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Chapter 16

XVI.

Westover met the ladies coming out of the dining-room as he went in rather late to breakfast; he had been making a study of Lion's Head in the morning light after the cloud lifted from it. He was always doing Lion's Heads, it seemed to him; but he loved the mountain, and he was always finding something new in it.

He was now seeing it inwardly with so exclusive a vision that he had no eyes for these extremely pretty women till they were out of sight. Then he remembered noticing them, and started with a sense of recognition, which he verified by the hotel register when he had finished his meal. It was, in fact, Mrs. James W. Vostrand, and it was Miss Vostrand, whom Westover had know ten years before in Italy. Mrs. Vostrand had then lately come abroad for the education of her children, and was pausing in doubt at Florence whether she should educate them in Germany or Switzerland. Her husband had apparently abandoned this question to her, and he did not contribute his presence to her moral support during her struggle with a problem which Westover remembered as having a tendency to solution in the direction of a permanent stay in Florence.

In those days he liked Mrs. Vostrand very much, and at twenty he considered her at thirty distinctly middle-aged. For one winter she had a friendly little salon, which was the most attractive place in Florence to him, then a cub painter sufficiently unlicked. He was aware of her children being a good deal in the salon: a girl of eight, who was like her mother, and quite a savage little boy of five, who may have been like his father. If he was, and the absent Mr. Vostrand had the same habit of sulking and kicking at people's shins, Westover could partly understand why Mrs. Vostrand had come to Europe for the education of her children. It all came vividly back to him, while he went about looking for Mrs. Vostrand and her daughter on the verandas and in the parlors. But he did not find them, and he was going to send his name to their rooms when he came upon Jeff Durgin figuring about the office in a fresh London conception of an outing costume.

"You're very swell," said Westover, halting him to take full note of it.

"Like it? Well, I knew you'd understand what it meant. Mother thinks it's a little too rowdy-looking. Her idea is black broadcloth frock-coat and doeskin trousers for a gentleman, you know." He laughed with a young joyousness, and then became serious. "Couple of ladies here, somewhere, I'd like to introduce you to. Came over with me from the depot last night. Very nice people, and I'd like to make it pleasant for them—get up something—go somewhere—and when you see their style you can judge what it had better be. Mrs. Vostrand and her daughter."

"Thank you," said Westover. "I think I know them already at least one of them. I used to go to Mrs. Vostrand's house in Florence."

"That so? Well, fact is, I crossed with them; but I came second-cabin, because I'd spent all my money, and I didn't get acquainted with them on the ship, but we met in the train coming up last night. Said they had heard of Lion's Head on the other side from friends. But it was quite a coincidence, don't you think? I'd like to have them see what this neighborhood really is; and I wish, Mr. Westover, you'd find out, if you can, what they'd like. If they're for walking, we could get Whitwell to personally conduct a party, and if they're for driving, I'd like to show them a little mountain-coaching myself."

"I don't know whether I'd better not leave the whole thing to you, Jeff," Westover said, after a moment's reflection. "I don't see exactly how I could bring the question into a first interview."

"Well, perhaps it would be rather rushing it. But, if I get up something, you'll come, Mr. Westover?"

"I will, with great pleasure," said Westover, and he went to make his call.

A half-hour later he was passing the door of the old parlor which Mrs. Durgin still kept for hers, on his way up to his room, when a sound of angry voices came out to him. Then the voice of Mrs. Durgin defined itself in the words: "I'm not goin' to have to ask any more folks for their rooms on your account, Jeff Durgin—Mr. Westover! Mr. Westover, is that you?" her voice broke off to call after him as he hurried by, "Won't you come in here a minute?"

He hesitated, and then Jeff called, "Yes, come in, Mr. Westover."

The painter found him sitting on the old hair-cloth sofa, with his stick between his hands and knees, confronting his mother, who was rocking excitedly to and fro in the old hair-cloth easy-chair.

"You know these folks that Jeff's so crazy about?" she demanded.

"Crazy!" cried Jeff, laughing and frowning at the same time. "What's crazy in wanting to go off on a drive and choose your own party?"

"Do you know them?" Mrs. Durgin repeated to Westover.

"The Vostrands? Why, yes. I knew Mrs. Vostrand in Italy a good many years ago, and I've just been calling on her and her daughter, who was a little girl then."

"What kind of folks are they?"

"What kind? Really! Why, they're very charming people—"

"So Jeff seems to think. Any call to show them any particular attention?"

"I don't know if I quite understand—"

"Why, it's just this. Jeff, here, wants to make a picnic for them, or something, and I can't see the sense of it. You remember what happened at that other picnic, with that Mrs. Marven"—Jeff tapped the floor with his stick impatiently, and Westover felt sorry for him—"and I don't want it to happen again, and I've told Jeff so. I presume he thinks it 'll set him right with them, if they're thinkin' demeaning of him because he came over second-cabin on their ship."

Jeff set his teeth and compressed his lips to bear as best he could, the give-away which his mother could not appreciate in its importance to him:

"They're not the kind of people to take such a thing shabbily," said Westover. "They didn't happen to mention it, but Mrs. Vostrand must have got used to seeing young fellows in straits of all kinds during her life abroad. I know that I sometimes made the cup of tea and biscuit she used to give me in Florence do duty for a dinner, and I believe she knew it."

Jeff looked up at Westover with a grateful, sidelong glance.

His mother said: "Well, then, that's all right, and Jeff needn't do anything for them on that account. And I've made up my mind about one thing: whatever the hotel does has got to be done for the whole hotel. It can't pick and choose amongst the guests." Westover liked so little the part of old family friend which he seemed, whether he liked it or not, to bear with the Durgins, that he would gladly have got away now, but Mrs. Durgin detained him with a direct appeal. "Don't you think so, Mr. Westover?"

Jeff spared him the pain of a response. "Very well," he said to his mother; "I'm not the hotel, and you never want me to be. I can do this on my own account."

"Not with my coach and not with my hosses," said his mother.

Jeff rose. "I might as well go on down to Cambridge, and get to work on my conditions."

"Just as you please about that," said Mrs. Durgin, with the same impassioned quiet that showed in her son's handsome face and made it one angry red to his yellow hair. "We've got along without you so far, this summer, and I guess we can the rest of the time. And the sooner you work off your conditions the better, I presume."

The next morning Jeff came to take leave of him, where Westover had pitched his easel and camp-stool on the slope behind the hotel.

"Why, are you really going?" he asked. "I was in hopes it might have blown over."

"No, things don't blow over so easy with mother," said Jeff, with an embarrassed laugh, but no resentment. "She generally means what she says."

"Well, in this case, Jeff, I think she was right."

"Oh, I guess so," said Jeff, pulling up a long blade of grass and taking it between his teeth. "Anyway, it comes to the same thing as far as I'm concerned. It's for her to say what shall be done and what sha'n't be done in her own house, even if it is a hotel. That's what I shall do in mine. We're used to these little differences; but we talk it out, and that's the end of it. I shouldn't really go, though, if I didn't think I ought to get in some work on those conditions before the thing begins regularly. I should have liked to help here a little, for I've had a good time and I ought to be willing to pay for it. But she's in good hands. Jackson's well—for him—and she's got Cynthia."

The easy security of tone with which Jeff pronounced the name vexed Westover. "I suppose your mother would hardly know how to do without her, even if you were at home," he said, dryly.

"Well, that's a fact," Jeff assented, with a laugh for the hit. "And Jackson thinks the world of her. I believe he trusts her judgment more than he does mother's about the hotel. Well, I must be going. You don't know where Mrs. Vostrand is going to be this winter, I suppose?"

"No, I don't," said Westover. He could not help a sort of blind resentment in the situation. If he could not feel that Jeff was the best that could be for Cynthia, he had certainly no reason to regret that his thoughts could be so lightly turned from her. But the fact anomalously incensed him as a slight to the girl, who might have been still more sacrificed by Jeff's constancy. He forced himself to add: "I fancy Mrs. Vostrand doesn't know herself."

"I wish I didn't know where I was going to be," said Jeff. "Well, good-bye, Mr. Westover. I'll see you in Boston."

"Oh, good-bye." The painter freed himself from his brush and palette for a parting handshake, reluctantly.

Jeff plunged down the hill, waving a final adieu from the corner of the hotel before he vanished round it.

Mrs. Vostrand and her daughter were at breakfast when Westover came in after the early light had been gone some time. They entreated him to join them at their table, and the mother said: "I suppose you were up soon enough to see young Mr. Durgin off. Isn't it too bad he has to go back to college when it's so pleasant in the country?"

"Not bad for him," said Westover. "He's a young man who can stand a great deal of hard work." Partly because he was a little tired of Jeff, and partly because he was embarrassed in their presence by the reason of his going, he turned the talk upon the days they had known together.

Mrs. Vostrand was very willing to talk of her past, even apart from his, and she told him of her sojourn in Europe since her daughter had left school. They spent their winters in Italy and their summers in Switzerland, where it seemed her son was still at his studies in Lausanne. She wished him to go to Harvard, she said, and she supposed he would have to finish his preparation at one of the American schools; but she had left the choice entirely to Mr. Vostrand.

This seemed a strange event after twelve years' stay in Europe for the education of her children, but Westover did not feel authorized to make any comment upon it. He fell rather to thinking how very pleasant both mother and daughter were, and to wondering how much wisdom they had between them. He reflected that men had very little wisdom, as far as he knew them, and he questioned whether, after all, the main difference between men and women might not be that women talked their follies and men acted theirs. Probably Mrs. Vostrand, with all her babble, had done fewer foolish things than her husband, but here Westover felt his judgment disabled by the fact that he had never met her husband; and his mind began to wander to a question of her daughter, whom he had there before him. He found himself bent upon knowing more of the girl, and trying to eliminate her mother from the talk, or, at least, to make Genevieve lead in it. But apparently she was not one of the natures that like to lead; at any rate, she remained discreetly in abeyance, and Westover fancied she even respected her mother's opinions and ideas. He thought this very well for both of them, whether it was the effect of Mrs. Vostrand's merit or Miss Vostrand's training. They seemed both of one exquisite gentleness, and of one sweet manner, which was rather elaborate and formal in expression. They deferred to each other as politely as they deferred to him, but, if anything, the daughter deferred most.

William Dean Howells