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 reactively. By Jove! he muttered. That is too bad!
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. Gossips a nasty thing, but its sickly, and if people of good intentions will let it entirely alone, it will die, ninety-nine times out of a hundred.
You asked me what youve done, and Im telling you. Amberson gave him a melancholy smile, continuing: Suffer me to do it in my own way. Fanny says theres been talk about your mother, and that Mrs. Johnson does some of it. I dont know, because naturally nobody would come to me with such stuff or mention it before me; but its presumably trueI suppose it is. Ive seen Fanny with Mrs. Johnson quite a lot; and that old lady is a notorious gossip, and thats why she ordered you out of her house when you pinned her down that shed been gossiping. I have a suspicion Mrs. Johnson has been quite a comfort to Fanny in their long talks; but shell probably quit speaking to her over this, because Fanny told you. I suppose its 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. Ive been on a steamer when the story went all over the boat, the second day out, that the prettiest girl on board didnt have any ears; and you can take it as a rule that when a womans past thirty-five the prettier her hair is, the more certain you are to meet somebody with reliable information that its a wig. You can be sure that for many years theres been more gossip in this place about the Ambersons than about any other family. I dare say it isnt so much so now as it used to be, because the town got too big long ago, but its 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 cant do it as long as you refuse to know what gossip there is about you. But the minute you notice it, its got you! Im not speaking of certain kinds of slander that sometimes people have got to take to the courts; Im talking of the wretched buzzing the Mrs. Johnsons dothe thing you seem to have such a horror ofpeople talkingthe kind of thing that has assailed your mother. People who have repeated a slander either get ashamed or forget it, if theyre let alone. Challenge them, and in self-defense they believe everything theyve said; theyd 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 thats been fought.
Im not sure, Georgie. When I was your age I was like you in many ways, especially in not being very cool-headed, so I cant say. Youth cant be trusted for much, except asserting itself and fighting and making love.
Your mothers 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 mothers name was in some silly mouths, and all youve done was to go and have a scene with the worst old woman gossip in the towna scene thats going to make her into a partisan against your mother, whereas she was a mere prattler before. Dont you suppose shell be all over town with this to-morrow? To-morrow? Why, shell 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 hear it all now, with embellishments. And shell see to it that everybody whos hinted anything about poor Isabel will know that youre on the warpath; and that will put them on the defensive and make them vicious. The story will grow as it spreads and
You say that my going over there has made matters worse, George went on. How about it if such asuch an unspeakable marriage did take place? Do you think that would make people believe theyd been wrong in sayingyou know what they say.
No, said Amberson deliberately; I dont believe it would. Thered be more badness in the bad mouths and more silliness in the silly mouths, I dare say. But it wouldnt 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
It would be monstrous! George shouted. Monstrous even if this horrible thing hadnt happened, but now in the face of thisoh, 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.
Dont tend to, George said indistinctly; and he plunged out into the big dimly lit hall. He passed his grandfathers 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 redly 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 oclock, 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 majors, went in and sat upon the steps of the huge stone veranda in frontan obscure figure in that lonely and repellent place. All lights were out at the Majors, and finally, after twelve, he saw his mothers 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.
...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 Georges 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. Johnsons furious round head, set behind her great bosom like the sun far sunk on the horizon of a mountain plateauand her crackling, asthmatic voice... Without sharing in other peoples disposition to put an evil interpretation on what may be nothing more than unfortunate appearances.... Other people may be less considerate in not confining their discussion of it, as I have, to charitable views.... Youll know something pretty quick! Youll know youre out in the street.... And then George would get up againand againand pace the floor in his bare feet.