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Chapter 24

XXIV.

Mrs. Durgin and Cynthia did not seek any formal meeting the next morning. The course of their work brought them together, but it was not till after they had transacted several household affairs of pressing importance that Mrs. Durgin asked: "What's this about you and Jeff?"

"Has he been telling you?" asked Cynthia, in her turn, though she knew he had.

"Yes," said Mrs. Durgin, with a certain dryness, which was half humorous. "I presume, if you two are satisfied, it's all right."

"I guess we're satisfied," said the girl, with a tremor of relief which she tried to hide.

Nothing more was said, and there was no physical demonstration of affection or rejoicing between the women. They knew that the time would come when they would talk over the affair down to the bone together, but now they were content to recognize the fact, and let the time for talking arrive when it would. "I guess," said Mrs. Durgin, "you'd better go over to the helps' house and see how that youngest Miller girl's gittin' along. She'd ought to give up and go home if she a'n't fit for her work."

"I'll go and see her," said Cynthia. "I don't believe she's strong enough for a waitress, and I have got to tell her so."

"Well," returned Mrs. Durgin, glumly, after a moment's reflection, "I shouldn't want you should hurry her. Wait till she's out of bed, and give her another chance."

"All right."

Jeff had been lurking about for the event of the interview, and he waylaid Cynthia on the path to the helps' house.

"I'm going over to see that youngest Miller girl," she explained.

"Yes, I know all about that," said Jeff. "Well, mother took it just right, didn't she? You can't always count on her; but I hadn't much anxiety in this case. She likes you, Cynthia."

"I guess so," said the girl, demurely; and she looked away from him to smile her pleasure in the fact.

"But I believe if she hadn't known you were with her about my last year in Harvard—it would have been different. I could see, when I brought it in that you wanted me to go back, her mind was made up for you."

"Why need you say anything about that?"

"Oh, I knew it would clinch her. I understand mother. If you want something from her you mustn't ask it straight out. You must propose something very disagreeable. Then when she refuses that, you can come in for what you were really after and get it."

"I don't know," said Cynthia, "as I should like to think that your mother had been tricked into feeling right about me."

"Tricked!" The color flashed up in Jeff's face.

"Not that, Jeff," said the girl, tenderly. "But you know what I mean. I hope you talked it all out fully with her."

"Fully? I don't know what you mean."

"About your not studying law, and—everything."

"I don't believe in crossing a river till I come to it," said Jeff. "I didn't say anything to her about that."

"You didn't!"

"No. What had it got to do with our being engaged?"

"What had your going back to Harvard to do with it? If your mother thinks I'm with her in that, she'll think I'm with her in the other. And I'm not. I'm with you." She let her hand find his, as they walked side by side, and gave it a little pressure.

"It's the greatest thing, Cynthy," he said, breathlessly, "to have you with me in that. But, if you said I ought to study law, I should do it."

"I shouldn't say that, for I believe you're right; but even if I believed you were wrong, I shouldn't say it. You have a right to make your life what you want it; and your mother hasn't. Only she must know it, and you must tell her at once."

"At once?"

"Yes—now. What good will it do to put it off? You're not afraid to tell her!"

"I don't like you to use that word."

"And I don't like to use it. But I know how it is. You're afraid that the brunt of it will come on ME. She'll think you're all right, but I'm all wrong because I agree with you."

"Something like that."

"Well, now, I'm not afraid of anything she can say; and what could she do? She can't part us, unless you let her, and then I should let her, too."

"But what's the hurry? What's the need of doing it right off?"

"Because it's a deceit not to do it. It's a lie!"

"I don't see it in that light. I might change my mind, and still go on and study law."

"You know you never will. Now, Jeff! Why do you act so?"

Jeff did not answer at once. He walked beside her with a face of trouble that became one of resolve in the set jaws. "I guess you're right, Cynthy. She's got to know the worst, and the sooner she knows it the better."

"Yes!"

He had another moment of faltering. "You don't want I should talk it over with Mr. Westover?"

"What has he got to do with it?"

"That's true!"

"If you want to see it in the right light, you can think you've let it run on till after you're out of college, and then you've got to tell her. Suppose she asked you how long you had made up your mind against the law, how should you feel? And if she asked me whether I'd known it all along, and I had to say I had, and that I'd supported and encouraged you in it, how should I feel?"

"She mightn't ask any such question," said Jeff, gloomily. Cynthia gave a little impatient "Oh!" and he hastened to add: "But you're right; I've got to tell her. I'll tell her to-night—"

"Don't wait till to-night; do it now."

"Now?"

"Yes; and I'll go with you as soon as I've seen the youngest Miller girl." They had reached the helps' house now, and Cynthia said: "You wait outside here, and I'll go right back with you. Oh, I hope it isn't doing wrong to put it off till I've seen that girl!" She disappeared through the door, and Jeff waited by the steps outside, plucking up one long grass stem after another and biting it in two. When Cynthia came out she said: "I guess she'll be all right. Now come, and don't-lose another second."

"You're afraid I sha'n't do it if I wait any longer!"

"I'm afraid I sha'n't." There was a silence after this.

"Do you know what I think of you, Cynthy?" asked Jeff, hurrying to keep up with her quick steps. "You've got more courage—"

"Oh, don't praise me, or I shall break down!"

"I'll see that you don't break down," said Jeff, tenderly. "It's the greatest thing to have you go with me!"

"Why, don't you SEE?" she lamented. "If you went alone, and told your mother that I approved of it, you would look as if you were afraid, and wanted to get behind me; and I'm not going to have that."

They found. Mrs. Durgin in the dark entry of the old farmhouse, and Cynthia said, with involuntary imperiousness: "Come in here, Mrs. Durgin; I want to tell you something."

She led the way to the old parlor, and she checked Mrs. Durgin's question, "Has that Miller girl—"

"It isn't about her," said Cynthy, pushing the door to. "It's about me and Jeff."

Mrs. Durgin became aware of Jeff's presence with an effect of surprise. "There a'n't anything more, is there?"

"Yes, there is!" Cynthia shrilled. "Now, Jeff!"

"It's just this, mother: Cynthy thinks I ought to tell you—and she thinks I ought to have told you last night—she expected me to—that I'm not going to study law."

"And I approve of his not doing it," Cynthia promptly followed, and she put herself beside Jeff where he stood in front of his mother's rocking-chair.

She looked from one to the other of the faces before her. "I'm sorry a son of mine," she said, with dignity, "had to be told how to act with his mother. But, if he had, I don't know as anybody had a better right to do it than the girl that's going to marry him. And I'll say this, Cynthia Whitwell, before I say anything else: you've begun right. I wish I could say Jeff had."

There was an uncomfortable moment before Cynthia said: "He expected to tell you."

"Oh Yes! I know," said his mother, sadly. She added, sharply: "And did he expect to tell me what he intended to do for a livin'?"

Jeff took the word. "Yes, I did. I intend to keep a hotel."

"What hotel?" asked Mrs. Durgin, with a touch of taunting in her tone.

"This one."

The mother of the bold, rebellious boy that Jeff had been stirred in Mrs. Durgin's heart, and she looked at him with the eyes, that used to condone his mischief. But she said: "I guess you'll find out that there's more than one has to agree to that."

"Yes, there are two: you and Jackson; and I don't know but what three, if you count Cynthy, here."

His mother turned to the girl. "You think this fellow's got sense enough to keep a hotel?"

"Yes, Mrs. Durgin, I do. I think he's got good ideas about a hotel."

"And what's he goin' to do with his college education?"

Jeff interposed. "You think that all the college graduates turn out lawyers and doctors and professors? Some of 'em are mighty glad to sweep out banks in hopes of a clerkship; and some take any sort of a place in a mill or a business house, to work up; and some bum round out West 'on cattle ranches; and some, if they're lucky, get newspaper reporters' places at ten dollars a week."

Cynthia followed with the generalization: "I don't believe anybody can know too much to keep a hotel. It won't hurt Jeff if he's been to Harvard, or to Europe, either."

"I guess there's a pair of you," said Mrs. Durgin, with superficial contempt. She was silent for a time, and they waited. "Well, there!" she broke out again. "I've got something to chew upon for a spell, I guess. Go along, now, both of you! And the next time you've got to face your mother, Jeff, don't you come in lookin' round anybody's petticoats! I'll see you later about all this."

They went away with the joyful shame of children who have escaped punishment.

"That's the last of it, Cynthy," said Jeff.

"I guess so," the girl assented, with a certain grief in her voice. "I wish you had told her first!"

"Oh, never mind that now!" cried Jeff, and in the dim passageway he took her in his arms and kissed her.

He would have released her, but she lingered in his embrace. "Will you promise that if there's ever anything like it again, you won't wait for me to make you?"

"I like your having made me, but I promise," he said.

Then she tightened her arms round his neck and kissed him.

William Dean Howells