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Chapter 25

XXV.

The will of Jeff's mother relaxed its grip upon the purpose so long held, as if the mere strain of the tenacity had wearied and weakened it. When it finally appeared that her ambition for her son was not his ambition for himself and would never be, she abandoned it. Perhaps it was the easier for her to forego her hopes of his distinction in the world, because she had learned before that she must forego her hopes of him in other ways. She had vaguely fancied that with the acquaintance his career at Harvard would open to him Jeff would make a splendid marriage. She had followed darkling and stumbling his course in society as far as he would report it to her, and when he would not suffer her to glory in it, she believed that he was forbidding her from a pride that would not recognize anything out of the common in it. She exulted in his pride, and she took all his snubbing reserves tenderly, as so many proofs of his success.

At the bottom of her heart she had both fear and contempt of all towns-people, whom she generalized from her experience of them as summer folks of a greater or lesser silliness. She often found herself unable to cope with them, even when she felt that she had twice their sense; she perceived that they had something from their training that with all her undisciplined force she could never hope to win from her own environment. But she believed that her son would have the advantages which baffled her in them, for he would have their environment; and she had wished him to rivet his hold upon those advantages by taking a wife from among them, and by living the life of their world. Her wishes, of course, had no such distinct formulation, and the feeling she had toward Cynthia as a possible barrier to her ambition had no more definition. There had been times when the fitness of her marriage with Jeff had moved the mother's heart to a jealousy that she always kept silent, while she hoped for the accident or the providence which should annul the danger. But Genevieve Vostrand had not been the kind of accident or the providence that she would have invoked, and when she saw Jeff's fancy turning toward her, Mrs. Durgin had veered round to Cynthia. All the same she kept a keen eye upon the young ladies among the summer folks who came to Lion's Head, and tacitly canvassed their merits and inclinations with respect to Jeff in the often-imagined event of his caring for any one of them. She found that her artfully casual references to her son's being in Harvard scarcely affected their mothers in the right way. The fact made them think of the head waiters whom they had met at other hotels, and who were working their way through Dartmouth or Williams or Yale, and it required all the force of Jeff's robust personality to dissipate their erroneous impressions of him. He took their daughters out of their arms and from under their noses on long drives upon his buckboard, and it became a convention with them to treat his attentions somewhat like those of a powerful but faithful vassal.

Whether he was indifferent, or whether the young ladies were coy, none of these official flirtations came to anything. He seemed not to care for one more than another; he laughed and joked with them all, and had an official manner with each which served somewhat like a disparity of years in putting them at their ease with him. They agreed that he was very handsome, and some thought him very talented; but they questioned whether he was quite what you would call a gentleman. It is true that this misgiving attacked them mostly in the mass; singly, they were little or not at all troubled by it, and they severally behaved in an unprincipled indifference to it.

Mrs. Durgin had the courage of her own purposes, but she had the fear of Jeff's. After the first pang of the disappointment which took final shape from his declaration that he was going to marry Cynthia, she did not really care much. She had the habit of the girl; she respected her, she even loved her. The children, as she thought of them, had known each other from their earliest days; Jeff had persecuted Cynthia throughout his graceless boyhood, but he had never intimidated her; and his mother, with all her weakness for him, felt that it was well for him that his wife should be brave enough to stand up against him.

She formulated this feeling no more than the others, but she said to Westover, whom Jeff bade her tell of the engagement: "It a'n't exactly as I could 'a' wished it to be. But I don't know as mothers are ever quite suited with their children's marriages. I presume it's from always kind of havin' had her round under my feet ever since she was born, as you may say, and seein' her family always so shiftless. Well, I can't say that of Frank, either. He's turned out a fine boy; but the father! Cynthy is one of the most capable girls, smart as a trap, and bright as a biscuit. She's masterful, too! she NEED to have a will of her own with Jeff."

Something of the insensate pride that mothers have in their children's faults, as their quick tempers, or their wastefulness, or their revengefulness, expressed itself in her tone; and it was perhaps this that irritated Westover.

"I hope he'll never let her know it. I don't think a strong will is a thing to be prized, and I shouldn't consider it one of Cynthia's good points. The happiest life for her would be one that never forced her to use it."

"I don't know as I understand you exactly," said Mrs. Durgin, with some dryness. "I know Jeff's got rather of a domineering disposition, but I don't believe but she can manage him without meetin' him on his own ground, as you may say."

"She's a girl in a thousand," Westover returned, evasively.

"Then you think he's shown sense in choosin' of her?" pursued Jeff's mother, resolute to find some praise of him in Westover's words.

"He's a very fortunate man," said the painter.

"Well, I guess you're right," Mrs. Durgin acquiesced, as much to Jeff's advantage as she could. "You know I was always afraid he would make a fool of himself, but I guess he's kept his eyes pretty well open all the while. Well!" She closed the subject with this exclamation. "Him and Cynthy's been at me about Jackson," she added, abruptly. "They've cooked it up between 'em that he's out of health or run down or something."

Her manner referred the matter to Westover, and he said: "He isn't looking so well this summer. He ought to go away somewhere."

"That's what they thought," said Mrs. Durgin, smiling in her pleasure at having their opinion confirmed by the old and valued friend of the family.

"Whereabouts do you think he'd best go?"

"Oh, I don't know. Italy—or Egypt—"

"I guess, if you could get Jackson to go away at all, it would be to some of them old Bible countries," said Mrs. Durgin. "We've got to have a fight to get him off, make the best of it, and I've thought it over since the children spoke about it, and I couldn't seem to see Jackson willin' to go out to Californy or Colorady, to either of his brothers. But I guess he would go to Egypt. That a good climate for the—his complaint?"

She entered eagerly into the question, and Westover promised to write to a Boston doctor, whom he knew very well, and report Jackson's case to him, and get his views of Egypt.

"Tell him how it is," said Mrs. Durgin, "and the tussle we shall have to have anyway to make Jackson believe he'd ought to have a rest. He'll go to Egypt if he'll go anywheres, because his mind keeps runnin' on Bible questions, and it 'll interest him to go out there; and we can make him believe it's just to bang around for the winter. He's terrible hopeful." Now that she began to speak, all her long-repressed anxiety poured itself out, and she hitched her chair nearer to Westover and wistfully clutched his sleeve. "That's the worst of Jackson. You can't make him believe anything's the matter. Sometimes I can't bear to hear him go on about himself as if he was a well young man. He expects that medium's stuff is goin' to cure him!"

"People sick in that way are always hopeful," said Westover.

"Oh, don't I know it! Ha'n't I seen my children and my husband—Oh, do ask that doctor to answer as quick as he can!"

William Dean Howells