Booth Tarkington (18381918). The Magnificent Ambersons. 1918.
GEORGE took off his dressing-gown and put on a collar and a tie, his fingers shaking so that the tie was not his usual success; then he picked up his coat and waistcoat, and left the room while still in process of donning them, fastening the buttons as he ran down the front stairs to the door. It was not until he reached the middle of the street that he realized that he had forgotten his hat; and he paused for an irresolute moment, during which his eye wandered, for no reason, to the Fountain of Neptune. This cast-iron replica of too elaborate sculpture stood at the next corner, where the Major had placed it when the Addition was laid out so long ago. The street corners had been shaped to conform with the great octagonal basin, which was no great inconvenience for horse-drawn vehicles, but a nuisance to speeding automobiles; and, even as George looked, one of the latter, coming too fast, saved itself only by a dangerous skid as it rounded the fountain. This skid was to Georges liking, though he would have been more pleased to see the car go over, for he was wishing grief and destruction, just then, upon all the automobiles in the world.
His eyes rested a second or two longer upon the Fountain of Neptune, not an enlivening sight even in the shielding haze of autumn twilight. For more than a year no water had run in the fountain: the connections had been broken, and the Major was evasive about restorations, even when reminded by his grandson that a dry fountain is as gay as a dry fish. Soot streaks and a thousand pits gave Neptune the distinction, at least, of leprosy, which the mermaids associated with him had been consistent in catching; and his trident had been so deeply affected as to drop its prongs. Altogether, this heavy work of heavy art, smoked dry, hugely scabbed, cracked, and crumbling, was a dismal sight to the distracted eye of George Amberson Minafer, and its present condition of craziness may have added a mite to his own. His own was sufficient, with no additions, however, as he stood looking at the Johnsons house and those houses on both sides of itthat row of riffraff dwellings he had thought so damnable, the day when he stood in his grandfathers yard, staring at them, after hearing what his Aunt Amelia said of the talk about his mother.
He decided that he needed no hat for the sort of call he intended to make, and went forward hurriedly. Mrs. Johnson was at home, the Irish girl who came to the door informed him, and he was left to await the lady, in a room like an elegant wellthe Johnsons reception room: floor space, nothing to mention; walls, blue calcimined; ceiling, twelve feet from the floor; inside shutters and gray lace curtains; five gilt chairs, a brocaded sofa, soiled, and an inlaid walnut table, supporting two tall alabaster vases; a palm, with two leaves, dying in a corner.
Mrs. Johnson came in, breathing noticeably; and her round head, smoothly but economically decorated with the hair of an honest woman, seemed to be lingering far in the background of the Alpine bosom which took precedence of the rest of her everywhere; but when she was all in the room, it was to be seen that her breathing was the result of hospitable haste to greet the visitor, and her hand, not so dry as Neptunes Fountain, suggested that she had paused for only the briefest ablutions. George accepted this cold, damp lump mechanically.
Mr. AmbersonI mean Mr. Minafer! she exclaimed. Im really delighted: I understood you asked for me. Mr. Johnsons out of the city, but Charlies downtown and Im looking for him at any minute, now, and hell be so pleased that you
Mrs. Johnson George said, in a strained loud voice which arrested her attention immediately, so that she was abruptly silent, leaving her surprised mouth open. She had already been concealing some astonishment at this unexampled visit, however, and the condition of Georges ordinarily smooth hair (for he had overlooked more than his hat) had not alleviated her perplexity. Mrs. Johnson, he said, I have come to ask you a few questions which I would like you to answer, if you please.
Again he interrupted. My aunt has told me what the conversation virtually was, and I dont mean to waste any time, Mrs. Johnson. You were talking about a Georges shoulders suddenly heaved uncontrollably; but he went fiercely on: You were discussing a scandal that involved my mothers name.
I dont think your aunt can have said that, Mrs. Johnson returned sharply. I did not repeat a scandal of any kind to your aunt and I think you are mistaken in saying she told you I did. We may have discussed some matters that have been a topic of comment about town
Dont tell me what you intend, please, Mrs. Johnson interrupted crisply. And I should prefer that you would not make your voice quite so loud in this house, which I happen to own. Your aunt may have told youthough I think it would have been very unwise in her if she did, and not very considerate of meshe may have told you that we discussed some such topic as I have mentioned, and possibly that would have been true. If I talked it over with her, you may be sure I spoke in the most charitable spirit, and without sharing in other peoples disposition to put an evil interpretation on what may be nothing more than unfortunate appearances and
I am perfectly willing to tell you anything you wish if you will remember to ask it quietly. Ill also take the liberty of reminding you that I had a perfect right to discuss the subject with your aunt. Other people may be less considerate in not confining their discussion of it, as I have, to charitable views expressed only to a member of the family. Other people
The unfortunate young man lost what remained of his balance. You may be! he cried. I intend to know just whos dared to say these things, if I have to force my way into every house in town, and Im going to make them take every word of it back! I mean to know the name of every slanderer thats spoken of this matter to you and of every tattler youve passed it on to yourself. I mean to know
You have your own tastes! was Ambersons comment. But curious as they are, you ought to do something better with your hair, and button your waistcoat to the right buttonseven for Mrs. Johnson! What were you doing over there?
She told me to leave the house, George said desperately. I went there because Aunt Fanny told me the whole town was talking about my mother and that man Morganthat they say my mother is going to marry him and that proves she was too fond of him before my father diedshe said this Mrs. Johnson was one that talked about it, and I went to her to ask who were the others.