At least, it may be claimed for George that his last night in the house where he had been born was not occupied with his own disheartening future, but with sorrow for what sacrifices his pride and youth had demanded of others. And early in the morning he came downstairs and tried to help Fanny make coffee on the kitchen range.
“There was something I wanted to say to you last night, Aunt Fanny,” he said, as she finally discovered that an amber fluid, more like tea than coffee, was as near ready to be taken into the human system as it would ever be. “I think I'd better do it now.”
She set the coffee-pot back upon the stove with a little crash, and, looking at him in a desperate anxiety, began to twist her dainty apron between her fingers without any consciousness of what she was doing.
“Why—why—” she stammered; but she knew what he was going to say, and that was why she had been more and more nervous. “Hadn't—perhaps—perhaps we'd better get the—the things moved to the little new home first, George. Let's—”
He interrupted quietly, though at her phrase, “the little new home,” his pungent impulse was to utter one loud shout and run. “It was about this new place that I wanted to speak. I've been thinking it over, and I've decided. I want you to take all the things from mother's room and use them and keep them for me, and I'm sure the little apartment will be just what you like; and with the extra bedroom probably you could find some woman friend to come and live there, and share the expense with you. But I've decided on another arrangement for myself, and so I'm not going with you. I don't suppose you'll mind much, and I don't see why you should mind—particularly, that is. I'm not very lively company these days, or any days, for that matter. I can't imagine you, or any one else, being much attached to me, so—”
He stopped in amazement: no chair had been left in the kitchen, but Fanny gave a despairing glance around her, in search of one, then sank abruptly, and sat flat upon the floor.
“You're going to leave me in the lurch!” she gasped.
“What on earth—” George sprang to her. “Get up, Aunt Fanny!”
“I can't. I'm too weak. Let me alone, George!” And as he released the wrist he had seized to help her, she repeated the dismal prophecy which for days she had been matching against her hopes: “You're going to leave me—in the lurch!”
“Why no, Aunt Fanny!” he protested. “At first I'd have been something of a burden on you. I'm to get eight dollars a week; about thirty-two a month. The rent's thirty-six dollars a month, and the table-d'hote dinner runs up to over twenty-two dollars apiece, so with my half of the rent—eighteen dollars—I'd have less than nothing left out of my salary to pay my share of the groceries for all the breakfasts and luncheons. You see you'd not only be doing all the housework and cooking, but you'd be paying more of the expenses than I would.”
She stared at him with such a forlorn blankness as he had never seen. “I'd be paying—” she said feebly. “I'd be paying—”
“Certainly you would. You'd be using more of your money than—”
“My money!” Fanny's chin drooped upon her thin chest, and she laughed miserably. “I've got twenty-eight dollars. That's all.”
“You mean until the interest is due again?”
“I mean that's all,” Fanny said. “I mean that's all there is. There won't be any more interest because there isn't any principal.”
“Why, you told—”
She shook her head. “No, I haven't told you anything.”
“Then it was Uncle George. He told me you had enough to fall back on. That's just what he said: 'to fall back on.' He said you'd lost more than you should, in the headlight company, but he'd insisted that you should hold out enough to live on, and you'd very wisely followed his advice.”
“I know,” she said weakly. “I told him so. He didn't know, or else he'd forgotten, how much Wilbur's insurance amounted to, and I—oh, it seemed such a sure way to make a real fortune out of a little—and I thought I could do something for you, George, if you ever came to need it—and it all looked so bright I just thought I'd put it all in. I did—every cent except my last interest payment—and it's gone.”
“Good Lord!” George began to pace up and down on the worn planks of the bare floor. “Why on earth did you wait till now to tell such a thing as this?”
“I couldn't tell till I had to,” she said piteously. “I couldn't till George Amberson went away. He couldn't do anything to help, anyhow, and I just didn't want him to talk to me about it—he's been at me so much about not putting more in than I could afford to lose, and said he considered he had my—my word I wasn't putting more than that in it. So I thought: What was the use? What was the use of going over it all with him and having him reproach me, and probably reproach himself? It wouldn't do any good—not any good on earth.” She got out her lace handkerchief and began to cry. “Nothing does any good, I guess, in this old world. Oh, how tired of this old world I am! I didn't know what to do. I just tried to go ahead and be as practical as I could, and arrange some way for us to live. Oh, I knew you didn't want me, George! You always teased me and berated me whenever you had a chance from the time you were a little boy—you did so! Later, you've tried to be kinder to me, but you don't want me around—oh, I can see that much! You don't suppose I want to thrust myself on you, do you? It isn't very pleasant to be thrusting yourself on a person you know doesn't want you—but I knew you oughtn't to be left all alone in the world; it isn't good. I knew your mother'd want me to watch over you and try to have something like a home for you—I know she'd want me to do what I tried to do!” Fanny's tears were bitter now, and her voice, hoarse and wet, was tragically sincere. “I tried—I tried to be practical—to look after your interests—to make things as nice for you as I could—I walked my heels down looking for a place for us to live—I walked and walked over this town—I didn't ride one block on a street-car—I wouldn't use five cents no matter how tired I—Oh!” She sobbed uncontrollably. “Oh! and now—you don't want—you want—you want to leave me in the lurch! You—”
George stopped walking. “In God's name, Aunt Fanny,” he said, “quit spreading out your handkerchief and drying it and then getting it all wet again! I mean stop crying! Do! And for heaven's sake, get up. Don't sit there with your back against the boiler and—”
“It's not hot,” Fanny sniffled. “It's cold; the plumbers disconnected it. I wouldn't mind if they hadn't. I wouldn't mind if it burned me, George.”
“Oh, my Lord!” He went to her, and lifted her. “For God's sake, get up! Come, let's take the coffee into the other room, and see what's to be done.”
He got her to her feet; she leaned upon him, already somewhat comforted, and, with his arm about her, he conducted her to the dining room and seated her in one of the two kitchen chairs which had been placed at the rough table. “There!” he said, “get over it!” Then he brought the coffee-pot, some lumps of sugar in a tin pan, and, finding that all the coffee-cups were broken, set water glasses upon the table, and poured some of the pale coffee into them. By this time Fanny's spirits had revived appreciably: she looked up with a plaintive eagerness. “I had bought all my fall clothes, George,” she said; “and I paid every bill I owed. I don't owe a cent for clothes, George.”
“That's good,” he said wanly, and he had a moment of physical dizziness that decided him to sit down quickly. For an instant it seemed to him that he was not Fanny's nephew, but married to her. He passed his pale hand over his paler forehead. “Well, let's see where we stand,” he said feebly. “Let's see if we can afford this place you've selected.”
Fanny continued to brighten. “I'm sure it's the most practical plan we could possibly have worked out, George—and it is a comfort to be among nice people. I think we'll both enjoy it, because the truth is we've been keeping too much to ourselves for a long while. It isn't good for people.”
“I was thinking about the money, Aunt Fanny. You see—”
“I'm sure we can manage it,” she interrupted quickly. “There really isn't a cheaper place in town that we could actually live in and be—” Here she interrupted herself. “Oh! There's one great economy I forgot to tell you, and it's especially an economy for you, because you're always too generous about such things: they don't allow any tipping. They have signs that prohibit it.”
“That's good,” he said grimly. “But the rent is thirty-six dollars a month; the dinner is twenty-two and a half for each of us, and we've got to have some provision for other food. We won't need any clothes for a year, perhaps—”
“Oh, longer!” she exclaimed. “So you see—”
“I see that forty-five and thirty-six make eighty-one,” he said. “At the lowest, we need a hundred dollars a month—and I'm going to make thirty-two.”
“I thought of that, George,” she said confidently, “and I'm sure it will be all right. You'll be earning a great deal more than that very soon.”
“I don't see any prospect of it—not till I'm admitted to the bar, and that will be two years at the earliest.”
Fanny's confidence was not shaken. “I know you'll be getting on faster than—”
“Faster?” George echoed gravely. “We've got to have more than that to start with.”
“Well, there's the six hundred dollars from the sale. Six hundred and twelve dollars it was.”
“It isn't six hundred and twelve now,” said George. “It's about one hundred and sixty.”
Fanny showed a momentary dismay. “Why, how—”
“I lent Uncle George two hundred; I gave fifty apiece to old Sam and those two other old darkies that worked for grandfather so long, and ten to each of the servants here—”
“And you gave me thirty-six,” she said thoughtfully, “for the first month's rent, in advance.”
“Did I? I'd forgotten. Well, with about a hundred and sixty in bank and our expenses a hundred a month, it doesn't seem as if this new place—”
“Still,” she interrupted, “we have paid the first month's rent in advance, and it does seem to be the most practical—”
George rose. “See here, Aunt Fanny,” he said decisively. “You stay here and look after the moving. Old Frank doesn't expect me until afternoon, this first day, but I'll go and see him now.”
It was early, and old Frank, just established at his big, flat-topped desk, was surprised when his prospective assistant and pupil walked in. He was pleased, as well as surprised, however, and rose, offering a cordial old hand. “The real flare!” he said. “The real flare for the law. That's right! Couldn't wait till afternoon to begin! I'm delighted that you—”
“I wanted to say—” George began, but his patron cut him off.
“Wait just a minute, my boy. I've prepared a little speech of welcome, and even though you're five hours ahead of time, I mean to deliver it. First of all, your grandfather was my old war-comrade and my best client; for years I prospered through my connection with his business, and his grandson is welcome in my office and to my best efforts in his behalf. But I want to confess, Georgie, that during your earlier youth I may have had some slight feeling of—well, prejudice, not altogether in your favour; but whatever slight feeling it was, it began to vanish on that afternoon, a good while ago, when you stood up to your Aunt Amelia Amberson as you did in the Major's library, and talked to her as a man and a gentleman should. I saw then what good stuff was in you—and I always wanted to mention it. If my prejudice hadn't altogether vanished after that, the last vestiges disappeared during these trying times that have come upon you this past year, when I have been a witness to the depth of feeling you've shown and your quiet consideration for your grandfather and for everyone else around you. I just want to add that I think you'll find an honest pleasure now in industry and frugality that wouldn't have come to you in a more frivolous career. The law is a jealous mistress and a stern mistress, but a—”
George had stood before him in great and increasing embarrassment; and he was unable to allow the address to proceed to its conclusion.
“I can't do it!” he burst out. “I can't take her for my mistress.”
“I've come to tell you, I've got to find something that's quicker. I can't—”
Old Frank got a little red. “Let's sit down,” he said. “What's the trouble?”
George told him.
The old gentleman listened sympathetically, only murmuring: “Well, well!” from time to time, and nodding acquiescence.
“You see she's set her mind on this apartment,” George explained. “She's got some old cronies there, and I guess she's been looking forward to the games of bridge and the kind of harmless gossip that goes on in such places. Really, it's a life she'd like better than anything else—better than that she's lived at home, I really believe. It struck me she's just about got to have it, and after all she could hardly have anything less.”
“This comes pretty heavily upon me, you know,” said old Frank. “I got her into that headlight company, and she fooled me about her resources as much as she did your Uncle George. I was never your father's adviser, if you remember, and when the insurance was turned over to her some other lawyer arranged it—probably your father's. But it comes pretty heavily on me, and I feel a certain responsibility.”
“Not at all. I'm taking the responsibility.”
And George smiled with one corner of his mouth. “She's not your aunt, you know, sir.”
“Well, I'm unable to see, even if she's yours, that a young man is morally called upon to give up a career at the law to provide his aunt with a favourable opportunity to play bridge whist!”
“No,” George agreed. “But I haven't begun my 'career at the law' so it can't be said I'm making any considerable sacrifice. I'll tell you how it is, sir.” He flushed, and, looking out of the streaked and smoky window beside which he was sitting, spoke with difficulty. “I feel as if—as if perhaps I had one or two pretty important things in my life to make up for. Well, I can't. I can't make them up to—to whom I would. It's struck me that, as I couldn't, I might be a little decent to somebody else, perhaps—if I could manage it! I never have been particularly decent to poor old Aunt Fanny.”
“Oh, I don't know: I shouldn't say that. A little youthful teasing—I doubt if she's minded so much. She felt your father's death terrifically, of course, but it seems to me she's had a fairly comfortable life-up to now—if she was disposed to take it that way.”
“But 'up to now' is the important thing,” George said. “Now is now—and you see I can't wait two years to be admitted to the bar and begin to practice. I've got to start in at something else that pays from the start, and that's what I've come to you about. I have an idea, you see.”
“Well, I'm glad of that!” said old Frank, smiling. “I can't think of anything just at this minute that pays from the start.”
“I only know of one thing, myself.”
“What is it?”
George flushed again, but managed to laugh at his own embarrassment. “I suppose I'm about as ignorant of business as anybody in the world,” he said. “But I've heard they pay very high wages to people in dangerous trades; I've always heard they did, and I'm sure it must be true. I mean people that handle touchy chemicals or high explosives—men in dynamite factories, or who take things of that sort about the country in wagons, and shoot oil wells. I thought I'd see if you couldn't tell me something more about it, or else introduce me to someone who could, and then I thought I'd see if I couldn't get something of the kind to do as soon as possible. My nerves are good; I'm muscular, and I've got a steady hand; it seemed to me that this was about the only line of work in the world that I'm fitted for. I wanted to get started to-day if I could.”
Old Frank gave him a long stare. At first this scrutiny was sharply incredulous; then it was grave; finally it developed into a threat of overwhelming laughter; a forked vein in his forehead became more visible and his eyes seemed about to protrude.
But he controlled his impulse; and, rising, took up his hat and overcoat. “All right,” he said. “If you'll promise not to get blown up, I'll go with you to see if we can find the job.” Then, meaning what he said, but amazed that he did mean it, he added: “You certainly are the most practical young man I ever met!”