The Magnificent Ambersons
Having thus, in a word, revealed his ambition for a career above courts, marts, and polling booths, George breathed more deeply than usual, and, turning his face from the lovely companion whom he had just made his confidant, gazed out at the dancers with an expression in which there was both sternness and a contempt for the squalid lives of the unyachted Midlanders before him. However, among them, he marked his mother; and his sombre grandeur relaxed momentarily; a more genial light came into his eyes.
Isabel was dancing with the queer-looking duck; and it was to be noted that the lively gentleman's gait was more sedate than it had been with Miss Fanny Minafer, but not less dexterous and authoritative. He was talking to Isabel as gaily as he had talked to Miss Fanny, though with less laughter, and Isabel listened and answered eagerly: her colour was high and her eyes had a look of delight. She saw George and the beautiful Lucy on the stairway, and nodded to them. George waved his hand vaguely: he had a momentary return of that inexplicable uneasiness and resentment which had troubled him downstairs.
"How lovely your mother is!" Lucy said
"I think she is," he agreed gently.
"She's the gracefulest woman in that ballroom. She dances like a girl of sixteen."
"Most girls of sixteen," said George, "are bum dancers. Anyhow, I wouldn't dance with one unless I had to."
"Well, you'd better dance with your mother! I never saw anybody lovelier. How wonderfully they dance together!"
"Your mother and--and the queer-looking duck," said Lucy. "I'm going to dance with him pretty soon."
"I don't care--so long as you don't give him one of the numbers that belong to me."
"I'll try to remember," she said, and thoughtfully lifted to her face the bouquet of violets and lilies, a gesture which George noted without approval.
"Look here! Who sent you those flowers you keep makin' such a fuss over?"
"The queer-looking duck."
George feared no such rival; he laughed loudly. "I s'pose he's some old widower!" he said, the object thus described seeming ignominious enough to a person of eighteen, without additional characterization. "Some old widower!"
Lucy became serious at once. "Yes, he is a widower," she said. "I ought to have told you before; he's my father."
George stopped laughing abruptly. "Well, that's a horse on me. If I'd known he was your father, of course I wouldn't have made fun of him. I'm sorry."
"Nobody could make fun of him," she said quietly.
"Why couldn't they?"
"It wouldn't make him funny: it would only make themselves silly."
Upon this, George had a gleam of intelligence. "Well, I'm not going to make myself silly any more, then; I don't want to take chances like that with you. But I thought he was the Sharon girls' uncle. He came with them--"
"Yes," she said, "I'm always late to everything: I wouldn't let them wait for me. We're visiting the Sharons."
"About time I knew that! You forget my being so fresh about your father, will you? Of course he's a distinguished looking man, in a way."
Lucy was still serious. "In a way?'" she repeated. "You mean, not in your way, don't you?"
George was perplexed. "How do you mean: not in my way?"
"People pretty often say 'in a way' and 'rather distinguished looking,' or 'rather' so-and-so, or 'rather' anything, to show that they're superior don't they? In New York last month I overheard a climber sort of woman speaking of me as 'little Miss Morgan,' but she didn't mean my height; she meant that she was important. Her husband spoke of a friend of mine as 'little Mr. Pembroke' and 'little Mr. Pembroke' is six-feet-three. This husband and wife were really so terribly unimportant that the only way they knew to pretend to be important was calling people 'little' Miss or Mister so-and-so. It's a kind of snob slang, I think. Of course people don't always say 'rather' or 'in a way' to be superior."
"I should say not! I use both of 'em a great deal myself," said George. "One thing I don't see though: What's the use of a man being six-feet-three? Men that size can't handle themselves as well as a man about five-feet-eleven and a half can. Those long, gangling men, they're nearly always too kind of wormy to be any good in athletics, and they're so awkward they keep falling over chairs or--"
"Mr. Pembroke is in the army," said Lucy primly. "He's extraordinarily graceful."
"In the army? Oh, I suppose he's some old friend of your father's."
"They got on very well," she said, "after I introduced them."
George was a straightforward soul, at least. "See here!" he said. "Are you engaged to anybody?"
Not wholly mollified, he shrugged his shoulders. "You seem to know a good many people! Do you live in New York?"
"No. We don't live anywhere."
"What you mean: you don't live anywhere?"
"We've lived all over," she answered. "Papa used to live here in this town, but that was before I was born."
"What do you keep moving around so for? Is he a promoter?"
"No. He's an inventor."
"What's he invented?"
"Just lately," said Lucy, "he's been working on a new kind of horseless carriage."
"Well, I'm sorry for him," George said, in no unkindly spirit. "Those things are never going to amount to anything. People aren't going to spend their lives lying on their backs in the road and letting grease drip in their faces. Horseless carriages are pretty much a failure, and your father better not waste his time on 'em."
"Papa'd be so grateful," she returned, "if he could have your advice."
Instantly George's face became flushed. "I don't know that I've done anything to be insulted for!" he said. "I don't see that what I said was particularly fresh."
"Then what do you--"
She laughed gaily. "I don't! And I don't mind your being such a lofty person at all. I think it's ever so interesting--but papa's a great man!"
"Is he?" George decided to be good-natured "Well, let us hope so. I hope so, I'm sure."
Looking at him keenly, she saw that the magnificent youth was incredibly sincere in this bit of graciousness. He spoke as a tolerant, elderly statesman might speak of a promising young politician; and with her eyes still upon him, Lucy shook her head in gentle wonder. "I'm just beginning to understand," she said.
"What it means to be a real Amberson in this town. Papa told me something about it before we came, but I see he didn't say half enough!"
George superbly took this all for tribute. "Did your father say he knew the family before he left here?"
"Yes. I believe he was particularly a friend of your Uncle George; and he didn't say so, but I imagine he must have known your mother very well, too. He wasn't an inventor then; he was a young lawyer. The town was smaller in those days, and I believe he was quite well known."
"I dare say. I've no doubt the family are all very glad to see him back, especially if they used to have him at the house a good deal, as he told you."
"I don't think he meant to boast of it," she said: "He spoke of it quite calmly."
George stared at her for a moment in perplexity, then perceiving that her intention was satirical, "Girls really ought to go to a man's college," he said--"just a month or two, anyhow; It'd take some of the freshness out of 'em!"
"I can't believe it," she retorted, as her partner for the next dance arrived. "It would only make them a little politer on the surface-- they'd be really just as awful as ever, after you got to know them a few minutes."
"What do you mean: 'after you got to know them a--'"
She was departing to the dance. "Janie and Mary Sharon told me all about what sort of a little boy you were," she said, over her shoulder. "You must think it out!" She took wing away on the breeze of the waltz, and George, having stared gloomily after her for a few moments, postponed filling an engagement, and strolled round the fluctuating outskirts of the dance to where his uncle, George Amberson, stood smilingly watching, under one of the rose-vine arches at the entrance to the room.
"Hello, young namesake," said the uncle. "Why lingers the laggard heel of the dancer? Haven't you got a partner?"
"She's sitting around waiting for me somewhere," said George. "See here: Who is this fellow Morgan that Aunt Fanny Minafer was dancing with a while?"
Amberson laughed. "He's a man with a pretty daughter, Georgie. Meseemed you've been spending the evening noticing something of that sort--or do I err?"
"Never mind! What sort is he?"
"I think we'll have to give him a character, Georgie. He's an old friend; used to practice law here--perhaps he had more debts than cases, but he paid 'em all up before he left town. Your question is purely mercenary, I take it: you want to know his true worth before proceeding further with the daughter. I cannot inform you, though I notice signs of considerable prosperity in that becoming dress of hers. However, you never can tell, it is an age when every sacrifice is made for the young, and how your own poor mother managed to provide those genuine pearl studs for you out of her allowance from father, I can't--"
"Oh, dry up!" said the nephew. "I understand this Morgan--"
"Mr. Eugene Morgan," his uncle suggested. "Politeness requires that the young should--"
"I guess the 'young' didn't know much about politeness in your day," George interrupted. "I understand that Mr. Eugene Morgan used to be a great friend of the family."
"Oh, the Minafers?" the uncle inquired, with apparent innocence. "No, I seem to recall that he and your father were not--"
"I mean the Ambersons," George said impatiently. "I understand he was a good deal around the house here."
"What is your objection to that, George?"
"What do you mean: my objection?"
"You seemed to speak with a certain crossness."
"Well," said George, "I meant he seems to feel awfully at home here. The way he was dancing with Aunt Fanny--"
Amberson laughed. "I'm afraid your Aunt Fanny's heart was stirred by ancient recollections, Georgie."
"You mean she used to be silly about him?"
"She wasn't considered singular," said the uncle "He was--he was popular. Could you bear a question?"
"What do you mean: could I bear--"
"I only wanted to ask: Do you take this same passionate interest in the parents of every girl you dance with? Perhaps it's a new fashion we old bachelors ought to take up. Is it the thing this year to--"
"Oh, go on!" said George, moving away. "I only wanted to know--" He left the sentence unfinished, and crossed the room to where a girl sat waiting for his nobility to find time to fulfil his contract with her for this dance.
"Pardon f' keep' wait," he muttered, as she rose brightly to meet him; and she seemed pleased that he came at all--but George was used to girls' looking radiant when he danced with them, and she had little effect upon him. He danced with her perfunctorily, thinking the while of Mr. Eugene Morgan and his daughter. Strangely enough, his thoughts dwelt more upon the father than the daughter, though George could not possibly have given a reason--even to himself--for this disturbing preponderance.
By a coincidence, though not an odd one, the thoughts and conversation of Mr. Eugene Morgan at this very time were concerned with George Amberson Minafer, rather casually, it is true. Mr. Morgan had retired to a room set apart for smoking, on the second floor, and had found a grizzled gentleman lounging in solitary possession.
"'Gene Morgan!" this person exclaimed, rising with great heartiness. "I'd heard you were in town--I don't believe you know me!"
"Yes, I do, Fred Kinney!" Mr. Morgan returned with equal friendliness. "Your real face-the one I used to know--it's just underneath the one you're masquerading in to-night. You ought to have changed it more if you wanted a disguise."
"Twenty years!" said Mr. Kinney. "It makes some difference in faces, but more in behaviour!"
"It does sot" his friend agreed with explosive emphasis. "My own behaviour began to be different about that long ago--quite suddenly."
"I remember," said Mr. Kinney sympathetically. "Well, life's odd enough as we look back."
"Probably it's going to be odder still--if we could look forward."
They sat and smoked.
"However," Mr. Morgan remarked presently, "I still dance like an Indian. Don't you?"
"No. I leave that to my boy Fred. He does the dancing for the family."
"I suppose he's upstairs hard at it?"
"No, he's not here." Mr. Kinney glanced toward the open door and lowered his voice. "He wouldn't come. It seems that a couple of years or so ago he had a row with young Georgie Minafer. Fred was president of a literary club they had, and he said this young Georgie got himself elected instead, in an overbearing sort of way. Fred's red- headed, you know--I suppose you remember his mother? You were at the wedding--"
"I remember the wedding," said Mr. Morgan. "And I remember your bachelor dinner--most of it, that is."
"Well, my boy Fred's as red-headed now," Mr. Kinney went on, "as his mother was then, and he's very bitter about his row with Georgie Minafer. He says he'd rather burn his foot off than set it inside any Amberson house or any place else where young Georgie is. Fact is, the boy seemed to have so much feeling over it I had my doubts about coming myself, but my wife said it was all nonsense; we mustn't humour Fred in a grudge over such a little thing, and while she despised that Georgie Minafer, herself, as much as any one else did, she wasn't going to miss a big Amberson show just on account of a boys' rumpus, and so on and so on; and so we came."
"Do people dislike young Minafer generally?"
"I don't know about 'generally.' I guess he gets plenty of toadying; but there's certainly a lot of people that are glad to express their opinions about him."
"What's the matter with him?"
"Too much Amberson, I suppose, for one thing. And for another, his mother just fell down and worshipped him from the day he was born That's what beats me! I don't have to tell you what Isabel Amberson is, Eugene Morgan. She's got a touch of the Amberson high stuff about her, but you can't get anybody that ever knew her to deny that she's just about the finest woman in the world."
"No," said Eugene Morgan. "You can't get anybody to deny that."
"Then I can't see how she doesn't see the truth about that boy. He thinks he's a little tin god on wheels--and honestly, it makes some people weak and sick just to think about him! Yet that high-spirited, intelligent woman, Isabel Amberson, actually sits and worships him! You can hear it in her voice when she speaks to him or speaks of him. You can see it in her eyes when she looks at him. My Lord! What does she see when she looks at him?"
Morgan's odd expression of genial apprehension deepened whimsically, though it denoted no actual apprehension whatever, and cleared away from his face altogether when he smiled; he became surprisingly winning and persuasive when he smiled. He smiled now, after a moment, at this question of his old friend. "She sees something that we don't see," he said.
"What does she see?"
Kinney laughed aloud. "Well, if she sees an angel when she looks at Georgie Minafer, she's a funnier woman than I thought she was!"
"Perhaps she is," said Morgan. "But that's what she sees."
"My Lord! It's easy to see you've only known him an hour or so. In that time have you looked at Georgie and seen an angel?"
"No. All I saw was a remarkably good-looking fool-boy with the pride of Satan and a set of nice new drawing-room manners that he probably couldn't use more than half an hour at a time without busting."
"Mothers are right," said Morgan. "Do you think this young George is the same sort of creature when he's with his mother that he is when he's bulldozing your boy Fred? Mothers see the angel in us because the angel is there. If it's shown to the mother, the son has got an angel to show, hasn't he? When a son cuts somebody's throat the mother only sees it's possible for a misguided angel to act like a devil--and she's entirely right about that!"
Kinney laughed, and put his hand on his friend's shoulder. "I remember what a fellow you always were to argue," he said. "You mean Georgie Minafer is as much of an angel as any murderer is, and that Georgie's mother is always right."
"I'm afraid she always has been," Morgan said lightly.
The friendly hand remained upon his shoulder. "She was wrong once, old fellow. At least, so it seemed to me."
"No," said Morgan, a little awkwardly. "No--"
Kinney relieved the slight embarrassment that had come upon both of them: he laughed again. "Wait till you know young Georgie a little better," he said. "Something tells me you're going to change your mind about his having an angel to show, if you see anything of him!"
"You mean beauty's in the eye of the beholder, and the angel is all in the eye of the mother. If you were a painter, Fred, you'd paint mothers with angels' eyes holding imps in their laps. Me. I'll stick to the Old Masters and the cherubs."
Mr. Kinney looked at him musingly. "Somebody's eyes must have been pretty angelic," he said, "if they've been persuading you that Georgie Minnafer is a cherub!"
"They are," said Morgan heartily. "They're more angelic than ever." And as a new flourish of music sounded overhead he threw away his cigarette, and jumped up briskly. "Good-bye, I've got this dance with her."
The grizzled Mr. Kinney affected to rub his eyes. "It startles me, your jumping up like that to go and dance with Isabel Amberson! Twenty years seem to have passed--but have they? Tell me, have you danced with poor old Fanny, too, this evening?"
"My Lord!" Kinney groaned, half in earnest. "Old times starting all over again! My Lord!"
"Old times?" Morgan laughed gaily from the doorway. "Not a bit! There aren't any old times. When times are gone they're not old, they're dead! There aren't any times but new times!"
And he vanished in such a manner that he seemed already to have begun dancing.