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Chapter 47

XLVII.

After he went back to Cambridge, Jeff continued mechanically in the direction given him by motives which had ceased for him. In the midst of his divergence with Bessie Lynde he had still kept an inner fealty to Cynthia, and tried to fulfil the purposes and ambition she had for him. The operation of this habitual allegiance now kept him up to his work, but the time must come when it could no longer operate, when his whole consciousness should accept the fact known to his intelligence, and he should recognize the close of that incident of his life as the bereaved finally accept and recognize the fact of death.

The event brought him relief, and it brought him freedom. He was sensible in his relaxation of having strained up to another's ideal, of having been hampered by another's will. His pleasure in the relief was tempered by a regret, not wholly unpleasant, for the girl whose aims, since they were no longer his, must be disappointed. He was sorry for Cynthia, and in his remorse he was fonder of her than he had ever been. He felt her magnanimity and clemency; he began to question, in that wordless deep of being where volition begins, whether it would not be paying a kind of duty to her if he took her at her word and tried to go back to Bessie Lynde. But for the present he did nothing but renounce all notion of working at his conditions, or attempting to take a degree. That was part of a thing that was past, and was no part of anything to come, so far as Jeff now forecast his future.

He did not choose to report himself to Westover, and risk a scolding, or a snubbing. He easily forgave Westover for the tone he had taken at their last meeting, but he did not care to see him. He would have met him half-way, however, in a friendly advance, and he was aware of much good-will toward him, which he could not have been reluctant to show if chance had brought them together.

Jeff missed Cynthia's letters which used to come so regularly every Tuesday, and he had a half-hour every Sunday which was at first rather painfully vacant since he no longer wrote to her. But in this vacancy he had at least no longer the pang of self-reproach which her letters always brought him, and he was not obliged to put himself to the shame of concealment in writing to her. He had never minded that tacit lying on his own account, but he hated it in relation to her; it always hurt him as something incongruous and unfit. He wrote to his mother now on Sunday, and in his first letter, while the impression of Cynthia's dignity and generosity was still vivid, he urged her to make it clear to the girl that he wished her and her family to remain at Lion's Head as if nothing had happened. He put a great deal of real feeling into this request, and he offered to go and spend a year in Europe, if his mother thought that Cynthia would be more reconciled to his coming back at the end of that time.

His mother answered with a dryness to which his ear supplied the tones of her voice, that she would try to get along in the management of Lion's Head till his brother got back, but that she had no objection to his going to Europe for a year if he had the money to spare. Jeff could not refuse her joke, as he felt it, a certain applause, but he thought it pretty rough that his mother should take part so decidedly against him as she seemed to be doing. He had expected her to be angry with him, but before they parted she had seemed to find some excuse for him, and yet here she was siding against her own son in what he might very well consider an unnatural way. If Jackson had been at home he would have laid it to his charge; but he knew that Cynthia would have scorned even to speak of him with his mother, and he knew too well his mother's slight for Whitwell to suppose that he could have influenced her. His mind turned in momentary suspicion to Westover. Had Westover, he wondered, with a purpose to pay him up for it forming itself simultaneously with his question, been setting his mother against him? She might have written to Westover to get at the true inwardness of his behavior, and Westover might have written her something that had made her harden her heart against him. But upon reflection this seemed out of character for both of them; and Jeff was thrown back upon his mother's sober second thought of his misconduct for an explanation of her coldness. He could not deny that he had grievously disappointed her in several ways. But he did not see why he should not take a certain hint from her letter, or construct a hint from it, at one with a vague intent prompted by his own restless and curious vanity. Since he had parted with Bessie Lynde, on terms of humiliation for her which must have been anguish for him if he had ever loved her, or loved anything but his power over her, he had remained in absolute ignorance of her. He had not heard where she was or how she was; but now, as the few weeks before Class Day and Commencement crumbled away, he began to wonder why she made no sign. He believed that since she had been willing to go so far to get him, she would not be willing to give him up so easily. The thought of Cynthia had always intruded more or less effectively between them, but now that this thought began to fade into the past, the thought of Bessie began to grow out of it with no interposing shadow.

However, Jeff was in no hurry. It was not passion that moved him, and the mood in which he could play with the notion of getting back to his flirtation with Bessie Lynde was pleasanter after the violence of recent events than any renewal of strong sensations could be. He preferred to loiter in this mood, and he was meantime much more comfortable than he had been for a great while. He was rid of the disagreeable sense of disloyalty to Cynthia, and he was rid of the stress of living up to her conscience in various ways. He was rid of Bessie Lynde, too, and of the trouble of forecasting and discounting her caprices. His thought turned at times with a soft regret to hopes, disappointments, experiences connected with neither, and now tinged with a tender melancholy, unalloyed by shame or remorse. As he drew nearer to Class Day he had a somewhat keener compunction for Cynthia and the hopes he had encouraged her to build and had then dashed. But he was coming more and more to regard it all as fatality; and if the chance that he counted upon to bring him and Bessie together again had occurred he could have more easily forgiven himself.

One of the jays, who was spreading on rather a large scale, wanted Jeff to spread with him, but he refused, because, as he said, he meant to keep out of it altogether; and for the same reason he declined to take part in the spread of a rather jay society he belonged to. In his secret heart he trusted that some friendly fortuity might throw an invitation to Beck Hall in his way, or at least a card for the Gym, which, if no longer the place it had been, was still by no means jay. He got neither; but as he felt all the joy of the June day in his young blood he consoled himself very well with the dancing at one of the halls, where the company happened that year to be openly, almost recklessly jay. Jeff had some distinction among the fellows who enviously knew of his social success during the winter, and especially of his affair with Bessie Lynde; and there were some girls very pretty and very well dressed among the crowd of girls who were neither. They were from remote parts of the country, and in the charge of chaperons ignorant of the differences so poignant to local society. Jeff went about among them, and danced with the sisters and cousins of several men who seemed superior to the lost condition of their kinswomen; these were nice fellows enough, but doomed by their grinding, or digging, or their want of worldly wisdom, to a place among the jays, when they really had some qualifications for a nobler standing. He had a very good time, and he was enjoying himself in his devotion to a lively young brunette whom he was making laugh with his jokes about some of the others, when his eye was caught by a group of ladies who advanced among the jays with something of that collective intrepidity and individual apprehension characteristic of people in slumming. They had the air of not knowing what might happen to them, but the adventurous young Boston matron in charge of the girls kept on a bold front behind her lorgnette, and swept the strange company she found herself in with an unshrinking eye as she led her band among the promenaders, and past the couples seated along the walls. She hesitated a moment as her glance fell upon Jeff, and then she yielded, at whatever risk, to the comfort of finding a known face among so many aliens. "Why, Mr. Durgin!" she called out. "Bessie, here's Mr. Durgin," and she turned to the girl, who was in her train, as Jeff had perceived by something finer than the senses from the first.

He rose from the side of his brunette, whose brother was standing near, and shook hands with the adventurous young matron, who seemed suddenly much better acquainted with him than he had ever thought her, and with Bessie Lynde; the others were New York girls, and the matron presented him. "Are you going on?" she asked, and the vague challenge with the smile that accompanied it was sufficient invitation for him.

"Why, I believe so," he said, and he turned to take leave of his pretty brunette; but she had promptly vanished with her brother, and he was spared the trouble of getting rid of her. He would have been equal to much more for the sake of finding himself with Bessie Lynde again, whose excitement he could see burning in her eyes, though her thick complexion grew neither brighter nor paler. He did not know what quality of excitement it might be, but he said, audaciously: "It's a good while since we met!" and he was sensible that his audacity availed.

"Is it?" she asked. He put himself at her side, and he did not leave her again till he went to dress for the struggle around the Tree. He found himself easily included in the adventurous young matron's party. He had not the elegance of some of the taller and slenderer men in the scholar's gown, but the cap became his handsome face. His affair with Bessie Lynde had given him a certain note, and an adventurous young matron, who was naturally a little indiscriminate, might very well have been willing to let him go about with her party. She could not know how impudent his mere presence was with reference to Bessie, and the girl herself made no sign that could have enlightened her. She accepted something more that her share of his general usefulness to the party; she danced with him whenever he asked her, and she seemed not to scruple to publish her affair with him in the openest manner. If he could have stilled a certain shame for her which he felt, he would have thought he was having the best kind of time. They made no account of by-gones in their talk, but she had never been so brilliant, or prompted him to so many of the effronteries which were the spirit of his humor. He thought her awfully nice, with lots of sense; he liked her letting him come back without any fooling or fuss, and he began to admire instead of despising her for it. Decidedly it was, as she would have said, the chicquest sort of thing. What was the use, anyway? He made up his mind.

When he said he must go and dress for the Tree, he took leave of her first, and he was aware of a vivid emotion, which was like regret in her at parting with him. She said, Must he? She seemed to want to say something more to him; while he was dismissing himself from the others, he noticed that once or twice she opened her lips as if she were going to speak. In the end she did nothing more important than to ask if he had seen her brother; but after he had left the party he turned and saw her following him with eyes that he fancied anxious and even frightened in their gaze.

The riot round the Tree roared itself through its wonted events. Class after class of the undergraduates filed in and sank upon the grass below the terraces and parterres of brilliantly dressed ladies within the quadrangle of seats; the alumni pushed themselves together against the wall of Holder Chapel; the men of the Senior class came last in their grotesque variety of sweaters and second and third best clothes for the scramble at the Tree. The regulation cheers tore from throats that grew hoarser and hoarser, till every class and every favorite in the faculty had been cheered. Then the signal-hat was flung into the air, and the rush at the Tree was made, and the combat' for the flowers that garlanded its burly waist began.

Jeff's size and shape forbade him to try for the flowers from the shoulders of others. He was one of a group of jays who set their backs to the Tree, and fought away all comers except their own; they pulled down every man not of their sort, and put up a jay, who stripped the Tree of its flowers and flung them to his fellows below. As he was let drop to the ground, Jeff snatched a handful of his spoil from him, and made off with it toward the place where he had seen Bessie Lynde and her party. But when he reached the place, shouldering and elbowing his way through the press, she was no longer there. He saw her hat at a distance through the crowd, where he did not choose to follow, and he stuffed the flowers into his breast to give to her later. He expected to meet her somewhere in the evening; if not, he would try to find her at her aunt's house in town; failing that, he could send her the flowers, and trust her for some sort of leading acknowledgment.

He went and had a bath and dressed himself freshly, and then he went for a walk in the still evening air. He was very hot from the battle which had been fought over him, and which he had shared with all his strength, and it seemed to him as if he could not get cool. He strolled far out along Concord Avenue, beyond the expanses and ice-horses of Fresh Pond, into the country toward Belmont, with his hat off and his head down. He was very well satisfied, and he was smiling to himself at the ease of his return to Bessie, and securely speculating upon the outcome of their renewed understanding.

He heard a vehicle behind him, rapidly driven, and he turned out for it without looking around. Then suddenly he felt a fiery sting on his forehead, and then a shower of stings swiftly following each other over his head and face. He remembered stumbling, when he was a boy, into a nest of yellow-jackets, that swarmed up around him and pierced him like sparks of fire at every uncovered point. But he knew at the same time that it was some one in the vehicle beside him who was lashing him over the head with a whip. He bowed his head with his eyes shut and lunged blindly out toward his assailant, hoping to seize him.

But the horse sprang aside, and tore past him down the road. Jeff opened his eyes, and through the blood that dripped from the cuts above them he saw the wicked face of Alan Lynde looking back at him from the dogcart where he sat with his man beside him. He brandished his broken whip in the air, and flung it into the bushes. Jeff walked on, and picked it up, before he turned aside to the pools of the marsh stretching on either hand, and tried to stanch his hurts, and get himself into shape for returning to town and stealing back to his lodging. He had to wait till after dark, and watch his chance to get into the house unnoticed.

William Dean Howells