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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Fearful Responsibility - Chapter 7
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A Fearful Responsibility - Chapter 7 Post by :LloydM Category :Long Stories Author :William Dean Howells Date :May 2012 Read :2310

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A Fearful Responsibility - Chapter 7

CHAPTER VII

The next morning Elmore was called from his bed--at no very early hour, it must be owned, but at least before a nine o'clock breakfast--to see a gentleman who was waiting in the parlor. He dressed hurriedly, with a thousand exciting speculations in his mind, and found Mr. Rose-Black looking from the balcony window. "You have a pleasant position here," he said easily, as he turned about to meet Elmore's look of indignant demand. "I've come to ask all about our friends the Andersens."

"I don't know anything about them," answered Elmore. "I never saw them before."

"Aoeh!" said the painter. Elmore had not invited him to sit down, but now he dropped into a chair, with the air of asking Elmore to explain himself. "The young lady of your party seemed to know them. How uncommonly pretty all your American young girls are! But I'm told they fade very soon. I should like to make up a picnic party with you all for the Lido."

"Thank you," replied Elmore stiffly. "Miss Mayhew has seen the Lido."

"Aoeh! _That's her name. It's a pretty name." He looked through the open door into the dining-room, where the table was set for breakfast, with the usual water-goblet at each plate. "I see you have beer for breakfast. There's nothing so nice, you know. Would you--would you mind giving me a glahs?"

Through an undefined sense of the duties of hospitality, Elmore was surprised by this impudence into sending out to the next caffe for a pitcher of beer. Rose-Black poured himself out one glass and another till he had emptied the pitcher, conversing affably meanwhile with his silent host.

"_Why didn't you turn him out of doors?" demanded Mrs. Elmore, as soon as the painter's departure allowed her to slip from the closed door behind which she had been imprisoned in her room.

"I did everything _but that," replied her husband, whom this interview had saddened more than it had angered.

"You sent out for beer for him!"

"I didn't know but it might make him sick. Really, the thing is incredible. I think the man is cracked."

"He is an Englishman, and he thinks he can take any kind of liberty with us because we are Americans."

"That seems to be the prevalent impression among all the European nationalities," said Elmore. "Let's drop him for the present, and try to be more brutal in the future."

Mrs. Elmore, so far from dropping him, turned to Lily, who entered at that moment, and recounted the extraordinary adventure of the morning, which scarcely needed the embellishment of her fancy; it was not really a gallon of beer, but a quart, that Mr. Rose-Black had drunk. She enlarged upon previous aggressions of his, and said finally that they had to thank Mr. Ferris for his acquaintance.

"Ferris couldn't help himself," said Elmore. "He apologized to me afterward. The man got him into a corner. But he warned us about him as soon he could. And Rose-Black would have made our acquaintance, any way. I believe he's crazy."

"I don't see how that helps the matter."

"It helps to explain it," concluded Elmore, with a sigh. "We can't refer everything to our being American lambs, and his being a ravening European wolf."

"Of course he came round to find out about Lily," said Mrs. Elmore. "The Andersens were a mere blind."

"Oh, Mrs. Elmore!" cried Lily in deprecation.

The bell jangled. "That is the postman," said Mrs. Elmore.

There was a home-letter for Lily, and one from Lily's sister enclosed to Mrs. Elmore. The ladies rent them open, and lost themselves in the cross-written pages; and neither of them saw the dismay with which Elmore looked at the handwriting of the envelope addressed to him. His wife vaguely knew that he had a letter, and meant to ask him for it as soon as she should have finished her own. When she glanced at him again, he was staring at the smiling face of Miss Mayhew, as she read her letter, with the wild regard of one who sees another in mortal peril, and can do nothing to avert the coming doom, but must dumbly await the catastrophe.

"What is it, Owen?" asked his wife in a low voice.

He started from his trance, and struggled to answer quietly. "I've a letter here which I suppose I'd better show to you first."

They rose and went into the next room, Miss Mayhew following them with a bright, absent look, and then dropping her eyes again to her letter.

Elmore put the note he had received into his wife's hands without a word.

SIR,--My position permitted me to take a woman. I am a soldier, but I am an engineer--operateous, and I can exercise wherever my profession in the civil life. I have seen Miss Mayhew, and I have great sympathie for she. I think I will be lukely with her, if Miss Mayhew would be of the same intention of me.

If you believe, Sir, that my open and realy proposition will not offendere Miss Mayhew, pray to handed to her this note. Pray sir to excuse me the liberty to fatigue you, and to go over with silence if you would be of another intention.

Your obedient servant,
E. VON EHRHARDT.

Mrs. Elmore folded the letter carefully up and returned it to her husband. If he had perhaps dreaded some triumphant outburst from her, he ought to have been content with the thoroughly daunted look which she lifted to his, and the silence in which she suffered him to do justice to the writer.

"This is the letter of a gentleman, Celia," he said.

"Yes," she responded faintly.

"It puts another complexion on the affair entirely."

"Yes. Why did he wait a whole week?" she added.

"It is a serious matter with him. He had a right to take time for thinking it over." Elmore looked at the date of the Peschiera postmark, and then at that of Venice on the back of the envelope. "No, he wrote at once. This has been kept in the Venetian office, and probably read there by the authorities."

His wife did not heed the conjecture. "He began all wrong," she grieved. "Why couldn't he have behaved sensibly?"

"We must look at it from another point of view now," replied Elmore. "He has repaired his error by this letter."

"No, no; he hasn't."

"The question is now what to do about the changed situation. This is an offer of marriage. It comes in the proper way. It's a very sincere and manly letter. The man has counted the whole cost: he's ready to leave the army and go to America, if she says so. He's in love. How can she refuse him?"

"Perhaps she isn't in love with him," said Mrs. Elmore.

"Oh! That's true. I hadn't thought of that. Then it's very simple."

"But I don't know that she isn't," murmured Mrs. Elmore.

"Well, ask her."

"How could _she tell?"

"How could she _tell_?"

"Yes. Do you suppose a child like that can know her own mind in an instant?"

"I should think she could."

"Well, she couldn't. She liked the excitement,--the romanticality of it; but she doesn't know any more than you or I whether she cares for him. I don't suppose marriage with anybody has ever seriously entered her head yet."

"It will have to do so now," said Elmore firmly. "There's no help for it."

"I think the American plan is much better," pouted Mrs. Elmore. "It's horrid to know that a man's in love with you, and wants to marry you, from the very start. Of course it makes you hate him."

"I dare say the American plan is better in this as in most other things. But we can't discuss abstractions, Celia. We must come down to business. What are we to do?"

"I don't know."

"We must submit the question to her."

"To that innocent, unsuspecting little thing? Never!" cried Mrs. Elmore.

"Then we must decide it, as he seems to expect we may, without reference to her," said her husband.

"No, that won't do. Let me think." Mrs. Elmore thought to so little purpose that she left the word to her husband again.

"You see we must lay the matter before her."

"Couldn't--couldn't we let him come to see us awhile? Couldn't we explain our ways to him, and allow him to pay her attentions without letting her know about this letter?"

"I'm afraid he wouldn't understand,--that we couldn't make it clear to him," said Elmore. "If we invited him to the house he would consider it as an acceptance. He wants a categorical answer, and he has a right to it. It would be no kindness to a man with his ideas to take him on probation. He has behaved honorably, and we're bound to consider him."

"Oh, I don't think he's done anything so very great," said Mrs. Elmore, with that disposition we all have to disparage those who put us in difficulties.

"He's done everything he could do," said Elmore. "Shall I speak to Miss Mayhew?"

"No, you had better let me," sighed his wife. "I suppose we must. But I think it's horrid! Everything could have gone on so nicely if he hadn't been so impatient from the beginning. Of course she won't have him now. She will be scared, and that will be the end of it."

"I think you ought to be just to him, Celia. I can't help feeling for him. He has thrown himself upon our mercy, and he has a claim to right and thoughtful treatment."

"She won't have anything to do with him. You'll see."

"I shall be very glad of that," Elmore began.

"_Why should you be glad of it?" demanded his wife.

He laughed. "I think I can safely leave his case in your hands. Don't go to the other extreme. If she married a German, he would let her black his boots,--like that general in Munich."

"Who is talking of marriage?" retorted Mrs. Elmore.

"Captain Ehrhardt and I. That's what it comes to; and it can't come to anything else. I like his courage in writing English, and it's wonderful how he hammers his meaning into it. 'Lukely' isn't bad, is it? And 'my position permitted me to take a woman'--I suppose he means that he has money enough to marry on--is delicious. Upon my word, I have a good deal of sympathie for he!"

"For shame, Owen! It's wicked to make fun of his English."

"My dear, I respect him for writing in English. The whole letter is touchingly brave and fine. Confound him! I wish I had never heard of him. What does he come bothering across my path for?"

"Oh, don't feel that way about it, Owen!" cried his wife. "It's cruel."

"I don't. I wish to treat him in the most generous manner; after all, it isn't his fault. But you must allow, Celia, that it's very annoying and extremely perplexing. _We can't make up Miss Mayhew's mind for her. Even if we found out that she liked him, it would be only the beginning of our troubles. _We've no right to give her away in marriage, or let her involve her affections here. But be judicious, Celia."

"It's easy enough to say that!"

"I'll be back in an hour," said Elmore. "I'm going to the Square. We mustn't lose time."

As he passed out through the breakfast-room, Lily was sitting by the window with her letter in her lap, and a happy smile on her lips. When he came back she happened to be seated in the same place; she still had a letter in her lap, but she was smiling no longer; her face was turned from him as he entered, and he imagined a wistful droop in that corner of her mouth which showed on her profile.

But she rose very promptly, and with a heightened color said, "I am sorry to trouble you to answer another letter for me, Professor Elmore. I manage my correspondence at home myself, but here it seems to be different."

"It needn't be different here, Lily," said Elmore kindly. "You can answer all the letters you receive in just the way you like. We don't doubt your discretion in the least. We will abide by any decision of yours, on any point that concerns yourself."

"Thank you," replied the girl; "but in this case I think you had better write." She kept slipping Ehrhardt's letter up and down between her thumb and finger against the palm of her left hand, and delayed giving it to him, as if she wished him to say something first.

"I suppose you and Celia have talked the matter over?"

"Yes."

"And I hope you have determined upon the course you are going to take, quite uninfluenced?"

"Oh, quite so."

"I feel bound to tell you," said Elmore, "that this gentleman has now done everything that we could expect of him, and has fully atoned for any error he committed in making your acquaintance."

"Yes, I understand that. Mrs. Elmore thought he might have written because he saw he had gone too far, and couldn't think of any other way out of it."

"That occurred to me, too, though I didn't mention it. But we're bound to take the letter on its face, and that's open and honorable. Have you made up your mind?"

"Yes."

"Do you wish for delay? There is no reason for haste."

"There's no reason for delay, either," said the girl. Yet she did not give up the letter, or show any signs of intending to terminate the interview. "If I had had more experience, I should know how to act better; but I must do the best I can, without the experience. I think that even in a case like this we should try to do right, don't you?"

"Yes, above all other cases," said Elmore, with a laugh.

She flushed in recognition of her absurdity. "I mean that we oughtn't to let our feelings carry us away. I saw so many girls carried away by their feelings, when the first regiments went off, that I got a horror of it. I think it's wicked: it deceives both; and then you don't know how to break the engagement afterward."

"You're quite right, Lily," said Elmore, with a rising respect for the girl.

"Professor Elmore, can you believe that, with all the attentions I've had, I've never seriously thought of getting married as the end of it all?" she asked, looking him freely in the eyes.

"I can't understand it,--no man could, I suppose,--but I do believe it. Mrs. Elmore has often told me the same thing."

"And this--letter--it--means marriage."

"That and nothing else. The man who wrote it would consider himself cruelly wronged if you accepted his attentions without the distinct purpose of marrying him."

She drew a deep breath. "I shall have to ask you to write a refusal for me." But still she did not give him the letter.

"Have you made up your mind to that?"

"I can't make up my mind to anything else."

Elmore walked unhappily back and forth across the room. "I have seen something of international marriages since I've been in Europe," he said. "Sometimes they succeed; but generally they're wretched failures. The barriers of different race, language, education, religion,--they're terrible barriers. It's very hard for a man and woman to understand each other at the best; with these differences added, it's almost a hopeless case."

"Yes; that's what Mrs. Elmore said."

"And suppose you were married to an Austrian officer stationed in Italy. You would have _no society outside of the garrison. Every other human creature that looked at you would hate you. And if you were ordered to some of those half barbaric principalities,--Moldavia or Wallachia, or into Hungary or Bohemia,--everywhere your husband would be an instrument for the suppression of an alien or disaffected population. What a fate for an American girl!"

"If he were good," said the girl, replying in the abstract, "she needn't care."

"If he were good, you needn't care. No. And he might leave the Austrian service, and go with you to America, as he hints. What could he do there? He might get an appointment in our army, though that's not so easy now; or he might go to Patmos, and live upon your friends till he found something to do in civil life."

Lily began a laugh. "Why, Professor Elmore, _I don't want to marry him! What in the world are you arguing with me for?"

"Perhaps to convince myself. I feel that I oughtn't to let these considerations weigh as a feather in the balance if you are at all--at all--ahem! excuse me!--attached to him. That, of course, outweighs everything else."

"But I'm _not_!" cried the girl "How _could I be? I've only met him twice. It would be perfectly ridiculous. I _know I'm not. I ought to know that if I know anything."

Years afterward it occurred to Elmore, when he awoke one night, and his mind without any reason flew back to this period in Venice, that she might have been referring the point to him for decision. But now it only seemed to him that she was adding force to her denial; and he observed nothing hysterical in the little laugh she gave.

"Well, then, we can't have it over too soon. I'll write now, if you will give me his letter."

She put it behind her. "Professor Elmore," she said, "I am not going to have you think that he ever behaved in the least presumingly. And whatever you think of me, I must tell you that I suppose I talked very freely with him,--just as freely, as I should with an American. I didn't know any better. He was very interesting, and I was homesick, and so glad to see any one who could speak English. I suppose I was a goose; but I felt very far away from all my friends, and I was grateful for his kindness. Even if he had never written this last letter, I should always have said that he was a true gentleman."

"Well?"

"That is all. I can't have him treated as if he were an adventurer."

"You want him dismissed?"

"Yes."

"A man can't distinguish as to the terms of a dismissal. They're always insolent,--more insolent than ever if you try to make them kindly. I should merely make this as short and sharp as possible."

"Yes," she said breathlessly, as if the idea affected her respiration.

"But I will show it to you, and I won't send it without your approval."

"Thank you. But I shall not want to see it. I'd rather not." She was going out of the room.

"Will you leave me his letter? You can have it again."

She turned red in giving it him. "I forgot. Why, it's written to you, anyway!" she cried, with a laugh, and put the letter on the table.

The two doors opened and closed: one excluded Lily, and the other admitted Mrs. Elmore.

"Owen, I approve of all you said, except that about the form of the refusal. I will read what you say. I intend that it _shall be made kindly."

"Very well. I'll copy a letter of yours, or write from your dictation."

"No; you write it, and I'll criticise it."

"Oh, you talk as if I were eager to write the letter! Can't you imagine it's being a very painful thing to me?" he demanded.

"It didn't seem to be so before."

"Why, the situation wasn't the same before he wrote this letter!"

"I don't see how. He was as much in earnest then as he is now, and you had no pity for him."

"Oh, my goodness!" cried Elmore desperately. "Don't you see the difference? He hadn't given any proof before"--

"Oh, proof, proof! You men are always wanting proof! What better proof could he have given than the way he followed her about? Proof, indeed! I suppose you'd like to have Lily prove that she doesn't care for him!"

"Yes," said Elmore sadly, "I should like very much to have her prove it."

"Well, you won't get her to. What makes you think she does?"

"I don't. Do you?"

"N-o," answered Mrs. Elmore reluctantly.

"Celia, Celia, you will drive me mad if you go on in this way! The girl has told me, over and over, that she wishes him dismissed. Why do you think she doesn't?"

"I don't. Who hinted such a thing? But I don't want you to _enjoy doing it."

"_Enjoy it? So you think I enjoy it! What do you suppose I'm made of? Perhaps you think I enjoyed catechizing the child about her feelings toward him? Perhaps you think I enjoy the whole confounded affair? Well, I give it up. I will let it go. If I can't have your full and hearty support, I'll let it go. I'll do nothing about it."

He threw Ehrhardt's letter on the table, and went and sat down by the window. His wife took the letter up and read it over. "Why, you see he asks you to pass it over in silence if you don't consent."

"Does he?" asked Elmore. "I hadn't noticed that."

"Perhaps you'd better read some of your letters, Owen, before you answer them!"

"Really, I had forgotten. I had forgotten that the letter was written to me at all. I thought it was to Lily, and she had got to thinking so too. Well, then, I won't do anything about it." He drew a breath of relief.

"Perhaps," suggested his wife, "he asked that so as to leave himself some hope if he should happen to meet her again."

"And we don't wish him to have any hope."

Mrs. Elmore was silent.

"Celia," cried her husband indignantly, "I can't have you playing fast and loose with me in this matter!"

"I suppose I may have time to think?" she retorted.

"Yes, if you will tell me what you _do think; but that I _must know. It's a thing too vital in its consequences for me to act without your full concurrence. I won't take another step in it till I know just how far you have gone with me. If I may judge of what this man's influence upon Lily would be by the fact that he has brought us to the verge of the only real quarrel we've ever had"--

"Who's quarrelling, Owen?" asked Mrs. Elmore meekly. "I'm not."

"Well, well! we won't dispute about that. I want to know whether you thought with me that it was improper for him to address her in the car?"

"Yes."

"And still more improper for him to join you in the street?"

"Yes. But he was very gentlemanly."

"No matter about that. You were just as much annoyed as I was by his letter to her?"

"I don't know about annoyed. It scared me."

"Very well. And you approved of my answering it as I did?"

"I had nothing to do with it. I thought you were acting conscientiously. I'll say that much."

"You've got to say more. You have got to say you approved of it; for you know you did."

"Oh--_approved of it? Yes!"

"That's all I want. Now I agree with you that if we pass this letter in silence, it will leave him with some hope. You agree with me that in a marriage between an American girl and an Austrian officer the chances would be ninety-nine to a hundred against her happiness at the best."

"There are a great many unhappy marriages at home," said Mrs. Elmore impartially.

"That isn't the point, Celia, and you know it. The point is whether you believe the chances are for or against her in such a marriage. Do you?"

"Do I what?"

"Agree with me?"

"Yes; but I say they _might be _very happy. I shall always say that."

Elmore flung up his hands in despair. "Well, then, say what shall be done now."

This was perhaps just what Mrs. Elmore did not choose to say. She was silent a long time,--so long that Elmore said, "But there's really no haste about it," and took some notes of his history out of a drawer, and began to look them over, with his back turned to her.

"I never knew anything so heartless!" she cried. "Owen, this _must be attended to at once! I can't have it hanging over me any longer. It will make me sick."

He turned abruptly round, and, seating himself at the table, wrote a note, which he pushed across to her. It acknowledged the receipt of Captain von Ehrhardt's letter, and expressed Miss Mayhew's feeling that there was nothing in it to change her wish that the acquaintance should cease. In after years, the terms of this note did not always appear to Elmore wisely chosen or humanely considered; but he stood at bay, and he struck mercilessly. In spite of the explicit concurrence of both Miss Mayhew and his wife, he felt as if they were throwing wholly upon him a responsibility whose fearfulness he did not then realize. Even in his wife's "Send it!" he was aware of a subtile reservation on her part.

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