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 50

L.

Mrs. Durgin's speech never regained the measure of clearness it had before; no one but Cynthia could understand her, and often she could not. The doctor from Lovewell surmised that she had sustained another stroke, lighter, more obscure than the first, and it was that which had rendered her almost inarticulate. The paralysis might have also affected her brain, and silenced her thoughts as well as her words. Either she believed that the reconciliation between Jeff and Cynthia had taken place, or else she could no longer care. She did not question them again, but peacefully weakened more and more. Near the end of September she had a third stroke, and from this she died.

The day after the funeral Jeff had a talk with Whitwell, and opened his mind to him.

"I'm going over to the other side, and I shan't be back before spring, or about time to start the season here. What I want to know is whether, if I'm out of the house, and not likely to come back, you'll stay here and look after the place through the winter. It hasn't been a good season, but I guess I can afford to make it worth your while if you look at it as a matter of business."

Whitwell leaned forward and took a straw into his mouth from the golden wall of oat sheaves in the barn where they were talking. A soft rustling in the mow overhead marked the remote presence of Jombateeste, who was getting forward the hay for the horses, pushing it toward the holes where it should fall into their racks.

"I should want to think about it," said Whitwell. "I do' know as Cynthy'd care much about stayin'—or Frank."

"How long do you want to think about it?" Jeff demanded, ignoring the possible wishes of Cynthia and Frank.

"I guess I could let you know by night."

"All right," said Jeff.

He was turning away, when Whitwell remarked:

"I don't know as I should want to stay without I could have somebody I could depend on, with me, to look after the hosses. Frank wouldn't want to."

"Who'd you like?"

"Well—Jombateeste."

"Ask him."

Whitwell called to the Canuck, and he came forward to the edge of the mow, and stood, fork in hand, looking down.

"Want to stay here this winter and look after the horses, Jombateeste?" Whitwell asked.

"Nosseh!" said the Canuck, with a misliking eye on Jeff.

"I mean, along with me," Whitwell explained. "If I conclude to stay, will you? Jeff's goin' abroad."

"I guess I stay," said Jombateeste.

"Don't strain yourself, Jombateeste," said Jeff, with malevolent derision.

"Not for you, Jeff Dorrgin," returned the Canuck. "I strain myself till I bust, if I want."

Jeff sneered to Whitwell: "Well, then, the most important point is settled. Let me know about the minor details as soon as you can."

"All right."

Whitwell talked the matter over with his children at supper that evening. Jeff had made him a good offer, and he had the winter before him to provide for.

"I don't know what deviltry he's up to," he said in conclusion.

Frank looked to his sister for their common decision. "I am going to try for a school," she said, quietly. "It's pretty late, but I guess I can get something. You and Frank had better stay."

"And you don't feel as if it was kind of meechin', our takin' up with his offer, after what's—" Whitwell delicately forbore to fill out his sentence.

"You are doing the favor, father," said the girl. "He knows that, and I guess he wouldn't know where to look if you refused. And, after all, what's happened now is as much my doing as his."

"I guess that's something so," said Whitwell, with a long sigh of relief. "Well, I'm glad you can look at it in that light, Cynthy. It's the way the feller's built, I presume, as much as anything."

His daughter waived the point. "I shouldn't feel just right if none of us stayed in the old place. I should feel as if we had turned our backs on Mrs. Durgin."

Her eyes shone, and her father said: "Well, I guess that's so, come to think of it. She's been like a mother to you, this past year, ha'n't she? And it must have come pootty hard for her, sidin' ag'in' Jeff. But she done it."

The girl turned her head away. They were sitting in the little, low keeping-room of Whitwell's house, and her father had his hat on provisionally. Through the window they could see the light of the lantern at the office door of the hotel, whose mass was lost in the dark above and behind the lamp. It was all very still outside.

"I declare," Whitwell went on, musingly, "I wisht Mr. Westover was here."

Cynthia started, but it was to ask: "Do you want I should help you with your Latin, Frank?"

Whitwell came back an hour later and found them still at their books. He told them it was all arranged; Durgin was to give up the place to him in a week, and he was to surrender it again when Jeff came back in the spring. In the mean time things were to remain as they were; after he was gone, they could all go and live at Lion's Head if they chose.

"We'll see," said Cynthia. "I've been thinking that might be the best way, after all. I might not get a school, it's so late."

"That's so," her father assented. "I declare," he added, after a moment's muse, "I felt sorry for the feller settin' up there alone, with nobody to do for him but that old thing he's got in. She can't cook any more than—" He desisted for want of a comparison, and said: "Such a lookin' table, too."

"Do you think I better go and look after things a little?" Cynthia asked.

"Well, you no need to," said her father. He got down the planchette, and labored with it, while his children returned to Frank's lessons.

"Dumn 'f I can make the thing work," he said to himself at last. "I can't git any of 'em up. If Jackson was here, now!"

Thrice a day Cynthia went up to the hotel and oversaw the preparation of Jeff's meals and kept taut the slack housekeeping of the old Irish woman who had remained as a favor, after the hotel closed, and professed to have lost the chance of a place for the winter by her complaisance. She submitted to Cynthia's authority, and tried to make interest for an indefinite stay by sudden zeal and industry, and the last days of Jeff in the hotel were more comfortable than he openly recognized. He left the care of the building wholly to Whitwell, and shut himself up in the old farm parlor with the plans for a new hotel which he said he meant to put up some day, if he could ever get rid of the old one. He went once to Lovewell, where he renewed the insurance, and somewhat increased it; and he put a small mortgage on the property. He forestalled the slow progress of the knowledge of others' affairs, which, in the country, is as sure as it is slow, and told Whitwell what he had done. He said he wanted the mortgage money for his journey, and the insurance money, if he could have the luck to cash up by a good fire, to rebuild with.

Cynthia seldom met him in her comings and goings, but if they met they spoke on the terms of their boy and girl associations, and with no approach through resentment or tenderness to the relation that was ended between them. She saw him oftener than at any other time setting off on the long tramps he took through the woods in the afternoons. He was always alone, and, so far as any one knew, his wanderings had no object but to kill the time which hung heavy on his hands during the fortnight after his mother's death, before he sailed. It might have seemed strange that he should prefer to pass the days at Lion's Head after he had arranged for the care of the place with Whitwell, and Whitwell always believed that he stayed in the hope of somehow making up with Cynthia.

One day, toward the very last, Durgin found himself pretty well fagged in the old pulp-mill clearing on the side of Lion's Head, which still belonged to Whitwell, and he sat down on a mouldering log there to rest. It had always been a favorite picnic ground, but the season just past had known few picnics, and it was those of former years that had left their traces in rusty sardine-cans and broken glass and crockery on the border of the clearing, which was now almost covered with white moss. Jeff thought of the day when he lurked in the hollow below with Fox, while Westover remained talking with Whitwell. He thought of the picnic that Mrs. Marven had embittered for him, and he thought of the last time that he had been there with Westover, when they talked of the Vostrands.

Life had, so far, not been what he meant it, and just now it occurred to him that he might not have wholly made it what it had been. It seemed to him that a good many other people had come in and taken a hand in making his own life what it had been; and if he had meddled with theirs more than he was wanted, it was about an even thing. As far as he could make out, he was a sort of ingredient in the general mixture. He had probably done his share of the flavoring, but he had had very little to do with the mixing. There were different ways of looking at the thing. Westover had his way, but it struck Jeff that it put too much responsibility on the ingredient, and too little on the power that chose it. He believed that he could prove a clear case in his own favor, as far as the question of final justice was concerned, but he had no complaints to make. Things had fallen out very much to his mind. He was the Landlord at Lion's Head, at last, with the full right to do what he pleased with the place, and with half a year's leisure before him to think it over. He did not mean to waste the time while he was abroad; if there was anything to be learned anywhere about keeping a summer hotel, he was going to learn it; and he thought the summer hotel could be advantageously studied in its winter phases in the mild climates of Southern Europe. He meant to strike for the class of Americans who resorted to those climates; to divine their characters and to please their tastes.

He unconsciously included Cynthia in his scheme of inquiry; he had been used so long to trust to her instincts and opinions, and to rely upon her help, and he realized that she was no longer in his life with something like the shock a man experiences when the loss of a limb, which continues a part of his inveterate consciousness, is brought to his sense by some mechanical attempt to use it. But even in this pang he did not regret that all was over between them. He knew now that he had never cared for her as he had once thought, and on her account, if not his own, he was glad their engagement was broken. A soft melancholy for his own disappointment imparted itself to his thoughts of Cynthia. He felt truly sorry for her, and he truly admired and respected her. He was in a very lenient mood toward every one, and he went so far in thought toward forgiving his enemies that he was willing at least to pardon all those whom he had injured. A little rustling in the underbrush across the clearing caught his quick ear, and he looked up to see Jombateeste parting the boughs of the young pines on its edge and advancing into the open with a gun on his shoulder. He called to him, cheerily: "Hello, John! Any luck?"

Jombateeste shook his head. "Nawthing." He hesitated.

"What are you after?"

"Partridge," Jombateeste ventured back.

Jeff could not resist the desire to scoff which always came upon him at sight of the Canuck. "Oh, pshaw! Why don't you go for woodchucks? They fly low, and you can hit them on the wing, if you can't sneak on 'em sitting."

Jombateeste received his raillery in dignified silence, and turned back into the woods again. He left Durgin in heightened good-humor with himself and with the world, which had finally so well adapted itself to his desires and designs.

Jeff watched his resentful going with a grin, and then threw himself back on the thick bed of dry moss where he had been sitting, and watched the clouds drifting across the space of blue which the clearing opened overhead. His own action reminded him of Jackson, lying in the orchard and looking up at the sky. He felt strangely at one with him, and he experienced a tenderness for his memory which he had not known before. Jackson had been a good man; he realized that with a curious sense of novelty in the reflection; he wondered what the incentives and the objects of such men as Jackson and Westover were, anyway. Something like grief for his brother came upon him; not such grief as he had felt, passionately enough, though tacitly, for his mother, but a regret for not having shown Jackson during his life that he could appreciate his unselfishness, though he could not see the reason or the meaning of it. He said to himself, in their safe remoteness from each other, that he wished he could do something for Jackson. He wondered if in the course of time he should get to be something like him. He imagined trying.

He heard sounds again in the edge of the clearing, but he decided that it was that fool Jombateeste coming back; and when steps approached softly and hesitantly across the moss, he did not trouble himself to take his eyes from the clouds. He was only vexed to have his revery broken in upon.

A voice that was not Jombateeste's spoke: "I say! Can you tell me the way to the Brooker Institute, or to the road down the mountain?"

Jeff sat suddenly bolt-upright; in another moment he jumped to his feet. The Brooker Institute was a branch of the Keeley Cure recently established near the Huddle, and this must be a patient who had wandered from it, on one of the excursions the inmates made with their guardians, and lost his way. This was the fact that Jeff realized at the first glance he gave the man. The next he recognized that the man was Alan Lynde.

"Oh, it's you," he said, quite simply. He felt so cruelly the hardship of his one unforgiven enemy's coming upon him just when he had resolved to be good that the tears came into his eyes. Then his rage seemed to swell up in him like the rise of a volcanic flood. "I'm going to kill you!" he, roared, and he launched himself upon Lynde, who stood dazed.

But the murder which Jeff meant was not to be so easily done. Lynde had not grown up in dissolute idleness without acquiring some of the arts of self-defence which are called manly. He met Jeff's onset with remembered skill and with the strength which he had gained in three months of the wholesome regimen of the Brooker Institute. He had been sent there, not by Dr. Lacy's judgment, but by his despair, and so far the Cure had cured. He felt strong and fresh, and the hate which filled Jeff at sight of him steeled his shaken nerves and reinforced his feebler muscles, too.

He made a desperate fight where he could not hope for mercy, and kept himself free of his powerful foe, whom he fought round and foiled, if he could not hurt him. Jeff never knew of the blows Lynde got in upon him; he had his own science, too, but he would not employ it. He wanted to crash through Lynde's defence and lay hold of him and crush the life out of him.

The contest could not have lasted long at the best; but before Lynde was worn out he caught his heel in an old laurel root, and while he whirled to recover his footing Jeff closed in upon him, caught him by the middle, flung him down upon the moss, and was kneeling on his breast with both hands at his throat.

He glared down into his enemy's face, and suddenly it looked pitifully little and weak, like a girl's face, a child's.

Sometimes, afterward, it seemed to him that he forbore because at that instant he saw Jombateeste appear at the edge of the clearing and come running upon them. At other times he had the fancy that his action was purely voluntary, and that, against the logic of his hate and habit of his life, he had mercy upon his enemy. He did not pride himself upon it; he rather humbled himself before the fact, which was accomplished through his will, and not by it, and remained a mystery he did not try to solve.

He took his hands from Lynde's throat and his knees off his breast. "Get up," he said; and when Lynde stood trembling on his feet he said to Jombateeste: "Show this man the way to the Brooker Institute. I'll take your gun home for you," and it was easy for him to detach the piece from the bewildered Canuck's grasp. "Go! And if you stop, or even let him look back, I'll shoot him. Quick!"

William Dean Howells