"It is coming, I suppose," Hattie said. "I should hardly think of it, typically, Auntie. But this year . . ." She trailed off into a cheerless hum. At supper, she hardly touched the food.
I did not like this at all. I felt myself turn into an eleven-year-old boy again, an anxious protector of the girl across the way. Hattie had been such a reliable presence in my life that any discomfort on her part upset me. Thus it was perhaps from a selfish motivation I tried to cure her mood, but at all events I did wish her to be genuinely happy.
Others of the party, like my law partner, Peter, joined in attempting to raise her spirits, and I studied each of them vigilantly in the event that one of them had been responsible for bringing Hattie Blum into a fit of blues.
Something was hindering my own role in cheering her on this day: that funeral I had seen. I cannot properly explain why, but it had thoroughly exploded my peace. I tried to call to mind a picture of it again. There had been only the four men in attendance to listen to the minister. One, taller than the others, stood toward the rear, his gaze floating off, as though the most anxious of all to be somewhere else. Then, as they came toward the road, there were their grim mouths. The faces were not known to me but also not forgotten. Only one member delayed, staying his steps regretfully, as though overhearing my private thoughts. The event seemed to speak of a terrible loss and yet to do it no honor. It was, in a word, Wrong.
Under this vague cloud of distraction, my efforts exhausted themselves without rescuing Hattie's spirits. I could only bow and express my helpless regrets in unison with the other guests when Hattie and her Auntie Blum were among the first to depart from the supper party. I was pleased when Peter suggested we bring an end to the evening, too.
"Well, Quentin? What has come over you?" Peter asked in an eruption. We were sharing a hired carriage back to our houses.
I thought to tell him of the sad funeral, but Peter would not understand why that had been occupying my mind. Then I realized by the gravity of his posture that he referred to something altogether different. "Peter," I asked, "what do you mean?"
"Did you decide not to propose to Hattie Blum this evening, after all?" he demanded with a loud exhalation.
"She'll be twenty-three in a few weeks. For a Baltimore girl today, that is practically an old maid! Do you not love the dear girl even a little?"
"Who could not love Hattie Blum? But stay, Peter! How is it you came to assume we were to be engaged on this night? Had I ever suggested this was my design?"
"How is it I--? Do you not know as well as I do that the date today is the very same date your own parents were engaged? Had this failed to occur to you even once this evening?"
It had indeed failed to occur to me, as a matter of fact, and even being reminded of this coincidence provided little comprehension of Peter's queer assumption. He explained further that Auntie Blum had been sagely certain I would take the opportunity of this party to propose, and had thought I had even hinted such earlier in the day, and had so informed Peter and Hattie of this likelihood so they would not be surprised. I had been the unwitting, principal cause of Hattie's mysterious distress. I had been the wretch!
"When would have been a more reasonable time than tonight?" Peter continued. "An anniversary so important to you! When? It was as plain as the sun at noon-day."
"I hadn't realized . . ." I stammered.
"How couldn't you see she was waiting for you, that it is time for your future to begin? Well, here, you're home. I wish you a restful sleep. Poor Hattie is probably weeping into her pillow even now!"
"I should never wish to make her sad," I said. "I wish only that I knew what seemed to be expected from me by everyone else." Peter gruffly muttered agreement, as though I had finally struck upon my general failing.
Excerpted from The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl Copyright © 2006 by Matthew Pearl. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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