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Chapter 12

XII.

The picnic was held in Whitwell's Clearing, on the side of Lion's Head, where the moss, almost as white as snow, lay like belated drifts among the tall, thin grass which overran the space opened by the axe, and crept to the verge of the low pines growing in the shelter of the loftier woods. It was the end of one of Whitwell's "Tramps Home to Nature," as he called his walks and talks with the ladies, and on this day Westover's fellow-painter had added to his lessons in woodlore the claims of art, intending that his class should make studies of various bits in the clearing, and should try to catch something of its peculiar charm. He asked Westover what he thought of the notion, and Westover gave it his approval, which became enthusiastic when he saw the place. He found in it the melancholy grace, the poignant sentiment of ruin which expresses itself in some measure wherever man has invaded nature and then left his conquest to her again. In Whitwell's Clearing the effect was intensified by the approach on the fading wood road, which the wagons had made in former days when they hauled the fallen timber to the pulp-mill. In places it was so vague and faint as to be hardly a trail; in others, where the wheel-tracks remained visible, the trees had sent out a new growth of lower branches in the place of those lopped away, and almost forbade the advance of foot-passengers. The ladies said they did not see how Jeff was ever going to get through with the wagon, and they expressed fears for the lunch he was bringing, which seemed only too well grounded.

But Whitwell, who was leading them on, said: "You let a Durgin alone to do a thing when he's made up his mind to it. I guess you'll have your lunch all right;" and by the time that they had got enough of Browning they heard the welcome sound of wheels crashing upon dead boughs and swishing through the underbrush, and, in the pauses of these pleasant noises, the voice of Jeff Durgin encouraging his horses. The children of the party broke away to meet him, and then he came in sight ahead of his team, looking strong and handsome in his keeping with the scene: Before he got within hearing, the ladies murmured a hymn of praise to his type of beauty; they said he looked like a young Hercules, and Westover owned with an inward smile that Jeff had certainly made the best of himself for the time being. He had taken a leaf from the book of the summer folks; his stalwart calves revealed themselves in thick, ribbed stockings; he wore knickerbockers and a Norfolk jacket of corduroy; he had style as well as beauty, and he had the courage of his clothes and looks. Westover was still in the first surprise of the American facts, and he wondered just what part in the picnic Jeff was to bear socially. He was neither quite host nor guest; but no doubt in the easy play of the life, which Westover was rather proud to find so charming, the question would solve itself rationally and gracefully.

"Where do you want the things?" the young fellow asked of the company at large, as he advanced upon them from the green portals of the roadway, pulling off his soft wool hat, and wiping his wet forehead with his blue-bordered white handkerchief.

"Oh, right here, Jeff!" The nimblest of the nymphs sprang to her feet from the lounging and crouching circle about Westover. She was a young nymph no longer, but with a daughter not so much younger than herself as to make the contrast of her sixteen years painful. Westover recognized the officious, self-approving kind of the woman, but he admired the brisk efficiency with which she had taken possession of the affair from the beginning and inspired every one to help, in strict subordination to herself.

When the cloths were laid on the smooth, elastic moss, and the meal was spread, she heaped a plate without suffering any interval in her activities.

"I suppose you've got to go back to your horses, Jeff, and you shall be the first served," she said, and she offered him the plate with a bright smile and friendly grace, which were meant to keep him from the hurt of her intention.

Jeff did not offer to take the plate which she raised to him from where she was kneeling, but looked down at her with perfect intelligence. "I guess I don't want anything," he said, and turned and walked away into the woods.

The ill-advised woman remained kneeling for a moment with her ingratiating smile hardening on her face, while the sense of her blunder petrified the rest. She was the first to recover herself, and she said, with a laugh that she tried to make reckless, "Well, friends, I suppose the rest of you are hungry; I know I am," and she began to eat.

The others ate, too, though their appetites might well have been affected by the diplomatic behavior of Whitwell. He would not take anything, just at present, he said, and got his long length up from the root of a tree where he had folded it down. "I don't seem to care much for anything in the middle of the day; breakfast's my best meal," and he followed Jeff off into the woods.

"Really," said the lady, "what did they expect?" But the question was so difficult that no one seemed able to make the simple answer.

The incident darkened the day and spoiled its pleasure; it cast a lessening shadow into the evening when the guests met round the fire in the large, ugly new parlor at the hotel.

The next morning the ladies assembled again on the piazza to decide what should be done with the beautiful day before them. Whitwell stood at the foot of the flag-staff with one hand staying his person against it, like a figure posed in a photograph to verify proportions in the different features of a prospect.

The heroine of the unhappy affair of the picnic could not forbear authorizing herself to invoke his opinion at a certain point of the debate, and "Mr. Whitwell," she called to him, "won't you please come here a moment?"

Whitwell slowly pulled himself across the grass to the group, and at the same moment, as if she had been waiting for him to be present, Mrs. Durgin came out of the office door and advanced toward the ladies.

"Mrs. Marven," she said, with the stony passivity which the ladies used to note in her when they came over to Lion's Head Farm in the tally-hos, "the stage leaves here at two o'clock to get the down train at three. I want you should have your trunks ready to go on the wagon a little before two."

"You want I should have my—What do you mean, Mrs. Durgin?"

"I want your rooms."

"You want my rooms?"

Mrs. Durgin did not answer. She let her steadfast look suffice; and Mrs. Marven went on in a rising flutter: "Why, you can't have my rooms! I don't understand you. I've taken my rooms for the whole of August, and they are mine; and—"

"I have got to have your rooms," said Mrs. Durgin.

"Very well, then, I won't give them up," said the lady. "A bargain's a bargain, and I have your agreement—"

"If you're not out of your rooms by two o'clock, your things will be put out; and after dinner to-day you will not eat another bite under my roof."

Mrs. Durgin went in, and it remained for the company to make what they could of the affair. Mrs. Marven did not wait for the result. She was not a dignified person, but she rose with hauteur and whipped away to her rooms, hers no longer, to make her preparations. She knew at least how to give her going the effect of quitting the place with disdain and abhorrence.

The incident of her expulsion was brutal, but it was clearly meant to be so. It made Westover a little sick, and he would have liked to pity Mrs. Marven more than he could. The ladies said that Mrs. Durgin's behavior was an outrage, and they ought all to resent it by going straight to their own rooms and packing their things and leaving on the same stage with Mrs. Marven. None of them did so, and their talk veered around to something extenuating, if not justifying, Mrs. Durgin's action.

"I suppose," one of them said, "that she felt more indignant about it because she has been so very good to Mrs. Marven, and her daughter, too. They were both sick on her hands here for a week after they came, first one and then the other, and she looked after them and did for them like a mother."

"And yet," another lady suggested, "what could Mrs. Marven have done? What did she do? He wasn't asked to the picnic, and I don't see why he should have been treated as a guest. He was there, purely and simply, to bring the things and take them away. And, besides, if there is anything in distinctions, in differences, if we are to choose who is to associate with us—or our daughters—"

"That is true," the ladies said, in one form or another, with the tone of conviction; but they were not so deeply convinced that they did not want a man's opinion, and they all looked at Westover.

He would not respond to their look, and the lady who had argued for Mrs. Marven had to ask: "What do you think, Mr. Westover?"

"Ah, it's a difficult question," he said. "I suppose that as long as one person believes himself or herself socially better than another, it must always be a fresh problem what to do in every given case."

The ladies said they supposed so, and they were forced to make what they could of wisdom in which they might certainly have felt a want of finality.

Westover went away from them in a perplexed mind which was not simplified by the contempt he had at the bottom of all for something unmanly in Jeff, who had carried his grievance to his mother like a slighted boy, and provoked her to take up arms for him.

The sympathy for Mrs. Marven mounted again when it was seen that she did not come to dinner, or permit her daughter to do so, and when it became known later that she had refused for both the dishes sent to their rooms. Her farewells to the other ladies, when they gathered to see her off on the stage, were airy rather than cheery; there was almost a demonstration in her behalf, but Westover was oppressed by a kind of inherent squalor in the incident.

At night he responded to a knock which he supposed that of Frank Whitwell with ice-water, and Mrs. Durgin came into his room and sat down in one of his two chairs. "Mr. Westover," she said, "if you knew all I had done for that woman and her daughter, and how much she had pretended to think of us all, I don't believe you'd be so ready to judge me."

"Judge you!" cried Westover. "Bless my soul, Mrs. Durgin! I haven't said a word that could be tormented into the slightest censure."

"But you think I done wrong?"

"I have not been at all able to satisfy myself on that point, Mrs. Durgin. I think it's always wrong to revenge one's self."

"Yes, I suppose it is," said Mrs. Durgin, humbly; and the tears came into her eyes. "I got the tray ready with my own hands that was sent to her room; but she wouldn't touch it. I presume she didn't like having a plate prepared for her! But I did feel sorry for her. She a'n't over and above strong, and I'm afraid she'll be sick; there a'n't any rest'rant at our depot."

Westover fancied this a fit mood in Mrs. Durgin for her further instruction, and he said: "And if you'll excuse me, Mrs. Durgin, I don't think what you did was quite the way to keep a hotel."

More tears flashed into Mrs. Durgin's eyes, but they were tears of wrath now. "I would 'a' done it," she said, "if I thought every single one of 'em would 'a' left the house the next minute, for there a'n't one that has the first word to say against me, any other way. It wa'n't that I cared whether she thought my son was good enough to eat with her or not; I know what I think, and that's enough for me. He wa'n't invited to the picnic, and he a'n't one to put himself forward. If she didn't want him to stay, all she had to do was to do nothin'. But to make him up a plate before everybody, and hand it to him to eat with the horses, like a tramp or a dog—" Mrs. Durgin filled to the throat with her wrath, and the sight of her made Westover keenly unhappy.

"Yes, yes," he said, "it was a miserable business." He could not help adding: "If Jeff could have kept it to himself—but perhaps that wasn't possible."

"Mr. Westover!" said Mrs. Durgin, sternly. "Do you think Jeff would come to me, like a great crybaby, and complain of my lady boarders and the way they used him? It was Mr. Whit'ell that let it out, or I don't know as I should ever known about it."

"I'm glad Jeff didn't tell you," said Westover, with a revulsion of good feeling toward him.

"He'd 'a' died first," said his mother. "But Mr. Whit'ell done just right all through, and I sha'n't soon forget it. Jeff's give me a proper goin' over for what I done; both the boys have. But I couldn't help it, and I should do just so again. All is, I wanted you should know just what you was blamin' me for—"

"I don't know that I blame you. I only wish you could have helped it—managed some other way."

"I did try to get over it, and all I done was to lose a night's rest. Then, this morning, when I see her settin' there so cool and mighty with the boarders, and takin' the lead as usual, I just waited till she got Whit'ell across, and nearly everybody was there that saw what she done to Jeff, and then I flew out on her."

Westover could not suppress a laugh. "Well, Mrs. Durgin, your retaliation was complete; it was dramatic."

"I don't know what you mean by that," said Mrs. Durgin, rising and resuming her self-control; she did not refuse herself a grim smile. "But I guess she thought it was pretty perfect herself—or she will, when she's able to give her mind to it. I'm sorry for her daughter; I never had anything against her; or her mother, either, for that matter, before. Franky look after you pretty well? I'll send him up with your ice-water. Got everything else you want?"

"I should have to invent a want if I wished to complain," said Westover.

"Well, I should like to have you do it. We can't ever do too much for you. Well, good-night, Mr. Westover."

"Good'-night, Mrs. Durgin."

William Dean Howells