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Chapter 48

XLVIII

The chum to whom Jeff confided the story of his encounter with a man he left nameless inwardly thanked fortune that he was not that man; for he knew him destined sooner or later to make such reparation for the injuries he had inflicted as Jeff chose to exact. He tended him carefully, and respected the reticence Jeff guarded concerning the whole matter, even with the young doctor whom his friend called, and who kept to himself his impressions of the nature of Jeff's injuries.

Jeff lay in his darkened room, and burned with them, and with the thoughts, guesses, purposes which flamed through his mind. Had she, that girl, known what her brother meant to do? Had she wished him to think of her in the moment of his punishment, and had she spoken of her brother so that he might recall her, or had she had some ineffective impulse to warn him against her brother when she spoke of him?

He lay and raged in vain with his conjectures, and he did a thousand imagined murders upon Lynde in revenge of his shame.

Toward the end of the week, while his hurts were still too evident to allow him to go out-of-doors before dark, he had a note from Westover asking him to come in at once to see him.

"Your brother Jackson," Westover wrote, "reached Boston by the New York train this morning, and is with me here. I must tell you I think he is not at all well, but he does not know how sick he is, and so I forewarn you. He wants to get on home, but I do not feel easy about letting him make the rest of the journey alone. Some one ought to go with him. I write not knowing whether you are still in Cambridge or not; or whether, if you are, you can get away at this time. But I think you ought, and I wish, at any rate, that you would come in at once and see Jackson. Then we can settle what had best be done."

Jeff wrote back that he had been suffering with a severe attack of erysipelas—he decided upon erysipelas for the time being, but he meant to let Westover know later that he had been in a row—and the doctor would not let him go out yet. He promised to come in as soon as he possibly could. If Westover thought Jackson ought to be got home at once, and was not fit to travel alone, he asked him to send a hospital nurse with him.

Westover replied by Jeff's messenger that it would worry and alarm Jackson to be put in charge of a nurse; but that he would go home with him, and they would start the next day. He urged Jeff to come and see his brother if it was at all safe for him to do so. But if he could not, Westover would give his mother a reassuring reason for his failure.

Mrs. Durgin did not waste any anxiety for the sickness which prevented Jeff from coming home with his brother. She said ironically that it must be very bad, and she gave all her thought and care to Jackson. The sick man rallied, as he prophesied he should, in his native air, and celebrated the sense and science of the last doctor he had seen in Europe, who told him that he had made a great gain, but he had better hurry home as fast as he could, for he had got all the advantage he could expect to have from his stay abroad, and now home air was the best thing for him.

It could not be known how much of this he believed; he had, at any rate, the pathetic hopefulness of his malady; but his mother believed it all, and she nursed him with a faith in his recovery which Whitwell confided to Westover was about as much as he wanted to see, for one while. She seemed to grow younger in the care of him, and to get back to herself, more and more, from the facts of Jeff's behavior, which had aged and broken her. She had to tell Jackson about it all, but he took it with that indifference to the things of this world which the approach of death sometimes brings, and in the light of his passivity it no longer seemed to her so very bad. It was a relief to have Jackson say, Well, perhaps it was for the best; and it was a comfort to see how he and Cynthia took to each other; it was almost as if that dreadful trouble had not been. She told Jackson what hard work she had had to make Cynthia stay with her, and how the girl had consented to stay only until Jeff came home; but she guessed, now that Jackson had got back, he could make Cynthia see it all in another light, and perhaps it would all come right again. She consulted him about Jeff's plan of going abroad, and Jackson said it might be about as well; he should soon be around, and he thought if Jeff went it would give Cynthia more of a chance to get reconciled. After all, his mother suggested, a good many fellows behaved worse than Jeff had done and still had made it up with the girls they were engaged to; and Jackson gently assented.

He did not talk with Cynthia about Jeff, out of that delicacy, or that coldness, common to them both. Perhaps it was not necessary for them to speak of him; perhaps they understood him aright in their understanding of each other.

Westover stayed on, day after day, thinking somehow that he ought to wait till Jeff came. There were only a few other people in the hotel, and these were of a quiet sort; they were not saddened by the presence of a doomed man under the same roof, as gayer summer folks might have been, and they were themselves no disturbance to him.

He sat about with them on the veranda, and he made friends among them, and they did what they could to encourage and console him in his impatience to take up his old cares in the management of the hotel. The Whitwells easily looked after the welfare of the guests, and Jackson was so much better to every one's perception that Westover could honestly write Jeff a good report of him.

The report may have been so good that Jeff took the affair too easily. It was a fortnight after Jackson's return to Lion's Head when he began to fail so suddenly and alarmingly that Westover decided upon his own responsibility to telegraph Jeff of his condition. But he had the satisfaction of Whitwell's approval when he told him what he had done.

"Of course, Jackson a'n't long for this world. Anybody but him and his mother could see that; and now he's just melting away, as you might say. I ha'n't liked his not carin' to work plantchette since he got back; looked to me from the start that he kind of knowed that it wa'n't worth while for him to trouble about a world that he'll know all about so soon, anyways; and d' you notice he don't seem to care about Mars, either? I've tried to wake him up on it two-three times, but you can't git him to take an interest. I guess Jeff can't git here any too soon on Jackson's account; but as far forth as I go, he couldn't git here too late. I should like to take the top of his head off."

Westover had been in Whitwell's confidence since their first chance of speech together. He now said:

"I know it will be rather painful to you to have him here for some reasons, but—"

"You mean Cynthy? Well! I guess when Cynthy can't get along with the sight of Jeff Durgin, she'll be a different girl from what she's ever been before. If she's got to see that skunk ag'in, I guess this is about the best time to do it."

It was Westover who drove to meet Jeff at the station, when he got his despatch, naming the train he would take, and he found him looking very well, and perhaps stouter than he had been.

They left the station in silence, after their greeting and Jeff's inquiries about Jackson. Jeff had taken the reins, and now he put them with the whip in one hand, and pushed up his hat with the other, and turned his face full upon Westover. "Notice anything in particular?" he demanded.

"No; yes—some slight marks."

"I guess that fellow fixed me up pretty well: paints black eyes, and that kind of thing. I got to scrapping with a man, Class Day; we wanted to settle a little business we began at the Tree, and he left his marks on me. I meant to tell you the truth as soon as I could get at you; but I had to say erysipelas in my letter. I guess, if you don't mind, we'll let erysipelas stand, with the rest."

"I shouldn't have cared," Westover said, "if you'd let it stand with me."

"Oh, thank you," Jeff returned.

There could have been no show of affection at his meeting with Jackson even if there had been any fact of it; that was not the law of their life. But Jeff had always been a turbulent, rebellious, younger brother, resentful of Jackson's control, too much his junior to have the associations of an equal companionship in the past, and yet too near him in age to have anything like a filial regard for him. They shook hands, and each asked the other how he was, and then they seemed to have done with each other. Jeff's mother kissed him in addition to the handshaking, but made him feel her preoccupation with Jackson; she asked him if he had hurried home on Jackson's account, and he promptly lied her out of this anxiety.

He shook hands with Cynthia, too, but it was across the barrier which had not been lowered between them since they parted. He spoke to Jackson about her, the day after he came home, when Jackson said he was feeling unusually strong and well, and the two brothers had strolled out through the orchard together. Now and then he gave the sick man his arm, and when he wanted to sit down in a sunny place he spread the shawl he carried for him.

"I suppose mother's told you about Cynthy and me, Jackson?" he began.

Jackson answered, with lack-lustre eyes, "Yes." Presently he asked: "What's become of the other girl?"

"Damn her! I don't know what's become of her, and I don't care!" Jeff exploded, furiously.

"Then you don't care for her any more?" Jackson pursued, with the same languid calm.

"I never cared for her."

Jackson was silent, and the matter seemed to have faded out of his mind. But it was keenly alive in Jeff's mind, and he was in the strange necessity which men in the flush of life and health often feel of seeking counsel of those who stand in the presence of death, as if their words should have something of the mystical authority of the unknown wisdom they are about to penetrate.

"What I want to know is, what I am going to do about Cynthy?"

"I don't know," Jackson answered, vaguely, and he expressed by his indirection the sense he must sometimes have had of his impending fate—"I don't know what she's going to do, her or mother, either."

"Yes," Jeff assented, "that's what I think of. And I'd do anything that I could—that you thought was right."

Jackson apparently concentrated his mind upon the question by an effort. "Do you care as much for Cynthy as you used to?"

"Yes," said Jeff, after a moment, "as much as I ever did; and more. But I've been thinking, since the thing happened, that, if I'd cared for her the way she did for me, it wouldn't have happened. Look here, Jackson! You know I've never pretended to be like some men—like Mr. Westover, for example—always looking out for the right and the wrong, and all that. I didn't make myself, and I guess if the Almighty don't make me go right it's because He don't want me to. But I have got a conscience about Cynthy, and I'd be willing to help out a little if I knew how, about her. The devil of it is, I've got to being afraid. I don't mean that I'm not fit for her; any man's fit for any woman if he wants her bad enough; but I'm afraid I sha'n't ever care for her in the right way. That's the point. I've cared for just one woman in this world, and it a'n't Cynthy, as far as I can make out. But she's gone, and I guess I could coax Cynthy round again, and I could be what she wants me to be, after this."

Jackson lay upon his shawl, looking up at the sky full of islands of warm clouds in its sea of blue; he was silent so long that Jeff began to think he had not been listening; he could not hear him breathe, and he came forward to him quickly from the shadow of the tree where he sat.

"Well?" Jackson whispered, turning his eyes upon him.

"Well?" Jeff returned.

"I guess you'd better let it alone," said Jackson.

"All right. That's what I think, too."

William Dean Howells