Booth Tarkington (18381918). The Magnificent Ambersons. 1918.
THAT evening, after dinner, George sat with his mother and his Aunt Fanny upon the veranda. In former summers, when they sat outdoors in the evening, they had customarily used an open terrace at the side of the house, looking toward the Majors, but that more private retreat now afforded too blank and abrupt a view of the nearest of the new houses; so, without consultation, they had abandoned it for the Romanesque stone structure in front, an oppressive place.
Its oppression seemed congenial to George; he sat upon the copestone of the stone parapet, his back against a stone pilaster; his attitude not comfortable, but rigid, and his silence not comfortable, either, but heavy. However, to the eyes of his mother and his aunt, who occupied wicker chairs at a little distance, he was almost indistinguishable except for the stiff white shield of his evening frontage.
Its so nice of you always to dress in the evening, Georgie, his mother said, her glance resting upon thus surface. Your Uncle George always used to, and so did father, for years; but they both stopped quite a long time ago. Unless theres some special occasion, it seems to me we dont see it done any more, except on the stage and in the magazines.
There, in the highway, the evening life of the Midland city had begun. A rising moon was bright upon the tops of the shade trees, where their branches met overhead, arching across the street, but only filtered splashings of moonlight reached the block pavement below; and through this darkness flashed the firefly lights of silent bicycles gliding by in pairs and triosor sometimes a dozen at a time might come, and not so silent, striking their little bells; the riders voices calling and laughing; while now and then a pair of invisible experts would pass, playing mandolin and guitar as if handle-bars were of no account in the worldtheir music would come swiftly, and then too swiftly die away. Surreys rumbled lightly by, with the plod-plod of honest old horses, and frequently there was the glitter of whizzing spokes from a runabout or a sporting buggy, and the sharp, decisive hoof-beats of a trotter. Then, like a cowboy shooting up a peaceful camp, a frantic devil would hurtle out of the distance, bellowing, exhaust racketing like a machine gun gone amuckand at these horrid sounds the surreys and buggies would hug the curbstone, and the bicycles scatter to cover, cursing; while children rushed from the sidewalks to drag pet dogs from the street. The thing would roar by, leaving a long wake of turbulence; then the indignant street would quiet down for a few minutestill another came.
There are a great many more than there used to be, Miss Fanny observed, in her lifeless voice, as the lull fell after one of these visitations. Eugene is right about that; there seem to be at least three or four times as many as there were last summer, and you never hear the ragamuffins shouting Get a horse! nowadays; but I think he may be mistaken about their going on increasing after this. I dont believe well see so many next summer as we do now.
Because Ive begun to agree with George about their being more a fad than anything else, and I think it must be the height of the fad just now. You know how roller-skating came ineverybody in the world seemed to be crowding to the rinksand now only a few children use rollers for getting to school. Besides, people wont permit the automobiles to be used. Really, I think theyll make laws against them. You see how they spoil the bicycling and the driving; people just seem to hate them! Theyll never stand itnever in the world! Of course Id be sorry to see such a thing happen to Eugene, but I shouldnt be really surprised to see a law passed forbidding the sale of automobiles, just the way there is with concealed weapons.
Fanny did not reply at once, and when she did, her voice was almost inaudible, but much more reproachful than plaintive. I hardly think Id want any one to get the notion hed pleased me just now. It hardly seems time, yetto me.
Isabel made no response, and for a time the only sound upon the dark veranda was the creaking of the wicker rocking-chair in which Fanny sata creaking which seemed to denote content and placidity on the part of the chairs occupant, though at this juncture a series of human shrieks could have been little more eloquent of emotional disturbance. However, the creaking gave its hearer one great advantage: it could be ignored.
Is she right, George? his mother asked quickly, leaning forward in her chair to peer at him through the dusk. You didnt eat a very hearty dinner, but I thought it was probably because of the warm weather. Are you troubled about anything?
I suppose so, he muttered, and, satisfied, she leaned back in her chair; but Fra Diavolo was not revived. After a time she rose, went to the steps, and stood for several minutes looking across the. street. Then her laughter was faintly heard.
Really. You can see the window through the place that was left when we had the dead walnut tree cut down. She looks up and down the street, but mostly at fathers and over here. Sometimes she forgets to put out the light in her room, and there she is, spying away for all the world to see!
So she is, Isabel agreed. Shes a good friendly old thing, a little too intimate in her manner, sometimes, and if her poor old opera-glasses afford her the quiet happiness of knowing what sort of young man our new cook is walking out with, Im the last to begrudge it to her! Dont you want to come and look at her, George?
Its nothing, she laughed. Only a funny old ladyand shes gone now. Im going, tooat least, Im going indoors to read. Its cooler in the house, but the heats really not bad anywhere, since nightfall. Summers dying. How quickly it goes, once it begins to die.
When she had gone into the house, Fanny stopped rocking, and, leaning forward, drew her black gauze wrap about her shoulders and shivered. Isnt it queer, she said drearily, how your mother can use such words?
She paused expectantly, but her possible anticipation that George would urge her to discard wisdom and reveal her opinion was not fulfilled. His back was toward her, and he occupied himself with opinions of his own about other matters. Fanny may have felt some disappointment as she rose to withdraw.
The light door clanged behind her, and the sound annoyed her nephew. He had no idea why she thus used inoffensive wood and wire to dramatize her departure from the veranda, the impression remaining with him being that she was critical of his mother upon some point of funeral millinery. Throughout the desultory conversation he had been profoundly concerned with his own disturbing affairs, and now was preoccupied with a dialogue taking place (in his mind) between himself and Miss Lucy Morgan. As he beheld the vision, Lucy had just thrown herself at his feet. George, you must forgive me! she cried. Papa was utterly wrong! I have told him so, and the truth is that I have come to rather dislike him as you do, and as you always have, in your heart of hearts. George, I understand you: thy people shall be my people and thy gods my gods. George, wont you take me back?
Lucy, are you sure you understand me? And in the darkness Georges bodily lips moved in unison with those which uttered the words in his imaginary rendering of this scene. An eavesdropper, concealed behind the column, could have heard the whispered word sure, the emphasis put upon it in the vision was so poignant. You say you understand me, but are you sure?
This softened mood lasted for several momentsuntil he realized that it had been brought about by processes strikingly lacking in substance. Abruptly he swung his feet down from the copestone to the floor of the veranda. Pardon nothing! No meek Lucy had thrown herself in remorse at his feet; and now he pictured her as she probably really was at this moment: sitting on the white steps of her own front porch in the moonlight, with red-headed Fred Kinney and silly Charlie Johnson and four or five othersall of them laughing, most likely, and some idiot playing the guitar!
And because of an impish but all too natural reaction of the mind, he could see Lucy with much greater distinctness in this vision than in his former pleasing one. For a moment she was miraculously real before him, every line and colour of her. He saw the moonlight shimmering in the chiffon of her skirt, brightest on her crossed knee and the tip of her slipper; saw the blue curve of the characteristic shadow behind her, as she leaned back against the white step: saw the watery twinkling of sequins in the gauze wrap over her white shoulders as she moved, and the faint, symmetrical lights in her black hairand not one alluring, exasperating twentieth-of-an-inch of her laughing profile was spared him as she seemed to turn to the infernal Kinney
Riffraff! And George began furiously to pace the stone floor. Riffraff! By this hard terma favourite with him since childhoods scornful hourhe meant to indicate, not Lucy, but the young gentlemen who, in his vision, surrounded her. Riffraff! he said again, aloud, and again:
At that moment, as it happened, Lucy was playing chess with her father; and her heart, though not remorseful, was as heavy as George could have wished. But she did not let Eugene see that she was troubled, and he was pleased when he won three games of her. Usually she beat him.