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Chapter 39

XXXIX

Westover understood from Whitwell's afterthought that it was Cynthia he was anxious to keep ignorant of his misgivings, if they were so much as misgivings. But the importance of this fact could not stay him against the tide of sleep which was bearing him down. When his head touched the pillow it swept over him, and he rose from it in the morning with a gayety of heart which he knew to be returning health. He jumped out of bed, and stuffed some shavings into his stove from the wood-box beside it, and laid some logs on them; he slid the damper open, and then lay down again, listening to the fire that showed its red teeth through the slats and roared and laughed to the day which sparkled on the white world without. When he got out of bed a second time, he found the room so hot that he had to pull down his window-sash, and he dressed in a temperature of twenty degrees below zero without knowing that the dry air was more than fresh. Mrs. Durgin called to him through the open door of her parlor, as he entered the dining-room: "Cynthy will give you your breakfast, Mr. Westover. We're all done long ago, and I'm busy in here," and the girl appeared with the coffee-pot and the dishes she had been keeping hot for him at the kitchen stove. She seemed to be going to leave him when she had put them down before him, but she faltered, and then she asked: "Do you want I should pour your coffee for you?"

"Oh yes! Do!" he begged, and she sat down across the table from him. "I'm ashamed to make this trouble for you," he added. "I didn't know it was so late."

"Oh, we have the whole day for our work," she answered, tolerantly.

He laughed, and said: "How strange that seems! I suppose I shall get used to it. But in town we seem never to have a whole day for a day's work; we always have to do part of it at night, or the next morning. Do you ever have a day here that's too large a size for its work?"

"You can nearly always find something to do about a house," she returned, evasively. "But the time doesn't go the way it does in the summer."

"Oh, I know how the country is in the winter," he said. "I was brought up in the country."

"I didn't know that," she said, and she gave him a stare of surprise before her eyes fell.

"Yes. Out in Wisconsin. My people were emigrants, and I lived in the woods, there, till I began to paint my way out. I began pretty early, but I was in the woods till I was sixteen."

"I didn't know that," she repeated. "I always thought that you were—"

"Summer folks, like the rest? No, I'm all-the-year-round folks originally. But I haven't been in the country in the winter since I was a boy; and it's all been coming back to me, here, like some one else's experience."

She did not say anything, but the interest in her eyes, which she could not keep from his face now, prompted him to go on.

"You can make a beginning in the West easier than you can in the East, and some people who came to our lumber camp discovered me, and gave me a chance to begin. I went to Milwaukee first, and they made me think I was somebody. Then I came on to New York, and they made me think I was nobody. I had to go to Europe to find out which I was; but after I had been there long enough I didn't care to know. What I was trying to do was the important thing to me; not the fellow who was trying to do it."

"Yes," she said, with intelligence.

"I met some Boston people in Italy, and I thought I should like to live where that kind of people lived. That's the way I came to be in Boston. It all seems very simple now, but I used to think it might look romantic from the outside. I've had a happy life; and I'm glad it began in the country. I shouldn't care if it ended there. I don't know why I've bothered you with my autobiography, though. Perhaps because I thought you knew it already."

She looked as if she would have said something fitting if she could have ruled herself to it; but she said nothing at all. Her failure seemed to abash her, and she could only ask him if he would not have some more coffee, and then excuse herself, and leave him to finish his breakfast alone.

That day he tried for his picture from several points out-of-doors before he found that his own window gave him the best. With the window open, and the stove warm at his back, he worked there in great comfort nearly every afternoon. The snows kept off, and the clear sunsets burned behind the summit day after day. He painted frankly and faithfully, and made a picture which, he said to himself, no one would believe in, with that warm color tender upon the frozen hills. The soft suffusion of the winter scene was improbable to him when he had it in, nature before his eyes; when he looked at it as he got it on his canvas it was simply impossible.

In the forenoons he had nothing to do, for he worked at his picture only when the conditions renewed themselves with the sinking sun. He tried to be in the open air, and get the good of it; but his strength for walking had failed him, and he kept mostly to the paths broken around the house. He went a good deal to the barn with Whitwell and Jombateeste to look after the cattle and the horses, whose subdued stamping and champing gave him a sort of animal pleasure. The blended odors of the hay-mows and of the creatures' breaths came to him with the faint warmth which their bodies diffused through the cold obscurity.

When the wide doors were rolled back, and the full day was let in, he liked the appeal of their startled eyes, and the calls they made to one another from their stalls, while the men spoke back to them in terms which they seemed to have in common with them, and with the poultry that flew down from the barn lofts to the barn floor and out into the brilliant day, with loud clamor and affected alarm.

In these simple experiences he could not imagine the summer life of the place. It was nowhere more extinct than in the hollow verandas, where the rocking-chairs swung in July and August, and where Westover's steps in his long tramps up and down woke no echo of the absent feet. In-doors he kept to the few stove-heated rooms where he dwelt with the family, and sent only now and then a vague conjecture into the hotel built round the old farm-house. He meant, before he left, to ask Mrs. Durgin to let him go through the hotel, but he put it off from day to day, with a physical shrinking from its cold and solitude.

The days went by in the swiftness of monotony. His excursions to the barn, his walks on the verandas, his work on his picture, filled up the few hours of the light, and when the dark came he contentedly joined the little group in Mrs. Durgin's parlor. He had brought two or three books with him, and sometimes he read from one of them; or he talked with Whitwell on some of the questions of life and death that engaged his speculative mind. Jombateeste preferred the kitchen for the naps he took after supper before his early bedtime. Frank Whitwell sat with his books there, where Westover sometimes saw his sister helping him at his studies. He was loyally faithful and obedient to her in all things. He helped her with the dishes, and was not ashamed to be seen at this work; she had charge of his goings and comings in society; he submitted to her taste in his dress, and accepted her counsel on many points which he referred to her, and discussed with her in low-spoken conferences. He seemed a formal, serious boy, shy like his sister; his father let fall some hints of a religious cast of mind in him. He had an ambition beyond the hotel; he wished to study for the ministry; and it was not alone the chance of going home with the girls that made him constant at the evening meetings. "I don't know where he gits it," said his father, with a shake of the head that suggested doubt of the wisdom of the son's preference of theology to planchette.

Cynthia had the same care of her father as of her brother; she kept him neat, and held him up from lapsing into the slovenliness to which he would have tended if she had not, as Westover suspected, made constant appeals to him for the respect due their guest. Mrs. Durgin, for her part, left everything to Cynthia, with a contented acceptance of her future rule and an abiding trust in her sense and strength, which included the details of the light work that employed her rather luxurious leisure. Jombateeste himself came to Cynthia with his mending, and her needle kept him tight and firm against the winter which it amused Westover to realize was the Canuck's native element, insomuch that there was now something incongruous in the notion of Jombateeste and any other season.

The girl's motherly care of all the household did not leave Westover out. Buttons appeared on garments long used to shifty contrivances for getting on without them; buttonholes were restored to their proper limits; his overcoat pockets were searched for gloves, and the gloves put back with their finger-tips drawn close as the petals of a flower which had decided to shut and be a bud again.

He wondered how he could thank her for his share of the blessing that her passion for motherly care was to all the house. It was pathetic, and he used sometimes to forecast her self-devotion with a tender indignation, which included a due sense of his own present demerit. He was not reconciled to the sacrifice because it seemed the happiness, or at least the will, of the nature which made it. All the same it seemed a waste, in its relation to the man she was to marry.

Mrs. Durgin and Cynthia sat by the lamp and sewed at night, or listened to the talk of the men. If Westover read aloud, they whispered together from time to time about some matters remote from it, as women always do where there is reading. It was quiet, but it was not dull for Westover, who found himself in no hurry to get back to town.

Sometimes he thought of the town with repulsion; its unrest, its vacuous, troubled life haunted him like a memory of sickness; but he supposed that when he should be quite well again all that would change, and be as it was before. He interested himself, with the sort of shrewd ignorance of it that Cynthia showed in the questions she asked about it now and then when they chanced to be left alone together. He fancied that she was trying to form some intelligible image of Jeff's environment there, and was piecing together from his talk of it the impressions she had got from summer folks. He did his best to help her, and to construct for her a veritable likeness of the world as far as he knew it.

A time came when he spoke frankly of Jeff in something they were saying, and she showed no such shrinking as he had expected she would; he reflected that she might have made stricter conditions with Mrs. Durgin than she expected to keep herself in mentioning him. This might well have been necessary with the mother's pride in her son, which knew no stop when it once began to indulge itself. What struck Westover more than the girl's self-possession when they talked of Jeff was a certain austerity in her with regard to him. She seemed to hold herself tense against any praise of him, as if she should fail him somehow if she relaxed at all in his favor.

This, at least, was the rather mystifying impression which Westover got from her evident wish to criticise and understand exactly all that he reported, rather than to flatter herself from it. Whatever her motive was, he was aware that through it all she permitted herself a closer and fuller trust of himself. At times it was almost too implicit; he would have liked to deserve it better by laying open all that had been in his heart against Jeff. But he forbore, of course, and he took refuge, as well as he could, in the respect by which she held herself at a reverent distance from him when he could not wholly respect himself.

William Dean Howells