immediately crossed the room with the intention of locking the door to keep her out.
Fanny was too eager, and, opening the door before he reached it, came quickly in, and closed it behind her. She was in a street dress and a black hat, with a black umbrella in her black-gloved hand—for Fanny's heavy mourning, at least, was nowhere tempered with a glimpse of white, though the anniversary of Wilbur's death had passed. An infinitesimal perspiration gleamed upon her pale skin; she breathed fast, as if she had run up the stairs; and excitement was sharp in her widened eyes. Her look was that of a person who had just seen something extraordinary or heard thrilling news.
“Now, what on earth do you want?” her chilling nephew demanded.
“George,” she said hurriedly, “I saw what you did when you wouldn't speak to them. I was sitting with Mrs. Johnson at her front window, across the street, and I saw it all.”
“Well, what of it?”
“You did right!” Fanny said with a vehemence not the less spirited because she suppressed her voice almost to a whisper. “You did exactly right! You're behaving splendidly about the whole thing, and I want to tell you I know your father would thank you if he could see what you're doing.”
“My Lord!” George broke out at her. “You make me dizzy! For heaven's sake quit the mysterious detective business—at least do quit it around me! Go and try it on somebody else, if you like; but I don't want to hear it!”
She began to tremble, regarding him with a fixed gaze. “You don't care to hear then,” she said huskily, “that I approve of what you're doing?”
“Certainly not! Since I haven't the faintest idea what you think I'm 'doing,' naturally I don't care whether you approve of it or not. All I'd like, if you please, is to be alone. I'm not giving a tea here, this afternoon, if you'll permit me to mention it!”
Fanny's gaze wavered; she began to blink; then suddenly she sank into a chair and wept silently, but with a terrible desolation.
“Oh, for the Lord's sake!” he moaned. “What in the world is wrong with you?”
“You're always picking on me,” she quavered wretchedly, her voice indistinct with the wetness that bubbled into it from her tears. “You do—you always pick on me! You've always done it—always—ever since you were a little boy! Whenever anything goes wrong with you, you take it out on me! You do! You always—”
George flung to heaven a gesture of despair; it seemed to him the last straw that Fanny should have chosen this particular time to come and sob in his room over his mistreatment of her!
“Oh, my Lord!” he whispered; then, with a great effort, addressed her in a reasonable tone: “Look here, Aunt Fanny; I don't see what you're making all this fuss about. Of course I know I've teased you sometimes, but—”
“Teased' me?” she wailed. “Teased' me! Oh, it does seem too hard, sometimes—this mean old life of mine does seem too hard! I don't think I can stand it! Honestly, I don't think I can! I came in here just to show you I sympathized with you—just to say something pleasant to you, and you treat me as if I were—oh, no, you wouldn't treat a servant the way you treat me! You wouldn't treat anybody in the world like this except old Fanny! 'Old Fanny' you say. 'It's nobody but old Fanny, so I'll kick her—nobody will resent it. I'll kick her all I want to!' You do! That's how you think of me-I know it! And you're right: I haven't got anything in the world, since my brother died—nobody—nothing—nothing!”
“Oh my Lord!” George groaned.
Fanny spread out her small, soaked handkerchief, and shook it in the air to dry it a little, crying as damply and as wretchedly during this operation' as before—a sight which gave George a curious shock to add to his other agitations, it seemed so strange. “I ought not to have come,” she went on, “because I might have known it would only give you an excuse to pick on me again! I'm sorry enough I came, I can tell you! I didn't mean to speak of it again to you, at all; and I wouldn't have, but I saw how you treated them, and I guess I got excited about it, and couldn't help following the impulse—but I'll know better next time, I can tell you! I'll keep my mouth shut as I meant to, and as I would have, if I hadn't got excited and if I hadn't felt sorry for you. But what does it matter to anybody if I'm sorry for them? I'm only old Fanny!”
“Oh, good gracious! How can it matter to me who's sorry for me when I don't know what they're sorry about!”
“You're so proud,” she quavered, “and so hard! I tell you I didn't mean to speak of it to you, and I never, never in the world would have told you about it, nor have made the faintest reference to it, if I hadn't seen that somebody else had told you, or you'd found out for yourself some way. I—”
In despair of her intelligence, and in some doubt of his own, George struck the palms of his hands together. “Somebody else had told me what? I'd found what out for myself?”
“How people are talking about your mother.”
Except for the incidental teariness of her voice, her tone was casual, as though she mentioned a subject previously discussed and understood; for Fanny had no doubt that George had only pretended to be mystified because, in his pride, he would not in words admit that he knew what he knew.
“What did you say?” he asked incredulously.
“Of course I understood what you were doing,” Fanny went on, drying her handkerchief again. “It puzzled other people when you began to be rude to Eugene, because they couldn't see how you could treat him as you did when you were so interested in Lucy. But I remembered how you came to me, that other time when there was so much talk about Isabel; and I knew you'd give Lucy up in a minute, if it came to a question of your mother's reputation, because you said then that—”
“Look here,” George interrupted in a shaking voice. “Look here, I'd like—” He stopped, unable to go on, his agitation was so great. His chest heaved as from hard running, and his complexion, pallid at first, had become mottled; fiery splotches appearing at his temples and cheeks. “What do you mean by telling me—telling me there's talk about—about—” He gulped, and began again: “What do you mean by using such words as 'reputation'? What do you mean, speaking of a 'question' of my—my mother's reputation?”
Fanny looked up at him woefully over the handkerchief which she now applied to her reddened nose. “God knows I'm sorry for you, George,” she murmured. “I wanted to say so, but it's only old Fanny, so whatever she says—even when it's sympathy—pick on her for it! Hammer her!” She sobbed. “Hammer her! It's only poor old lonely Fanny!”
“You look here!” George said harshly. “When I spoke to my Uncle George after that rotten thing I heard Aunt Amelia say about my mother, he said if there was any gossip it was about you! He said people might be laughing about the way you ran after Morgan, but that was all.”
Fanny lifted her hands, clenched them, and struck them upon her knees. “Yes; it's always Fanny!” she sobbed. “Ridiculous old Fanny—always, always!”
“You listen!” George said. “After I'd talked to Uncle George I saw you; and you said I had a mean little mind for thinking there might be truth in what Aunt Amelia said about people talking. You denied it. And that wasn't the only time; you'd attacked me before then, because I intimated that Morgan might be coming here too often. You made me believe that mother let him come entirely on your account, and now you say—”
“I think he did,” Fanny interrupted desolately. “I think he did come as much to see me as anything—for a while it looked like it. Anyhow, he liked to dance with me. He danced with me as much as he danced with her, and he acted as if he came on my account at least as much as he did on hers. He did act a good deal that way—and if Wilbur hadn't died—”
“You told me there wasn't any talk.”
“I didn't think there was much, then,” Fanny protested. “I didn't know how much there was.”
“People don't come and tell such things to a person's family, you know. You don't suppose anybody was going to say to George Amberson that his sister was getting herself talked about, do you? Or that they were going to say much to me?”
“You told me,” said George, fiercely, “that mother never saw him except when she was chaperoning you.”
“They weren't much alone together, then,” Fanny returned. “Hardly ever, before Wilbur died. But you don't suppose that stops people from talking, do you? Your father never went anywhere, and people saw Eugene with her everywhere she went—and though I was with them people just thought”—she choked—“they just thought I didn't count! 'Only old Fanny Minafer,' I suppose they'd say! Besides, everybody knew that he'd been engaged to her—”
“What's that?” George cried.
“Everybody knows it. Don't you remember your grandfather speaking of it at the Sunday dinner one night?”
“He didn't say they were engaged or—”
“Well, they were! Everybody knows it; and she broke it off on account of that serenade when Eugene didn't know what he was doing. He drank when he was a young man, and she wouldn't stand it, but everybody in this town knows that Isabel has never really cared for any other man in her life! Poor Wilbur! He was the only soul alive that didn't know it!”
Nightmare had descended upon the unfortunate George; he leaned back against the foot-board of his bed, gazing wildly at his aunt. “I believe I'm going crazy,” he said. “You mean when you told me there wasn't any talk, you told me a falsehood?”
“No!” Fanny gasped.
“I tell you I didn't know how much talk there was, and it wouldn't have amounted to much if Wilbur had lived.” And Fanny completed this with a fatal admission: “I didn't want you to interfere.”
George overlooked the admission; his mind was not now occupied with analysis. “What do you mean,” he asked, “when you say that if father had lived, the talk wouldn't have amounted to anything?”
“Things might have been—they might have been different.”
“You mean Morgan might have married you?”
Fanny gulped. “No. Because I don't know that I'd have accepted him.” She had ceased to weep, and now she sat up stiffly. “I certainly didn't care enough about him to marry him; I wouldn't have let myself care that much until he showed that he wished to marry me. I'm not that sort of person!” The poor lady paid her vanity this piteous little tribute. “What I mean is, if Wilbur hadn't died, people wouldn't have had it proved before their very eyes that what they'd been talking about was true!”
“You say—you say that people believe—” George shuddered, then forced himself to continue, in a sick voice: “They believe my mother is—is in love with that man?”
“And because he comes here—and they see her with him driving—and all that—they think they were right when they said she was in—in love with him before—before my father died?”
She looked at him gravely with her eyes now dry between their reddened lids. “Why, George,” she said, gently, “don't you know that's what they say? You must know that everybody in town thinks they're going to be married very soon.”
George uttered an incoherent cry; and sections of him appeared to writhe. He was upon the verge of actual nausea.
“You know it!” Fanny cried, getting up. “You don't think I'd have spoken of it to you unless I was sure you knew it?” Her voice was wholly genuine, as it had been throughout the wretched interview: Fanny's sincerity was unquestionable. “George, I wouldn't have told you, if you didn't know. What other reason could you have for treating Eugene as you did, or for refusing to speak to them like that a while ago in the yard? Somebody must have told you?”
“Who told you?” he said.
“Who told you there was talk? Where is this talk? Where does it come from? Who does it?”
“Why, I suppose pretty much everybody,” she said. “I know it must be pretty general.”
“Who said so?”
George stepped close to her. “You say people don't speak to a person of gossip about that person's family. Well, how did you hear it, then? How did you get hold of it? Answer me!”
Fanny looked thoughtful. “Well, of course nobody not one's most intimate friends would speak to them about such things, and then only in the kindest, most considerate way.”
“Who's spoken of it to you in any way at all?” George demanded.
“Why—” Fanny hesitated.
“You answer me!”
“I hardly think it would be fair to give names.”
“Look here,” said George. “One of your most intimate friends is that mother of Charlie Johnson's, for instance. Has she ever mentioned this to you? You say everybody is talking. Is she one?”
“Oh, she may have intimated—”
“I'm asking you: Has she ever spoken of it to you?”
“She's a very kind, discreet woman, George; but she may have intimated—”
George had a sudden intuition, as there flickered into his mind the picture of a street-crossing and two absorbed ladies almost run down by a fast horse. “You and she have been talking about it to-day!” he cried. “You were talking about it with her not two hours ago. Do you deny it?”
“Do you deny it?”
“All right,” said George. “That's enough!”
She caught at his arm as he turned away. “What are you going to do, George?”
“I'll not talk about it, now,” he said heavily. “I think you've done a good deal for one day, Aunt Fanny!”
And Fanny, seeing the passion in his face, began to be alarmed. She tried to retain possession of the black velvet sleeve which her fingers had clutched, and he suffered her to do so, but used this leverage to urge her to the door. “George, you know I'm sorry for you, whether you care or not,” she whimpered. “I never in the world would have spoken of it, if I hadn't thought you knew all about it. I wouldn't have—”
But he had opened the door with his free hand. “Never mind!” he said, and she was obliged to pass out into the hall, the door closing quickly behind her.