Booth Tarkington (18381918). The Magnificent Ambersons. 1918.
HAVING finished some errands downtown, the next afternoon, George Amberson Minafer was walking up National Avenue on his homeward way when he saw in the distance, coming toward him, upon the same side of the street, the figure of a young ladya figure just under the middle height, comely indeed, and to be mistaken for none other in the worldeven at two hundred yards. To his sharp discomfiture his heart immediately forced upon him the consciousness of its acceleration; a sudden warmth about his neck made him aware that he had turned red, and then, departing, left him pale. For a panicky moment he thought of facing about in actual flight; he had little doubt that Lucy would meet him with no token of recognition, and all at once this probability struck him as unendurable. And if she did not speak, was it the proper part of chivalry to lift his hat and take the cut bareheaded? Or should the finer gentleman acquiesce in the ladys desire for no further acquaintance, and pass her with stony mien and eyes constrained forward? George was a young man badly flustered.
But the girl approaching him was unaware of his trepidation, being perhaps somewhat preoccupied with her own. She saw only that he was pale, and that his eyes were darkly circled. But here he was advantaged with her, for the finest touch to his good looks was given by this toning down; neither pallor nor dark circles detracting from them, but rather adding to them a melancholy favour of distinction. George had retained his mourning, a tribute completed down to the final details of black gloves and a polished ebony cane (which he would have been pained to name otherwise than as a walking-stick) and in the aura of this sombre elegance his straight figure and drawn face were not without a tristful and appealing dignity.
In everything outward he was cause enough for a girls cheek to flush, her heart to beat faster, and her eyes to warm with the soft light that came into Lucys now, whether she would or no. If his spirit had been what his looks proclaimed it, she would have rejoiced to let the light glow forth which now shone in spite of her. For a long time, thinking of that spirit of his, and what she felt it should be, she had a persistent sense: It must be there! but she had determined to believe this folly no longer. Nevertheless, when she met him at the Sharons, she had been far less calm than she seemed.
People speaking casually of Lucy were apt to define her as a little beauty, a definition short of the mark. She was a little beauty, but an independent, masterful, self-reliant little American, of whom her fathers earlier gipsyings and her own sturdiness had made a woman ever since she was fifteen. But though she was the mistress of her own ways and no slave to any lamp save that of her own conscience, she had a weakness: she had fallen in love with George Amberson Minafer at first sight, and no matter how she disciplined herself, she had never been able to climb out. The thing had happened to her; that was all. George had looked just the way she had always wanted someone to lookthe riskiest of all the moonshine ambushes wherein tricky romance snares credulous young love. But what was fatal to Lucy was that this thing having happened to her, she could not change it. No matter what she discovered in Georges nature she was unable to take away what she had given him; and though she could think differently about him, she could not feel differently about him, for she was one of those too faithful victims of glamour. When she managed to keep the picture of George away from her minds eye, she did well enough; but when she let him become visible, she could not choose but love what she disdained. She was a little angel who had fallen in love with highhanded Lucifer; quite an experience, and not apt to be soon succeeded by any falling in love with a tamer partyand the unhappy truth was that George did make better men seem tame. But though she was a victim, she was a heroic one, anything but helpless.
As they drew nearer, George tried to prepare himself to meet her with some remnants of aplomb. He decided that he would keep on looking straight ahead, and lift his hand toward his hat at the very last moment when it would be possible for her to see him out of the corner of her eye: then when she thought it over later, she would not be sure whether he had saluted her or merely rubbed his forehead. And there was the added benefit that any third person who might chance to look from a window, or from a passing carriage, would not think that he was receiving a snub, because he did not intend to lift his hat, but, timing the gesture properly, would in fact actually rub his forehead. These were the hasty plans which occupied his thoughts until he was within about fifty feet of herwhen he ceased to have either plans or thoughts. He had kept his eyes from looking full at her until then, and as he saw her, thus close at hand, and coming nearer, a regret that was dumfounding took possession of him. For the first time he had the sense of having lost something of overwhelming importance.
He would not have altered what had been done: he was satisfied with all thatsatisfied that it was right, and that his own course was right. But he began to perceive a striking inaccuracy in some remarks he had made to his mother. Now when he had put matters in such shape that even by the relinquishment of his ideals of life he could not have Lucy, knew that he could never have her, and knew that when Eugene told her the history of yesterday he could not have a glance or word even friendly from hernow when he must in good truth give up all idea of Lucy, he was amazed that he could have used such words as no particular sacrifice, and believed them when he said them! She had looked never in his life so bewitchingly pretty as she did to-day; and as he walked beside her he was sure that she was the most exquisite thing in the world.
I hope its a lively something then, she said; and laughed. Papas been so glum to-day hes scarcely spoken to me. Your Uncle George Amberson came to see him an hour ago and they shut themselves up in the library, and your uncle looked as glum as papa. Id be glad if youll tell me a funny story, George.
Why, no, she said again briskly. Dont you remember, George? Wed had a grand quarrel, and didnt speak to each other all the way home from a long, long drive! So, as we couldnt play together like good children, of course it was plain that we oughtnt to play at all.
Something like that, she said lightly. For us two, playing at being lovers was just the same as playing at cross-purposes. I had all the purposes, and that gave you all the crossness: things werent getting along at all. It was absurd!
I dont know, he sighed, and his sigh was abysmal. But what I wanted to tell you is this: when you went away, you didnt let me know and didnt care how or when I heard it, but Im not like that with you. This time, Im going away. Thats what I wanted to tell you. Im going away to-morrow nightindefinitely.
At that she looked at him quickly, across her shoulder, but she smiled as brightly as before, and with the same cordial inconsequence: Oh, I can hardly think that! she said. And of course Id be awfully sorry to think it. Youre not moving away, are you, to live?
I cant stand this, George said, in a low voice. Im just about ready to go in this drug-store here, and ask the clerk for something to keep me from dying in my tracks! Its quite a shock, you see, Lucy!
He turned heavily away, and a moment later glanced back over his shoulder. She had not gone on, but stood watching him, that same casual, cordial smile on her face to the very last; and now, as he looked back, she emphasized her friendly unconcern by waving her small hand to him cheerily, though perhaps with the slightest hint of preoccupation, as if she had begun to think of the errand that brought her downtown.
In his mind, George had already explained her to his own poignant dissatisfactionsome blond pup, probably, whom she had met during that perfectly gorgeous time! And he strode savagely onward, not looking back again.
But a moment later, as he turned from the shelves of glass jars against the wall, with the potion she had asked for in his hand, he uttered an exclamation: For goshes sake, Miss! And, describing this adventure to his fellow-boarders, that evening, Sagged pretty near to the counter, she was, he said. F I hadnt been a bright, quick, ready-for-anything young fella shed a flummixed plum! I was watchin her out the windowtalkin to some young siety fella, and she was all right then. She was all right when she come in the store, too. Yes, sir; the prettiest girl that ever walked in our place and took one good look at me. I reckon it must be the truth what some you town wags say about my face!