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Chapter 42

XLII.

Toward the end of April most people who had places at the Shore were mostly in them, but they came up to town on frequent errands, and had one effect of evanescence with people who still remained in their Boston houses provisionally, and seemed more than half absent. The Enderbys had been at the Shore for a fortnight, and the Lyndes were going to be a fortnight longer in Boston, yet, as Bessie made her friend observe, when Mary, ran in for lunch, or stopped for a moment on her way to the train, every few days, they were both of the same transitory quality.

"It might as well be I as you," Bessie said one day, "if we only think so. It's all very weird, dear, and I'm not sure but it is you who sit day after day at my lonely casement and watch the sparrows examining the fuzzy buds of the Jap ivy to see just how soon they can hope to build in the vines. Do you object to the ivy buds looking so very much like snipped woollen rags? If you do, I'm sure it's you, here in my place, for when I come up to town in your personality it sets my teeth on edge. In fact, that's the worst thing about Boston now—the fuzzy ivy buds; there's so much ivy! When you can forget the buds, there are a great many things to make you happy. I feel quite as if we were spending the summer in town and I feel very adventurous and very virtuous, like some sort of self-righteous bohemian. You don't know how I look down on people who have gone out of town. I consider them very selfish and heartless; I don't know why, exactly. But when we have a good marrow-freezing northeasterly storm, and the newspapers come out with their ironical congratulations to the tax-dodgers at the Shore, I feel that Providence is on my side, and I'm getting my reward, even in this world." Bessie suddenly laughed. "I see by your expression of fixed inattention, Molly, that you're thinking of Mr. Durgin!"

Mary gave a start of protest, but she was too honest to deny the fact outright, and Bessie ran on:

"No, we don't sit on a bench in the Common, or even in the Garden, or on the walk in Commonwealth Avenue. If we come to it later, as the season advances, I shall make him stay quite at the other end of the bench, and not put his hand along the top. You needn't be afraid, Molly; all the proprieties shall be religiously observed. Perhaps I shall ask Aunt Louisa to let us sit out on her front steps, when the evenings get warmer; but I assure you it's much more comfortable in-doors yet, even in town, though you'll hardly, believe it at the Shore. Shall you come up to Class Day?"

"Oh, I don't know," Mary began, with a sigh of the baffled hope and the inextinguishable expectation which the mention of Class Day stirs in the heart of every Boston girl past twenty.

"Yes!" said Bessie, with a sigh burlesqued from Mary's. "That is what we all say, and it is certainly the most maddening of human festivals. I suppose, if we were quite left to ourselves, we shouldn't go; but we seem never to be, quite. After every Class Day I say to myself that nothing on earth could induce me to go to another; but when it comes round again, I find myself grasping at any straw of a pretext. I'm pretending now that I've a tender obligation to go because it's his Class Day."

"Bessie!" cried Mary Enderby. "You don't mean it!"

"Not if I say it, Mary dear. What did I promise you about the pericardiac symptoms? But I feel—I feel that if he asks me I must go. Shouldn't you like to go and see a jay Class Day—be part of it? Think of going once to the Pi Ute spread—or whatever it is! And dancing in their tent! And being left out of the Gym, and Beck! Yes, I ought to go, so that it can be brought home to me, and I can have a realizing sense of what I am doing, and be stayed in my mad career."

"Perhaps," Mary Enderby suggested, colorlessly, "he will be devoted to his own people." She had a cold fascination in the picture Bessie's words had conjured up, and she was saying this less to Bessie than to herself.

"And I should meet them—his mothers and sisters!" Bessie dramatized an excess of anguish. "Oh, Mary, that is the very thorn I have been trying not to press my heart against; and does your hand commend it to my embrace? His folks! Yes, they would be folks; and what folks! I think I am getting a realizing sense. Wait! Don't speak don't move, Molly!" Bessie dropped her chin into her hand, and stared straight forward, gripping Mary Enderby's hand.

Mary withdrew it. "I shall have to go, Bessie," she said. "How is your aunt?"

"Must you? Then I shall always say that it was your fault that I couldn't get a realizing sense—that you prevented me, just when I was about to see myself as others see me—as you see me. She's very well!" Bessie sighed in earnest, and her friend gave her hand a little pressure of true sympathy. "But of course it's rather dull here, now."

"I hate to have you staying on. Couldn't you come down to us for a week?"

"No. We both think it's best to be here when Alan gets back. We want him to go down with us." Bessie had seldom spoken openly with Mary Enderby about her brother; but that was rather from Mary's shrinking than her own; she knew that everybody understood his case. She went so far now as to say: "He's ever so much better than he has been. We have such hopes of him, if he can keep well, when he gets back this time."

"Oh, I know he will," said Mary, fervently. "I'm sure of it. Couldn't we do something for you, Bessie?"

"No, there isn't anything. But—thank you. I know you always think of me, and that's worlds. When are you coming up again?"

"I don't know. Next week, some time."

"Come in and see me—and Alan, if he should be at home. He likes you, and he will be so glad."

Mary kissed Bessie for consent. "You know how much I admire Alan. He could be anything."

"Yes, he could. If he could!"

Bessie seldom put so much earnest in anything, and Mary loved (as she would have said) the sad sincerity, the honest hopelessness of her tone. "We must help him. I know we can."

"We must try. But people who could—if they could—" Bessie stopped.

Her friend divined that she was no longer speaking wholly of her brother, but she said: "There isn't any if about it; and there are no ifs about anything if we only think so. It's a sin not to think so."

The mixture of severity and of optimism in the nature of her friend had often amused Bessie, and it did not escape her tacit notice in even so serious a moment as this. Her theory was that she was shocked to recognize it now, because of its relation to her brother, but her theories did not always agree with the facts.

That evening, however, she was truly surprised when, after a rather belated ring at the door, the card of Mr. Thomas Jefferson Durgin came up to her from the reception-room. Her aunt had gone to bed, and she had a luxurious moment in which she reaped all the reward of self-denial by supposing herself to have foregone the pleasure of seeing him, and sending down word that she was not at home. She did not wish, indeed, to see him, but she wished to know how he felt warranted in calling in the evening, and it was this unworthy, curiosity which she stifled for that luxurious moment. The next, with undiminished dignity, she said, "Ask him to come up, Andrew," and she waited in the library for him to offer a justification of the liberty he had taken.

He offered none whatever, but behaved at once as if he had always had the habit of calling in the evening, or as if it was a general custom which he need not account for in his own case. He brought her a book which they had talked of at their last meeting, but he made no excuse or pretext of it.

He said it was a beautiful night, and that he had found it rather warm walking in from Cambridge. The exercise had moistened his whole rich, red color, and fine drops of perspiration stood on his clean-shaven upper lip and in the hollow between his under lip and his bold chin; he pushed back the coarse, dark-yellow hair from his forehead with his handkerchief, and let his eyes mock her from under his thick, straw-colored eyebrows. She knew that he was enjoying his own impudence, and he was so handsome that she could not refuse to enjoy it with him. She asked him if he would not have a fan, and he allowed her to get it for him from the mantel. "Will you have some tea?"

"No; but a glass of water, if you please," he said, and Bessie rang and sent for some apollinaris, which Jeff drank a great goblet of when it came. Then he lay back in the deep chair he had taken, with the air of being ready for any little amusing thing she had to say.

"Are you still a pessimist, Mr. Durgin?" she asked, tentatively, with the effect of innocence that he knew meant mischief.

"No," he said. "I'm a reformed optimist."

"What is that?"

"It's a man who can't believe all the good he would like, but likes to believe all the good he can."

Bessie said it over, with burlesque thoughtfulness. "There was a girl here to-day," she said, solemnly, "who must have been a reformed pessimist, then, for she said the same thing."

"Oh! Miss Enderby," said Jeff.

Bessie started. "You're preternatural! But what a pity you should be mistaken. How came you to think of her?"

"She doesn't like me, and you always put me on trial after she's been here."

"Am I putting you on trial now? It's your guilty conscience! Why shouldn't Mary Enderby like you?"

"Because I'm not good enough."

"Oh! And what has that to do with people's liking you? If that was a reason, how many friends do you think you would have?"

"I'm not sure that I should have any."

"And doesn't that make you feel badly?"

"Very." Jeff's confession was a smiling one.

"You don't show it!"

"I don't want to grieve you."

"Oh, I'm not sure that would grieve me."

"Well, I thought I wouldn't risk it."

"How considerate of you!"

They had come to a little barrier, up that way, and could go no further. Jeff said: "I've just been interviewing another reformed pessimist."

"Mr. Westover?"

"You're preternatural, too. And you're not mistaken, either. Do you ever go to his studio?"

"No; I haven't been there since he told me it would be of no use to come as a student. He can be terribly frank."

"Nobody knows that better than I do," said Jeff, with a smile for the notion of Westover's frankness as he had repeatedly experienced it. "But he means well."

"Oh, that's what they always say. But all the frankness can't be well meant. Why should uncandor be the only form of malevolence?"

"That's a good idea. I believe I'll put that up on Westover the next time he's frank."

"And will you tell me what he says?"

"Oh, I don't know about that." Jeff lay back in his chair at large ease and chuckled. "I should like to tell you what he's just been saying to me, but I don't believe I can."

"Do!"

"You know he was up at Lion's Head in February, and got a winter impression of the mountain. Did you see it?"

"No. Was that what you were talking about?"

"We talked about something a great deal more interesting—the impression he got of me."

"Winter impression."

"Cold enough. He had come to the conclusion that I was very selfish and unworthy; that I used other people for my own advantage, or let them use themselves; that I was treacherous and vindictive, and if I didn't betray a man I couldn't be happy till I had beaten him. He said that if I ever behaved well, it came after I had been successful one way or the other."

"How perfectly fascinating!" Bessie rested her elbow on the corner of the table, and her chin in the palm of the hand whose thin fingers tapped her red lips; the light sleeve fell down and showed her pretty, lean little forearm. "Did it strike you as true, at all?"

"I could see how it might strike him as true."

"Now you are candid. But go on! What did he expect you to do about it?"

"Nothing. He said he didn't suppose I could help it."

"This is immense," said Bessie. "I hope I'm taking it all in. How came he to give you this flattering little impression? So hopeful, too! Or, perhaps your frankness doesn't go any farther?"

"Oh, I don't mind saying. He seemed to think it was a sort of abstract duty he owed to my people."

"Your-folks?" asked Bessie.

"Yes," said Jeff, with a certain dryness. But as her face looked blankly innocent, he must have decided that she meant nothing offensive. He relaxed into a broad smile. "It's a queer household up there, in the winter. I wonder what you would think of it."

"You might describe it to me, and perhaps we shall see."

"You couldn't realize it," said Jeff, with a finality that piqued her. He reached out for the bottle of apollinaris, with somehow the effect of being in another student's room, and poured himself a glass. This would have amused her, nine times out of ten, but the tenth time had come when she chose to resent it.

"I suppose," she said, "you are all very much excited about Class Day at Cambridge."

"That sounds like a remark made to open the way to conversation." Jeff went on to burlesque a reply in the same spirit. "Oh, very much so indeed, Miss Lynde! We are all looking forward to it so eagerly. Are you coming?"

She rejected his lead with a slight sigh so skilfully drawn that it deceived him when she said, gravely:

"I don't know. It's apt to be a very baffling time at the best. All the men that you like are taken up with their own people, and even the men that you don't like overvalue themselves, and think they're doing you a favor if they give you a turn at the Gym or bring you a plate of something."

"Well, they are, aren't they?"

"I suppose, yes, that's what makes me hate it. One doesn't like to have such men do one a favor. And then, Juniors get younger every year! Even a nice Junior is only a Junior," she concluded, with a sad fall of her mocking voice.

"I don't believe there's a Senior in Harvard that wouldn't forsake his family and come to the rescue if your feelings could be known," said Jeff. He lifted the bottle at his elbow and found it empty, and this seemed to remind him to rise.

"Don't make them known, please," said Bessie. "I shouldn't want an ovation." She sat, after he had risen, as if she wished to detain him, but when he came up to take leave she had to put her hand in his. She looked at it there, and so did he; it seemed very little and slim, about one-third the size of his palm, and it seemed to go to nothing in his grasp. "I should think," she added, "that the jays would have the best time on Class Day. I should like to dance at one of their spreads, and do everything they did. It would be twice the fun, and there would be some nature in it. I should like to see a jay Class Day."

"If you'll come out, I'll show you one," said Jeff, without wincing.

"Oh, will you?" she said, taking away her hand. "That would be delightful. But what would become of your folks?" She caught a corner of her mouth with her teeth, as if the word had slipped out.

"Do you call them folks?" asked Jeff, quietly:

"I—supposed—Don't you?"

"Not in Boston. I do at Lion's Head."

"Oh! Well-people."

"I don't know as they're coming."

"How delightful! I don't mean that; but if they're not, and if you really knew some jays, and could get me a little glimpse of their Class Day—"

"I think I could manage it for you." He spoke as before, but he looked at her with a mockery in his lips and eyes as intelligent as her own, and the latent change in his mood gave her the sense of being in the presence of a vivid emotion. She rose in her excitement; she could see that he admired her, and was enjoying her insolence too, in a way, though in a way that she did not think she quite understood; and she had the wish to make him admire her a little more.

She let a light of laughter come into her eyes, of harmless mischief played to an end. "I don't deserve your kindness, and I won't come. I've been very wicked, don't you think?"

"Not very—for you," said Jeff.

"Oh, how good!" she broke out. "But be frank now! I've offended you."

"How? I know I'm a jay, and in the country I've got folks."

"Ah, I see you're hurt at my joking, and I'm awfully sorry. I wish there was some way of making you forgive me. But it couldn't be that alone," she went on rather aimlessly as to her words, trusting to his answer for some leading, and willing meanwhile to prolong the situation for the effect in her nerves. It had been a very dull and tedious day, and she was finding much more than she could have expected in the mingled fear and slight which he inspired her with in such singular measure. These feminine subtleties of motive are beyond any but the finest natures in the other sex, and perhaps all that Jeff perceived was the note of insincerity in her words.

"Couldn't be what alone?" he asked.

"What I've said," she ventured, letting her eyes fall; but they were not eyes that fell effectively, and she instantly lifted them again to his.

"You haven't said anything, and if you've thought anything, what have I got to do with that? I think all sorts of things about people—or folks, as you call them—"

"Oh, thank you! Now you are forgiving me!"

"I think them about you!"

"Oh, do sit down and tell me the kind of things you think about me!" Bessie implored, sinking back into her chair.

"You mightn't like them."

"But if they would do me good?"

"What should I want to do you good for?"

"That's true," sighed Bessie, thoughtfully.

"People—folks—"

"Thank you so much!"

"Don't try to do each other good, unless they're cranks like Lancaster, or bores like Mrs. Bevidge—"

"You belong to the analytical school of Seniors! Go on!"

"That's all," said Jeff.

"And you don't think I've tried to do you good?"

He laughed. Her comedy was delicious to him. He had never found, anybody so amusing; he almost respected her for it.

"If that is your opinion of me, Mr. Durgin," she said, very gravely, "I am sorry. May I remark that I don't see why you come, then?"

"I can tell you," said Jeff, and he advanced upon her where she sat so abruptly that she started and shrank back in her chair. "I come because you've got brains, and you're the only girl that has—here." They were Alan's words, almost his words, and for an instant she thought of her brother, end wondered what he would think of this jay's praising her in his terms. "Because," Jeff went on, "you've got more sense and nonsense—than all the women here put together. Because it's better than a play to hear you talk—and act; and because you're graceful—and fascinating, and chic, and—Good-night, Miss Lynde."

He put out his hand, but she did not take it as she rose haughtily. "We've said good-night once. I prefer to say good-bye this time. I'm sure you will understand why after this I cannot see you again." She seemed to examine him for the effect of these words upon him before she went on.

"No, I don't understand," he answered, coolly; "but it isn't necessary I should; and I'm quite willing to say good-bye, if you prefer. You haven't been so frank with me as I have with you; but that doesn't make any difference; perhaps you never meant to be, or couldn't be, if you meant. Good-bye." He bowed and turned toward the door.

She fluttered between him and it. "I wish to know what you accuse me of!"

"I? Nothing."

"You imply that I have been unjust toward you."

"Oh no!"

"And I can't let you go till you prove it."

"Prove to a woman that—Will you let me pass?"

"No!" She spread her slender arms across the doorway.

"Oh, very well!" Jeff took her hands and put them both in the hold of one of his large, strong bands. Then, with the contact, it came to him, from a varied experience of girls in his rustic past, that this young lady, who was nothing but a girl after all, was playing her comedy with a certain purpose, however little she might know it or own it. He put his other large, strong hand upon her waist, and pulled her to him and kissed her. Another sort of man, no matter what he had believed of her, would have felt his act a sacrilege then and there. Jeff only knew that she had not made the faintest straggle against him; she had even trembled toward him, and he brutally exulted in the belief that he had done what she wished, whether it was what she meant or not.

She, for her part, realized that she had been kissed as once she had happened to see one of the maids kissed by the grocer's boy at the basement door. In an instant this man had abolished all her defences of family, of society, of personality, and put himself on a level with her in the most sacred things of life. Her mind grasped the fact and she realized it intellectually, while as yet all her emotions seemed paralyzed. She did not know whether she resented it as an abominable outrage or not; whether she hated the man for it or not. But perhaps he was in love with her, and his love overpowered him; in that case she could forgive him, if she were in love with him. She asked herself whether she was, and whether she had betrayed herself to him so that he was somehow warranted in what he did. She wondered if another sort of man would have done it, a gentleman, who believed she was in love with him. She wondered if she were as much shocked as she was astonished. She knew that there was everything in the situation to make the fact shocking, but she got no distinct reply from her jarred consciousness.

It ought to be known, and known at once; she ought to tell her brother, as soon as she saw him; she thought of telling her aunt, and she fancied having to shout the affair into her ear, and having to repeat, "He kissed me! Don't you understand? Kissed me!" Then she reflected with a start that she could never tell any one, that in the midst of her world she was alone in relation to this; she was as helpless and friendless as the poorest and lowliest girl could be. She was more so, for if she were like the maid whom the grocer's boy kissed she would be of an order of things in which she could advise with some one else who had been kissed; and she would know what to feel.

She asked herself whether she was at all moved at heart; till now it seemed to her that it had not been different with her toward him from what it had been toward all the other men whose meaning she would have liked to find out. She had not in the least respected them, and she did not respect him; but if it happened because he was overcome by his love for her, and could not help it, then perhaps she must forgive him whether she cared for him or not.

These ideas presented themselves with the simultaneity of things in a dream in that instant when she lingered helplessly in his hold, and she even wondered if by any chance Andrew had seen them; but she heard his step on the floor below; and at the same time it appeared to her that she must be in love with this man if she did not resent what he had done.

William Dean Howells