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Chapter 26

XXVI.

Westover had a difficulty in congratulating Jeff which he could scarcely define to himself, but which was like that obscure resentment we feel toward people whom we think unequal to their good fortune. He was ashamed of his grudge, whatever it was, and this may have made him overdo his expressions of pleasure. He was sensible of a false cordiality in them, and he checked himself in a flow of forced sentiment to say, more honestly: "I wish you'd speak to Cynthia for me. You know how much I think of her, and how much I want to see her happy. You ought to be a very good fellow, Jeff!"

"I'll tell her that; she'll like that," said Jeff. "She thinks the world of you."

"Does she? Well!"

"And I guess she'll be glad you sent word. She's been wondering what you would say; she's always so afraid of you."

"Is she? You're not afraid of me, are you? But perhaps you don't think so much of me."

"I guess Cynthia and I think alike on that point," said Jeff, without abating Westover's discomfort.

There was a stress of sharp cold that year about the 20th of August. Then the weather turned warm again, and held fine till the beginning of October, within a week of the time when Jackson was to sail. It had not been so hard to make him consent when he knew where the doctor wished him to go, and he had willingly profited by Westover's suggestions about getting to Egypt. His interest in the matter, which he tried to hide at first under a mask of decorous indifference, mounted with the fire of Whitwell's enthusiasm, and they held nightly councils together, studying his course on the map, and consulting planchette upon the points at variance that rose between them, while Jombateeste sat with his chair tilted against the wall, and pulled steadily at his pipe, which mixed its strong fumes with the smell of the kerosene-lamp and the perennial odor of potatoes in the cellar under the low room where the companions forgathered.

Toward the end of September Westover spent the night before he went back to town with them. After a season with planchette, their host pushed himself back with his knees from the table till his chair reared upon its hind legs, and shoved his hat up from his forehead in token of philosophical mood.

"I tell you, Jackson," he said, "you'd ought to get hold o' some them occult devils out there, and squeeze their science out of 'em. Any Buddhists in Egypt, Mr. Westover?"

"I don't think there are," said Westover. "Unless Jackson should come across some wandering Hindu. Or he might push on, and come home by the way of India."

"Do it, Jackson!" his friend conjured him. "May cost you something more, but it 'll be worth the money. If it's true, what some them Blavetsky fellers claim, you can visit us here in your astral body—git in with 'em the right way. I should like to have you try it. What's the reason India wouldn't be as good for him as Egypt, anyway?" Whitwell demanded of Westover.

"I suppose the climate's rather too moist; the heat would be rather trying to him there."

"That so?"

"And he's taken his ticket for Alexandria," Westover pursued.

"Well, I guess that's so." Whitwell tilted his backward sloping hat to one side, so as to scratch the northeast corner of his bead thoughtfully.

"But as far as that is concerned," said Westover, "and the doctrine of immortality generally is concerned, Jackson will have his hands full if he studies the Egyptian monuments."

"What they got to do with it?"

"Everything. Egypt is the home of the belief in a future life; it was carried from Egypt to Greece. He might come home by way of Athens."

"Why, man!" cried Whitwell. "Do you mean to say that them old Hebrew saints, Joseph's brethren, that went down into Egypt after corn, didn't know about immortality, and them Egyptian devils did?"

"There's very little proof in the Old Testament that the Israelites knew of it."

Whitwell looked at Jackson. "That the idee you got?"

"I guess he's right," said Jackson. "There's something a little about it in Job, and something in the Psalms: but not a great deal."

"And we got it from them Egyptian d——"

"I don't say that," Westover interposed. "But they had it before we had. As we imagine it, we got it though Christianity."

Jombateeste, who had taken his pipe out of his mouth in a controversial manner, put it back again.

Westover added, "But there's no question but the Egyptians believed in the life hereafter, and in future rewards and punishments for the deeds done in the body, thousands of years before our era."

"Well, I'm dumned," said Whitwell.

Jombateeste took his pipe out again. "Hit show they got good sense. They know—they feel it in their bone—what goin' 'appen—when you dead. Me, I guess they got some prophet find it hout for them; then they goin' take the credit."

"I guess that's something so, Jombateeste," said Whitwell. "It don't stand to reason that folks without any alphabet, as you may say, and only a lot of pictures for words, like Injuns, could figure out the immortality of the soul. They got the idee by inspiration somehow. Why, here! It's like this. Them Pharaohs must have always been clawin' out for the Hebrews before they got a hold of Joseph, and when they found out the true doctrine, they hushed up where they got it, and their priests went on teachin' it as if it was their own."

"That's w'at I say. Got it from the 'Ebrew."

"Well, it don't matter a great deal where they got it, so they got it," said Jackson, as he rose.

"I believe I'll go with you," said Westover.

"All there is about it," said the sick man, solemnly, with a frail effort to straighten himself, to which his sunken chest would not respond, "is this: no man ever did figure that out for himself. A man sees folks die, and as far as his senses go, they don't live again. But somehow he knows they do; and his knowledge comes from somewhere else; it's inspired—"

"That's w'at I say," Jombateeste hastened to interpose. "Got it from the 'Ebrew. Feel it in 'is bone."

Out under the stars Jackson and Westover silently mounted the hill-side together. At one of the thank-you-marms in the road the sick man stopped, like a weary horse, to breathe. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat of weakness that had gathered upon his forehead, and looked round the sky, powdered with the constellations and the planets. "It's sightly," he whispered.

"Yes, it is fine," Westover assented. "But the stars of our Northern nights are nothing to what you'll see in Egypt."

Jackson repeated, vaguely: "Egypt! Where I should like to go is Mars." He fixed his eyes on the flaming planets, in a long stare. "But I suppose they have their own troubles, same as we do. They must get sick and die, like the rest of us. But I should like to know more about 'em. You believe it's inhabited, don't you?"

Westover's agnosticism did not, somehow, extend to Mars. "Yes, I've no doubt of it."

Jackson seemed pleased. "I've read everything I can lay my hands on about it. I've got a notion that if there's any choosin', after we get through here, I should like to go to Mars for a while, or as long as I was a little homesick still, and wanted to keep as near the earth as I could," he added, quaintly.

Westover laughed. "You could study up the subject of irrigation, there; they say that's what keeps the parallel markings green on Mars; and telegraph a few hints to your brother in Colorado, after the Martians perfect their signal code."

Perhaps the invalid's fancy flagged. He drew a long, ragged breath. "I don't know as I care to leave home, much. If it wa'n't a kind of duty, I shouldn't." He seemed impelled by a sudden need to say, "How do you think Jefferson and mother will make it out together?"

"I've no doubt they'll manage," said Westover.

"They're a good deal alike," Jackson suggested.

"Westover preferred not to meet his overture. You'll be back, you know, almost as soon as the season commences, next summer."

"Yes," Jackson assented, more cheerfully. "And now, Cynthy's sure to be here."

"Yes, she will be here," said Westover, not so cheerfully.

Jackson seemed to find the opening he was seeking, in Westover's tone. "What do you think of gettin' married, anyway, Mr. Westover?" he asked.

"We haven't either of us thought so well of it as to try it, Jackson," said the painter, jocosely.

"Think it's a kind of chance?"

"It's a chance."

Jackson was silent. Then, "I a'n't one of them," he said, abruptly, "that think a man's goin' to be made over by marryin' this woman or that. If he a'n't goin' to be the right kind of a man himself, he a'n't because his wife's a good woman. Sometimes I think that a man's wife is the last person in the world that can change his disposition. She can influence him about this and about that, but she can't change him. It seems as if he couldn't let her if he tried, and after the first start-off he don't try."

"That's true," Westover assented. "We're terribly inflexible. Nothing but something like a change of heart, as they used to call it, can make us different, and even then we're apt to go back to our old shape. When you look at it in that light, marriage seems impossible. Yet it takes place every day!"

"It's a great risk for a woman," said Jackson, putting on his hat and stirring for an onward movement. "But I presume that if the man is honest with her it's the best thing she can have. The great trouble is for the man to be honest with her."

"Honesty is difficult," said Westover.

He made Jackson promise to spend a day with him in Boston, on his way to take the Mediterranean steamer at New York. When they met he yielded to an impulse which the invalid's forlornness inspired, and went on to see him off. He was glad that he did that, for, though Jackson was not sad at parting, he was visibly touched by Westover's kindness.

Of course he talked away from it. "I guess I've left 'em in pretty good shape for the winter at Lion's Head," he said. "I've got Whitwell to agree to come up and live in the house with mother, and she'll have Cynthy with her, anyway; and Frank and Jombateeste can look after the bosses easy enough."

He had said something like this before, but Westover could see that it comforted him to repeat it, and he encouraged him to do so in full. He made him talk about getting home in the spring, after the frost was out of the ground, but he questioned involuntarily, while the sick man spoke, whether he might not then be lying under the sands that had never known a frost since the glacial epoch. When the last warning for visitors to go ashore came, Jackson said, with a wan smile, while he held Westover's hand: "I sha'n't forget this very soon."

"Write to me," said Westover.

William Dean Howells