George took off his dressing-gown and put on a collar and a tie, his fingers shaking so that the tie was not his usual success; then he picked up his coat and waistcoat, and left the room while still in process of donning them, fastening the buttons, as he ran down the front stairs to the door. It was not until he reached the middle of the street that he realized that he had forgotten his hat; and he paused for an irresolute moment, during which his eye wandered, for no reason, to the Fountain of Neptune. This castiron replica of too elaborate sculpture stood at the next corner, where the Major had placed it when the Addition was laid out so long ago. The street corners had been shaped to conform with the great octagonal basin, which was no great inconvenience for horse-drawn vehicles, but a nuisance to speeding automobiles; and, even as George looked, one of the latter, coming too fast, saved itself only by a dangerous skid as it rounded the fountain. This skid was to George's liking, though he would have been more pleased to see the car go over, for he was wishing grief and destruction, just then, upon all the automobiles in the world.
His eyes rested a second or two longer upon the Fountain of Neptune, not an enlivening sight even in the shielding haze of autumn twilight. For more than a year no water had run in the fountain: the connections had been broken, and the Major was evasive about restorations, even when reminded by his grandson that a dry fountain is as gay as a dry fish. Soot streaks and a thousand pits gave Neptune the distinction, at least, of leprosy, which the mermaids associated with him had been consistent in catching; and his trident had been so deeply affected as to drop its prongs. Altogether, this heavy work of heavy art, smoked dry, hugely scabbed, cracked, and crumbling, was a dismal sight to the distracted eye of George Amberson Minafer, and its present condition of craziness may have added a mite to his own. His own was sufficient, with no additions, however, as he stood looking at the Johnsons' house and those houses on both sides of it—that row of riffraff dwellings he had thought so damnable, the day when he stood in his grandfather's yard, staring at them, after hearing what his Aunt Amelia said of the “talk” about his mother.
He decided that he needed no hat for the sort of call he intended to make, and went forward hurriedly. Mrs. Johnson was at home, the Irish girl who came to the door informed him, and he was left to await the lady, in a room like an elegant well—the Johnsons' “reception room”: floor space, nothing to mention; walls, blue calcimined; ceiling, twelve feet from the floor; inside shutters and gray lace curtains; five gilt chairs, a brocaded sofa, soiled, and an inlaid walnut table, supporting two tall alabaster vases; a palm, with two leaves, dying in a corner.
Mrs. Johnson came in, breathing noticeably; and her round head, smoothly but economically decorated with the hair of an honest woman, seemed to be lingering far in the background of the Alpine bosom which took precedence of the rest of her everywhere; but when she was all in the room, it was to be seen that her breathing was the result of hospitable haste to greet the visitor, and her hand, not so dry as Neptune's Fountain, suggested that she had paused for only the briefest ablutions. George accepted this cold, damp lump mechanically.
“Mr. Amberson—I mean Mr. Minafer!” she exclaimed. “I'm really delighted: I understood you asked for me. Mr. Johnson's out of the city, but Charlie's downtown and I'm looking for him at any minute, now, and he'll be so pleased that you—”
“I didn't want to see Charlie,” George said. “I want”
“Do sit down,” the hospitable lady urged him, seating herself upon the sofa. “Do sit down.”
“No, I thank you. I wish—”
“Surely you're not going to run away again, when you've just come. Do sit down, Mr. Minafer. I hope you're all well at your house and at the dear old Major's, too. He's looking—”
“Mrs. Johnson” George said, in a strained loud voice which arrested her attention immediately, so that she was abruptly silent, leaving her surprised mouth open. She had already been concealing some astonishment at this unexampled visit, however, and the condition of George's ordinarily smooth hair (for he had overlooked more than his hat) had not alleviated her perplexity. “Mrs. Johnson,” he said, “I have come to ask you a few questions which I would like you to answer, if you please.”
She became grave at once. “Certainly, Mr. Minafer. Anything I can—”
He interrupted sternly, yet his voice shook in spite of its sternness. “You were talking with my Aunt Fanny about my mother this afternoon.”
At this Mrs. Johnson uttered an involuntary gasp, but she recovered herself. “Then I'm sure our conversation was a very pleasant one, if we were talking of your mother, because—”
Again he interrupted. “My aunt has told me what the conversation virtually was, and I don't mean to waste any time, Mrs. Johnson. You were talking about a—” George's shoulders suddenly heaved uncontrollably; but he went fiercely on: “You were discussing a scandal that involved my mother's name.”
“Isn't that the truth?”
“I don't feel called upon to answer, Mr. Minafer,” she said with visible agitation. “I do not consider that you have any right—”
“My aunt told me you repeated this scandal to her.”
“I don't think your aunt can have said that,” Mrs. Johnson returned sharply. “I did not repeat a scandal of any kind to your aunt and I think you are mistaken in saying she told you I did. We may, have discussed some matters that have been a topic of comment about town—”
“Yes!” George cried. “I think you may have! That's what I'm here about, and what I intend to—”
“Don't tell me what you intend, please,” Mrs. Johnson interrupted crisply. “And I should prefer that you would not make your voice quite so loud in this house, which I happen to own. Your aunt may have told you—though I think it would have been very unwise in her if she did, and not very considerate of me—she may have told you that we discussed some such topic as I have mentioned, and possibly that would have been true. If I talked it over with her, you may be sure I spoke in the most charitable spirit, and without sharing in other people's disposition to put an evil interpretation on what may, be nothing more than unfortunate appearances and—”
“My God!” said George. “I can't stand this!”
“You have the option of dropping the subject,” Mrs. Johnson suggested tartly, and she added: “Or of leaving the house.”
“I'll do that soon enough, but first I mean to know—”
“I am perfectly willing to tell you anything you wish if you will remember to ask it quietly. I'll also take the liberty of reminding you that I had a perfect right to discuss the subject with your aunt. Other people may be less considerate in not confining their discussion of it, as I have, to charitable views expressed only to a member of the family. Other people—”
“Other people!” the unhappy George repeated viciously. “That's what I want to know about—these other people!”
“I beg your pardon.”
“I want to ask you about them. You say you know of other people who talk about this.”
“I presume they do.”
“I want to know how many other people talk about it?”
“Dear, dear!” she protested. “How should I know that?”
“Haven't you heard anybody mention it?”
“I presume so.”
“Well, how many have you heard?”
Mrs. Johnson was becoming more annoyed than apprehensive, and she showed it. “Really, this isn't a court-room,” she said. “And I'm not a defendant in a libel-suit, either!”
The unfortunate young man lost what remained of his balance. “You may be!” he cried. “I intend to know just who's dared to say these things, if I have to force my way into every house in town, and I'm going to make them take every word of it back! I mean to know the name of every slanderer that's spoken of this matter to you and of every tattler you've passed it on to yourself. I mean to know—”
“You'll know something pretty quick!” she said, rising with difficulty; and her voice was thick with the sense of insult. “You'll know that you're out in the street. Please to leave my house!”
George stiffened sharply. Then he bowed, and strode out of the door.
Three minutes later, disheveled and perspiring, but cold all over, he burst into his Uncle George's room at the Major's without knocking. Amberson was dressing.
“Good gracious, Georgie!” he exclaimed. “What's up?”
“I've just come from Mrs. Johnson's—across the street,” George panted.
“You have your own tastes!” was Amberson's comment. “But curious as they are, you ought to do something better with your hair, and button your waistcoat to the right buttons—even for Mrs. Johnson! What were you doing over there?”
“She told me to leave the house,” George said desperately. “I went there because Aunt Fanny told me the whole town was talking about my mother and that man Morgan—that they say my mother is going to marry him and that proves she was too fond of him before my father died—she said this Mrs. Johnson was one that talked about it, and I went to her to ask who were the others.”
Amberson's jaw fell in dismay. “Don't tell me you did that!” he said, in a low voice; and then, seeing that it was true, “Oh, now you have done it!”