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Chapter 29

XXIX

When Jeff reached his room he felt the need of writing to Cynthia, with whatever obscure intention of atonement. He told her of the college tea he had just come from, and made fun of it, and the kind of people he had met, especially the affected girl who had tried to rattle him; he said he guessed she did not think she had rattled him a great deal.

While he wrote he kept thinking how this Miss Lynde was nearer his early ideal of fashion, of high life, which Westover had pretty well snubbed out of him, than any woman he had seen yet; she seemed a girl who would do what she pleased, and would not be afraid if it did not please other people. He liked her having tried to rattle him, and he smiled to himself in recalling her failure. It was as if she had laid hold of him with her little hands to shake him, and had shaken herself. He laughed out in the dark when this image came into his mind; its intimacy flattered him; and he believed that it was upon some hint from her that Mrs. Bevidge had asked his address. She must be going to ask him to her house, and very soon, for it was part of Jeff's meagre social experience that this was the way swells did; they might never ask you twice, but they would ask you promptly.

The thing that Mrs. Bevidge asked Jeff to, when her note reached him the second day after the tea, was a meeting to interest young people in the work at the North End, and Jeff swore under his breath at the disappointment and indignity put upon him. He had reckoned upon an afternoon tea, at least, or even, in the flights of fancy which he now disowned to himself, a dance after the Mid-Years, or possibly an earlier reception of some sort. He burned with shame to think of a theatre-party, which he had fondly specialized, with a seat next Miss Lynde.

He tore Mrs. Bevidge's note to pieces, and decided not to answer it at all, as the best way of showing how he had taken her invitation. But Mrs. Bevidge's benevolence was not wanting in courage; she believed that Jeff should pay his footing in society, such as it was, and should allow himself to be made use of, the first thing; when she had no reply from him, she wrote him again, asking him to an adjourned meeting of the first convocation, which had been so successful in everything but numbers. This time she baited her hook, in hoping that the young men would feel something of the interest the young ladies had already shown in the matter. She expressed the fear that Mr. Durgin had not got her earlier letter, and she sent this second to the care of the man who had given the tea.

Jeff's resentment was now so far past that he would have civilly declined to go to the woman's house; but all his hopes of seeing that girl, as he always called Miss Lynde in his thought, were revived by the mention of the young ladies interested in the cause. He accepted, though all the way into Boston he laid wagers with himself that she would not be there; and up to the moment of taking her hand he refused himself any hope of winning.

There was not much business before the meeting; that had really been all transacted before; it was mainly to make sure of the young men, who were present in the proportion of one to five young ladies at least. Mrs. Bevidge explained that she had seen the wastefulness of amateur effort among the poor, and announced that hereafter she was going to work with the established charities. These were very much in want of visitors, especially young men, to go about among the applicants for relief, and inquire into their real necessities, and get work for them. She was hers self going to act as secretary for the meetings during the coming month, and apparently she wished to signalize her accession to the regular forces of charity by bringing into camp as large a body of recruits as she could.

But Jeff had not come to be made use of, or as a jay who was willing to work for his footing in society. He had come in the hope of meeting Miss Lynde, and now that he had met her he had no gratitude to Mrs. Bevidge as a means, and no regret for the defeat of her good purposes so far as she intended their fulfilment in him. He was so cool and self-possessed in excusing himself, for reasons that he took no pains to make seem unselfish, that the altruistic man who had got him asked to the college tea as a friendless jay felt it laid upon him to apologize for Mrs. Bevidge's want of tact.

"She means well, and she's very much in earnest, in this work; but I must say she can make herself very offensive—when she doesn't try! She has a right to ask our help, but not to parade us as the captives of her bow and spear."

"Oh, that's all right," said Jeff. He perceived that the amiable fellow was claiming for all an effect that Jeff knew really implicated himself alone. "I couldn't load up with anything of that sort, if I'm to work off my conditions, you know."

"Are you in that boat?" said the altruist, as if he were, too; and he put his hand compassionately on Jeff's iron shoulder, and left him to Miss Lynde, whose side he had not stirred from since he had found her.

"It seems to me," she said, "that where there are so many of you in the same boat, you might manage to get ashore somehow."

"Yes, or all go down together." Jeff laughed, and ate Mrs. Bevidge's bread-and-butter, and drank her tea, with a relish unaffected by his refusal to do what she asked him. He was right, perhaps, and perhaps she deserved nothing better at his hands, but the altruist, when he glanced at him from the other side of the room, thought that he had possibly wasted his excuses upon Jeff's self-complacence.

He went away in a halo of young ladies; several of the other girls grouped themselves in their departure; and it happened that Miss Lynde and Jeff took leave together. Mrs. Bevidge said to her, with the caressing tenderness of one in the same set, "Good-bye, dear!" To Jeff she said, with the cold conscience of those whom their nobility obliges, "I am always at home on Thursdays, Mr. Durgin."

"Oh, thank you," said Jeff. He understood what the words and the manner meant together, but both were instantly indifferent to him when he got outside and found that Miss Lynde was not driving. Something, which was neither look, nor smile, nor word, of course, but nothing more at most than a certain pull and tilt of the shoulder, as she turned to walk away from Mrs. Bevidge's door, told him from her that he might walk home with her if he would not seem to do so.

It was one of the pink evenings, dry and clear, that come in the Boston December, and they walked down the sidehill street, under the delicate tracery of the elm boughs in the face of the metallic sunset. In the section of the Charles that the perspective of the street blocked out, the wrinkled current showed as if glazed with the hard color. Jeff's strong frame rejoiced in the cold with a hale pleasure when he looked round into the face of the girl beside him, with the gray film of her veil pressed softly against her red mouth by her swift advance. Their faces were nearly on a level, as they looked into each other's eyes, and he kept seeing the play of the veil's edge against her lips as they talked.

"Why sha'n't you go to Mrs. Bevidge's Thursdays?" she asked. "They're very nice."

"How do you know I'm not going?" he retorted.

"By the way you thanked her."

"Do you advise me to go?"

"I haven't got anything to do with it. What do mean by that?"

"I don't know. Curiosity, I suppose."

"Well, I do advise you to go," said the girl. "Shall you be there next Thursday?"

"I? I never go to Mrs. Bevidge's Thursdays!"

"Touche," said Jeff, and they both laughed. "Can you always get in at an enemy that way?"

"Enemy?"

"Well, friend. It's the same thing."

"I see," said the girl. "You belong to the pessimistic school of Seniors."

"Why don't you try to make an optimist of me?"

"Would it be worth while?"

"That isn't for me to say."

"Don't be diffident! That's staler yet."

"I'll be anything you like."

"I'm not sure you could." For an instant Jeff did not feel the point, and he had not the magnanimity, when he did, to own himself touched again. Apparently, if this girl could not rattle him, she could beat him at fence, and the will to dominate her began to stir in him. If he could have thought of any sarcasm, no matter how crushing, he would have come back at her with it. He could not think of anything, and he walked at her side, inwardly chafing for the chance which would not come.

When they reached her door there was a young man at the lock with a latch-key, which he was not making work, for, after a bated blasphemy of his failure, he turned and twitched the bell impatiently.

Miss Lynde laughed provokingly, and he looked over his shoulder at her and at Jeff, who felt his injury increased by the disadvantage this young man put him at. Jeff was as correctly dressed; he wore a silk hat of the last shape, and a long frock-coat; he was properly gloved and shod; his clothes fitted him, and were from the best tailor; but at sight of this young man in clothes of the same design he felt ill-dressed. He was in like sort aware of being rudely blocked out physically, and coarsely colored as to his blond tints of hair and eye and cheek. Even the sinister something in the young man's look had distinction, and there was style in the signs of dissipation in his handsome face which Jeff saw with a hunger to outdo him.

Miss Lynde said to Jeff, "My brother, Mr. Durgin," and then she added to the other, "You ought to ring first, Arthur, and try your key afterward."

"The key's all right," said the young man, without paying any attention to Jeff beyond a glance of recognition; he turned his back, and waited for the door to be opened.

His sister suggested, with an amiability which Jeff felt was meant in reparation to him, "Perhaps a night latch never works before dark—or very well before midnight." The door was opened, and she said to Jeff, with winning entreaty, "Won't you come in, Mr. Durgin?"

Jeff excused himself, for he perceived that her politeness was not so much an invitation to him as a defiance to her brother; he gave her credit for no more than it was worth, and he did not wish any the less to get even with her because of it.

William Dean Howells