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Chapter 46

XLVI

Cynthia did not appear at dinner, and Jeff asked his mother when he saw her alone if she had spoken to the girl. "Yes, but she said she did not want to talk yet."

"All right," he returned. "I'm going to take a nap; I believe I feel as if I hadn't slept for a month."

He slept the greater part of the afternoon, and came down rather dull to the early tea. Cynthia was absent again, and his mother was silent and wore a troubled look. Whitwell was full of a novel conception of the agency of hypnotism in interpreting the life of the soul as it is intimated in dreams. He had been reading a book that affirmed the consubstantiality of the sleep-dream and the hypnotic illusion. He wanted to know if Jeff, down at Boston, had seen anything of the hypnotic doings that would throw light on this theory.

It was still full light when they rose from the table, and it was scarcely twilight when Jeff heard Cynthia letting herself out at the back door. He fancied her going down to her father's house, and he went out to the corner of the hotel to meet her. She faltered a moment at sight of him, and then kept on with averted face.

He joined her, and walked beside her. "Well, Cynthy, what are you going to say to me? I'm off for Cambridge again to-morrow morning, and I suppose we've got to understand each other. I came up here to put myself in your hands, to keep or to throw away, just as you please. Well? Have you thought about it?"

"Every minute," said the girl, quietly.

"Well?"

"If you had cared for me, it couldn't have happened."

"Oh yes, it could. Now that's just where you're mistaken. That's where a woman never can understand a man. I might carry on with half a dozen girls, and yet never forget you, or think less of you, although I could see all the time how pretty and bright every one of 'em was. That's the way a man's mind is built. It's curious, but it's true."

"I don't believe I care for any share in your mind, then," said the girl.

"Oh, come, now! You don't mean that. You know I was just joking; you know I don't justify what I've done, and I don't excuse it. But I think I've acted pretty square with you about it—about telling you, I mean. I don't want to lay any claim, but you remember when you made me promise that if there was anything shady I wanted to hide from you—Well, I acted on that. You do remember?"

"Yes," said Cynthia, and she pulled the cloud over the side of her face next to him, and walked a little faster.

He hastened his steps to keep up with her. "Cynthy, if you put your arms round me, as you did then—"

"I can't Jeff!"

"You don't want to."

"Yes, I do! But you don't want me to, as you did then. Do you?" She stopped abruptly and faced him full. "Tell me, honestly!"

Jeff dropped his bold eyes, and the smile left his handsome mouth.

"You don't," said the girl, "for you know that if you did, I would do it." She began to walk on again. "It wouldn't be hard for me to forgive you anything you've done against me—or against yourself; I should care for you the same—if you were the same person; but you're not the same, and you know it. I told you then—that time that I didn't want to make you do what you knew was right, and I never shall try to do it again. I'm sorry I did it then. I was wrong. And I should be afraid of you if I did now. Some time you would make me suffer for it, just as you've made me suffer for making you do then what was right."

It struck Jeff as a very curious fact that Cynthia must always have known him better than he knew himself in some ways, for he now perceived the truth and accuracy of her words. He gave her mind credit for the penetration due her heart; he did not understand that it is through their love women divine the souls of men. What other witnesses of his character had slowly and carefully reasoned out from their experience of him she had known from the beginning, because he was dear to her.

He was silent, and then, with rare gravity, he said, "Cynthia, I believe you're right," and he never knew how her heart leaped toward him at his words. "I'm a pretty bad chap, I guess. But I want you to give me another chance and I'll try not to make you pay for it, either," he added, with a flicker of his saucy humor.

"I'll give you a chance, then," she said, and she shrank from the hand he put out toward her. "Go back and tell that girl you're free now, and if she wants you she can have you."

"Is that what you call a chance?" demanded Jeff, between anger and injury. For an instant he imagined her deriding him and revenging herself.

"It's the only one I can give you. She's never tried to make you do what was right, and you'll never be tempted to hurt her."

"You're pretty rough on me, Cynthy," Jeff protested, almost plaintively. He asked, more in character: "Ain't you afraid of making me do right, now?"

"I'm not making you. I don't promise you anything, even if she won't have you."

"Oh!"

"Did you suppose I didn't mean that you were free? That I would put a lie in your mouth for you to be true with?"

"I guess you're too deep for me," said Jeff, after a sulky silence.

"Then it's all off between us? What do you say?"

"What do you say?"

"I say it's just as it was before, if you care for me."

"I care for you, but it can never be the same as it was before. What you've done, you've done. I wish I could help it, but I can't. I can't make myself over into what I was twenty-four hours ago. I seem another person, in another world; it's as if I died, and came to life somewhere else. I'm sorry enough, if that could help, but it can't. Go and tell that girl the truth: that you came up here to me, and I sent you back to her."

A gleam of amusement visited Jeff in the gloom where he seemed to be darkling. He fancied doing that very thing with Bessie Lynde, and the wild joy she would snatch from an experience so unique, so impossible. Then the gleam faded. "And what if I didn't want her?" he demanded.

"Tell her that too," said Cynthia.

"I suppose," said Jeff, sulkily, "you'll let me go away and do as I please, if I'm free."

"Oh yes. I don't want you to do anything because I told you. I won't make that mistake again. Go and do what you are able to do of your own free will. You know what you ought to do as well as I do; and you know a great deal better what you can do."

They had reached Cynthia's house, and they were talking at the side door, as they had the night before, when there had been hope for her in the newness of her calamity, before she had yet fully imagined it.

Jeff made no answer to her last words. He asked, "Am I going to see you again?"

"I guess not. I don't believe I shall be up before you start."

"All right. Good-bye, then." He held out his hand, and she put hers in it for the moment he chose to hold it. Then he turned and slowly climbed the hill.

Cynthia was still lying with her face in her pillow when her father came into the dark little house, and peered into her room with the newly lighted lamp in his hand. She turned her face quickly over and looked at him with dry and shining eyes.

"Well, it's all over with Jeff and me, father."

"Well, I'm satisfied," said Whitwell. "If you could ha' made it up, so you could ha' felt right about it, I shouldn't ha' had anything to say against it, but I'm glad it's turned out the way it has. He's a comical devil, and he always was, and I'm glad you a'n't takin' on about him any more. You used to have so much spirit when you was little."

"Oh,—spirit! You don't know how much spirit I've had, now."

"Well, I presume not," Whitwell assented.

"I've been thinking," said the girl, after a little pause, "that we shall have to go away from here."

"Well, I guess not," her father began. "Not for no Jeff Dur—"

"Yes, yes. We must! Don't make one talk about it. We'll stay here till Jackson gets back in June, and then—we must go somewhere else. We'll go down to Boston, and I'll try to get a place to teach, or something, and Frank can get a place."

"I presume," Whitwell mused, "that Mr. Westover could—"

"Father!" cried the girl, with an energy that startled him, as she lifted herself on her elbow. "Don't ever think of troubling Mr. Westover! Oh," she lamented, "I was thinking of troubling him myself! But we mustn't, we mustn't! I should be so ashamed!"

"Well," said Whitwell, "time enough to think about all that. We got two good months yet to plan it out before Jackson gets back, and I guess we can think of something before that. I presume," he added, thoughtfully, "that when Mrs. Durgin hears that you've give Jeff the sack, she'll make consid'able of a kick. She done it when you got engaged."

William Dean Howells