Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 32

XXXII.

Jeff did not know whether Miss Bessie Lynde meant to go to Mrs. Bevidge's Thursdays or not. He thought she might have been bantering him by what she said, and he decided that he would risk going to the first of them on the chance of meeting her. She was not there, and there was no one there whom he knew. Mrs. Bevidge made no effort to enlarge his acquaintance, and after he had drunk a cup of her tea he went away with rage against society in his heart, which he promised himself to vent at the first chance of refusing its favors. But the chance seemed not to come. The world which had opened its gates to him was fast shut again, and he had to make what he could of renouncing it. He worked pretty hard, and he renewed himself in his fealty to Cynthia, while his mind strayed curiously to that other girl. But he had almost abandoned the hope of meeting her again, when a large party was given on the eve of the Harvard Mid-Year Examinations, which end the younger gayeties of Boston, for a fortnight at least, in January. The party was so large that the invitations overflowed the strict bounds of society at some points. In the case of Jeff Durgin the excess was intentional beyond the vague benevolence which prompted the giver of the party to ask certain other outsiders. She was a lady of a soul several sizes larger than the souls of some other society leaders; she was not afraid to do as she liked; for instance, she had not only met the Vostrands at Westover's tea, several years before, but she had afterward offered some hospitalities to those ladies which had discharged her whole duty toward them without involving her in any disadvantages. Jeff had been presented to her at Westover's, but she disliked him so promptly and decidedly that she had left him out of even the things that she asked some other jays to, like lectures and parlor readings for good objects. It was not until one of her daughters met him, first at Willie Morland's tea and then at Mrs. Bevidge's meeting, that her social conscience concerned itself with him. At the first her daughter had not spoken to him, as might very well have happened, since Bessie Lynde had kept him away with her nearly all the time; but at the last she had bowed pleasantly to him across the room, and Jeff had responded with a stiff obeisance, whose coldness she felt the more for having been somewhat softened herself in Mrs. Bevidge's altruistic atmosphere.

"I think he was hurt, mamma," the girl explained to her mother, "that you've never had him to anything. I suppose they must feel it."

"Oh, well, send him a card, then," said her mother; and when Jeff got the card, rather near the eleventh hour, he made haste to accept, not because he cared to go to Mrs. Enderby's house, but because he hoped he should meet Miss Lynde there.

Bessie was the first person he met after he turned from paying his duty to the hostess. She was with her aunt, and she presented him, and promised him a dance, which she let him write on her card. She sat out another dance with him, and he took her to supper.

To Westover, who had gone with the increasing forlornness a man feels in such pleasures after thirty-five, it seemed as if the two were in each other's company the whole evening. The impression was so strong with him that when Jeff restored Bessie to her aunt for the dance that was to be for some one else, and came back to the supper-room, the painter tried to satisfy a certain uneasiness by making talk with him. But Jeff would not talk; he got away with a bottle of champagne, which he had captured, and a plate heaped with croquettes and pease, and galantine and salad. There were no ladies left in the room by that time, and few young men; but the oldsters crowded the place, with their bald heads devoutly bowed over their victual, or their frosty mustaches bathed in their drink, singly or in groups; the noise of their talk and laughter mixed with the sound of their eating and drinking, and the clash of the knives and dishes. Over their stooped shoulders and past their rounded stomachs Westover saw Alan Lynde vaguely making his way with a glass in his hand, and looking vaguely about for wine; he saw Jeff catch his wandering eye, and make offer of his bottle, and then saw Lynde, after a moment of haughty pause, unbend and accept it. His thin face was flushed, and his hair tossed over his forehead, but Jeff seemed not to take note of that. He laughed boisterously at something Lynde said, and kept filling his glass for him. His own color remained clear and cool. It was as if his powerful physique absorbed the wine before it could reach his brain.

Westover wanted to interfere, and so far as Jeff was concerned he would not have hesitated; but Lynde was concerned, too, and you cannot save such a man from himself without offence. He made his way to the young man, hoping he might somehow have the courage he wanted.

Jeff held up the bottle, and called to him, "Get yourself a glass, Mr. Westover." He put on the air of a host, and would hardly be denied. "Know Mr. Westover, Mr. Lynde? Just talking about you," he explained to Westover.

Alan had to look twice at the painter. "Oh yes. Mr. Durgin, here—telling me about his place in the mountains. Says you've been there. Going—going myself in the summer. See his—horses." He made pauses between his words as some people do when they, try to keep from stammering.

Westover believed Lynde understood Jeff to be a country gentleman of sporting tastes, and he would not let that pass. "Yes, it's the pleasantest little hotel in the mountains."

"Strictly-temperance, I suppose?" said Alan, trying to smile with lips that obeyed him stiffly. He appeared not to care who or what Jeff was; the champagne had washed away all difference between them. He went on to say that he had heard of Jeff's intention of running the hotel himself when he got out of Harvard. He held it to be damned good stuff.

Jeff laughed. "Your sister wouldn't believe me when I told her."

"I think I didn't mention Miss Lynde," said Alan, haughtily.

Jeff filled his glass; Alan looked at it, faltered, and then drank it off. The talk began again between the young men, but it left Westover out, and he had to go away. Whether Jeff was getting Lynde beyond himself from the love of mischief, such as had prompted him to tease little children in his boyhood, or was trying to ingratiate himself with the young fellow through his weakness, or doing him harm out of mere thoughtlessness, Westover came away very unhappy at what he had seen. His unhappiness connected itself so distinctly with Lynde's family that he went and sat down beside Miss Lynde from an obscure impulse of compassion, and tried to talk with her. It would not have been so hard if she were merely deaf, for she had the skill of deaf people in arranging the conversation so that a nodded yes or no would be all that was needed to carry it forward. But to Westover she was terribly dull, and he was gasping, as in an exhausted receiver, when Bessie came up with a smile of radiant recognition for his extremity. She got rid of her partner, and devoted herself at once to Westover. "How good of you!" she said, without giving him the pain of an awkward disclaimer.

He could counter in equal sincerity and ambiguity, "How beautiful of you."

"Yes," she said, "I am looking rather well, tonight; but don't you think effective would have been a better word?" She smiled across her aunt at him out of a cloud of pink, from which her thin shoulders and slender neck emerged, and her arms, gloved to the top, fell into her lap; one of them seemed to terminate naturally in the fan which sensitively shared the inquiescence of her person.

"I will say effective, too, if you insist," said Westover. "But at the same time you're the most beautiful person here."

"How lovely of you, even if you don't mean it," she sighed. "If girls could have more of those things said to them, they would be better, don't you think? Or at least feel better."

Westover laughed. "We might organize a society—they have them for nearly everything now—for saying pleasant things to young ladies with a view to the moral effect."

"Oh, do I."

"But it ought to be done conscientiously, and you couldn't go round telling every one that she was the most beautiful girl in the room."

"Why not? She'd believe it!"

"Yes; but the effect on the members of the society?"

"Oh yes; that! But you could vary it so as to save your conscience. You could say, 'How divinely you're looking!' or 'How angelic!' or 'You're the very poetry of motion,' or 'You are grace itself,' or 'Your gown is a perfect dream, or any little commonplace, and every one would take it for praise of her personal appearance, and feel herself a great beauty, just as I do now, though I know very well that I'm all out of drawing, and just chicqued together."

"I couldn't allow any one but you to say that, Miss Bessie; and I only let it pass because you say it so well."

"Yes; you're always so good! You wouldn't contradict me even when you turned me out of your class."

"Did I turn you out of my class?"

"Not just in so many words, but when I said I couldn't do anything in art, you didn't insist that it was because I wouldn't, and of course then I had to go. I've never forgiven you, Mr. Westover, never! Do keep on talking very excitedly; there's a man coming up to us that I don't want to think I see him, or he'll stop. There! He's veered off! Where were you, Mr. Westover?"

"Ah, Miss Bessie," said the painter; delighted at her drama, "there isn't anything you couldn't do if you would."

"You mean parlor entertainments; impersonations; impressions; that sort of thing? I have thought of it. But it would be too easy. I want to try something difficult."

"For instance."

"Well, being very, very good. I want something that would really tax my powers. I should like to be an example. I tried it the other night just before I went to sleep, and it was fine. I became an example to others. But when I woke up—I went on in the old way. I want something hard, don't you know; but I want it to be easy!"

She laughed, and Westover said: "I am glad you're not serious. No one ought to be an example to others. To be exemplary is as dangerous as to be complimentary.

"It certainly isn't so agreeable to the object," said the girl. "But it's fine for the subject as long as it lasts. How metaphysical we're getting! The objective and the subjective. It's quite what I should expect of talk at a Boston dance if I were a New-Yorker. Have you seen anything of my brother, within the last hour or so, Mr. Westover?"

"Yes; I just left him in the supper-room. Shall I go get him for you?" When he had said this, with the notion of rescuing him from Jeff, Westover was sorry, for he doubted if Alan Lynde were any longer in the state to be brought away from the supper-room, and he was glad to have Bessie say:

"No, no. He'll look us up in the course of the evening—or the morning." A young fellow came to claim her for a dance, and Westover had not the face to leave Miss Lynde, all the less because she told him he must not think of staying. He stayed till the dance was over, and Bessie came back to him.

"What time is it, Mr. Westover? I see my aunt beginning to nod on her perch."

Westover looked at his watch. "It's ten minutes past two."

"How early!" sighed the girl. "I'm tired of it, aren't you?"

"Very," said Westover. "I was tired an hour ago."

Bessie sank back in her chair with an air of nervous collapse, and did not say anything. Westover saw her watching the young couples who passed in and out of the room where the dancing was, or found corners on sofas, or window-seats, or sheltered spaces beside the doors and the chimney-piece, the girls panting and the men leaning forward to fan them. She looked very tired of it; and when a young fellow came up and asked her to dance, she told him that she was provisionally engaged. "Come back and get me, if you can't do better," she said, and he answered there was no use trying to do better, and said he would wait till the other man turned up, or didn't, if she would let him. He sat down beside her, and some young talk began between them.

In the midst of it Jeff appeared. He looked at Westover first, and then approached with an embarrassed face.

Bessie got vividly to her feet. "No apologies, Mr. Durgin, please! But in just another moment you'd have last your dance."

Westover saw what he believed a change pass in Jeff's look from embarrassment to surprise and then to flattered intelligence. He beamed all over; and he went away with Bessie toward the ballroom, and left Westover to a wholly unsupported belief that she had not been engaged to dance with Jeff. He wondered what her reckless meaning could be, but he had always thought her a young lady singularly fitted by nature and art to take care of herself, and when he reasoned upon what was in his mind he had to own that there was no harm in Jeff's dancing with her.

He took leave of Miss Lynde, and was going to get his coat and hat for his walk home when he was mysteriously stopped in a corner of the stairs by one of the caterer's men whom he knew. It is so unnatural to be addressed by a servant at all unless he asks you if you will have something to eat or drink, that Westover was in a manner prepared to have him say something startling. "It's about young Mr. Lynde, sor. We've got um in one of the rooms up-stairs, but he ain't fit to go home alone, and I've been lookin' for somebody that knows the family to help get um into a car'ge. He won't go for anny of us, sor."

"Where is he?" asked Westover, in anguish at being unable to refuse the appeal, but loathing the office put upon him.

"I'll show you, sor," said the caterer's man, and he sprang up the stairs before Westover, with glad alacrity.

William Dean Howells