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Chapter 44

XLIV

"What is it, Jeff?" asked Cynthia, the next night, as they started out together after supper, and began to stroll down the hill toward her father's house. It lay looking very little and low in the nook at the foot of the lane, on the verge of the woods that darkened away to the northward from it, under the glassy night sky, lit with the spare young moon. The peeping of the frogs in the marshy places filled the air; the hoarse voice of the brook made itself heard at intervals through them.

"It's not so warm here, quite, as it is in Boston," he returned. "Are you wrapped up enough? This air has an edge to it."

"I'm all right," said the girl. "What is it?"

"You think there's something? You don't believe I've come up for rest over Sunday? I guess mother herself didn't, and I could see your father following up my little lies as if he wa'n't going to let one escape him. Well, you're right. There is something. Think of the worst thing you can, Cynthy!"

She pulled her hand out of his arm, which she had taken, and halted him by her abrupt pause. "You're not going to get through!"

"I'm all right on my conditions," said Jeff, with forlorn derision. "You'll have to guess again." He stood looking back over his shoulder at her face, which showed white in the moonlight, swathed airily round in the old-fashioned soft woollen cloud she wore.

"Is it some trouble you've got into? I shall stand by you!"

"Oh, you splendid girl! The trouble's over, but it's something you can't stand by me in, I guess. You know that girl I wrote to you about—the one I met at the college tea, and—"

"Yes! Miss Lynde!"

"Come on! We can't stay here talking. Let's go down and sit on your porch." She mechanically obeyed him, and they started on together down the hill again; but she did not offer to take his arm, and he kept the width of the roadway from her.

"What about her?" she quietly asked.

"Last night I ended up the flirtation I've been carrying on with her ever since."

"I want to know just what you mean, Jeff."

"I mean that last week I got engaged to her, and last night I broke with her." Cynthia seemed to stumble on something; he sprang over and caught. her, and now she put her hand in his arm, and stayed herself by him as they walked.

"Go on," she said.

"That's all there is of it."

"No!" She stopped, and then she asked, with a kind of gentle bewilderment: "What did you want to tell me for?"

"To let you break with me—if you wanted to."

"Don't you care for me any more?"

"Yes, more than ever I did. But I'm not fit for you, Cynthia. Mr. Westover said I wasn't. I told him about it—"

"What did he say?"

"That I ought to break with you."

"But if you broke with her?"

"He told me to stick to her. He was right about you, Cynthy. I'm not fit for you, and that's a fact."

"What was it about that girl? Tell me everything." She spoke in a tone of plaintive entreaty, very unlike the command she once used with Jeff when she was urging him to be frank with her and true to himself. They had come to her father's house and she freed her hand from his arm again, and sat down on the step before the side door with a little sigh as of fatigue.

"You'll take cold," said Jeff, who remained on foot in front of her.

"No," she said, briefly. "Go on."

"Why," Jeff began, harshly, and with a note of scorn for himself and his theme in his voice, "there isn't any more of it, but there's no end to her. I promised Mr. Westover I shouldn't whitewash myself, and I sha'n't. I've been behaving badly, and it's no excuse for me because she wanted me to. I began to go for her as soon as I saw that she wanted me to, and that she liked the excitement. The excitement is all that she cared for; she didn't care for me except for the excitement of it. She thought she could have fun with me, and then throw me over; but I guess she found her match. You couldn't understand such a girl, and I don't brag of it. All she cared for was to flirt with me, and she liked it all the more because I was a jay and she could get something new out of it. I can't explain it; but I could see it right along. She fooled herself more than she fooled me."

"Was she—very good-looking?" Cynthia asked, listlessly.

"No!" shouted Jeff. "She wasn't good-looking at all. She was dark and thin, and she had little slanting eyes; but she was graceful, and she knew how to make herself go further than any girl I ever saw. If she came into a room, she made you look at her, or you had to somehow. She was bright, too; and she had more sense than all the other girls there put together. But she was a fool, all the same." Jeff paused. "Is that enough?"

"It isn't all."

"No, it isn't all. We didn't meet much at first, but I got to walking home with her from some teas; and then we met at a big ball. I danced with her the whole while nearly, and—and I took her brother home—Pshaw! He was drunk; and I—well, he had got drunk drinking with me at the ball. The wine didn't touch me, but it turned his head; and I took him home; he's a drunkard, anyway. She let us in when we got to their house, and that kind of made a tie between us. She pretended to think she was under obligations to me, and so I got to going to her house."

"Did she know how her brother got drunk?"

"She does now. I told her last night."

"How came you to tell her?"

"I wanted to break with her. I wanted to stop it, once for all, and I thought that would do it, if anything would."

"Did that make her willing to give you up?"

Jeff checked himself in a sort of retrospective laugh. "I'm not so sure. I guess she liked the excitement of that, too. You couldn't understand the kind of girl she—She wanted to flirt with me that night I brought him home tipsy."

"I don't care to hear any more about her. Why did you give her up?"

"Because I didn't care for her, and I did care for you, Cynthy."

"I don't believe it." Cynthia rose from the step, where she had been sitting, as if with renewed strength. "Go up and tell father to come down here. I want to see him." She turned and put her hand on the latch of the door.

"You're not going in there, Cynthia," said Jeff. "It must be like death in there."

"It's more like death out here. But if it's the cold you mean, you needn't be troubled. We've had a fire to-day, airing out the house. Will you go?"

"But what do you—what are you going to say to me?"

"I don't know, yet. If I said anything now, I should tell you what Mr. Westover did: go back to that girl, if she'll let you. You're fit for each other, as he said. Did you tell her that you were engaged to some one else?"

"I did, last night."

"But before that she didn't know how false you were. Well, you're not fit for her, then; you're not good enough."

She opened the door and went in, closing it after her. Jeff turned and walked slowly away; then he came quickly back, as if he were going to follow her within. But through the window he saw her as she stood by the table with a lamp in her hand. She had turned up the light, which shone full in her face and revealed its severe beauty broken and writhen with the effort to repress her weeping. He might not have minded the severity or the beauty, but the pathos was more than he could stand. "Oh, Lord!" he said, with a shrug, and he turned again and walked slowly up the hill.

When Whitwell faced his daughter in the little sitting-room, whose low ceiling his hat almost touched as he stood before her, the storm had passed with her, and her tear-drenched visage wore its wonted look of still patience.

"Did Jeff tell you why I sent for you, father?"

"No. But I knew it was trouble," said Whitwell, with a dignity which-his sympathy for her gave a countenance better adapted to the expression of the lighter emotions.

"I guess you were right about him," she resumed: She went on to tell in brief the story that Jeff had told her. Her father did not interrupt her, but at the end he said, inadequately: "He's a comical devil. I knew about his gittin' that feller drunk. Mr. Westover told me when he was up here."

"Mr. Westover did!" said Cynthia, in a note of indignation.

"He didn't offer to," Whitwell explained. "I got it out of him in spite of him, I guess." He had sat down with his hat on, as his absent-minded habit was, and he now braced his knees against the edge of the table. Cynthia sat across it from him with her head drooped over it, drawing vague figures on the board with her finger. "What are you goin' to do?"

"I don't know," she answered.

"I guess you don't quite realize it yet," her father suggested, tenderly. "Well, I don't want to hurry you any. Take your time."

"I guess I realize it," said the girl.

"Well, it's a pootty plain case, that's a fact," Whitwell conceded. She was silent, and he asked: "How did he come to tell you?"

"It's what he came up for. He began to tell me at once. I was certain there was some trouble."

"Was it his notion to come, I wonder, or Mr. Westover's?"

"It was his. But Mr. Westover told him to break off with me, and keep on with her, if she would let him."

"I guess that was pootty good advice," said Whitwell, letting his face betray his humorous relish of it. "I guess there's a pair of 'em."

"She was not playing any one else false," said Cynthia, bitterly.

"Well, I guess that's so, too," her father assented. "'Ta'n't so much of a muchness as you might think, in that light." He took refuge from the subject in an undirected whistle.

After a moment the girl asked, forlornly: "What should you do, father, if you were in my place?"

"Well, there I guess you got me, Cynthy," said her father. "I don't believe 't any man, I don't care how old he is, or how much experience he's had, knows exactly how a girl feels about a thing like this, or has got any call to advise her. Of course, the way I feel is like takin' the top of his head off. But I d' know," he added, "as that would do a great deal of good, either. I presume a woman's got rather of a chore to get along with a man, anyway. We a'n't any of us much to brag on. It's out o' sight, out o' mind, with the best of us, I guess."

"It wouldn't be with Jackson—it wouldn't be with Mr. Westover."

"There a'n't many men like Mr. Westover—well, not a great many; or Jackson, either. Time! I wish Jackson was home! He'd know how to straighten this thing out, and he wouldn't weaken over Jeff much—well, not much. But he a'n't here, and you've got to act for yourself. The way I look at it is this: you took Jeff when you knowed what a comical devil he was, and I presume you ha'n't got quite the same right to be disappointed in what he done as if you hadn't knowed. Now mind, I a'n't excusin' him. But if you knowed he was the feller to play the devil if he got a chance, the question is whether—whether—"

"I know what you mean, father," said the girl, "and I don't want to shirk my responsibility. It was everything to have him come right up and tell me."

"Well," said Whitwell, impartially, "as far forth as that goes, I don't think he's strained himself. He'd know you would hear of it sooner or later anyway, and he ha'n't just found out that he was goin' wrong. Been keepin' it up for the last three months, and writin' you all the while them letters you was so crazy to get."

"Yes," sighed the girl. "But we've got to be just to his disposition as well as his actions. I can see it in one light that can excuse it some. He can't bear to be put down, and I know he's been left out a good deal among the students, and it's made him bitter. He told me about it; that's one reason why he wanted to leave Harvard this last year. He saw other young men made much of, when he didn't get any notice; and when he had the chance to pay them back with a girl of their own set that was trying to make a fool of him—"

"That was the time for him to remember you," said Whitwell.

Cynthia broke under the defence she was trying to make. "Yes," she said, with an indrawn sigh, and she began to sob piteously.

The sight of her grief seemed to kindle her father's wrath to a flame. "Any way you look at him, he's been a dumn blackguard; that's what he's been. You're a million times too good for him; and I—"

She sobbed herself quiet, and then she said: "Father, I don't like to go up there to-night. I want to stay here."

"All right, Cynthia. I'll come down and stay with you. You got everything we want here?"

"Yes. And I'll go up and get the breakfast for them in the morning. There won't be much to do."

"Dumn 'em! Let 'em get their own breakfast!" said Whitwell, recklessly.

"And, father," the girl went on as if he had not spoken, "don't you talk to Mrs. Durgin about it, will you?"

"No, no. I sha'n't speak to her. I'll just tell Frank you and me are goin' to stay down here to-night. She'll suspicion something, but she can figure it out for herself. Or she can make Jeff tell her. It can't be kept from her."

"Well, let him be the one to tell her. Whatever happens, I shall never speak of it to a soul besides you."

"All right, Cynthy. You'll have the night to think it over—I guess you won't sleep much—and I'll trust you to do what's the best thing about it."

William Dean Howells