Booth Tarkington (18381918). The Magnificent Ambersons. 1918.
ANOTHER citizen said an eloquent thing about Miss Isabel Ambersons looks. This was Mrs. Henry Franklin Foster, the foremost literary authority and intellectual leader of the communityfor both the daily newspapers thus described Mrs. Foster when she founded the Womens Tennyson Club; and her word upon art, letters, and the drama was accepted more as law than as opinion. Naturally, when Hazel Kirke finally reached the town, after its long triumph in larger places, many people waited to hear what Mrs. Henry Franklin Foster thought of it before they felt warranted in expressing any estimate of the play. In fact, some of them waited in the lobby of the theatre, as they came out, and formed an inquiring group about her.
The ineligible young men of the town (they were all ineligible) were unable to content themselves with the view that had so charmed Mrs. Henry Franklin Foster: they spent their time struggling to keep Miss Ambersons face turned toward them. She turned it most often, observers said, toward two: one excelling in the general struggle by his sparkle, and the other by that winning if not winsome old trait, persistence. The sparkling gentleman led germans with her, and sent sonnets to her with his bouquetssonnets lacking neither music nor wit. He was generous, poor, well-dressed, and his amazing persuasiveness was one reason why he was always in debt. No one doubted that he would be able to persuade Isabel, but he unfortunately joined too merry a party one night, and, during a moonlight serenade upon the lawn before the Amberson Mansion, was easily identified from the windows as the person who stepped through the bass viol and had to be assisted to a waiting carriage. One of Miss Ambersons brothers was among the serenaders, and, when the party had dispersed, remained propped against the front door in a state of helpless liveliness; the Major going down in a dressing-gown and slippers to bring him in, and scolding mildly, while imperfectly concealing strong impulses to laughter. Miss Amberson also laughed at this brother, the next day, but for the suitor it was a different matter: she refused to see him when he called to apologize. You seem to care a great deal about bass viols! he wrote her. I promise never to break another. She made no response to the note, unless it was an answer, two weeks later, when her engagement was announced. She took the persistent one, Wilbur Minafer, no breaker of bass viols or of hearts, no serenader at all.
A few people, who always foresaw everything, claimed that they were not surprised, because though Wilbur Minafer might not be an Apollo, as it were, he was a steady young business man, and a good church-goer, and Isabel Amberson was pretty sensiblefor such a showy girl. But the engagement astounded the young people, and most of their fathers and mothers, too; and as a topic it supplanted literature at the next meeting of the Womens Tennyson Club.
Wilbur Minafer! a member cried, her inflection seeming to imply that Wilburs crime was explained by his surname. Wilbur Minafer! Its the queerest thing I ever heard! To think of her taking Wilbur Minafer, just because a man any woman would like a thousand times better was a little wild one night at a serenade!
No, said Mrs. henry Franklin Foster. It isnt that. It isnt even because shes afraid hed be a dissipated husband and she wants to be safe. It isnt because shes religious or hates wildness; it isnt even because she hates wildness in him.
No, that wasnt her reason, said the wise Mrs. Henry Franklin Foster. If men only knew itand its a good thing they donta woman doesnt really care much about whether a mans wild or not, if it doesnt affect herself, and Isabel Amberson doesnt care a thing!
No, she doesnt. What she minds is his making a clown of himself in her front yard! It made her think he didnt care much about her. Shes probably mistaken, but thats what she thinks, and its too late for her to think anything else now, because shes going to be married right awaythe invitations will be out next week. Itll be a big Amberson-style thing, raw oysters floating in scooped-out blocks of ice and a band from out-of-townchampagne, showy presents; a colossal present from the Major. Then Wilbur will take Isabel on the carefulest little wedding trip he can manage, and shell be a good wife to him, but theyll have the worst spoiled lot of children this town will ever see.
The prophetess proved to be mistaken in a single detail merely: except for that, her foresight was accurate. The wedding was of Ambersonian magnificence, even to the floating oysters; and the Majors colossal present was a set of architects designs for a house almost as elaborate and impressive as the Mansion, the house to be built in Amberson Addition by the Major. The orchestra was certainly not that local one which had suffered the loss of a bass viol; the musicians came, according to the prophecy and next mornings paper, from afar; and at midnight the bride was still being toasted in champagne, though she had departed upon her wedding journey at ten. Four days later the pair had returned to town, which promptness seemed fairly to demonstrate that Wilbur had indeed taken Isabel upon the carefulest little trip he could manage. According to every report, she was from the start a good wife to him, but here in a final detail the prophecy proved inaccurate. Wilbur and Isabel did not have children; they had only one.
At the age of nine, George Amberson Minafer, the Majors one grandchild, was a princely terror, dreaded not only in Amberson Addition but in many other quarters through which he galloped on his white pony. By golly, I guess you think you own this town! an embittered labourer complained, one day, as Georgie rode the pony straight through a pile of sand the man was sieving. I will when I grow up, the undisturbed child replied. I guess my grandpa owns it now, you bet! And the baffled workman, having no means to controvert what seemed a mere exaggeration of the facts, could only mutter Oh, pull down your vest!
This was stock and stencil: the accustomed argot of street badinage of the period; and in such matters Georgie was an expert. He had no vest to pull down; the incongruous fact was that a fringed sash girdled the juncture of his velvet blouse and breeches, for the Fauntleroy period had set in, and Georgies mother had so poor an eye for appropriate things, where Georgie was concerned, that she dressed him according to the doctrine of that school in boy decoration. Not only did he wear a silk sash, and silk stockings, and a broad lace collar, with his little black velvet suit: he had long brown curls, and often came home with burrs in them.
Except upon the surface (which was not his own work, but his mothers) Georgie bore no vivid resemblance to the fabulous little Cedric. The storied boys famous Lean on me, grandfather, would have been difficult to imagine upon the lips of Georgie. A month after his ninth birthday anniversary, when the Major gave him his pony, he had already become acquainted with the toughest boys in various distant parts of the town, and had convinced them that the toughness of a rich little boy with long curls might be considered in many respects superior to their own. He fought them, learning how to go baresark at a certain point in a fight, bursting into tears of anger, reaching for rocks, uttering wailed threats of murder and attempting to fulfil them. Fights often led to intimacies, and he acquired the art of saying things more exciting than Dont haf to! and Doctor says it aint healthy! Thus, on a summer afternoon, a strange boy, sitting bored upon the gate-post of the Reverend Malloch Smith, beheld George Amberson Minafer rapidly approaching on his white pony, and was impelled by bitterness to shout: Shoot the ole jackass! Look at the girly curls! Say, bub, whered you steal your mothers ole sash!
But these were luckless challenges, for Georgie immediately vaulted the fenceand four minutes later Mrs. Malloch Smith, hearing strange noises, looked forth from a window; then screamed, and dashed for the pastors study. Mr. Malloch Smith, that grim-bearded Methodist, came to the front yard and found his visiting nephew being rapidly prepared by Master Minafer to serve as a principal figure in a pageant of massacre. It was with great physical difficulty that Mr. Smith managed to give his nephew a chance to escape into the house, for Georgie was hard and quick, and, in such matters, remarkably intense; but the minister, after a grotesque tussle, got him separated from his opponent, and shook him.
But Georgie had reached his pony and mounted. Before setting off at his accustomed gallop, he paused to interrupt the Reverend Malloch Smith again. You pull down your vest, you ole Billygoat, you! he shouted, distinctly. Pull down your vest, wipe off your chinan go to hell!
Such precocity is less unusual, even in children of the Rich, than most grown people imagine. However, it was a new experience for the Reverend Malloch Smith, and left him in a state of excitement. He at once wrote a note to Georgies mother, describing the crime according to his nephews testimony; and the note reached Mrs. Minafer before Georgie did. When he got home she read it to him sorrowfully.
Your son has caused a painful distress in my household. He made an unprovoked attack upon a little nephew of mine who is visiting in my household, insulted him by calling him vicious names and falsehoods, stating that ladies of his family were in jail. He then tried to make his pony kick him, and when the child, who is only eleven years old, while your son is much older and stronger, endeavoured to avoid his indignities and withdraw quietly, he pursued him into the enclosure of my property and brutally assaulted him. When I appeared upon this scene he deliberately called insulting words to me, concluding with profanity, such as go to hell, which was heard not only by myself but by my wife and the lady who lives next door. I trust such a state of undisciplined behaviour may be remedied for the sake of the reputation for propriety, if nothing higher, of the family to which this unruly child belongs.
Well said Georgie. Anyway he said somepm to me that made me mad. And upon this point he offered no further details; he would not explain to his mother that what had made him mad was Mr. Smiths hasty condemnation of herself: Your mother ought to be ashamed, and, A woman that lets a bad boy like you Georgie did not even consider excusing himself by quoting these insolences.
Well, Ive heard em serreval places. I guess Uncle George Amberson was the first I ever heard say em. Uncle George Amberson said em to papa once. Papa didnt like it, but Uncle George was just laughin at papa, an then he said em while he was laughin.
That was wrong of him, she said, but almost instinctively he detected the lack of conviction in her tone. It was Isabels great failing that whatever an Amberson did seemed right to her, especially if the Amberson was either her brother George, or her son George. She knew that she should be more severe with the latter now, but severity with him was beyond her power; and the Reverend Malloch Smith had succeeded only in rousing her resentment against himself. Georgies symmetrical facealtogether an Amberson facehad looked never more beautiful to her. It always looked unusually beautiful when she tried to be severe with him. You must promise me, she said feebly, never to use those bad words again.
I promise not to, he said promptlyand he whispered an immediate codicil under his breath: Unless I get mad at somebody! This satisfied a code according to which, in his own sincere belief, he never told lies.
Thats a good boy, she said, and he ran out to the yard, his punishment over. Some admiring friends were gathered there; they had heard of his adventure, knew of the note, and were waiting to see what was going to happen to him. They hoped for an account of things, and also that he would allow them to take turns riding his pony to the end of the alley and back.
They were really his henchmen: Georgie was a lord among boys. In fact, he was a personage among certain sorts of grown people, and was often fawned upon; the alley negroes delighted in him, chuckled over him, flattered him slavishly. For that matter, he often heard well-dressed people speaking of him admiringly: a group of ladies once gathered about him on the pavement where he was spinning a top. I know this is Georgie! one exclaimed, and turned to the others with the impressiveness of a showman. Major Ambersons only grandchild! The others said, It is? and made clicking sounds with their mouths; two of them loudly whispering, So handsome!
As an Amberson, he was already a public character, and the story of his adventure in the Reverend Malloch Smiths front yard became a town topic. Many people glanced at him with great distaste, thereafter, when they chanced to encounter him, which meant nothing to Georgie, because he innocently believed most grown people to be necessarily cross-looking as a normal phenomenon resulting from the adult state; and he failed to comprehend that the distasteful glances had any personal bearing upon himself. If he had perceived such a bearing, he would have been affected only so far, probably, as to mutter, Riffraff! Possibly he would have shouted it; and, certainly, most people believed a story that went round the town just after Mrs. Ambersons funeral, when Georgie was eleven. Georgie was reported to have differed with the undertaker about the seating of the family; his indignant voice had become audible: Well, who is the most important person at my own grandmothers funeral? And later he had projected his head from the window of the foremost mourners carriage, as the undertaker happened to pass.
There were peoplegrown people they werewho expressed themselves longingly: they did hope to live to see the day, they said, when that boy would get his come-upance! (They used that honest word, so much better than deserts, and not until many years later to be more clumsily rendered as what is coming to him.) Something was bound to take him down, some day, and they only wanted to be there! But Georgie heard nothing of this, and the yearners for his talking down went unsatisfied, while their yearning grew the greater as the happy day of fulfilment was longer and longer postponed. His grandeur was not diminished by the Malloch Smith story; the rather it was increased, and among other children (especially among little girls) there was added to the prestige of his gilded position that diabolical glamour which must inevitably attend a boy who has told a minister to go to hell.