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Chapter 41

XLI.

Westover, did not meet Durgin for several days after his return from Lion's Head. He brought messages for him from his mother and from Whitwell, and he waited for him to come and get them so long that he had to blame himself for not sending them to him. When Jeff appeared, at the end of a week, Westover had a certain embarrassment in meeting him, and the effort to overcome this carried him beyond his sincerity. He was aware of feigning the cordiality he showed, and of having less real liking for him than ever before. He suggested that he must be busier every day, now, with his college work, and he resented the air of social prosperity which Jeff put on in saying, Yes, there was that, and then he had some engagements which kept him from coming in sooner.

He did not say what the engagements were, and they did not recur to the things they had last spoken of. Westover could not do so without Jeff's leading, and he was rather glad that he gave none. He stayed only a little time, which was spent mostly in a show of interest on both sides, and the hollow hilarities which people use to mask their indifference to one another's being and doing. Jeff declared that he had never seen Westover looking so well, and said he must go up to Lion's Head again; it had done him good. As for his picture, it was a corker; it made him feel as if he were there! He asked about all the folks, and received Westover's replies with vague laughter, and an absence in his bold eye, which made the painter wonder what his mind was on, without the wish to find out. He was glad to have him go, though he pressed him to drop in soon again, and said they would take in a play together.

Jeff said he would like to do that, and he asked at the door whether Westover was going to the tea at Mrs. Bellingham's. He said he had to look in there, before he went out to Cambridge; and left Westover in mute amaze at the length he had apparently gone in a road that had once seemed no thoroughfare for him. Jeff's social acceptance, even after the Enderby ball, which was now some six or seven weeks past, had been slow; but of late, for no reason that he or any one else could have given, it had gained a sudden precipitance; and people who wondered why they met him at other houses began to ask him to their own.

He did not care to go to their houses, and he went at first in the hope of seeing Bessie Lynde again. But this did not happen for some time, and it was a mid-Lenten tea that brought them together. As soon as he caught sight of her he went up to her and began to talk as if they had been in the habit of meeting constantly. She could not control a little start at his approach, and he frankly recognized it.

"What's the matter?"

"Oh—the window!"

"It isn't open," he said, trying it. "Do you want to try it yourself?"

"I think I can trust you," she answered, but she sank a little into the shelter of the curtains, not to be seen talking with him, perhaps, or not to be interrupted—she did not analyze her motive closely.

He remained talking to her until she went away, and then he contrived to go with her. She did not try to escape him after that; each time they met she had the pleasure of realizing that there had never been any danger of what never happened. But beyond this she could perhaps have given no better reason for her willingness to meet him again and again than the bewildered witnesses of the fact. In her set people not only never married outside of it, but they never flirted outside of it. For one of themselves, even for a girl like Bessie, whom they had not quite known from childhood, to be apparently amusing herself with a man like that, so wholly alien in origin, in tradition, was something unheard of; and it began to look as if Bessie Lynde was more than amused. It seemed to Mary Enderby that wherever she went she saw that man talking to Bessie. She could have believed that it was by some evil art that he always contrived to reach Bessie's side, if anything could have been less like any kind of art than the bold push he made for her as soon as he saw her in a room. But sometimes Miss Enderby feared that it was Bessie who used such finesse as there was, and always put herself where he could see her. She waited with trembling for her to give the affair sanction by making her aunt ask him to something at her house. On the other hand, she could not help feeling that Bessie's flirtation was all the more deplorable for the want of some such legitimation.

She did not even know certainly whether Jeff ever called upon Bessie at her aunt's house, till one day the man let him out at the same time he let her in.

"Oh, come up, Molly!" Bessie sang out from the floor above, and met her half-way down the stairs, where she kissed her and led her embraced into the library.

"You don't like my jay, do you, dear?" she asked, promptly.

Mary Enderby turned her face, the mirror of conscience, upon her, and asked: "Is he your jay?"

"Well, no; not just in that sense, Molly. But suppose he was?"

"Then I should have nothing to say."

"And suppose he wasn't?"

Still Mary Enderby found herself with nothing of all she had a thousand times thought she should say to Bessie if she had ever the slightest chance. It always seemed so easy, till now, to take Bessie in her arms, and appeal to her good sense, her self-respect, her regard for her family and friends; and now it seemed so impossible.

She heard herself answering, very stiffly: "Perhaps I'd better apologize for what I've said already. You must think I was very unjust the last time we mentioned him."

"Not at all!" cried Bessie, with a laugh that sounded very mocking and very unworthy to her friend. "He's all that you said, and worse. But he's more than you said, and better."

"I don't understand," said Mary, coldly.

"He's very interesting; he's original; he's different!"

"Oh, every one says that."

"And he doesn't flatter me, or pretend to think much of me. If he did, I couldn't bear him. You know how I am, Molly. He keeps me interested, don't you understand, and prowling about in the great unknown where he has his weird being."

Bessie put her hand to her mouth, and laughed at Mary Enderby with her slanted eyes; a sort of Parisian version of a Chinese motive in eyes.

"I suppose," her friend said, sadly, "you won't tell me more than you wish."

"I won't tell you more than I know—though I'd like to," said Bessie. She gave Mary a sudden hug. "You dear! There isn't anything of it, if that's what you mean."

"But isn't there danger that there will be, Bessie?" her friend entreated.

"Danger? I shouldn't call it danger, exactly!"

"But if you don't respect him, Bessie—"

"Why, how can I? He doesn't respect me!"

"I know you're teasing, now," said Mary Enderby, getting up, "and you're quite right. I have no business to—"

Bessie pulled her down upon the seat again. "Yes, you have! Don't I tell you, over and over? He doesn't respect me, because I don't know how to make him, and he wouldn't like it if I did. But now I'll try to make you understand. I don't believe I care for him the least; but mind, I'm not certain, for I've never cared for any one, and I don't know what it's like. You know I'm not sentimental; I think sentiment's funny; and I'm not dignified—"

"You're divine," murmured Mary Enderby, with reproachful adoration.

"Yes, but you see how my divinity could be improved," said Bessie, with a wild laugh. "I'm not sentimental, but I'm emotional, and he gives me emotions. He's a riddle, and I'm all the time guessing at him. You get the answer to the kind of men we know easily; and it's very nice, but it doesn't amuse you so much as trying. Now, Mr. Durgin—what a name! I can see it makes you creep—is no more like one of us than a—bear is—and his attitude toward us is that of a bear who's gone so much with human beings that he thinks he's a human being. He's delightful, that way. And, do you know, he's intellectual! He actually brings me books, and wants to read passages to me out of them! He has brought me the plans of the new hotel he's going to build. It's to be very aesthetic, and it's going to be called The Lion's Head Inn. There's to be a little theatre, for amateur dramatics, which I could conduct, and for all sorts of professional amusements. If you should ever come, Molly, I'm sure we shall do our best to make you comfortable."

Mary Enderby would not let Bessie laugh upon her shoulder after she said this. "Bessie Lynde," she said, severely, "if you have no regard for yourself, you ought to have some regard for him. You may say you are not encouraging him, and you may believe it—"

"Oh, I shouldn't say it if I didn't believe it," Bessie broke in, with a mock air of seriousness.

"I must be going," said Mary, stiffly, and this time she succeeded in getting to her feet.

Bessie laid hold of her again. "You think you've been trifled with, don't you, dear?"

"No—"

"Yes, you do! Don't you try to be slippery, Molly. The plain pikestaff is your style, morally speaking—if any one knows what a pikestaff is. Well, now, listen! You're anxious about me."

"You know how I feel, Bessie," said Mary Enderby, looking her in the eyes.

"Yes, I do," said Bessie. "The trouble is, I don't know how I feel. But if I ever do, Molly, I'll tell you! Is that fair?"

"Yes."

"I'll give you ample warning. At the least little consciousness in the region of the pericardium, off will go a note by a district messenger, and when you come I'll do whatever you say. There!"

"Oh, Bessie!" cried her friend, and she threw her arms round her, "you always were the most fascinating creature in the world!"

"Yes," said Bessie, "that's what I try to have him think."

William Dean Howells