"I've 'done it'?" George cried. "What do you mean: I've done it? And what have I done?"
Amberson had collapsed into an easy chair beside his dressing-table, the white evening tie he had been about to put on dangling from his hand, which had fallen limply on the arm of the chair. The tie dropped to the floor before he replied; and the hand that had held it was lifted to stroke his graying hair reflectively. "By Jove!" he muttered. "That is too bad!"
George folded his arms bitterly. "Will you kindly answer my question? What have I done that wasn't honourable and right? Do you think these riffraff can go about bandying my mother's name--"
"They can now," said Amberson. "I don't know if they could before, but they certainly can now!"
"What do you mean by that?"
His uncle sighed profoundly, picked up his tie and, preoccupied with despondency, twisted the strip of white lawn till it became unwearable. Meanwhile, he tried to enlighten his nephew. "Gossip is never fatal, Georgie," he said, "until it is denied. Gossip goes on about every human being alive and about all the dead that are alive enough to be remembered, and yet almost never does any harm until some defender makes a controversy. Gossip's a nasty thing, but it's sickly, and if people of good intentions will let it entirely alone, it will die, ninety-nine times out of a hundred."
"See here," George said: "I didn't come to listen to any generalizing dose of philosophy! I ask you--"
"You asked me what you've done, and I'm telling you." Amberson gave him a melancholy smile, continuing: "Suffer me to do it in my own way. Fanny says there's been talk about your mother, and that Mrs. Johnson does some of it. I don't know, because naturally nobody would come to me with such stuff or mention it before me; but it's presumably true-- I suppose it is. I've seen Fanny with Mrs. Johnson quite a lot; and that old lady is a notorious gossip, and that's why she ordered you out of her house when you pinned her down that she'd been gossiping. I have a suspicion Mrs. Johnson has been quite a comfort to Fanny in their long talks; but she'll probably quit speaking to her over this, because Fanny told you. I suppose it's true that the 'whole town,' a lot of others, that is, do share in the gossip. In this town, naturally, anything about any Amberson has always been a stone dropped into the centre of a pond, and a lie would send the ripples as far as a truth would. I've been on a steamer when the story went all over the boat, the second day out,' that the prettiest girl on board didn't have any ears; and you can take it as a rule that when a woman's past thirty-five the prettier her hair is, the more certain you are to meet somebody with reliable information that it's a wig. You can be sure that for many years there's been more gossip in this place about the Ambersons than about any other family. I dare say it isn't so much so now as it used to be, because the town got too big long ago, but it's the truth that the more prominent you are the more gossip there is about you, and the more people would like to pull you down. Well, they can't do it as long as you refuse to know what gossip there is about you. But the minute you notice it, it's got you! I'm not speaking of certain kinds of slander that sometimes people have got to take to the courts; I'm talking of the wretched buzzing the Mrs. Johnsons do--the thing you seem to have such a horror of--people 'talking'--the kind of thing that has assailed your mother. People who have repeated a slander either get ashamed or forget it, if they're let alone. Challenge them, and in self-defense they believe everything they've said: they'd rather believe you a sinner than believe themselves liars, naturally. Submit to gossip and you kill it; fight it and you make it strong. People will forget almost any slander except one that's been fought."
"Is that all?" George asked.
"I suppose so," his uncle murmured sadly.
"Well, then, may I ask what you'd have done, in my place?"
"I'm not sure, Georgie. When I was your age I was like you in many ways, especially in not being very cool-headed, so I can't say. Youth can't be trusted for much, except asserting itself and fighting and making love."
"Indeed!" George snorted. "May I ask what you think I ought to have done?"
"'Nothing?" George echoed, mocking bitterly "I suppose you think I mean to let my mother's good name--"
"Your mother's good name!" Amberson cut him off impatiently. "Nobody has a good name in a bad mouth. Nobody has a good name in a silly mouth, either. Well, your mother's name was in some silly mouths, and all you've done was to go and have a scene with the worst old woman gossip in the town--a scene that's going to make her into a partisan against your mother, whereas she was a mere prattler before. Don't you suppose she'll be all over town with this to-morrow? To-morrow? Why, she'll have her telephone going to-night as long as any of her friends are up! People that never heard anything about this are going to bear it all now, with embellishments. And she'll see to it that everybody who's hinted anything about poor Isabel will know that you're on the warpath; and that will put them on the defensive and make them vicious. The story will grow as it spreads and--"
George unfolded his arms to strike his right fist into his left palm. "But do you suppose I'm going to tolerate such things?" he shouted. "What do you suppose I'll be doing?"
"Oh, you think so, do you?"
"You can do absolutely nothing," said Amberson. "Nothing of any use. The more you do the more harm you'll do."
"You'll see! I'm going to stop this thing if I have to force my way into every house on National Avenue and Amberson Boulevard!"
His uncle laughed rather sourly, but made no other comment.
"Well, what do you propose to do?" George demanded. "Do you propose to sit there--"
"--and let this riffraff bandy my mother's good name back and forth among them? Is that what you propose to do?"
"It's all I can do," Amberson returned. "It's all any of us can do now: just sit still and hope that the thing may die down in time, in spite of your stirring up that awful old woman."
George drew a long breath, then advanced and stood close before his uncle. "Didn't you understand me when I told you that people are saying my mother means to marry this man?"
"Yes, I understood you."
"You say that my going over there has made matters worse," George went on. "How about it if such a--such an unspeakable marriage did take place? Do you think that would make people believe they'd been wrong in saying--you know what they say."
"No," said Amberson deliberately; "I don't believe it would. There'd be more badness in the bad mouths and more silliness in the silly mouths, I dare say. But it wouldn't hurt Isabel and Eugene, if they never heard of it; and if they did hear of it, then they could take their choice between placating gossip or living for their own happiness. If they have decided to marry--"
George almost staggered. "Good God!" he gasped. "You speak of it calmly!"
Amberson looked up at him inquiringly. "Why shouldn't they marry if they want to?" he asked. "It's their own affair."
"Why shouldn't they?" George echoed. "Why shouldn't they?"
"Yes. Why shouldn't they? I don't see anything precisely monstrous about two people getting married when they're both free and care about each other. What's the matter with their marrying?"
"It would be monstrous!" George shouted. "Monstrous even if this horrible thing hadn't happened, but now in the face of this--oh, that you can sit there and even speak of it! Your own sister! O God! Oh--" He became incoherent, swinging away from Amberson and making for the door, wildly gesturing.
"For heaven's sake, don't be so theatrical!" said his uncle, and then, seeing that George was leaving the room: "Come back here. You mustn't speak to your mother of this!"
"Don't 'tend to," George said indistinctly; and he plunged out into the big dimly lit hall. He passed his grandfather's room on the way to the stairs; and the Major was visible within, his white head brightly illumined by a lamp, as he bent low over a ledger upon his roll-top desk. He did not look up, and his grandson strode by the door, not really conscious of the old figure stooping at its tremulous work with long additions and subtractions that refused to balance as they used to. George went home and got a hat and overcoat without seeing either his mother or Fanny. Then he left word that he would be out for dinner, and hurried away from the house.
He walked the dark streets of Amberson Addition for an hour, then went downtown and got coffee at a restaurant. After that he walked through the lighted parts of the town until ten o'clock, when he turned north and came back to the purlieus of the Addition. He strode through the length and breadth of it again, his hat pulled down over his forehead, his overcoat collar turned up behind. He walked fiercely, though his feet ached, but by and by he turned homeward, and, when he reached the Major's, went in and sat upon the steps of the huge stone veranda in front--an obscure figure in that lonely and repellent place. All lights were out at the Major's, and finally, after twelve, he saw his mother's window darken at home.
He waited half an hour longer, then crossed the front yards of the new houses and let himself noiselessly in the front door. The light in the hall had been left burning, and another in his own room, as he discovered when he got there. He locked the door quickly and without noise, but his fingers were still upon the key when there was a quick footfall in the hall outside.
He went to the other end of the room before replying.
"I'd been wondering where you were, dear."
There was a pause; then she said timidly: "Wherever it was, I hope you had a pleasant evening."
After a silence, "Thank you," he said, without expression.
Another silence followed before she spoke again.
"You wouldn't care to be kissed good-night, I suppose?" And with a little flurry of placative laughter, she added: "At your age, of course!"
"I'm going to bed, now," he said. "Goodnight."
Another silence seemed blanker than those which had preceded it, and finally her voice came--it was blank, too.
After he was in bed his thoughts became more tumultuous than ever; while among all the inchoate and fragmentary sketches of this dreadful day, now rising before him, the clearest was of his uncle collapsed in a big chair with a white tie dangling from his hand; and one conviction, following upon that picture, became definite in George's mind: that his Uncle George Amberson was a hopeless dreamer from whom no help need be expected, an amiable imbecile lacking in normal impulses, and wholly useless in a struggle which required honour to be defended by a man of action.
Then would return a vision of Mrs. Johnson's furious round head, set behind her great bosom like the sun far sunk on the horizon of a mountain plateau--and her crackling, asthmatic voice. . . "Without sharing in other people's disposition to put an evil interpretation on what may be nothing more than unfortunate appearances." . . . "Other people may be less considerate in not confirming their discussion of it, as I have, to charitable views." . . . "you'll know something pretty quick! You'll know you're out in the street." . . . And then George would get up again--and again--and pace the floor in his bare feet.
That was what the tormented young man was doing when daylight came gauntly in at his window--pacing the floor, rubbing his head in his hands, and muttering:
"It can't be true: this can't be happening to me!"