George choked. For an instant he was on the point of breaking down, but he commanded himself, bravely dismissing the self-pity roused by her compassion. “How can I help but be?” he said.
“No, no.” She soothed him. “You mustn't. You mustn't be troubled, no matter what happens.”
“That's easy enough to say!” he protested; and he moved as if to rise.
“Just let's stay like this a little while, dear. Just a minute or two. I want to tell you: brother George has been here, and he told me everything about—about how unhappy you'd been—and how you went so gallantly to that old woman with the operaglasses.” Isabel gave a sad little laugh. “What a terrible old woman she is! What a really terrible thing a vulgar old woman can be!”
“Mother, I—” And again he moved to rise.
“Must you? It seemed to me such a comfortable way to talk. Well—” She yielded; he rose, helped her to her feet, and pressed the light into being.
As the room took life from the sudden lines of fire within the bulbs Isabel made a deprecatory gesture, and, with a faint laugh of apologetic protest, turned quickly away from George. What she meant was: “You mustn't see my face until I've made it nicer for you.” Then she turned again to him, her eyes downcast, but no sign of tears in them, and she contrived to show him that there was the semblance of a smile upon her lips. She still wore her hat, and in her unsteady fingers she held a white envelope, somewhat crumpled.
“Wait, dearest,” she said; and though he stood stone cold, she lifted her arms, put them round him again, and pressed her cheek lightly to his. “Oh, you do look so troubled, poor dear! One thing you couldn't doubt, beloved boy: you know I could never care for anything in the world as I care for you—never, never!”
She released him, and stepped back. “Just a moment more, dearest. I want you to read this first. We can get at things better.” She pressed into his hand the envelope she had brought with her, and as he opened it, and began to read the long enclosure, she walked slowly to the other end of the room; then stood there, with her back to him, and her head drooping a little, until he had finished.
The sheets of paper were covered with Eugene's handwriting.
George Amberson will bring you this, dear Isabel. He is waiting while I write. He and I have talked things over, and before he gives this to you he will tell you what has happened. Of course I'm rather confused, and haven't had time to think matters out very definitely, and yet I believe I should have been better prepared for what took place to-day—I ought to have known it was coming, because I have understood for quite a long time that young George was getting to dislike me more and more. Somehow, I've never been able to get his friendship; he's always had a latent distrust of me—or something like distrust—and perhaps that's made me sometimes a little awkward and diffident with him. I think it may be he felt from the first that I cared a great deal about you, and he naturally resented it. I think perhaps he felt this even during all the time when I was so careful—at least I thought I was—not to show, even to you, how immensely I did care. And he may have feared that you were thinking too much about me—even when you weren't and only liked me as an old friend. It's perfectly comprehensible to me, also, that at his age one gets excited about gossip. Dear Isabel, what I'm trying to get at, in my confused way, is that you and I don't care about this nonsensical gossip, ourselves, at all. Yesterday I thought the time had come when I could ask you to marry me, and you were dear enough to tell me “sometime it might come to that.” Well, you and I, left to ourselves, and knowing what we have been and what we are, we'd pay as much attention to “talk” as we would to any other kind of old cats' mewing! We'd not be very apt to let such things keep us from the plenty of life we have left to us for making up to ourselves for old unhappinesses and mistakes. But now we're faced with—not the slander and not our own fear of it, because we haven't any, but someone else's fear of it—your son's. And, oh, dearest woman in the world, I know what your son is to you, and it frightens me! Let me explain a little: I don't think he'll change—at twenty-one or twenty-two so many things appear solid and permanent and terrible which forty sees are nothing but disappearing miasma. Forty can't tell twenty about this; that's the pity of it! Twenty can find out only by getting to be forty. And so we come to this, dear: Will you live your own life your way, or George's way? I'm going a little further, because it would be fatal not to be wholly frank now. George will act toward you only as your long worship of him, your sacrifices—all the unseen little ones every day since he was born—will make him act. Dear, it breaks my heart for you, but what you have to oppose now is the history of your own selfless and perfect motherhood. I remember saying once that what you worshipped in your son was the angel you saw in him—and I still believe that is true of every mother. But in a mother's worship she may not see that the Will in her son should not always be offered incense along with the angel. I grow sick with fear for you—for both you and me—when I think how the Will against us two has grown strong through the love you have given the angel—and how long your own sweet Will has served that other. Are you strong enough, Isabel? Can you make the fight? I promise you that if you will take heart for it, you will find so quickly that it has all amounted to nothing. You shall have happiness, and, in a little while, only happiness. You need only to write me a line—I can't come to your house—and tell me where you will meet me. We will come back in a month, and the angel in your son will bring him to you; I promise it. What is good in him will grow so fine, once you have beaten the turbulent Will—but it must be beaten!
Your brother, that good friend, is waiting with such patience; I should not keep him longer—and I am saying too much for wisdom, I fear. But, oh, my dear, won't you be strong—such a little short strength it would need! Don't strike my life down twice, dear—this time I've not deserved it. Eugene.
Concluding this missive, George tossed it abruptly from him so that one sheet fell upon his bed and the others upon the floor; and at the faint noise of their falling Isabel came, and, kneeling, began to gather them up.
“Did you read it, dear?”
George's face was pale no longer, but pink with fury. “Yes, I did.”
“All of it?” she asked gently, as she rose.
She did not look at him, but kept her eyes downcast upon the letter in her hands, tremulously rearranging the sheets in order as she spoke—and though she smiled, her smile was as tremulous as her hands. Nervousness and an irresistible timidity possessed her. “I—I wanted to say, George,” she faltered. “I felt that if—if some day it should happen—I mean, if you came to feel differently about it, and Eugene and I—that is if we found that it seemed the most sensible thing to do—I was afraid you might think it would be a little queer about—Lucy, I mean if—if she were your step-sister. Of course, she'd not be even legally related to you, and if you—if you cared for her—”
Thus far she got stumblingly with what she wanted to say, while George watched her with a gaze that grew harder and hotter; but here he cut her off. “I have already given up all idea of Lucy,” he said. “Naturally, I couldn't have treated her father as I deliberately did treat him—I could hardly have done that and expected his daughter ever to speak to me again.”
Isabel gave a quick cry of compassion, but he allowed her no opportunity to speak. “You needn't think I'm making any particular sacrifice,” he said sharply, “though I would, quickly enough, if I thought it necessary in a matter of honour like this. I was interested in her, and I could even say I did care for her; but she proved pretty satisfactorily that she cared little enough about me! She went away right in the midst of a—of a difference of opinion we were having; she didn't even let me know she was going, and never wrote a line to me, and then came back telling everybody she'd had 'a perfectly gorgeous time!' That's quite enough for me. I'm not precisely the sort to arrange for that kind of thing to be done to me more than once! The truth is, we're not congenial and we'd found that much out, at least, before she left. We should never have been happy; she was 'superior' all the time, and critical of me—not very pleasant, that! I was disappointed in her, and I might as well say it. I don't think she has the very deepest nature in the world, and—”
But Isabel put her hand timidly on his arm. “Georgie, dear, this is only a quarrel: all young people have them before they get adjusted, and you mustn't let—”
“If you please!” he said emphatically, moving back from her. “This isn't that kind. It's all over, and I don't care to speak of it again. It's settled. Don't you understand?”
“No. I want to talk to you about this letter of her father's.”
“Yes, dear, that's why—”
“It's simply the most offensive piece of writing that I've ever held in my hands!”
She stepped back from him, startled. “But, dear, I thought—”
“I can't understand your even showing me such a thing!” he cried. “How did you happen to bring it to me?”
“Your uncle thought I'd better. He thought it was the simplest thing to do, and he said that he'd suggested it to Eugene, and Eugene had agreed. They thought—”
“Yes!” George said bitterly. “I should like to hear what they thought!”
“They thought it would be the most straightforward thing.”
George drew a long breath. “Well, what do you think, mother?”
“I thought it would be the simplest and most straightforward thing; I thought they were right.”
“Very well! We'll agree it was simple and straightforward. Now, what do you think of that letter itself?”
She hesitated, looking away. “I—of course I don't agree with him in the way he speaks of you, dear—except about the angel! I don't agree with some of the things he implies. You've always been unselfish—nobody knows that better than your mother. When Fanny was left with nothing, you were so quick and generous to give up what really should have come to you, and—”
“And yet,” George broke in, “you see what he implies about me. Don't you think, really, that this was a pretty insulting letter for that man to be asking you to hand your son?”
“Oh, no!” she cried. “You can see how fair he means to be, and he didn't ask for me to give it to you. It was brother George who—”
“Never mind that, now! You say he tries to be fair, and yet do you suppose it ever occurs to him that I'm doing my simple duty? That I'm doing what my father would do if he were alive? That I'm doing what my father would ask me to do if he could speak from his grave out yonder? Do you suppose it ever occurs to that man for one minute that I'm protecting my mother?” George raised his voice, advancing upon the helpless lady fiercely; and she could only bend her head before him. “He talks about my 'Will'—how it must be beaten down; yes, and he asks my mother to do that little thing to please him! What for? Why does he want me 'beaten' by my mother? Because I'm trying to protect her name! He's got my mother's name bandied up and down the streets of this town till I can't step in those streets without wondering what every soul I meet is thinking of me and of my family, and now he wants you to marry him so that every gossip in town will say 'There! What did I tell you? I guess that proves it's true!' You can't get away from it; that's exactly what they'd say, and this man pretends he cares for you, and yet asks you to marry him and give them the right to say it. He says he and you don't care what they say, but I know better! He may not care—probably he's that kind—but you do. There never was an Amberson yet that would let the Amberson name go trailing in the dust like that! It's the proudest name in this town and it's going to stay the proudest; and I tell you that's the deepest thing in my nature—not that I'd expect Eugene Morgan to understand—the very deepest thing in my nature is to protect that name, and to fight for it to the last breath when danger threatens it, as it does now—through my mother!” He turned from her, striding up and down and tossing his arms about, in a tumult of gesture. “I can't believe it of you, that you'd think of such a sacrilege! That's what it would be—sacrilege! When he talks about your unselfishness toward me, he's right—you have been unselfish and you have been a perfect mother. But what about him? Is it unselfish of him to want you to throw away your good name just to please him? That's all he asks of you—and to quit being my mother! Do you think I can believe you really care for him? I don't! You are my mother and you're an Amberson—and I believe you're too proud! You're too proud to care for a man who could write such a letter as that!” He stopped, faced her, and spoke with more self-control: “Well, what are you going to do about it, mother?”
George was right about his mother's being proud. And even when she laughed with a negro gardener, or even those few times in her life when people saw her weep, Isabel had a proud look—something that was independent and graceful and strong. But she did not have it now: she leaned against the wall, beside his dressing-table, and seemed beset with humility and with weakness. Her head drooped.
“What answer are you going to make to such a letter?” George demanded, like a judge on the bench.
“I—I don't quite know, dear,” she murmured.
“Wait,” she begged him. “I'm so—confused.”
“I want to know what you're going to write him. Do you think if you did what he wants you to I could bear to stay another day in this town, mother? Do you think I could ever bear even to see you again if you married him? I'd want to, but you surely know I just—couldn't!”
She made a futile gesture, and seemed to breathe with difficulty. “I—I wasn't—quite sure,” she faltered, “about—about it's being wise for us to be married—even before knowing how you feel about it. I wasn't even sure it was quite fair to—to Eugene. I have—I seem to have that family trouble—like father's—that I spoke to you about once.” She managed a deprecatory little dry laugh. “Not that it amounts to much, but I wasn't at all sure that it would be fair to him. Marrying doesn't mean so much, after all—not at my age. It's enough to know that—that people think of you—and to see them. I thought we were all—oh, pretty happy the way things were, and I don't think it would mean giving up a great deal for him or me, either, if we just went on as we have been. I—I see him almost every day, and—”
“Mother!” George's voice was loud and stern. “Do you think you could go on seeing him after this!”
She had been talking helplessly enough before; her tone was little more broken now. “Not—not even—see him?”
“How could you?” George cried. “Mother, it seems to me that if he ever set foot in this house again—oh! I can't speak of it! Could you see him, knowing what talk it makes every time he turns into this street, and knowing what that means to me? Oh, I don't understand all this—I don't! If you'd told me, a year ago, that such things were going to happen, I'd have thought you were insane—and now I believe I am!”
Then, after a preliminary gesture of despair, as though he meant harm to the ceiling, he flung himself heavily, face downward, upon the bed. His anguish was none the less real for its vehemence; and the stricken lady came to him instantly and bent over him, once more enfolding him in her arms. She said nothing, but suddenly her tears fell upon his head; she saw them, and seemed to be startled.
“Oh, this won't do!” she said. “I've never let you see me cry before, except when your father died. I mustn't!”
And she ran from the room.
...A little while after she had gone, George rose and began solemnly to dress for dinner. At one stage of these conscientious proceedings he put on, temporarily, his long black velvet dressing-gown, and, happening to catch sight in his pier glass of the picturesque and medieval figure thus presented, he paused to regard it; and something profoundly theatrical in his nature came to the surface.
His lips moved; he whispered, half-aloud, some famous fragments:
“Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, Nor customary suits of solemn black...”
For, in truth, the mirrored princely image, with hair dishevelled on the white brow, and the long tragic fall of black velvet from the shoulders, had brought about (in his thought at least) some comparisons of his own times, so out of joint, with those of that other gentle prince and heir whose widowed mother was minded to marry again.
“But I have that within which passeth show; These but the trappings and the suits of Woe.”
Not less like Hamlet did he feel and look as he sat gauntly at the dinner table with Fanny to partake of a meal throughout which neither spoke. Isabel had sent word “not to wait” for her, an injunction it was as well they obeyed, for she did not come at all. But with the renewal of sustenance furnished to his system, some relaxation must have occurred within the high-strung George. Dinner was not quite finished when, without warning, sleep hit him hard. His burning eyes could no longer restrain the lids above them; his head sagged beyond control; and he got to his feet, and went lurching upstairs, yawning with exhaustion. From the door of his room, which he closed mechanically, with his eyes shut, he went blindly to his bed, fell upon it soddenly, and slept—with his face full upturned to the light.
It was after midnight when he woke, and the room was dark. He had not dreamed, but he woke with the sense that somebody or something had been with him while he slept—somebody or something infinitely compassionate; somebody or something infinitely protective, that would let him come to no harm and to no grief.
He got up, and pressed the light on. Pinned to the cover of his dressing-table was a square envelope, with the words, “For you, dear,” written in pencil upon it. But the message inside was in ink, a little smudged here and there.
I have been out to the mail-box, darling, with a letter I've written to Eugene, and he'll have it in the morning. It would be unfair not to let him know at once, and my decision could not change if I waited. It would always be the same. I think it, is a little better for me to write to you, like this, instead of waiting till you wake up and then telling you, because I'm foolish and might cry again, and I took a vow once, long ago, that you should never see me cry. Not that I'll feel like crying when we talk things over tomorrow. I'll be “all right and fine” (as you say so often) by that time—don't fear. I think what makes me most ready to cry now is the thought of the terrible suffering in your poor face, and the unhappy knowledge that it is I, your mother who put it there. It shall never come again! I love you better than anything and everything else on earth. God gave you to me—and oh! how thankful I have been every day of my life for that sacred gift—and nothing can ever come between me and God's gift. I cannot hurt you, and I cannot let you stay hurt as you have been—not another instant after you wake up, my darling boy! It is beyond my power. And Eugene was right—I know you couldn't change about this. Your suffering shows how deep-seated the feeling is within you. So I've written him just about what I think you would like me to—though I told him I would always be fond of him and always his best friend, and I hoped his dearest friend. He'll understand about not seeing him. He'll understand that, though I didn't say it in so many words. You mustn't trouble about that—he'll understand. Good-night, my darling, my beloved, my beloved! You mustn't be troubled. I think I shouldn't mind anything very much so long as I have you “all to myself”—as people say—to make up for your long years away from me at college. We'll talk of what's best to do in the morning, shan't we? And for all this pain you'll forgive your loving and devoted mother.