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Chapter 30

XXX.

At dinner, in the absence of the butler, Alan Lynde attacked his sister across the table for letting herself be seen with a jay, who was not only a jay, but a cad, and personally so offensive to most of the college men that he had never got into a decent club or society; he had been suspended the first year, and if he had not had the densest kind of cheek he would never have come back. Lynde said he would like to know where she had picked the fellow up.

She answered that she had picked him up, if that was the phrase he liked, at Mrs. Bevidge's; and then Alan swore a little, so as not to be heard by their aunt, who sat at the head of the table, and looked down its length between them, serenely ignorant, in her slight deafness, of what was going on between them. To her perception Alan was no more vehement than usual, and Bessie no more smilingly self-contained. He said he supposed that it was some more of Lancaster's damned missionary work, then, and he wondered that a gentleman like Morland had ever let Lancaster work such a jay in on him; he had seen her 'afficher' herself with the fellow at Morland's tea; he commanded her to stop it; and he professed to speak for her good.

Bessie returned that she knew how strongly he felt from the way he had misbehaved when she introduced him to Mr. Durgin, but that she supposed he had been at the club and his nerves were unstrung. Was that the reason, perhaps, why he could not make his latchkey work? Mr. Durgin might be a cad, and she would not say he was not a jay, but so far he had not sworn at her; and, if he had been suspended and come back, there were some people who had not been suspended or come back, either, though that might have been for want of cheek.

She ended by declaring she was used to going into society without her brother's protection, or even his company, and she would do her best to get on without his advice. Or was it his conduct he wished her to profit by?

It had come to the fish going out by this time, and Alan, who had eaten with no appetite, and drunken feverishly of apollinaris, flung down his napkin and went out, too.

"What is the matter?" asked his aunt, looking after him.

Bessie shrugged, but she said, presently, with her lips more than her voice: "I don't think he feels very well."

"Do you think he—"

The girl frowned assent, and the meal went on to its end. Then she and her aunt went into the large, dull library, where they passed the evenings which Bessie did not spend in some social function. These evenings were growing rather more frequent, with her advancing years, for she was now nearly twenty-five, and there were few Seniors so old. She was not the kind of girl to renew her youth with the Sophomores and Freshmen in the classes succeeding the class with which she had danced through college; so far as she had kept up the old relation with students, she continued it with the men who had gone into the law-school. But she saw less and less of these without seeing more of other men, and perhaps in the last analysis she was not a favorite. She was allowed to be fascinating, but she was not felt to be flattering, and people would rather be flattered than fascinated. In fact, the men were mostly afraid of her; and it has been observed of girls of this kind that the men who are not afraid of them are such as they would do well to be afraid of. Whether that was quite the case with Bessie Lynde or not, it was certain that she who was always the cleverest girl in the room, and if not the prettiest, then the most effective, had not the best men about her. Her men were apt to be those whom the other girls called stupid or horrid, and whom it would not be easy, though it might be more just, to classify otherwise. The other girls wondered what she could see in them; but perhaps it was not necessary that she should see anything in them, if they could see all she wished them to see, and no more, in her.

The room where tea was now brought and put before her was volumed round by the collections of her grandfather, except for the spaces filled by his portrait and that of earlier ancestors, going back to the time when Copley made masterpieces of his fellow-Bostonians. Her aunt herself looked a family portrait of the middle period, a little anterior to her father's, but subsequent to her great-grandfather's. She had a comely face, with large, smooth cheeks and prominent eyes; the edges of her decorous brown wig were combed rather near their corners, and a fitting cap palliated but did not deny the wig. She had the quiet but rather dull look of people slightly deaf, and she had perhaps been stupefied by a life of unalloyed prosperity and propriety. She had grown an old maid naturally, but not involuntarily, and she was without the sadness or the harshness of disappointment. She had never known much of the world, though she had always lived in it. She knew that it was made up of two kinds of people—people who were like her and people who were not like her; and she had lived solely in the society of people who were like her, and in the shelter of their opinions and ideals. She did not contemn or exclude the people who were unlike her, but she had never had any more contact with them than she now had with the weather of the streets, as she sat, filling her large arm-chair full of her ladylike correctness, in the library of the handsome house her father had left her. The irruption of her brother's son and daughter into its cloistered quiet had scarcely broken its invulnerable order. It was right and fit they should be there after his death, and it was not strange that in the course of time they should both show certain unregulated tendencies which, since they were not known to be Lynde tendencies, must have been derived from the Southwestern woman her brother had married during his social and financial periclitations in a region wholly inconceivable to her. Their mother was dead, too, and their aunt's life closed about them with full acceptance, if not complacence, as part of her world. They had grown to manhood and womanhood without materially discomposing her faith in the old-fashioned Unitarian deity, whose service she had always attended.

When Alan left college in his Freshman year, and did not go back, but went rather to Europe and Egypt and Japan, it appeared to her myopic optimism that his escapades had been pretty well hushed up by time and distance. After he came home and devoted himself to his club, she could have wished that he had taken up some profession or business; but since there was money enough, she waited in no great disquiet until he showed as decided a taste for something else as he seemed for the present to have only for horses. In the mean while, from time to time, it came to her doctor's advising his going to a certain retreat. But he came out the first time so much better and remained well so long that his aunt felt a kind of security in his going again and again, whenever he became at all worse. He always came back better. As she took the cup of tea that Bessie poured out for her, she recurred to the question that she had partly asked already:

"Do you think Alan is getting worse again?"

"Not so very much," said the girl, candidly. "He's been at the club, I suppose, but he left the table partly because I vexed him."

"Because you what?"

"Because I vexed him. He was scolding me, and I wouldn't stand it."

Her aunt tasted her tea, and found it so quite what she liked that she said, from a natural satisfaction with Bessie, "I don't see what he had to scold you about."

"Well," returned Bessie, and she got her pretty voice to the level of her aunt's hearing, with some straining, and kept it there, "when he is in that state, he has to scold some one; and I had been rather annoying, I suppose."

"What had you been doing?" asked her aunt, making out her words more from the sight than from the sound, after all.

"I had been walking home with a jay, and we found Alan trying to get in at the front door with his key, and I introduced him to the jay."

Miss Louisa Lynde had heard the word so often from her niece and nephew, that she imagined herself in full possession of its meaning. She asked: "Where had you met him?"

"I met him first," said the girl, "at Willie Morland's tea, last week, and to-day I found him at Mrs. Bevidge's altruistic toot."

"I didn't know," said her aunt, after a momentary attention to her tea, "that jays were interested in that sort of thing."

The girl laughed. "I believe they're not. It hasn't quite reached them, yet; and I don't think it will ever reach my jay. Mrs. Bevidge tried to work him into the cause, but he refused so promptly, and so-intelligently, don't you know—and so almost brutally, that poor Freddy Lancaster had to come and apologize to him for her want of tact." Bessie enjoyed the fact, which she had colored a little, in another laugh, but she had apparently not possessed her aunt of the humor of it. She remained seriously-attentive, and the girl went on: "He was not the least abashed at having refused; he stayed till the last, and as we came out together and he was going my way, I let him walk home with me. He's a jay, but he isn't a common jay." Bessie leaned forward and tried to implant some notion of Jeff's character and personality in her aunt's mind.

Miss Lynde listened attentively enough, but she merely asked, when all was said: "And why was Alan vexed with you about him?"

"Well," said the girl, falling back into her chair, "generally because this man's a jay, and particularly because he's been rather a baddish jay, I believe. He was suspended in his first year for something or other, and you know poor Alan's very particular! But Molly Enderby says Freddy Lancaster gives him the best of characters now." Bessie pulled down her mouth, with an effect befitting the notion of repentance and atonement. Then she flashed out: "Perhaps he had been drinking when he got into trouble. Alan could never forgive him for that."

"I think," said her aunt, "it is to your brother's credit that he is anxious about your associations."

"Oh, very much!" shouted Bessie, with a burst of laughter. "And as he isn't practically so, I ought to have been more patient with his theory. But when he began to scold me I lost my temper, and I gave him a few wholesome truths in the guise of taunts. That was what made him go away, I suppose."

"But I don't really see," her aunt pursued,—"what occasion he had to be angry with you in this instance."

"Oh, I do!" said Bessie. "Mr. Durgin isn't one to inspire the casual beholder with the notion of his spiritual distinction. His face is so rude and strong, and he has such a primitive effect in his clothes, that you feel as if you were coming down the street with a prehistoric man that the barbers and tailors had put a 'fin de siecle' surface on." At the mystification which appeared in her aunt's face the girl laughed again. "I should have been quite as anxious, if I had been in Alan's place, and I shall tell him so, sometime. If I had not been so interested in the situation I don't believe I could have kept my courage. Whenever I looked round, and found that prehistoric man at my elbow, it gave me the creeps, a little, as if he were really carrying me off to his cave. I shall try to express that to Alan."

William Dean Howells