"That's so," said Jeff. "And what's the reason you didn't want me to marry her when I came in here last summer and told you I'd asked her to?"
"You know well enough what the reason was. It was part of the same thing as my wantin' you to be a lawyer; but I might knowed that if you didn't have Cynthy to go into court with you, and put the words into your mouth, you wouldn't make a speech that would"—Mrs. Durgin paused for a fitting figure—"save a flea from the gallows."
Jeff burst into a laugh. "Well, I guess that's so, mother. And now you want me to throw away the only chance I've got of learning how to run Lion's Head in the right way by breaking with Cynthy."
"Nobody wants you to run Lion's Head for a while yet," his mother returned, scornfully. "Jackson is going to run Lion's Head. He'll be home the end of June, and I'll run Lion's Head till he gets here. You talk," she went on, "as if it was in your hands to break with Cynthy, or throw away the chance with her. The way I look at it, she's broke with you, and you ha'n't got any chance with her. Oh, Jeff," she suddenly appealed to him, "tell me all about it! What have you been up to? If I understood it once, I know I can make her see it in the right light."
"The better you understand it, mother, the less you'll like it; and I guess Cynthy sees it in the right light already. What did she say?"
"Nothing. She said she'd leave it to you."
"Well, that's like Cynthy. I'll tell you, then," said Jeff; and he told his mother his whole affair with Bessie Lynde. He had to be very elemental, and he was aware, as he had never been before, of the difference between Bessie's world and his mother's world, in trying to make Bessie's world conceivable to her.
He was patient in going over every obscure point, and illustrating from the characters and condition of different summer folks the facts of Bessie's entourage. It is doubtful, however, if he succeeded in conveying to his mother a clear and just notion of the purely chic nature of the girl. In the end she seemed to conceive of her simply as a hussy, and so pronounced her, without limit or qualification, in spite of Jeff's laughing attempt to palliate her behavior, and to inculpate himself. She said she did not see what he had done that was so much out of the way. That thing had led him on from the beginning; she had merely got her come-uppings, when all was said. Mrs. Durgin believed Cynthia would look at it as she did, if she could have it put before her rightly. Jeff shook his head with persistent misgiving. His notion was that Cynthia saw the affair only too clearly, and that there was no new light to be thrown on it from her point of view. Mrs. Durgin would not allow this; she was sure that she could bring Cynthia round; and she asked Jeff whether it was his getting that fellow drunk that she seemed to blame him for the most. He answered that he thought that was pretty bad, but he did not believe that was the worst thing in Cynthia's eyes. He did not forbid his mother's trying to do what she could with her, and he went away for a walk, and left the house to the two women. Jombateeste was in the barn, which he preferred to the house, and Frank Whitwell had gone to church over at the Huddle. As Jeff passed Whitwell's cottage in setting out on his stroll he saw the philosopher through the window, seated with his legs on the table, his hat pushed back, and his spectacles fallen to the point of his nose, reading, and moving his lips as he read.
The forenoon sun was soft, but the air was cool.
There was still plenty of snow on the upper slopes of the hills, and there was a drift here and there in a corner of pasture wall in the valley; but the springtime green was beginning to hover over the wet places in the fields; the catkins silvered the golden tracery of the willow branches by the brook; there was a buzz of bees about them, and about the maples, blackened by the earlier flow of sap through the holes in the bark made by the woodpeckers' bills. Now and then the tremolo of a bluebird shook in the tender light and the keen air. At one point in the road where the sun fell upon some young pines in a sheltered spot a balsamic odor exhaled from them.
These gentle sights and sounds and odors blended in the influence which Jeff's spirit felt more and more. He realized that he was a blot on the loveliness of the morning. He had a longing to make atonement and to win forgiveness. His heart was humbled toward Cynthia, and he went wondering how his mother would make it out with her, and how, if she won him any advantage, he should avail himself of it and regain the girl's trust; he had no doubt of her love. He perceived that there was nothing for him hereafter but the most perfect constancy of thought and deed, and he desired nothing better.
At a turn of his road where it branched toward the Huddle a group of young girls stood joking and laughing; before Jeff came up with them they separated, and all but one continued on the way beyond the turning. She came toward Jeff, who gayly recognized her as she drew near.
She blushed and bridled at his bow and at his beauty and splendor, and in her embarrassment pertly said that she did not suppose he would have remembered her. She was very young, but at fifteen a country girl is not so young as her town sister at eighteen in the ways of the other sex.
Jeff answered that he should have known her anywhere, in spite of her looking so much older than she did in the summer when she had come with berries to the hotel. He said she must be feeling herself quite a young lady now, in her long dresses, and he praised the dress which she had on. He said it became her style; and he found such relief from his heavy thoughts in these harmless pleasantries that he kept on with them. He had involuntarily turned with her to walk back to her house on the way he had come, and he asked her if he might not carry her catkins for her. She had a sheaf of them in the hollow of her slender arm, which seemed to him very pretty, and after a little struggle she yielded them to him. The struggle gave him still greater relief from his self-reproach, and at her gate he begged her to let him keep one switch of the pussywillows, and he stood a moment wondering whether he might not ask her for something else. She chose one from the bundle, and drew it lightly across his face before she put it in his hand. "You may have this for Cynthy," she said, and she ran laughingly up the pathway to her door.
Cynthia did not appear at dinner, and Jeff asked his mother when he saw her alone if she had spoken to the girl. "Yes, but she said she did not want to talk yet."
"All right," he returned. "I'm going to take a nap; I believe I feel as if I hadn't slept for a month."
He slept the greater part of the afternoon, and came down rather dull to the early tea. Cynthia was absent again, and his mother was silent and wore a troubled look. Whitwell was full of a novel conception of the agency of hypnotism in interpreting the life of the soul as it is intimated in dreams. He had been reading a book that affirmed the consubstantiality of the sleep-dream and the hypnotic illusion. He wanted to know if Jeff, down at Boston, had seen anything of the hypnotic doings that would throw light on this theory.
It was still full light when they rose from the table, and it was scarcely twilight when Jeff heard Cynthia letting herself out at the back door. He fancied her going down to her father's house, and he went out to the corner of the hotel to meet her. She faltered a moment at sight of him, and then kept on with averted face.
He joined her, and walked beside her. "Well, Cynthy, what are you going to say to me? I'm off for Cambridge again to-morrow morning, and I suppose we've got to understand each other. I came up here to put myself in your hands, to keep or to throw away, just as you please. Well? Have you thought about it?"
"Every minute," said the girl, quietly.
"If you had cared for me, it couldn't have happened."
"Oh yes, it could. Now that's just where you're mistaken. That's where a woman never can understand a man. I might carry on with half a dozen girls, and yet never forget you, or think less of you, although I could see all the time how pretty and bright every one of 'em was. That's the way a man's mind is built. It's curious, but it's true."
"I don't believe I care for any share in your mind, then," said the girl.
"Oh, come, now! You don't mean that. You know I was just joking; you know I don't justify what I've done, and I don't excuse it. But I think I've acted pretty square with you about it—about telling you, I mean. I don't want to lay any claim, but you remember when you made me promise that if there was anything shady I wanted to hide from you—Well, I acted on that. You do remember?"
"Yes," said Cynthia, and she pulled the cloud over the side of her face next to him, and walked a little faster.
He hastened his steps to keep up with her. "Cynthy, if you put your arms round me, as you did then—"
"I can't Jeff!"
"You don't want to."
"Yes, I do! But you don't want me to, as you did then. Do you?" She stopped abruptly and faced him full. "Tell me, honestly!"
Jeff dropped his bold eyes, and the smile left his handsome mouth.
"You don't," said the girl, "for you know that if you did, I would do it." She began to walk on again. "It wouldn't be hard for me to forgive you anything you've done against me—or against yourself; I should care for you the same—if you were the same person; but you're not the same, and you know it. I told you then—that time that I didn't want to make you do what you knew was right, and I never shall try to do it again. I'm sorry I did it then. I was wrong. And I should be afraid of you if I did now. Some time you would make me suffer for it, just as you've made me suffer for making you do then what was right."
It struck Jeff as a very curious fact that Cynthia must always have known him better than he knew himself in some ways, for he now perceived the truth and accuracy of her words. He gave her mind credit for the penetration due her heart; he did not understand that it is through their love women divine the souls of men. What other witnesses of his character had slowly and carefully reasoned out from their experience of him she had known from the beginning, because he was dear to her.
He was silent, and then, with rare gravity, he said, "Cynthia, I believe you're right," and he never knew how her heart leaped toward him at his words. "I'm a pretty bad chap, I guess. But I want you to give me another chance and I'll try not to make you pay for it, either," he added, with a flicker of his saucy humor.
"I'll give you a chance, then," she said, and she shrank from the hand he put out toward her. "Go back and tell that girl you're free now, and if she wants you she can have you."
"Is that what you call a chance?" demanded Jeff, between anger and injury. For an instant he imagined her deriding him and revenging herself.
"It's the only one I can give you. She's never tried to make you do what was right, and you'll never be tempted to hurt her."
"You're pretty rough on me, Cynthy," Jeff protested, almost plaintively. He asked, more in character: "Ain't you afraid of making me do right, now?"
"I'm not making you. I don't promise you anything, even if she won't have you."
"Did you suppose I didn't mean that you were free? That I would put a lie in your mouth for you to be true with?"
"I guess you're too deep for me," said Jeff, after a sulky silence.
"Then it's all off between us? What do you say?"
"What do you say?"
"I say it's just as it was before, if you care for me."
"I care for you, but it can never be the same as it was before. What you've done, you've done. I wish I could help it, but I can't. I can't make myself over into what I was twenty-four hours ago. I seem another person, in another world; it's as if I died, and came to life somewhere else. I'm sorry enough, if that could help, but it can't. Go and tell that girl the truth: that you came up here to me, and I sent you back to her."
A gleam of amusement visited Jeff in the gloom where he seemed to be darkling. He fancied doing that very thing with Bessie Lynde, and the wild joy she would snatch from an experience so unique, so impossible. Then the gleam faded. "And what if I didn't want her?" he demanded.
"Tell her that too," said Cynthia.
"I suppose," said Jeff, sulkily, "you'll let me go away and do as I please, if I'm free."
"Oh yes. I don't want you to do anything because I told you. I won't make that mistake again. Go and do what you are able to do of your own free will. You know what you ought to do as well as I do; and you know a great deal better what you can do."
They had reached Cynthia's house, and they were talking at the side door, as they had the night before, when there had been hope for her in the newness of her calamity, before she had yet fully imagined it.
Jeff made no answer to her last words. He asked, "Am I going to see you again?"
"I guess not. I don't believe I shall be up before you start."
"All right. Good-bye, then." He held out his hand, and she put hers in it for the moment he chose to hold it. Then he turned and slowly climbed the hill.
Cynthia was still lying with her face in her pillow when her father came into the dark little house, and peered into her room with the newly lighted lamp in his hand. She turned her face quickly over and looked at him with dry and shining eyes.
"Well, it's all over with Jeff and me, father."
"Well, I'm satisfied," said Whitwell. "If you could ha' made it up, so you could ha' felt right about it, I shouldn't ha' had anything to say against it, but I'm glad it's turned out the way it has. He's a comical devil, and he always was, and I'm glad you a'n't takin' on about him any more. You used to have so much spirit when you was little."
"Oh,—spirit! You don't know how much spirit I've had, now."
"Well, I presume not," Whitwell assented.
"I've been thinking," said the girl, after a little pause, "that we shall have to go away from here."
"Well, I guess not," her father began. "Not for no Jeff Dur—"
"Yes, yes. We must! Don't make one talk about it. We'll stay here till Jackson gets back in June, and then—we must go somewhere else. We'll go down to Boston, and I'll try to get a place to teach, or something, and Frank can get a place."
"I presume," Whitwell mused, "that Mr. Westover could—"
"Father!" cried the girl, with an energy that startled him, as she lifted herself on her elbow. "Don't ever think of troubling Mr. Westover! Oh," she lamented, "I was thinking of troubling him myself! But we mustn't, we mustn't! I should be so ashamed!"
"Well," said Whitwell, "time enough to think about all that. We got two good months yet to plan it out before Jackson gets back, and I guess we can think of something before that. I presume," he added, thoughtfully, "that when Mrs. Durgin hears that you've give Jeff the sack, she'll make consid'able of a kick. She done it when you got engaged."
After he went back to Cambridge, Jeff continued mechanically in the direction given him by motives which had ceased for him. In the midst of his divergence with Bessie Lynde he had still kept an inner fealty to Cynthia, and tried to fulfil the purposes and ambition she had for him. The operation of this habitual allegiance now kept him up to his work, but the time must come when it could no longer operate, when his whole consciousness should accept the fact known to his intelligence, and he should recognize the close of that incident of his life as the bereaved finally accept and recognize the fact of death.
The event brought him relief, and it brought him freedom. He was sensible in his relaxation of having strained up to another's ideal, of having been hampered by another's will. His pleasure in the relief was tempered by a regret, not wholly unpleasant, for the girl whose aims, since they were no longer his, must be disappointed. He was sorry for Cynthia, and in his remorse he was fonder of her than he had ever been. He felt her magnanimity and clemency; he began to question, in that wordless deep of being where volition begins, whether it would not be paying a kind of duty to her if he took her at her word and tried to go back to Bessie Lynde. But for the present he did nothing but renounce all notion of working at his conditions, or attempting to take a degree. That was part of a thing that was past, and was no part of anything to come, so far as Jeff now forecast his future.
He did not choose to report himself to Westover, and risk a scolding, or a snubbing. He easily forgave Westover for the tone he had taken at their last meeting, but he did not care to see him. He would have met him half-way, however, in a friendly advance, and he was aware of much good-will toward him, which he could not have been reluctant to show if chance had brought them together.
Jeff missed Cynthia's letters which used to come so regularly every Tuesday, and he had a half-hour every Sunday which was at first rather painfully vacant since he no longer wrote to her. But in this vacancy he had at least no longer the pang of self-reproach which her letters always brought him, and he was not obliged to put himself to the shame of concealment in writing to her. He had never minded that tacit lying on his own account, but he hated it in relation to her; it always hurt him as something incongruous and unfit. He wrote to his mother now on Sunday, and in his first letter, while the impression of Cynthia's dignity and generosity was still vivid, he urged her to make it clear to the girl that he wished her and her family to remain at Lion's Head as if nothing had happened. He put a great deal of real feeling into this request, and he offered to go and spend a year in Europe, if his mother thought that Cynthia would be more reconciled to his coming back at the end of that time.
His mother answered with a dryness to which his ear supplied the tones of her voice, that she would try to get along in the management of Lion's Head till his brother got back, but that she had no objection to his going to Europe for a year if he had the money to spare. Jeff could not refuse her joke, as he felt it, a certain applause, but he thought it pretty rough that his mother should take part so decidedly against him as she seemed to be doing. He had expected her to be angry with him, but before they parted she had seemed to find some excuse for him, and yet here she was siding against her own son in what he might very well consider an unnatural way. If Jackson had been at home he would have laid it to his charge; but he knew that Cynthia would have scorned even to speak of him with his mother, and he knew too well his mother's slight for Whitwell to suppose that he could have influenced her. His mind turned in momentary suspicion to Westover. Had Westover, he wondered, with a purpose to pay him up for it forming itself simultaneously with his question, been setting his mother against him? She might have written to Westover to get at the true inwardness of his behavior, and Westover might have written her something that had made her harden her heart against him. But upon reflection this seemed out of character for both of them; and Jeff was thrown back upon his mother's sober second thought of his misconduct for an explanation of her coldness. He could not deny that he had grievously disappointed her in several ways. But he did not see why he should not take a certain hint from her letter, or construct a hint from it, at one with a vague intent prompted by his own restless and curious vanity. Since he had parted with Bessie Lynde, on terms of humiliation for her which must have been anguish for him if he had ever loved her, or loved anything but his power over her, he had remained in absolute ignorance of her. He had not heard where she was or how she was; but now, as the few weeks before Class Day and Commencement crumbled away, he began to wonder why she made no sign. He believed that since she had been willing to go so far to get him, she would not be willing to give him up so easily. The thought of Cynthia had always intruded more or less effectively between them, but now that this thought began to fade into the past, the thought of Bessie began to grow out of it with no interposing shadow.
However, Jeff was in no hurry. It was not passion that moved him, and the mood in which he could play with the notion of getting back to his flirtation with Bessie Lynde was pleasanter after the violence of recent events than any renewal of strong sensations could be. He preferred to loiter in this mood, and he was meantime much more comfortable than he had been for a great while. He was rid of the disagreeable sense of disloyalty to Cynthia, and he was rid of the stress of living up to her conscience in various ways. He was rid of Bessie Lynde, too, and of the trouble of forecasting and discounting her caprices. His thought turned at times with a soft regret to hopes, disappointments, experiences connected with neither, and now tinged with a tender melancholy, unalloyed by shame or remorse. As he drew nearer to Class Day he had a somewhat keener compunction for Cynthia and the hopes he had encouraged her to build and had then dashed. But he was coming more and more to regard it all as fatality; and if the chance that he counted upon to bring him and Bessie together again had occurred he could have more easily forgiven himself.
One of the jays, who was spreading on rather a large scale, wanted Jeff to spread with him, but he refused, because, as he said, he meant to keep out of it altogether; and for the same reason he declined to take part in the spread of a rather jay society he belonged to. In his secret heart he trusted that some friendly fortuity might throw an invitation to Beck Hall in his way, or at least a card for the Gym, which, if no longer the place it had been, was still by no means jay. He got neither; but as he felt all the joy of the June day in his young blood he consoled himself very well with the dancing at one of the halls, where the company happened that year to be openly, almost recklessly jay. Jeff had some distinction among the fellows who enviously knew of his social success during the winter, and especially of his affair with Bessie Lynde; and there were some girls very pretty and very well dressed among the crowd of girls who were neither. They were from remote parts of the country, and in the charge of chaperons ignorant of the differences so poignant to local society. Jeff went about among them, and danced with the sisters and cousins of several men who seemed superior to the lost condition of their kinswomen; these were nice fellows enough, but doomed by their grinding, or digging, or their want of worldly wisdom, to a place among the jays, when they really had some qualifications for a nobler standing. He had a very good time, and he was enjoying himself in his devotion to a lively young brunette whom he was making laugh with his jokes about some of the others, when his eye was caught by a group of ladies who advanced among the jays with something of that collective intrepidity and individual apprehension characteristic of people in slumming. They had the air of not knowing what might happen to them, but the adventurous young Boston matron in charge of the girls kept on a bold front behind her lorgnette, and swept the strange company she found herself in with an unshrinking eye as she led her band among the promenaders, and past the couples seated along the walls. She hesitated a moment as her glance fell upon Jeff, and then she yielded, at whatever risk, to the comfort of finding a known face among so many aliens. "Why, Mr. Durgin!" she called out. "Bessie, here's Mr. Durgin," and she turned to the girl, who was in her train, as Jeff had perceived by something finer than the senses from the first.
He rose from the side of his brunette, whose brother was standing near, and shook hands with the adventurous young matron, who seemed suddenly much better acquainted with him than he had ever thought her, and with Bessie Lynde; the others were New York girls, and the matron presented him. "Are you going on?" she asked, and the vague challenge with the smile that accompanied it was sufficient invitation for him.
"Why, I believe so," he said, and he turned to take leave of his pretty brunette; but she had promptly vanished with her brother, and he was spared the trouble of getting rid of her. He would have been equal to much more for the sake of finding himself with Bessie Lynde again, whose excitement he could see burning in her eyes, though her thick complexion grew neither brighter nor paler. He did not know what quality of excitement it might be, but he said, audaciously: "It's a good while since we met!" and he was sensible that his audacity availed.
"Is it?" she asked. He put himself at her side, and he did not leave her again till he went to dress for the struggle around the Tree. He found himself easily included in the adventurous young matron's party. He had not the elegance of some of the taller and slenderer men in the scholar's gown, but the cap became his handsome face. His affair with Bessie Lynde had given him a certain note, and an adventurous young matron, who was naturally a little indiscriminate, might very well have been willing to let him go about with her party. She could not know how impudent his mere presence was with reference to Bessie, and the girl herself made no sign that could have enlightened her. She accepted something more that her share of his general usefulness to the party; she danced with him whenever he asked her, and she seemed not to scruple to publish her affair with him in the openest manner. If he could have stilled a certain shame for her which he felt, he would have thought he was having the best kind of time. They made no account of by-gones in their talk, but she had never been so brilliant, or prompted him to so many of the effronteries which were the spirit of his humor. He thought her awfully nice, with lots of sense; he liked her letting him come back without any fooling or fuss, and he began to admire instead of despising her for it. Decidedly it was, as she would have said, the chicquest sort of thing. What was the use, anyway? He made up his mind.
When he said he must go and dress for the Tree, he took leave of her first, and he was aware of a vivid emotion, which was like regret in her at parting with him. She said, Must he? She seemed to want to say something more to him; while he was dismissing himself from the others, he noticed that once or twice she opened her lips as if she were going to speak. In the end she did nothing more important than to ask if he had seen her brother; but after he had left the party he turned and saw her following him with eyes that he fancied anxious and even frightened in their gaze.
The riot round the Tree roared itself through its wonted events. Class after class of the undergraduates filed in and sank upon the grass below the terraces and parterres of brilliantly dressed ladies within the quadrangle of seats; the alumni pushed themselves together against the wall of Holder Chapel; the men of the Senior class came last in their grotesque variety of sweaters and second and third best clothes for the scramble at the Tree. The regulation cheers tore from throats that grew hoarser and hoarser, till every class and every favorite in the faculty had been cheered. Then the signal-hat was flung into the air, and the rush at the Tree was made, and the combat' for the flowers that garlanded its burly waist began.
Jeff's size and shape forbade him to try for the flowers from the shoulders of others. He was one of a group of jays who set their backs to the Tree, and fought away all comers except their own; they pulled down every man not of their sort, and put up a jay, who stripped the Tree of its flowers and flung them to his fellows below. As he was let drop to the ground, Jeff snatched a handful of his spoil from him, and made off with it toward the place where he had seen Bessie Lynde and her party. But when he reached the place, shouldering and elbowing his way through the press, she was no longer there. He saw her hat at a distance through the crowd, where he did not choose to follow, and he stuffed the flowers into his breast to give to her later. He expected to meet her somewhere in the evening; if not, he would try to find her at her aunt's house in town; failing that, he could send her the flowers, and trust her for some sort of leading acknowledgment.
He went and had a bath and dressed himself freshly, and then he went for a walk in the still evening air. He was very hot from the battle which had been fought over him, and which he had shared with all his strength, and it seemed to him as if he could not get cool. He strolled far out along Concord Avenue, beyond the expanses and ice-horses of Fresh Pond, into the country toward Belmont, with his hat off and his head down. He was very well satisfied, and he was smiling to himself at the ease of his return to Bessie, and securely speculating upon the outcome of their renewed understanding.
He heard a vehicle behind him, rapidly driven, and he turned out for it without looking around. Then suddenly he felt a fiery sting on his forehead, and then a shower of stings swiftly following each other over his head and face. He remembered stumbling, when he was a boy, into a nest of yellow-jackets, that swarmed up around him and pierced him like sparks of fire at every uncovered point. But he knew at the same time that it was some one in the vehicle beside him who was lashing him over the head with a whip. He bowed his head with his eyes shut and lunged blindly out toward his assailant, hoping to seize him.
But the horse sprang aside, and tore past him down the road. Jeff opened his eyes, and through the blood that dripped from the cuts above them he saw the wicked face of Alan Lynde looking back at him from the dogcart where he sat with his man beside him. He brandished his broken whip in the air, and flung it into the bushes. Jeff walked on, and picked it up, before he turned aside to the pools of the marsh stretching on either hand, and tried to stanch his hurts, and get himself into shape for returning to town and stealing back to his lodging. He had to wait till after dark, and watch his chance to get into the house unnoticed.
The chum to whom Jeff confided the story of his encounter with a man he left nameless inwardly thanked fortune that he was not that man; for he knew him destined sooner or later to make such reparation for the injuries he had inflicted as Jeff chose to exact. He tended him carefully, and respected the reticence Jeff guarded concerning the whole matter, even with the young doctor whom his friend called, and who kept to himself his impressions of the nature of Jeff's injuries.
Jeff lay in his darkened room, and burned with them, and with the thoughts, guesses, purposes which flamed through his mind. Had she, that girl, known what her brother meant to do? Had she wished him to think of her in the moment of his punishment, and had she spoken of her brother so that he might recall her, or had she had some ineffective impulse to warn him against her brother when she spoke of him?
He lay and raged in vain with his conjectures, and he did a thousand imagined murders upon Lynde in revenge of his shame.
Toward the end of the week, while his hurts were still too evident to allow him to go out-of-doors before dark, he had a note from Westover asking him to come in at once to see him.
"Your brother Jackson," Westover wrote, "reached Boston by the New York train this morning, and is with me here. I must tell you I think he is not at all well, but he does not know how sick he is, and so I forewarn you. He wants to get on home, but I do not feel easy about letting him make the rest of the journey alone. Some one ought to go with him. I write not knowing whether you are still in Cambridge or not; or whether, if you are, you can get away at this time. But I think yon ought, and I wish, at any rate, that you would come in at once and see Jackson. Then we can settle what had best be done."
Jeff wrote back that he had been suffering with a severe attack of erysipelas—he decided upon erysipelas for the time being, but he meant to let Westover know later that he had been in a row—and the doctor would not let him go out yet. He promised to come in as soon as he possibly could. If Westover thought Jackson ought to be got home at once, and was not fit to travel alone, he asked him to send a hospital nurse with him.
Westover replied by Jeff's messenger that it would worry and alarm Jackson to be put in charge of a nurse; but that he would go home with him, and they would start the next day. He urged Jeff to come and see his brother if it was at all safe for him to do so. But if he could not, Westover would give his mother a reassuring reason for his failure.
Mrs. Durgin did not waste any anxiety for the sickness which prevented Jeff from coming home with his brother. She said ironically that it must be very bad, and she gave all her thought and care to Jackson. The sick man rallied, as he prophesied he should, in his native air, and celebrated the sense and science of the last doctor he had seen in Europe, who told him that he had made a great gain, but he had better hurry home as fast as he could, for he had got all the advantage he could expect to have from his stay abroad, and now home air was the best thing for him.
It could not be known how much of this he believed; he had, at any rate, the pathetic hopefulness of his malady; but his mother believed it all, and she nursed him with a faith in his recovery which Whitwell confided to Westover was about as much as he wanted to see, for one while. She seemed to grow younger in the care of him, and to get back to herself, more and more, from the facts of Jeff's behavior, which had aged and broken her. She had to tell Jackson about it all, but he took it with that indifference to the things of this world which the approach of death sometimes brings, and in the light of his passivity it no longer seemed to her so very bad. It was a relief to have Jackson say, Well, perhaps it was for the best; and it was a comfort to see how he and Cynthia took to each other; it was almost as if that dreadful trouble had not been. She told Jackson what hard work she had had to make Cynthia stay with her, and how the girl had consented to stay only until Jeff came home; but she guessed, now that Jackson had got back, he could make Cynthia see it all in another light, and perhaps it would all come right again. She consulted him about Jeff's plan of going abroad, and Jackson said it might be about as well; he should soon be around, and he thought if Jeff went it would give Cynthia more of a chance to get reconciled. After all, his mother suggested, a good many fellows behaved worse than Jeff had done and still had made it up with the girls they were engaged to; and Jackson gently assented.
He did not talk with Cynthia about Jeff, out of that delicacy, or that coldness, common to them both. Perhaps it was not necessary for them to speak of him; perhaps they understood him aright in their understanding of each other.
Westover stayed on, day after day, thinking somehow that he ought to wait till Jeff came. There were only a few other people in the hotel, and these were of a quiet sort; they were not saddened by the presence of a doomed man under the same roof, as gayer summer folks might have been, and they were themselves no disturbance to him.
He sat about with them on the veranda, and he made friends among them, and they did what they could to encourage and console him in his impatience to take up his old cares in the management of the hotel. The Whitwells easily looked after the welfare of the guests, and Jackson was so much better to every one's perception that Westover could honestly write Jeff a good report of him.
The report may have been so good that Jeff took the affair too easily. It was a fortnight after Jackson's return to Lion's Head when he began to fail so suddenly and alarmingly that Westover decided upon his own responsibility to telegraph Jeff of his condition. But he had the satisfaction of Whitwell's approval when he told him what he had done.
"Of course, Jackson a'n't long for this world. Anybody but him and his mother could see that; and now he's just melting away, as you might say. I ha'n't liked his not carin' to work plantchette since he got back; looked to me from the start that he kind of knowed that it wa'n't worth while for him to trouble about a world that he'll know all about so soon, anyways; and d' you notice he don't seem to care about Mars, either? I've tried to wake him up on it two-three times, but you can't git him to take an interest. I guess Jeff can't git here any too soon on Jackson's account; but as far forth as I go, he couldn't git here too late. I should like to take the top of his head off."
Westover had been in Whitwell's confidence since their first chance of speech together. He now said:
"I know it will be rather painful to you to have him here for some reasons, but—"
"You mean Cynthy? Well! I guess when Cynthy can't get along with the sight of Jeff Durgin, she'll be a different girl from what she's ever been before. If she's got to see that skunk ag'in, I guess this is about the best time to do it."
It was Westover who drove to meet Jeff at the station, when he got his despatch, naming the train he would take, and he found him looking very well, and perhaps stouter than he had been.
They left the station in silence, after their greeting and Jeff's inquiries about Jackson. Jeff had taken the reins, and now he put them with the whip in one hand, and pushed up his hat with the other, and turned his face full upon Westover. "Notice anything in particular?" he demanded.
" No; yes—some slight marks."
"I guess that fellow fixed me up pretty well: paints black eyes, and that kind of thing. I got to scrapping with a man, Class Day; we wanted to settle a little business we began at the Tree, and he left his marks on me. I meant to tell you the truth as soon as I could get at you; but I had to say erysipelas in my letter. I guess, if you don't mind, we'll let erysipelas stand, with the rest."
"I shouldn't have cared," Westover said, "if you'd let it stand with me."
"Oh, thank you," Jeff returned.
There could have been no show of affection at his meeting with Jackson even if there had been any fact of it; that was not the law of their life. But Jeff had always been a turbulent, rebellious, younger brother, resentful of Jackson's control, too much his junior to have the associations of an equal companionship in the past, and yet too near him in age to have anything like a filial regard for him. They shook hands, and each asked the other how he was, and then they seemed to have done with each other. Jeff's mother kissed him in addition to the handshaking, but made him feel her preoccupation with Jackson; she asked him if he had hurried home on Jackson's account, and he promptly lied her out of this anxiety.
He shook hands with Cynthia, too, but it was across the barrier which had not been lowered between them since they parted. He spoke to Jackson about her, the day after he came home, when Jackson said he was feeling unusually strong and well, and the two brothers had strolled out through the orchard together. Now and then he gave the sick man his arm, and when he wanted to sit down in a sunny place he spread the shawl he carried for him.
"I suppose mother's told you about Cynthy and me, Jackson?" he began.
Jackson answered, with lack-lustre eyes, "Yes." Presently he asked: "What's become of the other girl?"
"Damn her! I don't know what's become of her, and I don't care!" Jeff exploded, furiously.
"Then you don't care for her any more?" Jackson pursued, with the same languid calm.
"I never cared for her."
Jackson was silent, and the matter seemed to have faded out of his mind. But it was keenly alive in Jeff's mind, and he was in the strange necessity which men in the flush of life and health often feel of seeking counsel of those who stand in the presence of death, as if their words should have something of the mystical authority of the unknown wisdom they are about to penetrate.
"What I want to know is, what I am going to do about Cynthy?"
"I don't know," Jackson answered, vaguely, and he expressed by his indirection the sense he must sometimes have had of his impending fate— "I don't know what she's going to do, her or mother, either."
"Yes," Jeff assented, "that's what I think of. And I'd do anything that I could—that you thought was right."
Jackson apparently concentrated his mind upon the question by an effort. "Do you care as much for Cynthy as you used to?"
"Yes," said Jeff, after a moment, "as much as I ever did; and more. But I've been thinking, since the thing happened, that, if I'd cared for her the way she did for me, it wouldn't have happened. Look here, Jackson! You know I've never pretended to be like some men—like Mr. Westover, for example—always looking out for the right and the wrong, and all that. I didn't make myself, and I guess if the Almighty don't make me go right it's because He don't want me to. But I have got a conscience about Cynthy, and I'd be willing to help out a little if I knew how, about her. The devil of it is, I've got to being afraid. I don't mean that I'm not fit for her; any man's fit for any woman if he wants her bad enough; but I'm afraid I sha'n't ever care for her in the right way. That's the point. I've cared for just one woman in this world, and it a'n't Cynthy, as far as I can make out. But she's gone, and I guess I could coax Cynthy round again, and I could be what she wants me to be, after this."
Jackson lay upon his shawl, looking up at the sky full of islands of warm clouds in its sea of blue; he was silent so long that Jeff began to think he had not been listening; he could not hear him breathe, and he came forward to him quickly from the shadow of the tree where he sat.
"Well?" Jackson whispered, turning his eyes upon him.
"Well?" Jeff returned.
"I guess you'd better let it alone," said Jackson.
"All right. That's what I think, too."
Jackson died a week later, and they buried him in the old family lot in the farthest corner of the orchard. His mother and Cynthia put on mourning for him, and they stood together by his open grave, Mrs. Durgin leaning upon her son's arm and the girl upon her father's. The women wept quietly, but Jeff's eyes were dry, though his face was discharged of all its prepotent impudence. Westover, standing across the grave from him, noticed the marks on his forehead that he said were from his scrapping, and wondered what really made them. He recognized the spot where they were standing as that where the boy had obeyed the law of his nature and revenged the stress put upon him for righteousness. Over the stone of the nearest grave Jeff had shown a face of triumphant derision when he pelted Westover with apples. The painter's mind fell into a chaos of conjecture and misgiving, so that he scarcely took in the words of the composite service which the minister from the Union Chapel at the Huddle read over the dead.
Some of the guests from the hotel came to the funeral, but others who were not in good health remained away, and there was a general sense among them, which imparted itself to Westover, that Jackson's dying so, at the beginning of the season, was not a fortunate incident. As he sat talking with Jeff at a corner of the piazza late in the afternoon, Frank Whitwell came up to them and said there were some people in the office who had driven over from another hotel to see about board, but they had heard there was sickness in the house, and wished to talk with him.
"I won't come," said Jeff.
"They're not satisfied with what I've said," the boy urged. "What shall I tell them?"
"Tell them to-go to the devil," said Jeff, and when Frank Whitwell made off with this message for delivery in such decent terms as he could imagine for it, Jeff said, rather to himself than to Westover, "I don't see how we're going to run this hotel with that old family lot down there in the orchard much longer."
He assumed the air of full authority at Lion's Head; and Westover felt the stress of a painful conjecture in regard to the Whitwells intensified upon him from the moment he turned away from Jackson's grave.
Cynthia and her father had gone back to their own house as soon as Jeff returned, and though the girl came home with Mrs. Durgin after the funeral, and helped her in their common duties through the afternoon and evening, Westover saw her taking her way down the hill with her brother when the long day's work was over. Jeff saw her too; he was sitting with Westover at the office door smoking, and he was talking of the Whitwells.
"I suppose they won't stay," he said, "and I can't expect it; but I don't know what mother will do, exactly."
At the same moment Whitwell came round the corner of the hotel from the barn, and approached them: "Jeff, I guess I better tell you straight off that we're goin', the children and me."
"All right, Mr. Whitwell, "said Jeff, with respectful gravity; "I was afraid of it."
Westover made a motion to rise, but Whitwell laid a detaining hand upon his knee. "There ain't anything so private about it, so far as I know."
"Don't go, Mr. Westover," said Jeff, and Westover remained.
"We a'n't a-goin' to leave you in the lurch, and we want you should take your time, especially Mis' Durgin. But the sooner the better. Heigh?"
"Yes, I understand that, Mr. Whitwell; I guess mother will miss you, but if you must go, you must." The two men remained silent a moment, and then Jeff broke out passionately, rising and flinging his cigar away: "I wish I could go, instead! That would be the right way, and I guess mother would like it full as well. Do you see any way to manage it? "He put his foot up in his chair, and dropped his elbow on his knee, with his chin propped in his hand. Westover could see that he meant what he was saying. "If there was any way, I'd do it. I know what you think of me, and I should be just like you, in your place. I don't feel right to turn you out here, I don't, Mr. Whitwell, and yet if I stay, I've got to do it. What's the reason I can't go?"
"You can't," said Whitwell, "and that's all about it. We shouldn't let you, if you could. But I a'n't surprised you feel the way you do," he added, unsparingly. "As you say, I should feel just so myself if I was in your place. Well, goodnight, Mr. Westover."
Whitwell turned and slouched down the hill, leaving the painter to the most painful moment he had known with Jeff Durgin, and nearer sympathy. "That's all right, Mr. Westover," Jeff said, "I don't blame him."
He remained in a constraint from which he presently broke with mocking hilarity when Jombateeste came round the corner of the house, as if he had been waiting for Whitwell to be gone, and told Jeff he must get somebody else to look after the horses.
"Why don't you wait and take the horses with you, Jombateeste?" he inquired. "They'll be handing in their resignation, the next thing. Why not go altogether?"
The little Canuck paused, as if uncertain whether he was made the object of unfriendly derision or not, and looked at Westover for help. Apparently he decided to chance it in as bitter an answer as he could invent. "The 'oss can't 'elp 'imself, Mr. Durgin. 'E stay. But you don' hown EVERYBODY."
"That's so, Jombateeste," said Jeff. "That's a good hit. It makes me feel awfully. Have a cigar?" The Canuck declined with a dignified bow, and Jeff said: "You don't smoke any more? Oh, I see! It's my tobacco you're down on. What's the matter, Jombateeste? What are you going away for?" Jeff lighted for himself the cigar the Canuck had refused, and smoked down upon the little man.
"Mr. W'itwell goin'," Jombateeste said, a little confused and daunted.
"What's Mr. Whitwell going for?"
"You hask Mr. W'itwell."
"All right. And if I can get him to stay will you stay too, Jombateeste? I don't like to see a rat leaving a ship; the ship's sure to sink, if he does. How do you suppose I'm going to run Lion's Head without you to throw down hay to the horses? It will be ruin to me, sure, Jombateeste. All the guests know how you play on the pitchfork out there, and they'll leave in a body if they hear you've quit. Do say you'll stay, and I'll reduce your wages one-half on the spot."
Jombateeste waited to hear no more injuries. He said: "You'll don' got money enough, Mr. Durgin, by gosh! to reduce my wages," and he started down the hill toward Whitwell's house with as great loftiness as could comport with a down-hill gait and his stature.
"Well, I seem to be getting it all round, Mr. Westover," said Jeff. "This must make you feel good. I don't know but I begin to believe there's a God in Israel, myself."
He walked away without saying good-night, and Westover went to bed without the chance of setting himself right. In the morning, when he came down to breakfast, and stopped at the desk to engage a conveyance for the station from Frank Whitwell the boy forestalled him with a grave face. "You don't know about Mrs. Durgin?"
"No; what about her?"
"Well, we can't tell exactly. Father thinks it's a shock; Jombateeste gone over to Lovewell for the doctor. Cynthia's with her. It seemed to come on in the night."
He spoke softly, that no one else might hear; but by noon the fact that Mrs. Durgin had been stricken with paralysis was all over the place. The gloom cast upon the opening season by Jackson's death was deepened among the guests. Some who had talked of staying through July went away that day. But under Cynthia's management the housekeeping was really unaffected by Mrs. Durgin's calamity, and the people who stayed found themselves as comfortable as ever. Jeff came fully into the hotel management, and in their business relation Cynthia and he were continually together; there was no longer a question of the Whitwells leaving him; even Jombateeste persuaded himself to stay, and Westover felt obliged to remain at least till the present danger in Mrs. Durgin's case was past.
With the first return of physical strength, Mrs. Durgin was impatient to be seen about the house, and to retrieve the season that her affliction had made so largely a loss. The people who had become accustomed to it stayed on, and the house filled up as she grew better, but even the sight of her in a wheeled chair did not bring back the prosperity of other years. She lamented over it with a keen and full perception of the fact, but in a cloudy association of it with the joint future of Jeff and Cynthia.
One day, after Mrs. Durgin had declared that she did not know what they were to do, if things kept on as they were going, Whitwell asked his daughter:
"Do you suppose she thinks you and Jeff have made it up again?"
"I don't know," said the girl, with a troubled voice, "and I don't know what to do about it. It don't seem as if I could tell her, and yet it's wrong to let her go on."
"Why didn't he tell her?" demanded her father. "'Ta'n't fair his leavin' it to you. But it's like him."
The sick woman's hold upon the fact weakened most when she was tired. When she was better, she knew how it was with them. Commonly it was when Cynthia had got her to bed for the night that she sent for Jeff, and wished to ask him what he was going to do. "You can't expect Cynthy to stay here another winter helpin' you, with Jackson away. You've got to either take her with you, or else come here yourself. Give up your last year in college, why don't you? I don't want you should stay, and I don't know who does. If I was in Cynthia's place, I'd let you work off your own conditions, now you've give up the law. She'll kill herself, tryin' to keep you along."
Sometimes her speech became so indistinct that no one but Cynthia could make it out; and Jeff, listening with a face as nearly discharged as might be of its laughing irony, had to turn to Cynthia for the word which no one else could catch, and which the stricken woman remained distressfully waiting for her to repeat to him, with her anxious eyes upon the girl's face. He was dutifully patient with all his mother's whims. He came whenever she sent for him, and sat quiet under the severities with which she visited all his past unworthiness. "Who you been hectorin' now, I should like to know," she began on him one evening when he came at her summons. "Between you and Fox, I got no peace of my life. Where is the dog?"
"Fox is all right, mother," Jeff responded. "You're feeling a little better to-night, a'n't you?"
"I don't know; I can't tell," she returned, with a gleam of intelligence in her eye. Then she said: "I don't see why I'm left to strangers all the time."
"You don't call Cynthia a stranger, do you, mother?" he asked, coaxingly.
"Oh—Cynthy!" said Mrs. Durgin, with a glance as of surprise at seeing her. "No, Cynthy's all right. But where's Jackson and your father? If I've told them not to be out in the dew once, I've told 'em a hundred times. Cynthy'd better look after her housekeepin' if she don't want the whole place to run behind, and not a soul left in the house. What time o' year is it now?" she suddenly asked, after a little weary pause.
"It's the last of August, mother."
"Oh," she sighed, "I thought it was the beginnin' of May. Didn't you come up here in May?"
"Well, then—Or, mebbe that's one o' them tormentin' dreams; they do pester so! What did you come for?"
Jeff was sitting on one side of her bed and Cynthia on the other: She was looking at the sufferer's face, and she did not meet the glance of amusement which Jeff turned upon her at being so fairly cornered. "Well, I don't know," he said. "I thought you might like to see me."
"What 'd he come for?"—the sick woman turned to Cynthia.
"You'd better tell her," said the girl, coldly, to Jeff. "She won't be satisfied till you do. She'll keep coming back to it."
"Well, mother," said Jeff, still with something of his hardy amusement, "I hadn't been acting just right, and I thought I'd better tell Cynthy."
"You better let the child alone. If I ever catch you teasin' them children again, I'll make Jackson shoot Fox."
"All right, mother," said Jeff.
She moved herself restively in bed. "What's this," she demanded of her son, "that Whitwell's tellin' about you and Cynthy breakin' it off?"
"Well, there was talk of that," said Jeff, passing his hand over his lips to keep back the smile that was stealing to them.
"Who done it?"
Cynthia kept her eyes on Jeff, who dropped his to his mother's face. "Cynthy did it; but I guess I gave her good enough reason."
"About that hussy in Boston? She was full more to blame than what you was. I don't see what Cynthy wanted to do it for on her account."
"I guess Cynthy was right."
Mrs. Durgin's speech had been thickening more and more. She now said something that Jeff could not understand. He looked involuntarily at Cynthia.
"She says she thinks I was hasty with you," the girl interpreted.
Jeff kept his eyes on hers, but he answered to his mother: "Not any more than I deserved. I hadn't any right to expect that she would stand it."
Again the sick woman tried to say something. Jeff made out a few syllables, and, after his mother had repeated her words, he had to look to Cynthia for help.
"She wants to know if it's all right now."
"What shall I say?" asked Jeff, huskily.
"Tell her the truth."
"What is the truth?"
"That we haven't made it up."
Jeff hesitated, and then said: "Well, not yet, mother," and he bent an entreating look upon Cynthia which she could not feel was wholly for himself. "I—I guess we can fix it, somehow. I behaved very badly to Cynthia."
"No, not to me!" the girl protested in an indignant burst.
"Not to that little scalawag, then!" cried Jeff. "If the wrong wasn't to you, there wasn't any wrong."
"It was to you!" Cynthia retorted.
"Oh, I guess I can stand it," said Jeff, and his smile now came to his lips and eyes.
His mother had followed their quick parley with eager looks, as if she were trying to keep her intelligence to its work concerning them. The effort seemed to exhaust her, and when she spoke again her words were so indistinct that even Cynthia could not understand them till she had repeated them several times.
Then the girl was silent, while the invalid kept an eager look upon her. She seemed to understand that Cynthia did not mean to speak; and the tears came into her eyes.
"Do you want me to know what she said?" asked Jeff, respectfully, reverently almost.
Cynthia said, gently: "She says that then you must show you didn't mean any harm to me, and that you cared for me, all through, and you didn't care for anybody else."
"Thank you," said Jeff, and he turned to his mother. "I'll do everything I can to make Cynthy believe that, mother."
The girl broke into tears and went out of the room. She sent in the night-watcher, and then Jeff took leave of his mother with an unwonted kiss.
Into the shadow of a starlit night he saw the figure he had been waiting for glide out of the glitter of the hotel lights. He followed it down the road.
"Cynthia!" he called; and when he came up with her he asked: "What's the reason we can't make it true? Why can't you believe what mother wants me to make you?"
Cynthia stopped, as her wont was when she wished to speak seriously. "Do you ask that for my sake or hers?"
"For both your sakes."
"I thought so. You ought to have asked it for your own sake, Jeff, and then I might have been fool enough to believe you. But now—"
She started swiftly down the hill again, and this time he did not try to follow her.
Mrs. Durgin's speech never regained the measure of clearness it had before; no one but Cynthia could understand her, and often she could not. The doctor from Lovewell surmised that she had sustained another stroke, lighter, more obscure than the first, and it was that which had rendered her almost inarticulate. The paralysis might have also affected her brain, and silenced her thoughts as well as her words. Either she believed that the reconciliation between Jeff and Cynthia had taken place, or else she could no longer care. She did not question them again, but peacefully weakened more and more. Near the end of September she had a third stroke, and from this she died.
The day after the funeral Jeff had a talk with Whitwell, and opened his mind to him.
"I'm going over to the other side, and I shan't be back before spring, or about time to start the season here. What I want to know is whether, if I'm out of the house, and not likely to come back, you'll stay here and look after the place through the winter. It hasn't been a good season, but I guess I can afford to make it worth your while if you look at it as a matter of business."
Whitwell leaned forward and took a straw into his mouth from the golden wall of oat sheaves in the barn where they were talking. A soft rustling in the mow overhead marked the remote presence of Jombateeste, who was getting forward the hay for the horses, pushing it toward the holes where it should fall into their racks.
"I should want to think about it," said Whitwell. "I do' know as Cynthy'd care much about stayin'—or Frank."
"How long do you want to think about it?" Jeff demanded, ignoring the possible wishes of Cynthia and Frank.
"I guess I could let you know by night."
"All right," said Jeff.
He was turning away, when Whitwell remarked:
"I don't know as I should want to stay without I could have somebody I could depend on, with me, to look after the hosses. Frank wouldn't want to."
"Who'd you like?"
Whitwell called to the Canuck, and he came forward to the edge of the mow, and stood, fork in hand, looking down.
"Want to stay here this winter and look after the horses, Jombateeste?" Whitwell asked.
"Nosseh!" said the Canuck, with a misliking eye on Jeff.
"I mean, along with me," Whitwell explained. "If I conclude to stay, will you? Jeff's goin' abroad."
"I guess I stay," said Jombateeste.
"Don't strain yourself, Jombateeste," said Jeff, with malevolent derision.
"Not for you, Jeff Dorrgin," returned the Canuck. "I strain myself till I bust, if I want."
Jeff sneered to Whitwell: "Well, then, the most important point is settled. Let me know about the minor details as soon as you can."
Whitwell talked the matter over with his children at supper that evening. Jeff had made him a good offer, and he had the winter before him to provide for.
"I don't know what deviltry he's up to," he said in conclusion.
Frank looked to his sister for their common decision. "I am going to try for a school," she said, quietly. "It's pretty late, but I guess I can get something. You and Frank had better stay."
"And you don't feel as if it was kind of meechin', our takin' up with his offer, after what's—" Whitwell delicately forbore to fill out his sentence.
"You are doing the favor, father," said the girl. "He knows that, and I guess he wouldn't know where to look if you refused. And, after all, what's happened now is as much my doing as his."
"I guess that's something so," said Whitwell, with a long sigh of relief. "Well, I'm glad you can look at it in that light, Cynthy. It's the way the feller's built, I presume, as much as anything."
His daughter waived the point. "I shouldn't feel just right if none of us stayed in the old place. I should feel as if we had turned our backs on Mrs. Durgin."
Her eyes shone, and her father said: "Well, I guess that's so, come to think of it. She's been like a mother to you, this past year, ha'n't she? And it must have come pootty hard for her, sidin' ag'in' Jeff. But she done it."
The girl turned her head away. They were sitting in the little, low keeping-room of Whitwell's house, and her father had his hat on provisionally. Through the window they could see the light of the lantern at the office door of the hotel, whose mass was lost in the dark above and behind the lamp. It was all very still outside.
"I declare," Whitwell went on, musingly, "I wisht Mr. Westover was here."
Cynthia started, but it was to ask: "Do you want I should help you with your Latin, Frank?"
Whitwell came back an hour later and found them still at their books. He told them it was all arranged; Durgin was to give up the place to him in a week, and he was to surrender it again when Jeff came back in the spring. In the mean time things were to remain as they were; after he was gone, they could all go and live at Lion's Head if they chose.
"We'll see," said Cynthia. "I've been thinking that might be the best way, after all. I might not get a school, it's so late."
"That's so," her father assented. "I declare," he added, after a moment's muse, "I felt sorry for the feller settin' up there alone, with nobody to do for him but that old thing he's got in. She can't cook any more than—" He desisted for want of a comparison, and said: "Such a lookin' table, too."
"Do you think I better go and look after things a little?" Cynthia asked.
"Well, you no need to," said her father. He got down the planchette, and labored with it, while his children returned to Frank's lessons.
"Dumn 'f I can make the thing work," he said to himself at last. "I can't git any of 'em up. If Jackson was here, now!"
Thrice a day Cynthia went up to the hotel and oversaw the preparation of Jeff's meals and kept taut the slack housekeeping of the old Irish woman who had remained as a favor, after the hotel closed, and professed to have lost the chance of a place for the winter by her complaisance. She submitted to Cynthia's authority, and tried to make interest for an indefinite stay by sudden zeal and industry, and the last days of Jeff in the hotel were more comfortable than he openly recognized. He left the care of the building wholly to Whitwell, and shut himself up in the old farm parlor with the plans for a new hotel which he said he meant to put up some day, if he could ever get rid of the old one. He went once to Lovewell, where he renewed the insurance, and somewhat increased it; and he put a small mortgage on the property. He forestalled the slow progress of the knowledge of others' affairs, which, in the country, is as sure as it is slow, and told Whitwell what he had done. He said he wanted the mortgage money for his journey, and the insurance money, if he could have the luck to cash up by a good fire, to rebuild with.
Cynthia seldom met him in her comings and goings, but if they met they spoke on the terms of their boy and girl associations, and with no approach through resentment or tenderness to the relation that was ended between them. She saw him oftener than at any other time setting off on the long tramps he took through the woods in the afternoons. He was always alone, and, so far as any one knew, his wanderings had no object but to kill the time which hung heavy on his hands during the fortnight after his mother's death, before he sailed. It might have seemed strange that he should prefer to pass the days at Lion's Head after he had arranged for the care of the place with Whitwell, and Whitwell always believed that he stayed in the hope of somehow making up with Cynthia.
One day, toward the very last, Durgin found himself pretty well fagged in the old pulp-mill clearing on the side of Lion's Head, which still belonged to Whitwell, and he sat down on a mouldering log there to rest. It had always been a favorite picnic ground, but the season just past had known few picnics, and it was those of former years that had left their traces in rusty sardine-cans and broken glass and crockery on the border of the clearing, which was now almost covered with white moss. Jeff thought of the day when he lurked in the hollow below with Fox, while Westover remained talking with Whitwell. He thought of the picnic that Mrs. Marven had embittered for him, and he thought of the last time that he had been there with Westover, when they talked of the Vostrands.
Life had, so far, not been what he meant it, and just now it occurred to him that he might not have wholly made it what it had been. It seemed to him that a good many other people had come in and taken a hand in making his own life what it had been; and if he had meddled with theirs more than he was wanted, it was about an even thing. As far as he could make out, he was a sort of ingredient in the general mixture. He had probably done his share of the flavoring, but he had had very little to do with the mixing. There were different ways of looking at the thing. Westover had his way, but it struck Jeff that it put too much responsibility on the ingredient, and too little on the power that chose it. He believed that he could prove a clear case in his own favor, as far as the question of final justice was concerned, but he had no complaints to make. Things had fallen out very much to his mind. He was the Landlord at Lion's Head, at last, with the full right to do what he pleased with the place, and with half a year's leisure before him to think it over. He did not mean to waste the time while he was abroad; if there was anything to be learned anywhere about keeping a summer hotel, he was going to learn it; and he thought the summer hotel could be advantageously studied in its winter phases in the mild climates of Southern Europe. He meant to strike for the class of Americans who resorted to those climates; to divine their characters and to please their tastes.
He unconsciously included Cynthia in his scheme of inquiry; he had been used so long to trust to her instincts and opinions, and to rely upon her help, and he realized that she was no longer in his life with something like the shock a man experiences when the loss of a limb, which continues a part of his inveterate consciousness, is brought to his sense by some mechanical attempt to use it. But even in this pang he did not regret that all was over between them. He knew now that he had never cared for her as he had once thought, and on her account, if not his own, he was glad their engagement was broken. A soft melancholy for his own disappointment imparted itself to his thoughts of Cynthia. He felt truly sorry for her, and he truly admired and respected her. He was in a very lenient mood toward every one, and he went so far in thought toward forgiving his enemies that he was willing at least to pardon all those whom he had injured. A little rustling in the underbrush across the clearing caught his quick ear, and he looked up to see Jombateeste parting the boughs of the young pines on its edge and advancing into the open with a gun on his shoulder. He called to him, cheerily: "Hello, John! Any luck?"
Jombateeste shook his head. "Nawthing." He hesitated.
"What are you after?"
"Partridge," Jombateeste ventured back.
Jeff could not resist the desire to scoff which always came upon him at sight of the Canuck. "Oh, pshaw! Why don't you go for woodchucks? They fly low, and you can hit them on the wing, if you can't sneak on 'em sitting."
Jombateeste received his raillery in dignified silence, and turned back into the woods again. He left Durgin in heightened good-humor with himself and with the world, which had finally so well adapted itself to his desires and designs.
Jeff watched his resentful going with a grin, and then threw himself back on the thick bed of dry moss where he had been sitting, and watched the clouds drifting across the space of blue which the clearing opened overhead. His own action reminded him of Jackson, lying in the orchard and looking up at the sky. He felt strangely at one with him, and he experienced a tenderness for his memory which he had not known before. Jackson had been a good man; he realized that with a curious sense of novelty in the reflection; he wondered what the incentives and the objects of such men as Jackson and Westover were, anyway. Something like grief for his brother came upon him; not such grief as he had felt, passionately enough, though tacitly, for his mother, but a regret for not having shown Jackson during his life that he could appreciate his unselfishness, though he could not see the reason or the meaning of it. He said to himself, in their safe remoteness from each other, that he wished he could do something for Jackson. He wondered if in the course of time he should get to be something like him. He imagined trying.
He heard sounds again in the edge of the clearing, but he decided that it was that fool Jombateeste coming back; and when steps approached softly and hesitantly across the moss, he did not trouble himself to take his eyes from the clouds. He was only vexed to have his revery broken in upon.
A voice that was not Jombateeste's spoke: "I say! Can you tell me the way to the Brooker Institute, or to the road down the mountain?"
Jeff sat suddenly bolt-upright; in another moment he jumped to his feet. The Brooker Institute was a branch of the Keeley Cure recently established near the Huddle, and this must be a patient who had wandered from it, on one of the excursions the inmates made with their guardians, and lost his way. This was the fact that Jeff realized at the first glance he gave the man. The next he recognized that the man was Alan Lynde.
"Oh, it's you," he said, quite simply. He felt so cruelly the hardship of his one unforgiven enemy's coming upon him just when he had resolved to be good that the tears came into his eyes. Then his rage seemed to swell up in him like the rise of a volcanic flood. "I'm going to kill you!" he, roared, and he launched himself upon Lynde, who stood dazed.
But the murder which Jeff meant was not to be so easily done. Lynde had not grown up in dissolute idleness without acquiring some of the arts of self-defence which are called manly. He met Jeff's onset with remembered skill and with the strength which he had gained in three months of the wholesome regimen of the Brooker Institute. He had been sent there, not by Dr. Lacy's judgment, but by his despair, and so far the Cure had cured. He felt strong and fresh, and the hate which filled Jeff at sight of him steeled his shaken nerves and reinforced his feebler muscles, too.
He made a desperate fight where he could not hope for mercy, and kept himself free of his powerful foe, whom he fought round and foiled, if he could not hurt him. Jeff never knew of the blows Lynde got in upon him; he had his own science, too, but he would not employ it. He wanted to crash through Lynde's defence and lay hold of him and crush the life out of him.
The contest could not have lasted long at the best; but before Lynde was worn out he caught his heel in an old laurel root, and while he whirled to recover his footing Jeff closed in upon him, caught him by the middle, flung him down upon the moss, and was kneeling on his breast with both hands at his throat.
He glared down into his enemy's face, and suddenly it looked pitifully little and weak, like a girl's face, a child's.
Sometimes, afterward, it seemed to him that he forbore because at that instant he saw Jombateeste appear at the edge of the clearing and come running upon them. At other times he had the fancy that his action was purely voluntary, and that, against the logic of his hate and habit of his life, he had mercy upon his enemy. He did not pride himself upon it; he rather humbled himself before the fact, which was accomplished through his will, and not by it, and remained a mystery he did not try to solve.
He took his hands from Lynde's throat and his knees off his breast. "Get up," he said; and when Lynde stood trembling on his feet he said to Jombateeste: "Show this man the way to the Brooker Institute. I'll take your gun home for you," and it was easy for him to detach the piece from the bewildered Canuck's grasp. "Go! And if you stop, or even let him look back, I'll shoot him. Quick!"
The day after Thanksgiving, when Westover was trying to feel well after the turkey and cranberry and cider which a lady had given him at a consciously old-fashioned Thanksgiving dinner, but not making it out sufficiently to be able to work, he was astonished to receive a visit from Whitwell.
"Well, sir," said the philosopher, without giving himself pause for the exchange of reflections upon his presence in Boston, which might have been agreeable to him on a less momentous occasion. "It's all up with Lion's Head."
"What do you mean?" demanded Westover, with his mind upon the mountain, which he electrically figured in an incredible destruction.
"She's burnt. Burnt down the day before yist'd'y aft'noon. A'n't hardly a stick of her left. Ketehed Lord knows how, from the kitchen chimney, and a high northwest wind blowin', that ca'd the sparks to the barn, and set fire to that, too. Hasses gone; couldn't get round to 'em; only three of us there, and mixed up so about the house till it was so late the critters wouldn't come out. Folks from over Huddle way see the blaze, and helped ail they could; but it wa'n't no use. I guess all we saved, about, was the flag-pole."
"But you're all right yourselves? Cynthia"
"Well, there was our misfortune," said Whitwell, while Westover's heart stopped in a mere wantonness of apprehension. "If she'd be'n there, it might ha' be'n diff'ent. We might ha' had more sense; or she would, anyway. But she was over to Lovewell stockin' up for Thanksgivin', and I had to make out the best I could, with Frank and Jombateeste. Why, that Canuck didn't seem to have no more head on him than a hen. I was disgusted; but Cynthy wouldn't let me say anything to him, and I d' know as 't 'ould done any good, myself. We've talked it all over in every light, ever since; guess we've set up most the time talkin', and nothin' would do her but I should come down and see you before I took a single step about it."
"How—step about what?" asked Westover, with a remote sense of hardship at being brought in, tempered by the fact that it was Cynthia who had brought him in.
"Why, that devil," said Whitwell, and Westover knew that he meant Jeff, "went and piled on all the insurance he could pile on, before he left; and I don't know what to do about it."
"I should think the best thing was to collect the insurance," Westover suggested, distractedly.
"It a'n't so easy as what that comes to," said Whitwell. "I couldn't collect the insurance; and here's the point, anyway. When a hotel's made a bad season, and she's fully insured, she's pootty certain to burn up some time in the winter. Everybody knows that comical devil wanted lion's Head to burn up so 't he could build new, and I presume there a'n't a man, woman, or child anywhere round but what believes I set her on fire. Hired to do it. Now, see? Jeff off in Europe; daytime; no lives lost; prop'ty total loss. 's a clear case. Heigh? I tell you, I'm afraid I've got trouble ahead."
Westover tried to protest, to say something in derision or defiance; but he was shaken himself, and he ended by getting his hat and coat; Whitwell had kept his own on, in the excitement. "We'll go out and see a lawyer. A friend of mine; it won't cost you anything." He added this assurance at a certain look of reluctance that came into Whitwell's face, and that left it as soon as he had spoken. Whitwell glanced round the studio even cheerily. "Who'd ha' thought," he said, fastening upon the study which Westover had made of Lion's head the winter before, "that the old place would 'a' gone so soon?" He did not mean the mountain which he was looking at, but the hotel that was present to his mind's eye; and Westover perceived as he had not before that to Whitwell the hotel and not the mountain was Lion's Head.
He remembered to ask now where Whitwell had left his family, and Whitwell said that Frank and Cynthia were at home in his own house with Jombateeste; but he presumed he could not get back to them now before the next day. He refused to be interested in any of the aspects of Boston which Westover casually pointed out, but when they had seen the lawyer he came forth a new man, vividly interested in everything. The lawyer had been able to tell them that though the insurance companies would look sharply into the cause of the fire, there was no probability, hardly a possibility, that they would inculpate him, and he need give himself no anxiety about the affair.
"There's one thing, though," Whitwell said to Westover when they got out upon the street. "Hadn't I ought to let Jeff know?"
"Yes, at once. You'd better cable him. Have you got his address?"
Whitwell had it, and he tasted all the dramatic quality of sending word to Jeff, which he would receive in Florence an hour after it left Boston. "I did hope I could ha' cabled once to Jackson while he was gone," he said, regretfully, "but, unless we can fix up a wire with the other world, I guess I shan't ever do it now. I suppose Jackson's still hangin' round Mars, some'res."
He had a sectarian pride in the beauty of the Spiritual Temple which Westover walked him by on his way to see Trinity Church and the Fine Arts Museum, and he sorrowed that he could not attend a service' there. But he was consoled by the lunch which he had with Westover at a restaurant where it was served in courses. "I presume this is what Jeff's goin' to give 'em at Lion's Head when he gits it goin' again."
"How is it he's in Florence?" it occurred to Westover to ask. "I thought he was going to Nice for the winter."
"I don't know. That's the address he give in his last letter," said Whitwell. "I'll be glad when I've done with him for good and all. He's all kinds of a devil."
It was in Westover's mind to say that he wished the Whitwells had never had anything to do with Durgin after his mother's death. He had felt it a want of delicacy in them that they had been willing to stay on in his employ, and his ideal of Cynthia had suffered a kind of wound from what must have been her decision in the matter. He would have expected something altogether different from her pride, her self-respect. But he now merely said: "Yes, I shall be glad, too. I'm afraid he's a bad fellow."
His words seemed to appeal to Whitwell's impartiality. "Well, I d' know as I should say bad, exactly. He's a mixture."
"He's a bad mixture," said Westover.
"Well, I guess you're partly right there," Whitwell admitted, with a laugh. After a dreamy moment he asked: "Ever hear anything more about that girl here in Boston?"
Westover knew that he meant Bessie Lynde. "She's abroad somewhere, with her aunt."
Whitwell had not taken any wine; apparently he was afraid of forming instantly the habit of drink if he touched it; but he tolerated Westover's pint of Zinfandel, and he seemed to warm sympathetically to a greater confidence as the painter made away with it. "There's one thing I never told Cynthy yet; well, Jombateeste didn't tell me himself till after Jeff was gone; and then, thinks I, what's the use? But I guess you had better know."
He leaned forward across the table, and gave Jombateeste's story of the encounter between Jeff and Alan Lynde in the clearing. "Now what do you suppose was the reason Jeff let up on the feller? Of course, he meant to choke the life out of him, and his just ketchin' sight of Jombateeste—do you believe that was enough to stop him, when he'd started in for a thing like that? Or what was it done it?"
Westover listened with less thought of the fact itself than of another fact that it threw light upon. It was clear to him now that the Class- Day scrapping which had left its marks upon Jeff's face was with Lynde, and that when Jeff got him in his power he was in such a fury for revenge that no mere motive of prudence could have arrested him. In both events, it must have been Bessie Lynde that was the moving cause; but what was it that stayed Jeff in his vengeance?
"Let him up, and let him walk away, you say?" he demanded of Whitwell.
Whitwell nodded. "That's what Jombateeste said. Said Jeff said if he let the feller look back he'd shoot him. But he didn't haf to."
"I can't make it out," Westover sighed.
"It's been too much for me," Whitwell said. "I told Jombateeste he'd better keep it to himself, and I guess he done so. S'pose Jeff still had a sneakin' fondness for the girl?"
"I don't know; perhaps," Westover asserted.
Whitwell threw his head back in a sudden laugh that showed all the work of his dentist. "Well, wouldn't it be a joke if he was there in Florence after her? Be just like Jeff."
"It would be like Jeff; I don't know whether it would be a joke or not. I hope he won't find it a joke, if it's so," said Westover, gloomily. A fantastic apprehension seized him, which made him wish for the moment that it might be so, and which then passed, leaving him simply sorry for any chance that might bring Bessie Lynde into the fellow's way again.
For the evening Whitwell's preference would have been a lecture of some sort, but there was none advertised, and he consented to go with Westover to the theatre. He came back to the painter at dinner-time, after a wary exploration of the city, which had resulted not only in a personal acquaintance with its monuments, but an immunity from its dangers and temptations which he prided himself hardly less upon. He had seen Faneuil Hall, the old State House, Bunker Hill, the Public Library, and the Old South Church, and he had not been sandbagged or buncoed or led astray from the paths of propriety. In the comfortable sense of escape, he was disposed, to moralize upon the civilization of great cities, which he now witnessed at first hand for the first time; and throughout the evening, between the acts of the "Old Homestead," which he found a play of some merit, but of not so much novelty in its characters as he had somehow led himself to expect, he recurred to the difficulties and dangers that must beset a young man in coming to a place like Boston. Westover found him less amusing than he had on his own ground at Lion's Head, and tasted a quality of commonplace in his deliverances which made him question whether he had not, perhaps, always owed more to this environment than he had suspected. But they parted upon terms of mutual respect and in the common hope of meeting again. Whitwell promised to let Westover know what he heard of Jeff, but, when the painter had walked the philosopher home to his hotel, he found a message awaiting him at his studio from Jeff direct:
Whitwell's despatch received. Wait letter. "DURGIN."
Westover raged at the intelligent thrift of this telegram, and at the implication that he not only knew all about the business of Whitwell's despatch, but that he was in communication with him, and would be sufficiently interested to convey Jeff's message to him. Of course, Durgin had at once divined that Whitwell must have come to him for advice, and that he would hear from him, whether he was still in Boston or not. By cabling to Westover, Jeff saved the cost of an elaborate address to Whitwell at Lion's Head, and had brought the painter in for further consultation and assistance in his affairs. What vexed him still more was his own consciousness that he could not defeat this impudent expectation. He had, indeed, some difficulty with himself to keep from going to Whitwell's hotel with the despatch at once, and he slept badly, in his fear that he might not get it to him in the morning before he left town.
The sum of Jeff's letter when it came, and it came to Westover and not to Whitwell, was to request the painter to see a lawyer in his behalf, and put his insurance policies in his hands, with full authority to guard his interests in the matter. He told Westover where his policies would be found, and enclosed the key of his box in the Safety Vaults, with a due demand for Westover's admission to it. He registered his letter, and he jocosely promised Westover to do as much for him some day, in pleading that there was really no one else he could turn to. He put the whole business upon him, and Westover discharged himself of it as briefly as he could by delivering the papers to the lawyer he had already consulted for Whitwell.
"Is this another charity patient?" asked his friend, with a grin.
"No," replied Westover. "You can charge this fellow along the whole line."
Before he parted with the lawyer he had his misgivings, and he said: "I shouldn't want the blackguard to think I had got a friend a fat job out of him."
The lawyer laughed intelligently. "I shall only make the usual charge. Then he is a blackguard."
"There ought to be a more blistering word."
"One that would imply that he was capable of setting fire to his property?"
"I don't say that. But I'm glad he was away when it took fire," said Westover.
"You give him the benefit of the doubt."
"Yes, of every kind of doubt."
Westover once more promised himself to have nothing to do with Jeff Durgin or his affairs. But he did not promise this so confidently as upon former occasions, and he instinctively waited for a new complication. He could not understand why Jeff should not have come home to look after his insurance, unless it was because he had become interested in some woman even beyond his concern for his own advantage. He believed him capable of throwing away advantages for disadvantages in a thing of that kind, but he thought it more probable that he had fallen in love with one whom he would lose nothing by winning. It did not seem at all impossible that he should have again met Bessie Lynde, and that they should have made up their quarrel, or whatever it was. Jeff would consider that he had done his whole duty by Cynthia, and that he was free to renew his suit with Bessie; and there was nothing in Bessie's character, as Westover understood it, to prevent her taking him back upon a very small show of repentance if the needed emotions were in prospect. He had decided pretty finally that it would be Bessie rather than another when he received a letter from Mrs. Vostrand. It was dated at Florence, and after some pretty palaver about their old friendship, which she only hoped he remembered half as fondly as she did, the letter ran:
"I am turning to you now in a very strange difficulty, but I do not know that I should turn to you even now, and knowing all I do of your goodness, if I were not asked to do so by another.
"I believe we have not heard from each other since the first days of my poor Genevieve's marriage, when everything looked so bright and fair, and we little realized the clouds that were to overcast her happiness. It is a long story, and I will not go into it fully. The truth is that poor Gigi did not treat her very kindly, and that she has not lived with him since the birth of their little girl, now nearly two years old, and the sweetest little creature in the world; I wish you could see her; I am sure it would inspire your pencil with the idea of an angel-child. At first I hoped that the separation would be only temporary, and that when Genevieve had regained her strength she would be willing to go back to her husband; but nothing would induce her to do so. In fact, poor Gigi had spent all her money, and they would have had nothing to live upon but his pay, and you know that the pay of the Italian officers is very small.
"Gigi made several attempts to see her, and he threatened to take the child from her, but he was always willing to compromise for money. I am afraid that he never really loved her and that we were both deceived by his fervent protestations. We managed to get away from Florence without his knowing it, and we have spent the last two years in Lausanne, very happily, though very quietly. Our dear Checco is in the university there, his father having given up the plan of sending him to Harvard, and we had him with us, while we were taking measures to secure the divorce. Even in the simple way we lived Genevieve attracted a great deal of attention, as she always has done, and she would have had several eligible offers if she had been divorced, or if her affections had not already been engaged, as I did not know at the time.
"We were in this state of uncertainty up to the middle of last summer, when the news of poor Gigi's sudden death came. I am sorry to say that his habits in some respects were not good, and that probably hastened it some; it had obliged him to leave the army. Genevieve did not feel that she could consistently put on black for him, and I did not urge her, under the peculiar circumstances; there is so much mere formality in those kind of things at the best; but we immediately returned to Florence to try and see if we could not get back some of her effects which his family had seized. I am opposed to lawsuits if they can possibly be avoided, and we arranged with poor Gigi's family by agreeing to let them have Genevieve's furniture if they would promise never to molest her with the child, and I must say they have behaved very well. We are on the best of terms with them, and they have let us have some of the things back which were endeared to her by old associations, at a very reasonable rate.
"This brings me to the romantic part of my letter, and I will say at once that we found your friend Mr. Durgin in Florence, in the very hotel we went to. We all met in the dining-room, at the table d'hote one evening, and Genevieve and he took to each other at once. He spent the evening with us in our private drawing-room, and she said to me, after he went, that for the first time in years she felt rested. It seems that she had always secretly fancied him, and that she gave up to me in the matter of marrying poor Gigi, because she knew I had my heart set upon it, and she was not very certain of her own feelings when Mr. D. offered himself in Boston; but the conviction that she had made a mistake grew upon, her more and more after she had married Gigi.
"Well, now, Mr. Westover, I suppose you have guessed by this time that Mr. Durgin has renewed his offer, and Genevieve has conditionally accepted him; we do not feel that she is like an ordinary widow, and that she has to fill up a certain season of mourning; she and Gigi have been dead to each other for years; and Mr. Durgin is as fond of our dear little Bice as her own father could be, and they are together all the time. Her name is Beatrice de' Popolani Grassi. Isn't it lovely? She has poor Gigi's black eyes, with the most beautiful golden hair, which she gets from our aide. You remember Genevieve's hair back in the dear old days, before any trouble had come, and we were all so happy together? And this brings me to what I wanted to say. You are the oldest friend we have, and by a singular coincidence you are the oldest friend of Mr. Durgin, too. I cannot bear to risk my child's happiness a second time, and though Mr. Vostrand fully approves of the match, and has cabled his consent from Seattle, Washington, still, you know, a mother's heart cannot be at rest without some positive assurance. I told Mr. Durgin quite frankly how I felt, and he agreed with me that after our experience with poor Gigi we could not be too careful, and he authorized me to write to you and find out all you knew about him. He said you had known him ever since he was a boy, and that if there was anything bad in his record you could tell it, and he did not want you to spire the truth. He knows you will be just, and he wants you to write out the facts as they struck you at the time.
"I shall be on pins and needles, as the saying is, till we hear from you, and you know hew Genevieve and Mr. D. must be feeling. She is fully resolved not to have him without your endorsement, and he is quite willing to abide by what you say.
"I could almost wish you to cable me just Good or Bad, but I know that this will not be wise, and I am going to wait for your letter, and get your opinion in full.
"We all join in the kindest regards. Mr. D. is talking with Genevieve while I write, and has our darling Bice on his knees. You cannot imagine what a picture it makes, her childish delicacy contrasted with his stalwart strength. She says to send you a baciettino, and I wish you were here to receive it from her angel lips. Yours faithfully,
"P. S.—Mr. D. says that he fell in love with Genevieve across the barrier between the first and second cabin when he came over with us on the Aquitaine four years ago, and that he has never ceased to love her, though at one time he persuaded himself that he cared for another because he felt that she was lost to him forever, and it was no use: He really did care for the lady he was engaged to, and had a true affection for her, which he mistook for a warmer feeling. He says that she was worthy of any man's love and of the highest respect. I tell Genevieve that, she ought to honor him for it, and that she must never be jealous of a memory. We are very happy in Mr. Vostrand's cordial approval of the match. He is so glad to think that Mr. D. is a business man. His cable from Seattle was most enthusiastic. "M. D."
Westover did not know whether to laugh or cry when he read this letter, which covered several sheets of paper in lines that traversed each other in different directions. His old, youthful ideal of Mrs. Vostrand finally perished in its presence, though still he could not blame her for wishing to see her daughter well married after having seen her married so ill. He asked himself, without getting any very definite response, whether Mrs. Vostrand had always been this kind of a woman, or had grown into it by the use of arts which her peculiar plan of life had rendered necessary to her. He remembered the intelligent toleration of Cynthia in speaking of her, and his indignation in behalf of the girl was also thrill of joy for her escape from the fate which Mrs. Vostrand was so eagerly invoking for her daughter. But he thought of Genevieve with something of the same tenderness, and with a compassion that was for her alone. She seemed to him a victim who was to be sacrificed a second time, and he had clearly a duty to her which he must not evade. The only question could be how best to discharge it, and Westover took some hours from his work to turn the question over in his mind. In the end, when he was about to give the whole affair up for the present, and lose a night's sleep over it later, he had an inspiration, and he acted upon it at once. He perceived that he owed no formal response to the sentimental insincerities of Mrs. Vostrand's letter, and he decided to write to Durgin himself, and to put the case altogether in his hands. If Durgin chose to show the Vostrands what he should write, very well; if he chose not to show it, then Westover's apparent silence would be a sufficient reply to Mrs. Vostrand's appeal.
"I prefer to address you," he began, "because I do not choose to let you think that I have any feeling to indulge against you, and because I do not think I have the right to take you out of your own keeping in any way. You would be in my keeping if I did, and I do not wish that, not only because it would be a bother to me, but because it would be a wrong to you.
"Mrs. Vostrand, whose letter to me I will leave you to answer by showing her this, or in any other manner you choose, tells me you do not want me to spare the truth concerning you. I have never been quite certain what the truth was concerning you; you know that better than I do; and I do not propose to write your biography here. But I will remind you of a few things.
"The first day I saw you, I caught you amusing yourself with the terror of two little children, and I had the pleasure of cuffing you for it. But you were only a boy then, and afterward you behaved so well that I decided you were not so much cruel as thoughtlessly mischievous. When you had done all you could to lead me to this favorable conclusion, you suddenly turned and avenged yourself on me, so far as you could, for the help I had given the little ones against you. I never greatly blamed you for that, for I decided that you had a vindictive temperament, and that you were not responsible for your temperament, but only for your character.