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Chapter 17

XVII.

The Vostrands did not stay long at Lion's Head. Before the week was out Mrs. Vostrand had a letter summoning them to meet her husband at Montreal, where that mysterious man, who never came into the range of Westover's vision, somehow, was kept by business from joining them in the mountains.

Early in October the painter received Mrs. Vostrand's card at his studio in Boston, and learned from the scribble which covered it that she was with her daughter at the Hotel Vendome. He went at once to see them there, and was met, almost before the greetings were past, with a prayer for his opinion.

"Favorable opinion?" he asked.

"Favorable? Oh yes; of course. It's simply this. When I sent you my card, we were merely birds of passage, and now I don't know but we are—What is the opposite of birds of passage?"

Westover could not think, and said so.

"Well, it doesn't matter. We were walking down the street, here, this morning, and we saw the sign of an apartment to let, in a window, and we thought, just for amusement, we would go in and look at it."

"And you took it?"

"No, not quite so rapid as that. But it was lovely; in such a pretty 'hotel garni', and so exquisitely furnished! We didn't really think of staying in Boston; we'd quite made up our minds on New York; but this apartment is a temptation."

"Why not yield, then?" said Westover. "That's the easiest way with a temptation. Confess, now, that you've taken the apartment already!"

"No, no, I haven't yet," said Mrs. Vostrand.

"And if I advised not, you wouldn't?"

"Ah, that's another thing!"

"When are you going to take possession, Mrs. Vostrand?"

"Oh, at once, I suppose—if we do!"

"And may I come in when I'm hungry, just as I used to do in Florence, and will you stay me with flagons in the old way?"

"There never was anything but tea, you know well enough."

"The tea had rum in it."

"Well, perhaps it will have rum in it here, if you're very good."

"I will try my best, on condition that you'll make any and every possible use of me. Mrs. Vostrand, I can't tell you how very glad I am you're going to stay," said the painter, with a fervor that made her impulsively put out her hand to him. He kept it while he could add, "I don't forget—I can never forget—how good you were to me in those days," and at that she gave his hand a quick pressure. "If I can do anything at all for you, you will let me, won't you. I'm afraid you'll be so well provided for that there won't be anything. Ask them to slight you, to misuse you in something, so that I can come to your rescue."

"Yes, I will," Mrs. Vostrand promised. "And may we come to your studio to implore your protection?"

"The sooner the better." Westover got himself away with a very sweet friendship in his heart for this rather anomalous lady, who, more than half her daughter's life, had lived away from her daughter's father, upon apparently perfectly good terms with him, and so discreetly and self-respectfully that no breath of reproach had touched her. Until now, however, her position had not really concerned Westover, and it would not have concerned him now, if it had not been for a design that formed itself in his mind as soon as he knew that Mrs. Vostrand meant to pass the winter in Boston. He felt at once that he could not do things by halves for a woman who had once done them for him by wholes and something over, and he had instantly decided that he must not only be very pleasant to her himself, but he must get his friends to be pleasant, too. His friends were some of the nicest people in Boston; nice in both the personal and the social sense; he knew they would not hesitate to sacrifice themselves for him in a good cause, and that made him all the more anxious that the cause should be good beyond question.

Since his last return from Paris he had been rather a fad as a teacher, and his class had been kept quite strictly to the ladies who got it up and to such as they chose to let enter it. These were not all chosen for wealth or family; there were some whose gifts gave the class distinction, and the ladies were glad to have them. It would be easy to explain Mrs. Vostrand to these, but the others might be more difficult; they might have their anxieties, and Westover meant to ask the leader of the class to help him receive at the studio tea he had at once imagined for the Vostrands, and that would make her doubly responsible.

He found himself drawing a very deep and long breath before he began to mount the many stairs to his studio, and wishing either that Mrs. Vostrand had not decided to spend the winter in Boston, or else that he were of a slacker conscience and could wear his gratitude more lightly. But there was some relief in thinking that he could do nothing for a month yet. He gained a degree of courage by telling the ladies, when he went to find them in their new apartment, that he should want them to meet a few of his friends at tea as soon as people began to get back to town; and he made the most of their instant joy in accepting his invitation.

His pleasure was somehow dashed a little, before he left them, by the announcement of Jeff Durgin's name.

"I felt bound to send him my card," said Mrs. Vostrand, while Jeff was following his up in the elevator. "He was so very kind to us the day we arrived at Zion's Head; and I didn't know but he might be feeling a little sensitive about coming over second-cabin in our ship; and—"

"How like you, Mrs. Vostrand!" cried Westover, and he was now distinctly glad he had not tried to sneak out of doing something for her. "Your kindness won't be worse wasted on Durgin than it was on me, in the old days, when I supposed I had taken a second-cabin passage for the voyage of life. There's a great deal of good in him; I don't mean to say he got through his Freshman year without trouble with the college authorities, but the Sophomore year generally brings wisdom."

"Oh," said Mrs. Vostrand, "they're always a little wild at first, I suppose."

Later, the ladies brought Jeff with them when they came to Westover's studio, and the painter perceived that they were very good friends, as if they must have met several times since he had seen them together. He interested himself in the growing correctness of Jeff's personal effect. During his Freshman year, while the rigor of the unwritten Harvard law yet forbade him a silk hat or a cane, he had kept something of the boy, if not the country boy. Westover had noted that he had always rather a taste for clothes, but in this first year he did not get beyond a derby-hat and a sack-coat, varied toward the end by a cutaway. In the outing dress he wore at home he was always effective, but there was something in Jeff's figure which did not lend itself to more formal fashion; something of herculean proportion which would have marked him of a classic beauty perhaps if he had not been in clothes at all, or of a yeomanly vigor and force if he had been clad for work, but which seemed to threaten the more worldly conceptions of the tailor with danger. It was as if he were about to burst out of his clothes, not because he wore them tight, but because there was somehow more of the man than the citizen in him; something native, primitive, something that Westover could not find quite a word for, characterized him physically and spiritually. When he came into the studio after these delicate ladies, the robust Jeff Durgin wore a long frockcoat, with a flower in his button-hole, and in his left hand he carried a silk hat turned over his forearm as he must have noticed people whom he thought stylish carrying their hats. He had on dark-gray trousers and sharp-pointed enamelled-leather shoes; and Westover grotesquely reflected that he was dressed, as he stood, to lead Genevieve Vostrand to the altar.

Westover saw at once that when he made his studio tea for the Vostrands he must ask Jeff; it would be cruel, and for several reasons impossible, not to do so, and he really did not see why he should not. Mrs. Vostrand was taking him on the right ground, as a Harvard student, and nobody need take him on any other. Possibly people would ask him to teas at their own houses, from Westover's studio, but he could not feel that he was concerned in that. Society is interested in a man's future, not his past, as it is interested in a woman's past, not her future.

But when he gave his tea it went off wonderfully well in every way, perhaps because it was one of the first teas of the fall. It brought people together in their autumnal freshness before the winter had begun to wither their resolutions to be amiable to one another, to dull their wits, to stale their stories, or to give so wide a currency to their sayings that they could not freely risk them with every one.

Westover had thought it best to be frank with the leading lady of his class, when she said she should be delighted to receive for him, and would provide suitable young ladies to pour: a brunette for the tea, and a blonde for the chocolate. She took his scrupulosity very lightly when he spoke of Mrs. Vostrand's educational sojourn in Europe; she laughed and said she knew the type, and the situation was one of the most obvious phases of the American marriage.

He protested in vain that Mrs. Vostrand was not the type; she laughed again, and said, Oh, types were never typical. But she was hospitably gracious both to her and to Miss Genevieve; she would not allow that the mother was not the type when Westover challenged her experience, but she said they were charming, and made haste to get rid of the question with the vivid demand: "But who was your young friend who ought to have worn a lion-skin and carried a club?"

Westover by this time disdained palliation. He said that Jeff was the son of the landlady at Lion's Head Mountain, which he had painted so much, and he was now in his second year at Harvard, where he was going to make a lawyer of himself; and this interested the lady. She asked if he had talent, and a number of other things about him and about his mother; and Westover permitted himself to be rather graphic in telling of his acquaintance with Mrs. Durgin.

William Dean Howells