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Chapter 31

XXXI.

The ladies finished their tea, and the butler came and took the cups away. Miss Lynde remained silent in her chair at her end of the library-table, and by-and-by Bessie got a book and began to read. When her aunt woke up it was half past nine. "Was that Alan coming in?" she asked.

"I don't think he's been out," said the girl. "It isn't late enough for him to come in—or early enough."

"I believe I'll go to bed," Miss Lynde returned. "I feel rather drowsy."

Bessie did not smile at a comedy which was apt to be repeated every evening that she and her aunt spent at home together; they parted for the night with the decencies of family affection, and Bessie delivered the elder lady over to her maid. Then the girl sank down again, and lay musing in her deep chair before the fire with her book shut on her thumb. She looked rather old and worn in her reverie; her face lost the air of gay banter which, after the beauty of her queer eyes and her vivid mouth, was its charm. The eyes were rather dull now, and the mouth was a little withered.

She was waiting for her brother to come down, as he was apt to do if he was in the house, after their aunt went to bed, to smoke a cigar in the library. He was in his house shoes when he shuffled into the room, but her ear had detected his presence before a hiccough announced it. She did not look up, but let him make several failures to light his cigar, and damn the matches under his breath, before she pushed the drop-light to him in silent suggestion. As he leaned over her chair-back to reach its chimney with his cigar in his mouth, she said, "You're all right, Alan."

He waited till he got round to his aunt's easy-chair and dropped into it before he answered, "So are you, Bess."

"I'm not so sure of that," said the girl, "as I should be if you were still scolding me. I knew that he was a jay, well enough, and I'd just seen him behaving very like a cad to Mrs. Bevidge."

"Then I don't understand how you came to be with him."

"Oh yes, you do, Alan. You mustn't be logical! You might as well say you can't understand how you came to be more serious than sober." The brother laughed helplessly. "It was the excitement."

"But you can't give way to that sort of thing, Bess," said her brother, with the gravity of a man feeling the consequences of his own errors.

"I know I can't, but I do," she returned. "I know it's bad for me, if it isn't for other people. Come! I'll swear off if you will!"

"I'm always ready, to swear off," said the young man, gloomily. He added, "But you've got brains, Bess, and I hate to see you playing the fool."

"Do you really, Alan?" asked the girl, pleased perhaps as much by his reproach as by his praise. "Do you think I've got brains?"

"You're the only girl that has."

"Oh, I didn't mean to ask so much as that! But what's the reason I can't do anything with them? Other girls draw, and play, and write. I don't do anything but go in for the excitement that's bad for me. I wish you'd explain it."

Alan Lynde did not try. The question seemed to turn his thoughts back upon himself to dispiriting effect. "I've got brains, too, I believe," he began.

"Lots of them!" cried his sister, generously. "There isn't any of the men to compare with you. If I had you to talk with all the time, I shouldn't want jays. I don't mean to flatter. You're a constant feast of reason; I don't care for flows of soul. You always take right views of things when you're yourself, and even when you're somebody else you're not stupid. You could be anything you chose."

"The devil of it is I can't choose," he replied.

"Yes, I suppose that's the devil of it," said the girl.

"You oughtn't to use such language as that, Bess," said her brother, severely.

"Oh, I don't with everybody," she returned. "Never with ladies!"

He looked at her out of the corner of his eye with a smile at once rueful and comic.

"You got me, I guess, that time," he owned.

"'Touche',' Mr. Durgin says. He fences, it seems, and he speaks French. It was like an animal speaking French; you always expect them to speak English. But I don't mind your swearing before me; I know that it helps to carry off the electricity." She laughed, and made him laugh with her.

"Is there anything to him?" he growled, when they stopped laughing.

"Yes, a good deal," said Bessie, with an air of thoughtfulness; and then she went on to tell all that Jeff had told her of himself, and she described his aplomb in dealing with the benevolent Bevidge, as she called her, and sketched his character, as it seemed to her. The sketch was full of shrewd guesses, and she made it amusing to her brother, who from the vantage of his own baddishness no doubt judged the original more intelligently.

"Well, you'd better let him alone, after this," he said, at the end.

"Yes," she pensively assented. "I suppose it's as if you took to some very common kind of whiskey, isn't it? I see what you mean. If one must, it ought to be champagne."

She turned upon him a look of that keen but limited knowledge which renders women's conjectures of evil always so amusing, or so pathetic, to men.

"Better let the champagne alone, too," said her brother, darkly.

"Yes, I know that," she admitted, and she lay back in her chair, looking dreamily into the fire. After a while she asked, abruptly: "Will you give it up if I will?"

"I am afraid I couldn't."

"You could try."

"Oh, I'm used to that."

"Then it's a bargain," she said. She jumped from her chair and went over to him, and smoothed his hair over his forehead and kissed the place she had smoothed, though it was unpleasantly damp to her lips. "Poor boy, poor boy! Now, remember! No more jays for me, and no more jags for you. Goodnight."

Her brother broke into a wild laugh at her slanging, which had such a bizarre effect in relation to her physical delicacy.

William Dean Howells