The Magnificent Ambersons
Major Amberson remained dry-eyed through the time that followed: he knew that this separation from his daughter would be short, that the separation which had preceded it was the long one. He worked at his ledgers no more under his old gas drop-light, but would sit all evening staring into the fire, in his bedroom, and not speaking unless someone asked him a question. He seemed almost unaware of what went on around him, and those who were with him thought him dazed by Isabel's death, guessing that he was lost in reminiscences and vague dreams. "Probably his mind is full of pictures of his youth, or the Civil War, and the days when he and mother were young married people and all of us children were jolly little things--and the city was a small town with one cobbled street and the others just dirt roads with board sidewalks." This was George Amberson's conjecture, and the others agreed; but they were mistaken. The Major was engaged in the profoundest thinking of his life. No business plans which had ever absorbed him could compare in momentousness with the plans that absorbed him now, for he had to plan how to enter the unknown country where he was not even sure of being recognized as an Amberson--not sure of anything, except that Isabel would help him if she could. His absorption produced the outward effect of reverie, but of course it was not. The Major was occupied with the first really important matter that had taken his attention since he came home invalided, after the Gettysburg campaign, and went into business; and he realized that everything which had worried him or delighted him during this lifetime between then and to-day--all his buying and building and trading and banking--that it all was trifling and waste beside what concerned him now.
He seldom went out of his room, and often left untouched the meals they brought to him there; and this neglect caused them to shake their heads mournfully, again mistaking for dazedness the profound concentration of his mind. Meanwhile, the life of the little bereft group still forlornly centering upon him began to pick up again, as life will, and to emerge from its own period of dazedness. It was not Isabel's father but her son who was really dazed.
A month after her death he walked abruptly into Fanny's room, one night, and found her at her desk, eagerly adding columns of figures with which she had covered several sheets of paper. This mathematical computation was concerned with her future income to be produced by the electric headlight, now just placed on the general market; but Fanny was ashamed to be discovered doing anything except mourning, and hastily pushed the sheets aside, even as she looked over her shoulder to greet her hollow-eyed visitor.
"George! You startled me."
"I beg your pardon for not knocking," he said huskily. "I didn't think."
She turned in her chair and looked at him solicitously. "Sit down, George, won't you?"
"No. I just wanted--"
"I could hear you walking up and down in your room," said Fanny. "You were doing it ever since dinner, and it seems to me you're at it almost every evening. I don't believe it's good for you--and I know it would worry your mother terribly if she--" Fanny hesitated.
"See here," George said, breathing fast, "I want to tell you once more that what I did was right. How could I have done anything else but what I did do?"
"About what, George?"
"About everything!" he exclaimed; and he became vehement. "I did the right thing, I tell you! In heaven's name, I'd like to know what else there was for anybody in my position to do! It would have been a dreadful thing for me to just let matters go on and not interfere--it would have been terrible! What else on earth was there for me to do? I had to stop that talk, didn't I? Could a son do less than I did? Didn't it cost me something to do it? Lucy and I'd had a quarrel, but that would have come round in time--and it meant the end forever when I turned her father back from our door. I knew what it meant, yet I went ahead and did it because knew it had to be done if the talk was to be stopped. I took mother away for the same reason. I knew that would help to stop it. And she was happy over there--she was perfectly happy. I tell you, I think she had a happy life, and that's my only consolation. She didn't live to be old; she was still beautiful and young looking, and I feel she'd rather have gone before she got old. She'd had a good husband, and all the comfort and luxury that anybody could have--and how could it be called anything but a happy life? She was always cheerful, and when I think of her I can always see her laughing--I can always hear that pretty laugh of hers. When I can keep my mind off of the trip home, and that last night, I always think of her gay and laughing. So how on earth could she have had anything but a happy life? People that aren't happy don't look cheerful all the time, do they? They look unhappy if they are unhappy; that's how they look! See here"--he faced her challengingly --"do you deny that I did the right thing?"
"Oh, I don't pretend to judge," Fanny said soothingly, for his voice and gesture both partook of wildness. "I know you think you did, George."
"Think I did!" he echoed violently. "My God in heaven!" And he began to walk up and down the floor. "What else was there to do? What, choice did I have? Was there any other way of stopping the talk?" He stopped, close in front of her, gesticulating, his voice harsh and loud: "Don't you hear me? I'm asking you: Was there any other way on earth of protecting her from the talk?"
Miss Fanny looked away. "It died down before long, I think," she said nervously.
"That shows I was right, doesn't it?" he cried. "If I hadn't acted as I did, that slanderous old Johnson woman would have kept on with her slanders--she'd still be--"
"No," Fanny interrupted. "She's dead. She dropped dead with apoplexy one day about six weeks after you left. I didn't mention it in my letters because I didn't want--I thought--"
"Well, the other people would have kept on, then. They'd have--"
"I don't know," said Fanny, still averting her troubled eyes. "Things are so changed here, George. The other people you speak of--one hardly knows what's become of them. Of course not a great many were doing the talking, and they--well, some of them are dead, and some might as well be--you never see them any more--and the rest, whoever they were, are probably so mixed in with the crowds of new people that seem never even to have heard of us--and I'm sure we certainly never heard of them--and people seem to forget things so soon--they seem to forget anything. You can't imagine how things have changed here!"
George gulped painfully before he could speak. "You--you mean to sit there and tell me that if I'd just let things go on--Oh!" He swung away, walking the floor again. "I tell you I did the only right thing! If you don't think so, why in the name of heaven can't you say what else I should have done? It's easy enough to criticize, but the person who criticizes a man ought at least to tell him what else he should have done! You think I was wrong!"
"I'm not saying so," she said.
"You did at the time!" he cried. "You said enough then, I think! Well, what have you to say now, if you're so sure I was wrong?"
"It's only because you're afraid to!" he said, and he went on with a sudden bitter divination: "You're reproaching yourself with what you had to do with all that; and you're trying to make up for it by doing and saying what you think mother would want you to, and you think I couldn't stand it if I got to thinking I might have done differently. Oh, I know! That's exactly what's in your mind: you do think I was wrong! So does Uncle George. I challenged him about it the other day, and he answered just as you're answering--evaded, and tried to be gentler I don't care to be handled with gloves! I tell you I was right, and I don't need any coddling by people that think I wasn't! And I suppose you believe I was wrong not to let Morgan see her that last night when he came here, and she--she was dying. If you do, why in the name of God did you come and ask me? You could have taken him in! She did want to see him. She--"
Miss Fanny looked startled. "You think--"
"She told me so!" And the tortured young man choked. "She said-- 'just once.' She said 'I'd like to have seen him--just once!' She meant--to tell him good-bye! That's what she meant! And you put this on me, too; you put this responsibility on me! But I tell you, and I told Uncle George, that the responsibility isn't all mine! If you were so sure I was wrong all the time--when I took her away, and when I turned Morgan out--if you were so sure, what did you let me do it for? You and Uncle George were grown people, both of you, weren't you? You were older than I, and if you were so sure you were wiser than I, why did you just stand around with your hands hanging down, and let me go ahead? You could have stopped it if it was wrong, couldn't you?"
Fanny shook her head. "No, George," she said slowly. "Nobody could have stopped you. You were too strong, and--"
"And what?" he demanded loudly.
"And she loved you--too well."
George stared at her hard, then his lower lip began to move convulsively, and he set his teeth upon it but could not check its frantic twitching.
He ran out of the room.
She sat still, listening. He had plunged into his mother's room, but no sound came to Fanny's ears after the sharp closing of the door; and presently she rose and stepped out into the hall--but could hear nothing. The heavy black walnut door of Isabel's room, as Fanny's troubled eyes remained fixed upon it, seemed to become darker and vaguer; the polished wood took the distant ceiling light, at the end of the hall, in dim reflections which became mysterious; and to Fanny's disturbed mind the single sharp point of light on the bronze door-knob was like a continuous sharp cry in the stillness of night. What interview was sealed away from human eye and ear within the lonely darkness on the other side of that door--in that darkness where Isabel's own special chairs were, and her own special books, and the two great walnut wardrobes filled with her dresses and wraps? What tragic argument might be there vainly striving to confute the gentle dead? "In God's name, what else could I have done?" For his mother's immutable silence was surely answering him as Isabel in life would never have answered him, and he was beginning to understand how eloquent the dead can be. They cannot stop their eloquence, no matter how they have loved the living: they cannot choose. And so, no matter in what agony George should cry out, "What else could I have done?" and to the end of his life no matter how often he made that wild appeal, Isabel was doomed to answer him with the wistful, faint murmur:
"I'd like to have-seen him. Just--just once."
A cheerful darkey went by the house, loudly and tunelessly whistling some broken thoughts upon women, fried food and gin; then a group of high school boys, returning homeward after important initiations, were heard skylarking along the sidewalk, rattling sticks on the fences, squawking hoarsely, and even attempting to sing in the shocking new voices of uncompleted adolescence. For no reason, and just as a poultry yard falls into causeless agitation, they stopped in front of the house, and for half an hour produced the effect of a noisy multitude in full riot.
To the woman standing upstairs in the hall, this was almost unbearable; and she felt that she would have to go down and call to them to stop; but she was too timid, and after a time went back to her room, and sat at her desk again. She left the door open, and frequently glanced out into the hall, but gradually became once more absorbed in the figures which represented her prospective income from her great plunge in electric lights for automobiles. She did not hear George return to his own room.
A superstitious person might have thought it unfortunate that her partner in this speculative industry (as in Wilbur's disastrous rolling-mills) was that charming but too haphazardous man of the world, George Amberson. He was one of those optimists who believe that if you put money into a great many enterprises one of them is sure to turn out a fortune, and therefore, in order to find the lucky one, it is only necessary to go into a large enough number of them. Altogether gallant in spirit, and beautifully game under catastrophe, he had gone into a great many, and the unanimity of their "bad luck," as he called it, gave him one claim to be a distinguished person, if he had no other. In business he was ill fated with a consistency which made him, in that alone, a remarkable man; and he declared, with some earnestness, that there was no accounting for it except by the fact that there had been so much good luck in his family before he was born that something had to balance it.
"You ought to have thought of my record and stayed out," he told Fanny, one day the next spring, when the affairs of the headlight company had begun to look discouraging. "I feel the old familiar sinking that's attended all my previous efforts to prove myself a business genius. I think it must be something like the feeling an aeronaut has when his balloon bursts, and, looking down, he sees below him the old home farm where he used to live--I mean the feeling he'd have just before he flattened out in that same old clay barnyard. Things do look bleak, and I'm only glad you didn't go into this confounded thing to the extent I did."
Miss Fanny grew pink. "But it must go right!" she protested. "We saw with our own eyes how perfectly it worked in the shop. The light was so bright no one could face it, and so there can't be any reason for it not to work. It simply--"
"Oh, you're right about that," Amberson said. "It certainly was a perfect thing--in the shop! The only thing we didn't know was how fast an automobile had to go to keep the light going. It appears that this was a matter of some importance."
"Well, how fast does one have to--"
"To keep the light from going entirely out," he informed her with elaborate deliberation, "it is computed by those enthusiasts who have bought our product--and subsequently returned it to us and got their money back--they compute that a motor car must maintain a speed of twenty-five miles an hour, or else there won't be any light at all. To make the illumination bright enough to be noticed by an approaching automobile, they state the speed must be more than thirty miles an hour. At thirty-five, objects in the path of the light begin to become visible; at forty they are revealed distinctly; and at fifty and above we have a real headlight. Unfortunately many people don't care to drive that fast at all times after dusk, especially in the traffic, or where policemen are likely to become objectionable."
"But think of that test on the road when we--"
"That test was lovely," he admitted. "The inventor made us happy with his oratory, and you and Frank Bronson and I went whirling through the night at a speed that thrilled us. It was an intoxicating sensation: we were intoxicated by the lights, the lights and the music. We must never forget that drive, with the cool wind kissing our cheeks and the road lit up for miles ahead. We must never forget it and we never shall. It cost--"
"But something's got to be done."
"It has, indeed! My something would seem to be leaving my watch at my uncle's. Luckily, you--"
The pink of Fanny's cheeks became deeper. "But isn't that man going to do anything to remedy it? can't he try to--"
"He can try," said Amberson. "He is trying, in fact. I've sat in the shop watching him try for several beautiful afternoons, while outside the windows all Nature was fragrant with spring and smoke. He hums ragtime to himself as he tries, and I think his mind is wandering to something else less tedious--to some new invention in which he'd take more interest."
"But you mustn't let him," she cried. "You must make him keep on trying!"
"Oh, yes. He understands that's what I sit there for. I'll keep sitting!"
However, in spite of the time he spent sitting in the shop, worrying the inventor of the fractious light, Amberson found opportunity to worry himself about another matter of business. This was the settlement of Isabel's estate.
"It's curious about the deed to her house," he said to his nephew. "You're absolutely sure it wasn't among her papers?"
"Mother didn't have any papers," George told him. "None at all. All she ever had to do with business was to deposit the cheques grandfather gave her and then write her own cheques against them."
"The deed to the house was never recorded," Amberson said thoughtfully. "I've been over to the courthouse to see. I asked father if he never gave her one, and he didn't seem able to understand me at first. Then he finally said he thought he must have given her a deed long ago; but he wasn't sure. I rather think he never did. I think it would be just as well to get him to execute one now in your favour. I'll speak to him about it."
George sighed. "I don't think I'd bother him about it: the house is mine, and you and I understand that it is. That's enough for me, and there isn't likely to be much trouble between you and me when we come to settling poor grandfather's estate. I've just been with him, and I think it would only confuse him for you to speak to him about it again. I notice he seems distressed if anybody tries to get his attention--he's a long way off, somewhere, and he likes to stay that way. I think--I think mother wouldn't want us to bother him about it; I'm sure she'd tell us to let him alone. He looks so white and queer."
Amberson shook his head. "Not much whiter and queerer than you do, young fellow! You'd better begin to get some air and exercise and quit hanging about in the house all day. I won't bother him any more than I can help; but I'll have the deed made out ready for his signature."
"I wouldn't bother him at all. I don't see--"
"You might see," said his uncle uneasily. "The estate is just about as involved and mixed-up as an estate can well get, to the best of my knowledge; and I haven't helped it any by what he let me have for this infernal headlight scheme which has finally gone trolloping forever to where the woodbine twineth. Leaves me flat, and poor old Frank Bronson just half flat, and Fanny--well, thank heaven! I kept her from going in so deep that it would leave her flat. It's rough on her as it is, I suspect. You ought to have that deed."
"No. Don't bother him."
"I'll bother him as little as possible. I'll wait till some day when he seems to brighten up a little."
But Amberson waited too long. The Major had already taken eleven months since his daughter's death to think important things out. He had got as far with them as he could, and there was nothing to detain him longer in the world. One evening his grandson sat with him--the Major seemed to like best to have young George with him, so far as they were able to guess his preferences--and the old gentleman made a queer gesture: he slapped his knee as if he had made a sudden discovery, or else remembered that he had forgotten something.
George looked at him with an air of inquiry, but said nothing. He had grown to be almost as silent as his grandfather. However, the Major spoke without being questioned.
"It must be in the sun," he said. "There wasn't anything here but the sun in the first place, and the earth came out of the sun, and we came out of the earth. So, whatever we are, we must have been in the sun. We go back to the earth we came out of, so the earth will go back to the sun that it came out of. And time means nothing--nothing at all-- so in a little while we'll all be back in the sun together. I wish--"
He moved his hand uncertainly as if reaching for something, and George jumped up. "Did you want anything, grandfather?"
"Would you like a glass of water?"
"No--no. No; I don't want anything." The reaching hand dropped back upon the arm of his chair, and he relapsed into silence; but a few minutes later he finished the sentence he had begun:
"I wish--somebody could tell me!"
The next day he had a slight cold, but he seemed annoyed when his son suggested calling the doctor, and Amberson let him have his own way so far, in fact, that after he had got up and dressed, the following morning, he was all alone when he went away to find out what he hadn't been able to think out--all those things he had wished "somebody" would tell him.
Old Sam, shuffling in with the breakfast tray, found the Major in his accustomed easy-chair by the fireplace--and yet even the old darkey could see instantly that the Major was not there.