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Chapter 38

XXXVIII.

It was not a condition of Westover's welcome at Lion's Head that he should seem peculiarly the friend of Jeff Durgin, but he could not help making it so, and he began to overact the part as soon as he met Jeff's mother. He had to speak of him in thanking her for remembering his wish to paint Lion's Head in the winter, and he had to tell her of Jeff's thoughtfulness during the past fortnight; he had to say that he did not believe he should ever have got away if it had not been for him. This was true; Durgin had even come in from Cambridge to see him off on the train; he behaved as if the incident with Lynde and all their talk about it had cemented the friendship between Westover and himself, and he could not be too devoted. It now came out that he had written home all about Westover, and made his mother put up a stove in the painter's old room, so that he should have the instant use of it when he arrived.

It was an air-tight wood-stove, and it filled the chamber with a heat in which Westover drowsed as soon as he entered it. He threw himself on the bed, and slept away the fatigue of his railroad journey and the cold of his drive with Jombateeste from the station. His nap was long, and he woke from it in a pleasant languor, with the dream-clouds still hanging in his brain. He opened the damper of his stove, and set it roaring again; then he pulled down the upper sash of his window and looked out on a world whose elements of wood and snow and stone he tried to co-ordinate. There was nothing else in that world but these things, so repellent of one another. He suffered from the incongruity of the wooden bulk of the hotel, with the white drifts deep about it, and with the granite cliffs of Lion's Head before it, where the gray crags darkened under the pink afternoon light which was beginning to play upon its crest from the early sunset. The wind that had seemed to bore through his thick cap and his skull itself, and that had tossed the dry snow like dust against his eyes on his way from the railroad, had now fallen, and an incomparable quiet wrapped the solitude of the hills. A teasing sense of the impossibility of the scene, as far as his art was concerned, filled him full of a fond despair of rendering its feeling. He could give its light and color and form in a sufficiently vivid suggestion of the fact, but he could not make that pink flush seem to exhale, like a long breath, upon those rugged shapes; he could not impart that sentiment of delicately, almost of elegance, which he found in the wilderness, while every detail of civilization physically distressed him. In one place the snow had been dug down to the pine planking of the pathway round the house; and the contact of this woodenness with the frozen ground pierced his nerves and set his teeth on edge like a harsh noise. When once he saw it he had to make an effort to take his eyes from it, and in a sort unknown to him in summer he perceived the offence of the hotel itself amid the pure and lonely beauty of the winter landscape. It was a note of intolerable banality, of philistine pretence and vulgar convention, such as Whitwell's low, unpainted cottage at the foot of the hill did not give, nor the little red school-house, on the other hand, showing through the naked trees. There should have been really no human habitation visible except a wigwam in the shelter of the pines, here and there; and when he saw Whitwell making his way up the hill-side road, Westover felt that if there must be any human presence it should be some savage clad in skins, instead of the philosopher in his rubber boots and his clothing-store ulster. He preferred the small, wiry shape of Jombateeste, in his blue woollen cap and his Canadian footgear, as he ran round the corner of the house toward the barn, and left the breath of his pipe in the fine air behind him.

The light began to deepen from the pale pink to a crimson which stained the tops and steeps of snow, and deepened the dark of the woods massed on the mountain slopes between the irregular fields of white. The burnished brown of the hard-wood trees, the dull carbon shadows of the evergreens, seemed to wither to one black as the red strengthened in the sky. Westover realized that he had lost the best of any possible picture in letting that first delicate color escape him. This crimson was harsh and vulgar in comparison; it would have almost a chromo quality; he censured his pleasure in it as something gross and material, like that of eating; and on a sudden he felt hungry. He wondered what time they would give him supper, and he took slight account of the fact that a caprice of the wind had torn its hood of snow from the mountain summit, and that the profile of the Lion's Head showed almost as distinctly as in summer. He stood before the picture which for that day at least was lost to him, and questioned whether there would be a hearty meal, something like a dinner, or whether there would be something like a farmhouse supper, mainly of doughnuts and tea.

He pulled up his window and was going to lie down again, when some one knocked, and Frank Whitwell stood at the door. "Do you want we should bring your supper to you here, Mr. Westover, or will you—"

"Oh, let me join you all!" cried the painter, eagerly. "Is it ready—shall I come now?"

"Well, in about five minutes or so." Frank went away, after setting down in the room the lamp he had brought. It was a lamp which Westover thought he remembered from the farm-house period, and on his way down he realized as he had somehow not done in his summer sojourns, the entirety of the old house in the hotel which had encompassed it. The primitive cold of its stairways and passages struck upon him as soon as he left his own room, and he found the parlor door closed against the chill. There was a hot stove-fire within, and a kerosene-lamp turned low, but there was no one there, and he had the photograph of his first picture of Lion's Head to himself in the dim light. The voices of Mrs. Durgin and Cynthia came to him from the dining-room, and from the kitchen beyond, with the occasional clash of crockery, and the clang of iron upon iron about the stove, and the quick tread of women's feet upon the bare floor. With these pleasant noises came the smell of cooking, and later there was an opening and shutting of doors, with a thrill of the freezing air from without, and the dull thumping of Whitwell's rubber boots, and the quicker flapping of Jombateeste's soft leathern soles. Then there was the sweep of skirted feet at the parlor door, and Cynthia Whitwell came in without perceiving him. She went to the table by the darkening window, and quickly turned up the light of the lamp. In her ignorance of his presence, he saw her as if she had been alone, almost as if she were out of the body; he received from her unconsciousness the impression of something rarely pure and fine, and he had a sudden compassion for her, as for something precious that is fated to be wasted or misprized. At a little movement which he made to relieve himself from a sense of eavesdropping, she gave a start, and shut her lips upon the little cry that would have escaped from another sort of woman.

"I didn't know you were here," she said; and she flushed with the shyness of him which she always showed at first. She had met him already with the rest, but they had scarcely spoken together; and he knew of the struggle she must now be making with herself when she went on: "I didn't know you had been called. I thought you were still sleeping."

"Yes. I seemed to sleep for centuries," said West over, "and I woke up feeling coeval with Lion's Head. But I hope to grow younger again."

She faltered, and then she asked: "Did you see the light on it when the sun went down?"

"I wish I hadn't. I could never get that light—even if it ever came again."

"It's there every afternoon, when it's clear."

"I'm sorry for that; I shall have to try for it, then."

"Wasn't that what you came for?" she asked, by one of the efforts she was making with everything she said. He could have believed he saw the pulse throbbing in her neck. But she held herself stone-still, and he divined her resolution to conquer herself, if she should die for it.

"Yes, I came for that," said Westover. "That's what makes it so dismaying. If I had only happened on it, I shouldn't have been responsible for the failure I shall make of it."

She smiled, as if she liked his lightness, but doubted if she ought. "We don't often get Lion's Head clear of snow."

"Yes; that's another hardship," said the painter. "Everything is against me! If we don't have a snow overnight, and a cloudy day to-morrow, I shall be in despair."

She played with the little wheel of the wick; she looked down, and then, with a glance flashed at him, she gasped: "I shall have to take your lamp for the table tea is ready."

"Oh, well, if you will only take me with it. I'm frightfully hungry."

Apparently she could not say anything to that. He tried to get the lamp to carry it out for her, but she would not let him. "It isn't heavy," she said, and hurried out before him.

It was all nothing, but it was all very charming, and Westover was richly content with it; and yet not content, for he felt that the pleasure of it was not truly his, but was a moment of merely borrowed happiness.

The table was laid in the old farm-house sitting-room where he had been served alone when he first came to Lion's Head. But now he sat down with the whole family, even to Jombateeste, who brought in a faint odor of the barn with him.

They had each been in contact with the finer world which revisits nature in the summer-time, and they must all have known something of its usages, but they had reverted in form and substance to the rustic living of their neighbors. They had steak for Westover, and baked potatoes; but for themselves they had such farm fare as Mrs. Durgin had given him the first time he supped there. They made their meal chiefly of doughnuts and tea, and hot biscuit, with some sweet dishes of a festive sort added in recognition of his presence; and there was mince-pie for all. Mrs. Durgin and Whitwell ate with their knives, and Jombateeste filled himself so soon with every implement at hand that he was able to ask excuse of the others if he left them for the horses before they had half finished. Frank Whitwell fed with a kind of official or functional conformity to the ways of summer folks; but Cynthia, at whom Westover glanced with anxiety, only drank some tea and ate a little bread and butter. He was ashamed of his anxiety, for he had owned that it ought not to have mattered if she had used her knife like her father; and it seemed to him as if he had prompted Mrs. Durgin by his curious glance to say: "We don't know half the time how the child lives. Cynthy! Take something to eat!"

Cynthia pleaded that she was not hungry; Mrs. Durgin declared that she would die if she kept on as she was going; and then the girl escaped to the kitchen on one of the errands which she made from time to time between the stove and the table.

"I presume it's your coming, Mr. Westover," Mrs. Durgin went on, with the comfortable superiority of elderly people to all the trials of the young. "I don't know why she should make a stranger of you, every time. You've known her pretty much all her life."

"Ever since you give Jeff what he deserved for scaring her and Frank with his dog," said Whitwell.

"Poor Fox!" Mrs. Durgin sighed. "He did have the least sense for a dog I ever saw. And Jeff used to be so fond of him! Well, I guess he got tired of him, too, toward the last."

"He's gone to the happy hunting-grounds now. Colorady didn't agree with him-or old age," said Whitwell. "I don't see why the Injuns wa'n't right," he pursued, thoughtfully. "If they've got souls, why ha'n't their dogs? I suppose Mr. Westover here would say there wa'n't any certainty about the Injuns themselves!"

"You know my weak point, Mr. Whitwell," the painter confessed. "But I can't prove they haven't."

"Nor dogs, neither, I guess," said Whitwell, tolerantly. "It's curious, though, if animals have got souls, that we ha'n't ever had any communications from 'em. You might say that ag'in' the idea."

"No, I'll let you say it," returned Westover. "But a good many of the communications seem to come from the lower intelligences, if not the lower animals."

Whitwell laughed out his delight in the thrust. "Well, I guess that's something so. And them old Egyptian devils, over there, that you say discovered the doctrine of immortality, seemed to think a cat was about as good as a man. What's that," he appealed to Mrs. Durgin, "Jackson said in his last letter about their cat mummies?"

"Well, I guess I'll finish my supper first," said Mrs. Durgin, whose nerves Westover would not otherwise have suspected of faintness. "But Jackson's letters," she continued, loyally, "are about the best letters!"

"Know they'd got some of 'em in the papers?" Whitwell asked; and at the surprise that Westover showed he told him how a fellow who was trying to make a paper go over at the Huddle, had heard of Jackson's letters and teased for some of them, and had printed them as neighborhood news in that side of his paper which he did not buy ready printed in Boston.

Mrs. Durgin studied with modest deprecation the effect of the fact upon Westover, and seemed satisfied with it. "Well, of course, it's interestin' to Jackson's old friends in the country, here. They know he'd look at things, over there, pretty much as they would. Well, I had to lend the letters round so much, anyway, it was a kind of a relief to have 'em in the paper, where everybody could see 'em, and be done with it. Mr. Whit'ell here, he fixes 'em up so's to leave out the family part, and I guess they're pretty well thought of."

Westover said he had no doubt they were, and he should want to see all the letters they could show him, in print and out of print.

"If Jackson only had Jeff's health and opportunities—" the mother began, with a suppressed passion in her regret.

Frank Whitwell pushed back his chair. "I guess I'll ask to be excused," he said to the head of table.

"There! I a'n't goin' to say any more about that, if that's what you're afraid of, Frank," said Mrs. Durgin. "Well, I presume I do talk a good deal about Jackson when I get goin', and I presume it's natural Cynthy shouldn't want I should talk about Jeff before folks. Frank, a'n't you goin' to wait for that plate of hot biscuit?—if she ever gits it here!"

"I guess I don't care for anything more," said Frank, and he got himself out of the room more inarticulately than he need, Westover thought.

His, father followed his retreat with an eye of humorous intelligence. "I guess Frank don't want to keep the young ladies waitin' a great while. There's a church sociable over 't the Huddle," he explained to Westover.

"Oh, that's it, is it?" Mrs. Durgin put in. "Why didn't he say so."

"Well, the young folks don't any of 'em seem to want to talk about such things nowadays, and I don't know as they ever did." Whitwell took Westover into his confidence with a wink.

The biscuit that Cynthia brought in were burned a little on top, and Mrs. Durgin recognized the fact with the question, "Did you get to studyin', out there? Take one, do, Mr. Westover! You ha'n't made half a meal! If I didn't keep round after her, I don't know what would become of us all. The young ladies down at Boston, any of 'em, try to keep up with the fellows in college?"

"I suppose they do in the Harvard Annex," said Westover, simply, in spite of the glance with which Mrs. Durgin tried to convey a covert meaning. He understood it afterward, but for the present his single-mindedness spared the girl.

She remained to clear away the table, when the rest left it, and Westover followed Mrs. Durgin into the parlor, where she indemnified herself for refraining from any explicit allusion to Jeff before Cynthia. "The boy," she explained, when she had made him ransack his memory for every scrap of fact concerning her son, "don't hardly ever write to me, and I guess he don't give Cynthy very much news. I presume he's workin' harder than ever this year. And I'm glad he's goin' about a little, from what you say. I guess he's got to feelin' a little better. It did worry me for him to feel so what you may call meechin' about folks. You see anything that made you think he wa'n't appreciated?"

After Westover got back into his own room, some one knocked at his door, and he found Whitwell outside. He scarcely asked him to come in, but Whitwell scarcely needed the invitation. "Got everything you want? I told Cynthy I'd come up and see after you; Frank won't be back in time." He sat down and put his feet on top of the stove, and struck the heels of his boots on its edge, from the habit of knocking the caked snow off them in that way on stove-tops. He did not wait to find out that there was no responsive sizzling before he asked, with a long nasal sigh, "Well, how is Jeff gettin' along?"

He looked across at Westover, who had provisionally seated himself on his bed.

"Why, in the old way." Whitwell kept his eye on him, and he added: "I suppose we don't any of us change; we develop."

Whitwell smiled with pleasure in the loosely philosophic suggestion. "You mean that he's the same kind of a man that he was a boy? Well, I guess that's so. The question is, what kind of a boy was he? I've been mullin' over that consid'able since Cynthy and him fixed it up together. Of course, I know it's their business, and all that; but I presume I've got a right to spee'late about it?"

He referred the point to Westover, who knew an inner earnestness in it, in spite of Whitwell's habit of outside jocosity. "Every right in the world, I should say, Mr. Whitwell," he answered, seriously.

"Well, I'm glad you feel that way," said Whitwell, with a little apparent surprise. "I don't want to meddle, any; but I know what Cynthy is—I no need to brag her up—and I don't feel so over and above certain 't I know what he is. He's a good deal of a mixture, if you want to know how he strikes me. I don't mean I don't like him; I do; the fellow's got a way with him that makes me kind of like him when I see him. He's good-natured and clever; and he's willin' to take any amount of trouble for you; but you can't tell where to have him." Westover denied the appeal for explicit assent in Whitwell's eye, and he went on: "If I'd done that fellow a good turn, in spite of him, or if I'd held him up to something that he allowed was right, and consented to, I should want to keep a sharp lookout that he didn't play me some ugly trick for it. He's a comical devil," Whitwell ended, rather inadequately. "How d's it look to you? Seen anything lately that seemed to tally with my idee?"

"No, no; I can't say that I have," said Westover, reluctantly. He wished to be franker than he now meant to be, but he consulted a scruple that he did not wholly respect; a mere convention it seemed to him, presently. He said: "I've always felt that charm in him, too, and I've seen the other traits, though not so clearly as you seem to have done. He has a powerful will, yes—"

He stopped, and Whitwell asked: "Been up to any deviltry lately?"

"I can't say he has. Nothing that I can call intentional."

"No," said Whitwell. "What's he done, though?"

"Really, Mr. Whitwell, I don't know that you have any right to expect me to talk him over, when I'm here as his mother's guest—his own guest—?"

"No. I ha'n't," said Whitwell. "What about the father of the girl he's goin' to marry?"

Westover could not deny the force of this. "You'd be anxious if I didn't tell you what I had in mind, I dare say, more than if I did." He told him of Jeff's behavior with Alan Lynde, and of his talk with him about it. "And I think he was honest. It was something that happened, that wasn't meant."

Whitwell did not assent directly, somewhat to Westover's surprise. He asked: "Fellow ever done anything to Jeff?"

"Not that I know of. I don't know that they ever met before."

Whitwell kicked his heels on the edge of the stove again. "Then it might been an accident," he said, dryly.

Westover had to break the silence that followed, and he found himself defending Jeff, though somehow not for Jeff's sake. He urged that if he had the strong will they both recognized in him, he would never commit the errors of a weak man, which were usually the basest.

"How do you know that a strong-willed man a'n't a weak one?" Whitwell astonished him by asking. "A'n't what we call a strong will just a kind of a bull-dog clinch that the dog himself can't unloose? I take it a man that has a good will is a strong man. If Jeff done a right thing against his will, he wouldn't rest easy till he'd showed that he wa'n't obliged to, by some mischief worse 'n what he was kept out of. I tell you, Mr. Westover, if I'd made that fellow toe the mark any way, I'd be afraid of him." Whitwell looked at Westover with eyes of significance, if not of confidence. Then he rose with a prolonged "M—wel-l-l! We're all born, but we a'n't all buried. This world is a queer place. But I guess Jeff 'll come out right in the end."

Westover said, "I'm sure he will!" and he shook hands warmly with the father of the girl Jeff was going to marry.

Whitwell came back, after he had got some paces away, and said: "Of course, this is between you and me, Mr. Westover."

"Of course!"

"I don't mean Mis' Durgin. I shouldn't care what she thought of my talkin' him over with you. I don't know," he continued, putting up his hand against the door-frame, to give himself the comfort of its support while he talked, "as you understood what she mean by the young ladies at Boston keepin' up with the fellows in college. Well, that's what Cynthy's doin' with Jeff, right along; and if he ever works off them conditions of his, and gits his degree, it' ll be because she helped him to. I tell you, there's more than one kind of telepathy in this world, Mr. Westover. That's all."

William Dean Howells