Booth Tarkington (18381918). The Magnificent Ambersons. 1918.
THEY found the job. It needed an apprenticeship of only six weeks, during which period George was to receive fifteen dollars a week; after that he would get twenty-eight. This settled the apartment question, and Fanny was presently established in a greater contentment than she had known for a long time. Early every morning she made something she called (and believed to be) coffee for George, and he was gallant enough not to undeceive her. She lunched alone in her kitchenette, for Georges place of employment was ten miles out of town on an interurban trolley-line, and be seldom returned before seven. Fanny found partners for bridge by two oclock almost every afternoon, and she played until about six. Then she got Georges dinner clothes out for himhe maintained this habitand she changed her own dress. When he arrived he usually denied that he was tired, though he sometimes looked tired, particularly during the first few months; and he explained to her frequentlylooking bored enough with her insistencethat his work was fairly light, and fairly congenial, too. Fanny had the foggiest idea of what it was, though she noticed that it roughened his hands and stained them. Something in those new chemical works, she explained to casual inquirers. It was not more definite in her own mind.
Respect for George undoubtedly increased within her, however, and she told him shed always had a feeling he might turn out to be a mechanical genius, or something. George assented with a nod, as the easiest course open to him. He did not take a hand at bridge after dinner: his provisions for Fannys happiness refused to extend that far, and at the table dhôte he was a rather discouraging boarder. He was considered affected and absurdly up-stage by the one or two young men, and the three or four young women, who enlivened the elderly retreat; and was possibly less popular there than he had been elsewhere during his life, though he was now nothing worse than a coldly polite young man who kept to himself. After dinner he would escort his aunt from the table in some state (not wholly unaccompanied by a leerish wink or two from the wags of the place) and he would leave her at the door of the communal parlours and card rooms, with a formality in his bow of farewell which awarded an amusing contrast to Fannys always voluble protests. (She never failed to urge loudly that he really must come and play, just this once, and not go hiding from everybody in his room every evening like this!) At least some of the other inhabitants found the contrast amusing, for sometimes, as he departed stiffly toward the elevator, leaving her still entreating in the doorway (though with one eye already on her table, to see that it was not seized) a titter would follow him which he was no doubt meant to hear. He did not care whether they laughed or not.
And once, as he passed the one or two young men of the place entertaining the three or four young women, who were elbowing and jerking on a settee in the lobby, he heard a voice inquiring quickly, as he passed:
On Sunday mornings Fanny went to church and George took long walks. He explored the new city, and found it hideous, especially in the early spring, before the leaves of the shade trees were out. Then the town was fagged with the long winter and blacked with the heavier smoke that had been held close to the earth by the smoke-fog it bred. Everything was damply streaked with the soot: the walls of the houses, inside and out, the gray curtains at the windows, the windows themselves, the dirty cement and unswept asphalt underfoot, the very sky overhead. Throughout this murky season he continued his explorations, never seeing a face he knewfor, on Sunday, those whom he remembered, or who might remember him, were not apt to be found within the limits of the town, but were congenially occupied with the new outdoor life which had come to be the mode since his boyhood. He and Fanny were pretty thoroughly buried away within the bigness of the city.
One of his Sunday walks, that spring, he made into a sour pilgrimage. It was a misty morning of belated snow slush, and suited him to a perfection of miserableness, as he stood before the great dripping department store which now occupied the big plot of ground where once had stood both the Amberson Hotel and the Amberson Opera House. From there he drifted to the old Amberson Block, but this was fallen into a back-water; business had stagnated here. The old structure had not been replaced, but a cavernous entryway for trucks had been torn in its front, and upon the cornice, where the old separate metal letters had spelt Amberson Block, there was a long billboard sign: Doogan Storage.
To spare himself nothing, he went out National Avenue and saw the piles of slush-covered wreckage where the Mansion and his mothers house had been, and where the Majors ill-fated five new houses had stood; for these were down, too, to make room for the great tenement already shaped in unending lines of foundation. But the Fountain of Neptune was gone at lastand George was glad that it was!
He turned away from the devastated site, thinking bitterly that the only Amberson mark still left upon the town was the name of the boulevardAmberson Boulevard. But he had reckoned without the city council of the new order, and by an unpleasant coincidence, while the thought was still in his mind, his eye fell upon a metal oblong sign upon the lamppost at the corner. There were two of these little signs upon the lamp-post, at an obtuse angle to each other, one to give passers-by the name of National Avenue, the other to acquaint them with Amberson Boulevard. But the one upon which should have been stencilled Amberson Boulevard exhibited the words Tenth Street.
The utilitarian impudence of the city authorities put a thought into his mind. A week earlier he had happened to stroll into the large parlour of the apartment house, finding it empty, and on the centre-table he noticed a large, red-bound, gilt-edged book, newly printed, bearing the title: A Civic History, and beneath the title, the rubric, Biographies of the 500 Most Prominent Citizens and Families in the History of the City. He had glanced at it absently, merely noticing the title and sub-title, and wandered out of the room, thinking of other things and feeling no curiosity about the book. But he had thought of it several times since with a faint, vague uneasiness; and now when he entered the lobby he walked directly into the parlour where he had seen the book. The room was empty, as it always was on Sunday mornings, and the flamboyant volume was still upon the tableevidently a fixture as a sort of local Almanach de Gotha, or Burke, for the enlightenment of tenants and boarders.
He opened it, finding a few painful steel engravings of placid, chin-bearded faces, some of which he remembered dimly; but much more numerous, and also more unfamiliar to him, were the pictures of neat, aggressive men, with clipped short hair and clipped short moustachesalmost all of them strangers to him. He delayed not long with these, but turned to the index where the names of the five hundred Most Prominent Citizens and Families in the History of the City were arranged in alphabetical order, and ran his finger down the column of As:
Georges eyes remained for some time fixed on the thin space between the names Allen and Ambrose. Then he closed the book quietly, and went up to his own room, agreeing with the elevator boy, on the way, that it was getting to be a mighty nasty wet and windy day outside.
The elevator boy noticed nothing unusual about him and neither did Fanny, when she came in from church with her hat ruined, an hour later. And yet something had happeneda thing which, years ago, had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town. They had thought of it, longed for it, hoping acutely that they might live to see the day when it would come to pass. And now it had happened at last: Georgie Minafer had got his come-upance.
He had got it three times filled and running over. The city had rolled over his heart, burying it under, as it rolled over the Majors and buried it under. The city had rolled over the Ambersons and buried them under to the last vestige; and it mattered little that George guessed easily enough that most of the five hundred Most Prominent had paid something substantial to defray the cost of steel engraving, etc.the Five Hundred had heaved the final shovelful of soot upon that heap of obscurity wherein the Ambersons were lost forever from sight and history. Quicksilver in a nest of cracks!
Georgie Minafer had got his come-upance, but the people who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him.