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Chapter 19

IX.

A young couple came strolling down the avenue who to Westover's artistic eye first typified grace and strength, and then to his more personal perception identified themselves as Genevieve Vostrand and Jeff Durgin.

They faltered before one of the benches beside the mall, and he seemed to be begging her to sit down. She cast her eyes round till they must have caught the window of her mother's apartment; then, as if she felt safe under it, she sank into the seat and Jeff put himself beside her. It was quite too early yet for the simple lovers who publicly notify their happiness by the embraces and hand-clasps everywhere evident in our parks and gardens; and a Boston pair of social tradition would not have dreamed of sitting on a bench in Commonwealth Avenue at any hour. But two such aliens as Jeff and Miss Vostrand might very well do so; and Westover sympathized with their bohemian impulse.

Mrs. Vostrand and he watched them awhile, in talk that straggled away from them, and became more and more distraught in view of them. Jeff leaned forward, and drew on the ground with the point of his stick; Genevieve held her head motionless at a pensive droop. It was only their backs that Westover could see, and he could not, of course, make out a syllable of what was effectively their silence; but all the same he began to feel as if he were peeping and eavesdropping. Mrs. Vostrand seemed not to share his feeling, and there was no reason why he should have it if she had not. He offered to go, but she said, No, no; he must not think of it till Genevieve came in; and she added some banalities about her always scolding when she had missed one of his calls; they would be so few, now, at the most.

"Why, do you intend to go so soon?" he asked.

She did not seem to hear him, and he could see that she was watching the young people intently. Jeff had turned his face up toward Genevieve, without lifting his person, and was saying something she suddenly shrank back from. She made a start as if to rise, but he put out his hand in front of her, beseechingly or compellingly, and she sank down again. But she slowly shook her head at what he was saying, and turned her face toward him so that it gave her profile to the spectators. In that light and at that distance it was impossible to do more than fancy anything fateful in the words which she seemed to be uttering; but Westover chose to fancy this. Jeff waited a moment in apparent silence, after she had spoken. He sat erect and faced her, and this gave his profile, too. He must have spoken, for she shook her head again; and then, at other words from him, nodded assentingly. Then she listened motionlessly while he poured a rapid stream of visible but inaudible words. He put out his hand, as if to take hers, but she put it behind her; Westover could see it white there against the belt of her dark dress.

Jeff went on more vehemently, but she remained steadfast, slowly shaking her head. When he ended she spoke, and with something of his own energy; he made a gesture of submission, and when she rose he rose, too. She stood a moment, and with a gentle and almost entreating movement she put out her hand to him. He stood looking down, with both his hands resting on the top of his stick, as if ignoring her proffer. Then he suddenly caught her hand, held it a moment; dropped it, and walked quickly away without looking back. Genevieve ran across the lawn and roadway toward the house.

"Oh, must, you go?" Mrs. Vostrand said to Westover. He found that he had probably risen in sympathy with Jeff's action. He was not aware of an intention of going, but he thought he had better not correct Mrs. Vostrand's error.

"Yes, I really must, now," he said.

"Well, then," she returned, distractedly, "do come often."

He hurried out to avoid meeting Genevieve. He passed her, on the public stairs of the house, but he saw that she did not recognize him in the dim light.

Late that night he was startled by steps that seemed to be seeking their way up the stairs to his landing, and then by a heavy knock on his door. He opened it, and confronted Jeff Durgin.

"May I come in, Mr. Westover?" he asked, with unwonted deference.

"Yes, come in," said Westover, with no great relish, setting his door open, and then holding onto it a moment, as if he hoped that, having come in, Jeff might instantly go out again.

His reluctance was lost upon Jeff, who said, unconscious of keeping his hat on: "I want to talk with you—I want to tell you something—"

"All right. Won't you sit down?"

At this invitation Jeff seemed reminded to take his hat off, and he put it on the floor beside his chair. "I'm not in a scrape, this time—or, rather, I'm in the worst kind of a scrape, though it isn't the kind that you want bail for."

"Yes," Westover prompted.

"I don't know whether you've noticed—and if you haven't it don't make any difference—that I've seemed to—care a good deal for Miss Vostrand?"

Westover saw no reason why he should not be frank, and said: "Too much, I've fancied sometimes, for a student in his Sophomore year."

"Yes, I know that. Well, it's over, whether it was too much or too little." He laughed in a joyless, helpless way, and looked deprecatingly at Westover. "I guess I've been making a fool of myself—that's all."

"It's better to make a fool of one's self than to make a fool of some one else," said Westover, oracularly.

"Yes," said Jeff, apparently finding nothing more definite in the oracle than people commonly find in oracles. "But I think," he went on, with a touch of bitterness, "that her mother might have told me that she was engaged—or the same as engaged."

"I don't know that she was bound to take you seriously, or to suppose you took yourself so, at your age and with your prospects in life. If you want to know,"—Westover faltered, and then went on—"she began to be kind to you because she was afraid that you might think she didn't take your coming home second-cabin in the right way; and one thing led to another. You mustn't blame her for what's happened."

Westover defended Mrs. Vostrand, but he did not feel strong in her defence; he was not sure that Durgin was quite wrong, absurd as he had been. He sat down and looked up at his visitor under his brows.

"What are you here for, Jeff? Not to complain of Mrs. Vostrand?"

Jeff gave a short, shamefaced laugh. "No, it's this you're such an old friend of Mrs. Vostrand's that I thought she'd be pretty sure to tell you about it; and I wanted to ask—to ask—that you wouldn't say anything to mother."

"You are a boy! I shouldn't think of meddling with your affairs," said Westover; he got up again, and Jeff rose, too.

Before noon the next day a district messenger brought Westover a letter which he easily knew, from, the now belated tall, angular hand, to be from Mrs. Vostrand. It announced on a much criss-crossed little sheet that she and Genevieve were inconsolably taking a very sudden departure, and were going on the twelve-o'clock train to New York, where Mr. Vostrand was to meet them. "In regard to that affair which I mentioned last night, he withdraws his objections (we have had an overnight telegram), and so I suppose all will go well. I cannot tell you how sorry we both are not to see you again; you have been such a dear, good friend to us; and if you don't hear from us again at New York, you will from the other side. Genevieve had some very strange news when she came in, and we both feel very sorry for the poor young fellow. You must console him from us all you can. I did not know before how much she was attached to Gigi: but it turned out very fortunately that she could say she considered herself bound to him, and did everything to save Mr. D.'s feelings."

William Dean Howells