Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 43

XLIII

Westover was sitting at an open window of his studio smoking out into the evening air, and looking down into the thinly foliaged tops of the public garden, where the electrics fainted and flushed and hissed. Cars trooped by in the troubled street, scraping the wires overhead that screamed as if with pain at the touch of their trolleys, and kindling now and again a soft planet, as the trolleys struck the batlike plates that connected the crossing lines. The painter was getting almost as much pleasure out of the planets as pain out of the screams, and he was in an after-dinner languor in which he was very reluctant to recognize a step, which he thought he knew, on his stairs and his stairs-landing. A knock at his door followed the sound of the approaching steps. He lifted himself, and called out, inhospitably, "Come in!" and, as he expected, Jeff Durgin came in. Westover's meetings with him had been an increasing discomfort since his return from Lion's Head. The uneasiness which he commonly felt at the first moment of encounter with him yielded less and less to the influence of Jeff's cynical bonhomie, and it returned in force as soon as they parted.

It was rather dim in the place, except for the light thrown up into it from the turmoil of lights outside, but he could see that there was nothing of the smiling mockery on Jeff's face which habitually expressed his inner hardihood. It was a frowning mockery.

"Hello!" said Westover.

"Hello!" answered Jeff. "Any commands for Lion's Head?"

"What do you mean?"

"I'm going up there to-morrow. I've got to see Cynthia, and tell her what I've been doing."

Westover waited a moment before he asked: "Do you want me to ask what you've been doing?"

"I shouldn't mind it."

The painter paused again. "I don't know that I care to ask. Is it any good?"

"No!" shouted Jeff. "It's the worst thing yet, I guess you'll think. I couldn't have believed it myself, if I hadn't been through it. I shouldn't have supposed I was such a fool. I don't care for the girl; I never did."

"Cynthia?"

"Cynthia? No! Miss Lynde. Oh, try to take it in!" Jeff cried, with a laugh at the daze in Westover's face. "You must have known about the flirtation; if you haven't, you're the only one." His vanity in the fact betrayed itself in his voice. "It came to a crisis last week, and we tried to make each other believe that we were in earnest. But there won't be any real love lost."

Westover did not speak. He could not make out whether he was surprised or whether he was shocked, and it seemed to him that he was neither surprised nor shocked. He wondered whether he had really expected something of the kind, sooner or later, or whether he was not always so apprehensive of some deviltry in Durgin that nothing he did could quite take him unawares. At last he said: "I suppose it's true—even though you say it. It's probably the only truth in you."

"That's something like," said Jeff, as if the contempt gave him a sort of pleasure; and his heavy face lighted up and then darkened again.

"Well," said Westover, "what are we going to do? You've come to tell me."

"I'm going to break with her. I don't care for her—that!" He snapped his fingers. "I told her I cared because she provoked me to. It happened because she wanted it to and led up to it."

"Ah!" said Westover. "You put it on her!" But he waited for Durgin's justification with a dread that he should find something in it.

"Pshaw! What's the use? It's been a game from the beginning, and a question which should ruin. I won. She meant to throw me over, if the time came for her, but it came for me first, and it's only a question now which shall break first; we've both been near it once or twice already. I don't mean she shall get the start of me."

Westover had a glimpse of the innate enmity of the sexes in this game; of its presence in passion that was lived and of its prevalence in passion that was played. But the fate of neither gambler concerned him; he was impatient of his interest in what Jeff now went on to tell him, without scruple concerning her, or palliation of himself. He scarcely realized that he was listening, but afterward he remembered it all, with a little pity for Bessie and none for Jeff, but with more shame for her, too. Love seems more sacredly confided to women than to men; it is and must be a higher and finer as well as a holier thing with them; their blame for its betrayal must always be the heavier. He had sometimes suspected Bessie's willingness to amuse herself with Jeff, as with any other man who would let her play with him; and he would not have relied upon anything in him to defeat her purpose, if it had been anything so serious as a purpose.

At the end of Durgin's story he merely asked: "And what are you going to do about Cynthia?"

"I am going to tell her," said Jeff. "That's what I am going up there for."

Westover rose, but Jeff remained sitting where he had put himself astride of a chair, with his face over the back. The painter walked slowly up and down before him in the capricious play of the street light. He turned a little sick, and he stopped a moment at the window for a breath of air.

"Well?" asked Jeff.

"Oh! You want my advice?" Westover still felt physically incapable of the indignation which he strongly imagined. "I don't know what to say to you, Durgin. You transcend my powers. Are you able to see this whole thing yourself?"

"I guess so," Jeff answered. "I don't idealize it, though. I look at facts; they're bad enough. You don't suppose that Miss Lynde is going to break her heart over—"

"I don't believe I care for Miss Lynde any more than I care for you. But I believe I wish you were not going to break with her."

"Why?"

"Because you and she are fit for each other. If you want my advice, I advise you to be true to her—if you can."

"And Cynthia?"

"Break with her."

"Oh!" Jeff gave a snort of derision.

"You're not fit for her. You couldn't do a crueler thing for her than to keep faith with her."

"Do you mean it?"

"Yes, I mean it. Stick to Miss Lynde—if she'll let you."

Jeff seemed puzzled by Westover's attitude, which was either too sincere or too ironical for him. He pushed his hat, which he had kept on, back from his forehead. "Damned if I don't believe she would," he mused aloud. The notion seemed to flatter him and repay him for what he must have been suffering. He smiled, but he said: "She wouldn't do, even if she were any good. Cynthia is worth a million of her. If she wants to give me up after she knows all about me, well and good. I shu'n't blame her. But I shall give her a fair chance, and I shu'n't whitewash myself; you needn't be afraid of that, Mr. Westover."

"Why should I care what you do?" asked the painter, scornfully.

"Well, you can't, on my account," Durgin allowed. "But you do care on her account."

"Yes, I do," said Westover, sitting down again, and he did not say anything more.

Durgin waited a long while for him to speak before he asked: "Then that's really your advice, is it?"

"Yes, break with her."

"And stick to Miss Lynde."

"If she'll let you."

Jeff was silent in his turn. He started from his silence with a laugh. "She'd make a daisy landlady for Lion's Head. I believe she would like to try it awhile just for the fun. But after the ball was over—well, it would be a good joke, if it was a joke. Cynthia is a woman—she a'n't any corpse-light. She understands me, and she don't overrate me, either. She knew just how much I was worth, and she took me at her own valuation. I've got my way in life marked out, and she believes in it as much as I do. If anybody can keep me level and make the best of me, she can, and she's going to have the chance, if she wants to. I'm going to act square with her about the whole thing. I guess she's the best judge in a case like this, and I shall lay the whole case before her, don't you be afraid of that. And she's got to have a free field. Why, even if there wa'n't any question of her," he went on, falling more and more into his vernacular, "I don't believe I should care in the long run for this other one. We couldn't make it go for any time at all. She wants excitement, and after the summer folks began to leave, and we'd been to Florida for a winter, and then came back to Lion's Head-well! This planet hasn't got excitement enough in it for that girl, and I doubt if the solar system has. At any rate, I'm not going to act as advance-agent for her."

"I see," said Westover, "that you've been reasoning it all out, and I'm not surprised that you've kept your own advantage steadily in mind. I don't suppose you know what a savage you are, and I don't suppose I could teach you. I sha'n't try, at any rate. I'll take you on your own ground, and I tell you again you had better break with Cynthia. I won't say that it's what you owe her, for that won't have any effect with you, but it's what you owe yourself. You can't do a wrong thing and prosper on it—"

"Oh yes, you can," Jeff interrupted, with a sneering laugh. "How do you suppose all the big fortunes were made? By keeping the Commandments?"

"No. But you're an unlucky man if life hasn't taught you that you must pay in suffering of some kind, sooner or later, for every wrong thing you do—"

"Now that's one of your old-fashioned superstitions, Mr. Westover," said Jeff, with a growing kindliness in his tone, as if the pathetic delusion of such a man really touched him. "You pay, or you don't pay, just as it happens. If you get hit soon after you've done wrong, you think it's retribution, and if it holds off till you've forgotten all about it, you think it's a strange Providence, and you puzzle over it, but you don't reform. You keep right along in the old way. Prosperity and adversity, they've got nothing to do with conduct. If you're a strong man, you get there, and if you're a weak man, all the righteousness in the universe won't help you. But I propose to do what's right about Cynthia, and not what's wrong; and according to your own theory, of life—which won't hold water a minute—I ought to be blessed to the third and fourth generation. I don't look for that, though. I shall be blessed if I look out for myself; and if I don't, I shall suffer for my want of foresight. But I sha'n't suffer for anything else. Well, I'm going to cut some of my recitations, and I'm going up to Lion's Head, to-morrow, to settle my business with Cynthia. I've got a little business to look after here with some one else first, and I guess I shall have to be about it. I don't know which I shall like the best." He rose, and went over to where Westover was sitting, and held out his hand to him.

"What is it?" asked Westover.

"Any commands for Lion's Head?" Jeff said, as at first.

"No," said Westover, turning his face away.

"Oh, all right." Durgin put his hand into his pocket unshaken.

William Dean Howells