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Chapter 28

XXVIII.

Jeff's place at Harvard had been too long fixed among the jays to allow the hope of wholly retrieving his condition now. It was too late for him to be chosen in any of the nicer clubs or societies, but he was not beyond the mounting sentiment of comradery, which begins to tell in the last year among college men, and which had its due effect with his class. One of the men, who had always had a foible for humanity, took advantage of the prevailing mood in another man, and wrought upon him to ask, among the fellows he was asking to a tea at his rooms, several fellows who were distinctly and almost typically jay. The tea was for the aunt of the man who gave it, a very pretty woman from New York, and it was so richly qualified by young people of fashion from Boston that the infusion of the jay flavor could not spoil it, if it would not rather add an agreeable piquancy. This college mood coincided that year with a benevolent emotion in the larger world, from which fashion was not exempt. Society had just been stirred by the reading of a certain book, which had then a very great vogue, and several people had been down among the wretched at the North End doing good in a conscience-stricken effort to avert the millennium which the book in question seemed to threaten. The lady who matronized the tea was said to have done more good than you could imagine at the North End, and she caught at the chance to meet the college jays in a spirit of Christian charity. When the man who was going to give the tea rather sheepishly confessed what the altruistic man had got him in for, she praised him so much that he went away feeling like the hero of a holy cause. She promised the assistance and sympathy of several brave girls, who would not be afraid of all the jays in college.

After all, only one of the jays came. Not many, in fact, had been asked, and when Jeff Durgin actually appeared, it was not known that he was both the first and the last of his kind. The lady who was matronizing the tea recognized him, with a throe of her quickened conscience, as the young fellow whom she had met two winters before at the studio tea which Mr. Westover had given to those queer Florentine friends of his, and whom she had never thought of since, though she had then promised herself to do something for him. She had then even given him some vague hints of a prospective hospitality, and she confessed her sin of omission in a swift but graphic retrospect to one of her brave girls, while Jeff stood blocking out a space for his stalwart bulk amid the alien elegance just within the doorway, and the host was making his way toward him, with an outstretched hand of hardy welcome.

At an earlier period of his neglect and exclusion, Jeff would not have responded to the belated overture which had now been made him, for no reason that he could divine. But he had nothing to lose by accepting the invitation, and he had promised the altruistic man, whom he rather liked; he did not dislike the giver of the tea so much as some other men, and so he came.

The brave girl whom the matron was preparing to devote to him stood shrinking with a trepidation which she could not conceal at sight of his strange massiveness, with his rust-gold hair coming down toward his thick yellow brows and mocking blue eyes in a dense bang, and his jaw squaring itself under the rather insolent smile of his full mouth. The matron felt that her victim teas perhaps going to fail her, when a voice at her ear said, as if the question were extorted, "Who in the world is that?"

She instantly turned, and flashed out in a few inspired syllables the fact she had just imparted to her treacherous heroine. "Do let me introduce him, Miss Lynde. I must do something for him, when he gets up to me, if he ever does."

"By all means," said the girl, who had an impulse to laugh at the rude force of Jeff's face and figure, so disproportioned to the occasion, and she vented it at the matron's tribulation. The matron was shaking hands with people right and left, and exchanging inaudible banalities with them. She did not know what the girl said in answer, but she was aware that she remained near her. She had professed her joy at seeing Jeff again, when he reached her, and she turned with him and said, "Let me present you to Miss Lynde, Mr. Durgin," and so abandoned them to each other.

As Jeff had none of the anxiety for social success which he would have felt at an earlier period, he now left it to Miss Lynde to begin the talk, or not, as she chose. He bore himself with so much indifference that she was piqued to an effort to hold his eyes, that wandered from her to this face and that in the crowd.

"Do you find many people you know, Mr. Durgin?"

"I don't find any."

"I supposed you didn't from the way you looked at them."

"How did I look at them?"

"As if you wanted to eat them, and one never wants to eat one's friends."

"Why?"

"Oh, I don't know. They wouldn't agree with one."

Jeff laughed, and he now took fuller note of the slender girl who stood before him, and swayed a little backward, in a graceful curve. He saw that she had a dull, thick complexion, with liquid eyes, set wide apart and slanted upward slightly, and a nose that was deflected inward from the straight line; but her mouth was beautiful and vividly red like a crimson blossom.

"Couldn't you find me some place to sit down, Mr. Durgin?" she asked.

He had it on his tongue to say, "Well, not unless you want to sit down on some enemy," but he did not venture this: when it comes to daring of that sort, the boldest man is commonly a little behind a timid woman.

Several of the fellows had clubbed their rooms, and lent them to the man who was giving the tea; he used one of the apartments for a cloak-room, and he meant the other for the social overflow from his own. But people always prefer to remain dammed-up together in the room where they are received, and Miss Lynde looked between the neighboring heads, and over the neighboring shoulders, and saw the borrowed apartment quite empty. At the moment of this discovery the host came fighting his way up to make sure that Jeff had been provided for in the way of introductions. He promptly introduced him to Miss Lynde. She said: "Oh, that's been done! Can't you think of something new?" Jeff liked the style of this. "I don't mind it, but I'm afraid Mr. Durgin must find it monotonous."

"Oh, well, do something original yourself, then, Miss Lynde!" said the host. "Start a movement for that room across the passage; that's mine, too, for the occasion; and save some of these people's lives. It's suffocating in here."

"I don't mind saving Mr. Durgin's," said the girl, "if he wants it saved."

"Oh, I know he's just dying to have you save it," said the host, and he left them, to inspire other people to follow their example. But such as glanced across the passage into the overflow room seemed to think it now the possession solely of the pioneers of the movement. At any rate, they made no show of joining them; and after Miss Lynde and Jeff had looked at the pictures on the walls and the photographs on the mantel of the room where they found themselves, they sat down on chairs fronting the open door and the door of the room they had left. The window-seat would have been more to Jeff's mind, and he had proposed it, but the girl seemed not to have heard him; she took the deep easy-chair in full view of the company opposite, and left him to pull up a chair beside her.

"I always like to see the pictures in a man's room," she said, with a little sigh of relief from their inspection and a partial yielding of her figure to the luxury of the chair. "Then I know what the man is. This man—I don't know whose room it is—seems to have spent a good deal of his time at the theatre."

"Isn't that where most of them spend their time?" asked Jeff.

"I'm sure I don't know. Is that where you spend yours?"

"It used to be. I'm not spending my time anywhere just now." She looked questioningly, and he added, "I haven't got any to spend."

"Oh, indeed! Is that a reason? Why don't you spend somebody else's?"

"Nobody has any, that I know."

"You're all working off conditions, you mean?"

"That's what I'm doing, or trying to."

"Then it's never certain whether you can do it, after all?"

"Not so certain as to be free from excitement," said Jeff, smiling.

"And are you consumed with the melancholy that seems to be balling up all the men at the prospect of having to leave Harvard and go out into the hard, cold world?"

"I don't look it, do I? Jeff asked:

"No, you don't. And you don't feel it? You're not trying concealment, and so forth?"

"No; if I'd had my own way, I'd have left Harvard before this." He could see that his bold assumption of difference, or indifference, told upon her. "I couldn't get out into the hard, cold world too soon."

"How fearless! Most of them don't know what they're going to do in it."

"I do."

"And what are you going to do? Or perhaps you think that's asking!"

"Oh no. I'm going to keep a hotel."

He had hoped to startle her, but she asked, rather quietly, "What do you mean?" and she added, as if to punish him for trying to mystify her: "I've heard that it requires gifts for that. Isn't there some proverb?"

"Yes. But I'm going to try to do it on experience." He laughed, and he did not mind her trying to hit him, for he saw that he had made her curious.

"Do you mean that you have kept a hotel?"

"For three generations," he returned, with a gravity that mocked her from his bold eyes.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," she said, indifferently. "Where is your hotel? In Boston—New York—Chicago?"

"It's in the country—it's a summer hotel," he said, as before.

She looked away from him toward the other room. "There's my brother. I didn't know he was coming."

"Shall I go and tell him where you are?" Jeff asked, following the direction of her eyes.

"No, no; he can find me," said the girl, sinking back in her chair again. He left her to resume the talk where she chose, and she said: "If it's something ancestral, of course—"

"I don't know as it's that, exactly. My grandfather used to keep a country tavern, and so it's in the blood, but the hotel I mean is something that we've worked up into from a farm boarding-house."

"You don't talk like a country person," the girl broke in, abruptly.

"Not in Cambridge. I do in the country."

"And so," she prompted, "you're going to turn it into a hotel when you've got out of Harvard."

"It's a hotel already, and a pretty big one; but I'm going to make the right kind of hotel of it when I take hold of it."

"And what is the right kind of a hotel?"

"That's a long story. It would make you tired."

"It might, but we've got to spend the time somehow. You could begin, and then if I couldn't stand it you could stop."

"It's easier to stop first and begin some other time. I guess I'll let you imagine my hotel, Miss Lynde."

"Oh, I understand now," said the girl. "The table will be the great thing. You will stuff people."

"Do you mean that I'm trying to stuff you?"

"How do I know? You never can tell what men really mean."

Jeff laughed with mounting pleasure in her audacity, that imparted a sense of tolerance for him such as he had experienced very seldom from the Boston girls he had met; after all, he had met but few. It flattered him to have her doubt what he had told her in his reckless indifference; it implied that he was fit for better things than hotel-keeping.

"You never can tell how much a woman believes," he retorted.

"And you keep trying to find out?"

"No, but I think that they might believe the truth."

"You'd better try them with it!"

"Well, I will. Do you really want to know what I'm going to do when I get through?"

"Let me see!" Miss Lynde leaned forward, with her elbow on her knee and her chin in her hand, and softly kicked the edge of her skirt with the toe of her shoe, as if in deep thought. Jeff waited for her to play her comedy through. "Yes," she said, "I think I did wish to know—at one time."

"But you don't now?"

"Now? How can I tell? It was a great while ago!"

"I see you don't."

Miss Lynde did not make any reply. She asked, "Do you know my aunt, Durgin?"

"I didn't know you had one."

"Yes, everybody has an aunt—even when they haven't a mother, if you can believe the Gilbert operas. I ask because I happen to live with my aunt, and if you knew her she might—ask you to call." Miss Lynde scanned Jeff's face for the effect of this.

He said, gravely: "If you'll introduce me to her, I'll ask her to let me."

"Would you, really?" said the girl. "I've half a mind to try. I wonder if you'd really have the courage."

"I don't think I'm easily rattled."

"You mean that I'm trying to rattle you."

"No—"

"I'm not. My aunt is just what I've said."

"You haven't said what she was. Is she here?"

"No; that's the worst of it. If she were, I should introduce you, just to see if you'd dare. Well, some other time I will."

"You think there'll be some other time?" Jeff asked.

"I don't know. There are all kinds of times. By-the-way, what time is it?"

Jeff looked at his watch. "Quarter after six."

"Then I must go." She jumped to her feet, and faced about for a glimpse of herself in the little glass on the mantel, and put her hand on the large pink roses massed at her waist. One heavy bud dropped from its stem to the floor, where, while she stood, the edge of her skirt pulled and pushed it. She moved a little aside to peer over at a photograph. Jeff stooped and picked up the flower, which he offered her.

"You dropped it," he said, bowing over it.

"Did I?" She looked at it with an effect of surprise and doubt.

"I thought so, but if you don't, I shall keep it."

The girl removed her careless eyes from it. "When they break off so short, they won't go back."

"If I were a rose, I should want to go back," said Jeff.

She stopped in one of her many aversions and reversions, and looked at him steadily across her shoulder. "You won't have to keep a poet, Mr. Durgin."

"Thank you. I always expected to write the circulars myself. I'll send you one."

"Do."

"With this rose pressed between the leaves, so you'll know."

"That would, be very pretty. But you must take me to Mrs. Bevidge, now, if you can."

"I guess I can," said Jeff; and in a minute or two they stood before the matronizing hostess, after a passage through the babbling and laughing groups that looked as impossible after they had made it as it looked before.

Mrs. Bevidge gave the girl's hand a pressure distinct from the official touch of parting, and contrived to say, for her hearing alone: "Thank you so much, Bessie. You've done missionary work."

"I shouldn't call it that."

"It will do for you to say so! He wasn't really so bad, then? Thank you again, dear!"

Jeff had waited his turn. But now, after the girl had turned away, as if she had forgotten him, his eyes followed her, and he did not know that Mrs. Bevidge was speaking to him. Miss Lynde had slimly lost herself in the mass, till she was only a graceful tilt of hat, before she turned with a distraught air. When her eyes met Jeff's they lighted up with a look that comes into the face when one remembers what one has been trying to think of. She gave him a brilliant smile that seemed to illumine him from head to foot, and before it was quenched he felt as if she had kissed her hand to him from her rich mouth.

Then he heard Mrs. Bevidge asking something about a hall, and he was aware of her bending upon him a look of the daring humanity that had carried her triumphantly through her good works at the North End.

"Oh, I'm not in the Yard," said Jeff, with belated intelligence.

"Then will just Cambridge reach you?"

He gave his number and street, and she thanked him with the benevolence that availed so much with the lower classes. He went away thrilling and tingling, with that girl's tones in his ear, her motions in his nerves, and the colors of her face filling his sight, which he printed on the air whenever he turned, as one does with a vivid light after looking at it.

William Dean Howells