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  Malbone: An Oldport Romance Thomas Wentworth Higginson

IX. Dangerous Ways

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IT was true enough what Harry had said. Philip Malbone's was that perilous Rousseau-like temperament, neither sincere enough for safety, nor false enough to alarm; the winning tenderness that thrills and softens at the mere neighborhood of a woman, and fascinates by its reality those whom no hypocrisy can deceive. It was a nature half amiable, half voluptuous, that disarmed others, seeming itself unarmed. He was never wholly ennobled by passion, for it never touched him deeply enough; and, on the other hand, he was not hardened by the habitual attitude of passion, for he was never really insincere. Sometimes it seemed as if nothing stood between him and utter profligacy but a little indolence, a little kindness, and a good deal of caution.

"There seems no such thing as serious repentance in me," he had once said to Kate, two years before, when she had upbraided him with some desperate flirtation which had looked as if he would carry it as far as gentlemen did under King Charles II. "How does remorse begin?"

"Where you are beginning," said Kate.

"I do not perceive that," he answered. "My conscience seems, after all, to be only a form of good-nature. I like to be stirred by emotion, I suppose, and I like to study character. But I can always stop when it is evident that I shall cause pain to somebody. Is there any other motive?"

"In other words," said she, "you apply the match, and then turn your back on the burning house."

Philip colored. "How unjust you are! Of course, we all like to play with fire, but I always put it out before it can spread. Do you think I have no feeling?"

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Kate stopped there, I suppose. Even she always stopped soon, if she undertook to interfere with Malbone. This charming Alcibiades always convinced them, after the wrestling was over, that he had not been thrown.

The only exception to this was in the case of Aunt Jane. If she had anything in common with Philip,--and there was a certain element of ingenuous unconsciousness in which they were not so far unlike,--it only placed them in the more complete antagonism. Perhaps if two beings were in absolutely no respect alike, they never could meet even for purposes of hostility; there must be some common ground from which the aversion may proceed. Moreover, in this case Aunt Jane utterly disbelieved in Malbone because she had reason to disbelieve in his father, and the better she knew the son the more she disliked the father retrospectively.

Philip was apt to be very heedless of such aversions,--indeed, he had few to heed,--but it was apparent that Aunt Jane was the only person with whom he was not quite at ease. Still, the solicitude did not trouble him very much, for he instinctively knew that it was not his particular actions which vexed her, so much as his very temperament and atmosphere,--things not to be changed. So he usually went his way; and if he sometimes felt one of her sharp retorts, could laugh it off that day and sleep it off before the next morning.

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Malbone: An Oldport Romance
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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