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Chapter 34

XXXIV.

Bessie asked the sleepy man who opened her aunt's door whether her brother had come in yet, and found that he had not. She helped her aunt off up-stairs with her maid, and when she came down again she sent the man to bed; she told him she was going to sit up and she would let her brother in. The caprices of Alan's latch-key were known to all the servants, and the man understood what she, meant. He said he had left a light in the reception-room and there was a fire there; and Bessie tripped on down from the library floor, where she had met him. She had put off her ball dress and had slipped into the simplest and easiest of breakfast frocks, which was by no means plain. Bessie had no plain frocks for any hour of the day; her frocks all expressed in stuff and style and color, and the bravery of their flying laces and ribbons, the audacity of spirit with which she was herself chicqued together, as she said. This one she had on now was something that brightened her dull complexion, and brought out the best effect of her eyes and mouth, and seemed the effluence of her personal dash and grace. It made the most of her, and she liked it beyond all her other negligees for its complaisance.

She got a book, and sat down in a long, low chair before the fire and crossed her pretty slippers on the warm hearth. It was a quarter after three by the clock on the mantel; but she had never felt more eagerly awake. The party had not been altogether to her mind, up to midnight, but after that it had been a series of rapid and vivid emotions, which continued themselves still in the tumult of her nerves, and seemed to demand an indefinite sequence of experience. She did not know what state her brother might be in when he came home; she had not seen anything of him after she first went out to supper; till then, though, he had kept himself straight, as he needs must; but she could not tell what happened to him afterward. She hoped that he would come home able to talk, for she wished to talk. She wished to talk about herself; and as she had already had flattery enough, she wanted some truth about herself; she wanted Alan to say what he thought of her behavior the whole evening with that jay. He must have seen something of it in the beginning, and she should tell him all the rest. She should tell him just how often she had danced with the man, and how many dances she had sat out with him; how she had pretended once that she was engaged when another man asked her, and then danced with the jay, to whom she pretended that he had engaged her for the dance. She had wished to see how he would take it; for the same reason she had given to some one else a dance that was really his. She would tell Alan how the jay had asked her for that last dance, and then never come near her again. That would give him the whole situation, and she would know just what he thought of it.

What she thought of herself she hardly knew, or made believe she hardly knew. She prided herself upon not being a flirt; she might not be very good, as goodness went, but she was not despicable, and a flirt was despicable. She did not call the audacity of her behavior with the jay flirting; he seemed to understand it as well as she, and to meet her in her own spirit; she wondered now whether this jay was really more interesting than the other men one met, or only different; whether he was original, like Alan himself, or merely novel, and would soon wear down to the tiresomeness that seemed to underlie them all, and made one wish to do something dreadful. In the jay's presence she had no wish to do anything dreadful. Was it because he was dreadful enough for both, all the time, without doing anything? She would like to ask Alan that, and see how he would take it. Nothing seemed to put the jay out, so far as she had tried, and she had tried some bold impertinences with him. He was very jolly through them all, and at the worst of them he laughed and asked her for that dance, which he never came to claim, though in the mean time he brought her some belated supper, and was devoted to her and her aunt, inventing services to do for them. Then suddenly he went off and did not return, and Mr. Westover mysteriously reappeared, and got their carriage.

She heard a scratching at the key-hole of the outside door; she knew it was Alan's latch. She had left the inner door ajar that there might be no uncertainty of hearing him, and she ran out into the space between that and the outer door where the fumbling and scraping kept on.

"Is that you, Alan?" she called, softly, and if she had any doubt before, she had none when she heard her brother outside, cursing his luck with his key as usual.

She flung the door open, and confronted him with another man, who had his arms around him as if he had caught him from falling with the inward pull of the door. Alan got to his feet and grappled with the man, and insisted that he should come in and make a night of it.

Bessie saw that it was Jeff, and they stood a moment, looking at each other. Jeff tried to free himself with an appeal to Bessie: "I beg your pardon, Miss Lynde. I walked home with your brother, and I was just helping him to get in—I didn't think that you—"

Alan said, with his measured distinctness: "Nobody cares what you think. Come in, and get something to carry you over the bridge. Cambridge cars stopped running long ago. I say you shall!" He began to raise his voice. A light flashed in a window across the way, and a sash was lifted; some one must be looking out.

"Oh, come in with him!" Bessie implored, and at a little yielding in Jeff her brother added:

"Come in, you damn jay!" He pulled at Jeff.

Jeff made haste to shut the door behind them. He was laughing; and if it was from mere brute insensibility to what would have shocked another in the situation, his frank recognition of its grotesqueness was of better effect than any hopeless effort to ignore it would have been. People adjust themselves to their trials; it is the pretence of the witness that there is no trial which hurts, and Bessie was not wounded by Jeff's laugh.

"There's a fire here in the reception-room," she said. "Can you get him in?"

"I guess so."

Jeff lifted Alan into the room and stayed him on foot there, while he took off his hat and overcoat, and then he let him sink into the low easy-chair Bessie had just risen from. All the time, Alan was bidding her ring and have some champagne and cold meat set out on the side-board, and she was lightly promising and coaxing. But he drowsed quickly in the warmth, and the last demand for supper died half uttered on his lips.

Jeff asked across him: "Can't I get him up-stairs for you? I can carry him."

She shook her head and whispered back, "I can leave him here," and she looked at Jeff with a moment's hesitation. "Did you—do you think that—any one noticed him at Mrs. Enderby's?"

"No; they had got him in a room by himself—the caterer's men had."

"And you found him there?"

"Mr. Westover found him there," Jeff answered.

"I don't understand."

"Didn't he come to you after I left?"

"Yes."

"I told him to excuse me—"

"He didn't."

"Well, I guess he was pretty badly rattled." Jeff stopped himself in the vague laugh of one who remembers something ludicrous, and turned his face away.

"Tell me what it was!" she demanded, nervously.

"Mr. Westover had been home with him once, and he wouldn't stay. He made Mr. Westover come back for me."

"What did he want with you?"

Jeff shrugged.

"And then what?"

"We went out to the carriage, as soon as I could get away from you; but he wasn't in it. I sent Mr. Westover back to you and set out to look for him."

"That was very good of you. And I—thank you for your kindness to my brother. I shall not forget it. And I wish to beg your pardon."

"What for?" asked Jeff, bluntly.

"For blaming you when you didn't come back for the dance."

If Bessie had meant nothing but what was fitting to the moment some inherent lightness of nature played her false. But even the histrionic touch which she could not keep out of her voice, her manner, another sort of man might have found merely pathetic.

Jeff laughed with subtle intelligence. "Were you very hard on me?"

"Very," she answered in kind, forgetting her brother and the whole terrible situation.

"Tell me what you thought of me," he said, and he came a little nearer to her, looking very handsome and very strong. "I should like to know."

"I said I should never speak to you again."

"And you kept your word," said Jeff. "Well, that's all right. Good-night-or good-morning, whichever it is." He took her hand, which she could not withdraw, or feigned to herself that she could not withdraw, and looked at her with a silent laugh, and a hardy, sceptical glance that she felt take in every detail of her prettiness, her plainness. Then he turned and went out, and she ran quickly and locked the door upon him.

William Dean Howells