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Chapter 52

LII.

Westover once more promised himself to have nothing to do with Jeff Durgin or his affairs. But he did not promise this so confidently as upon former occasions, and he instinctively waited for a new complication. He could not understand why Jeff should not have come home to look after his insurance, unless it was because he had become interested in some woman even beyond his concern for his own advantage. He believed him capable of throwing away advantages for disadvantages in a thing of that kind, but he thought it more probable that he had fallen in love with one whom he would lose nothing by winning. It did not seem at all impossible that he should have again met Bessie Lynde, and that they should have made up their quarrel, or whatever it was. Jeff would consider that he had done his whole duty by Cynthia, and that he was free to renew his suit with Bessie; and there was nothing in Bessie's character, as Westover understood it, to prevent her taking him back upon a very small show of repentance if the needed emotions were in prospect. He had decided pretty finally that it would be Bessie rather than another when he received a letter from Mrs. Vostrand. It was dated at Florence, and after some pretty palaver about their old friendship, which she only hoped he remembered half as fondly as she did, the letter ran:

   "I am turning to you now in a very strange difficulty, but I do not
   know that I should turn to you even now, and knowing all I do of
   your goodness, if I were not asked to do so by another.

   "I believe we have not heard from each other since the first days of
   my poor Genevieve's marriage, when everything looked so bright and
   fair, and we little realized the clouds that were to overcast her
   happiness. It is a long story, and I will not go into it fully.
   The truth is that poor Gigi did not treat her very kindly, and that
   she has not lived with him since the birth of their little girl, now
   nearly two years old, and the sweetest little creature in the world;
   I wish you could see her; I am sure it would inspire your pencil
   with the idea of an angel-child. At first I hoped that the
   separation would be only temporary, and that when Genevieve had
   regained her strength she would be willing to go back to her
   husband; but nothing would induce her to do so. In fact, poor Gigi
   had spent all her money, and they would have had nothing to live
   upon but his pay, and you know that the pay of the Italian officers
   is very small.

   "Gigi made several attempts to see her, and he threatened to take
   the child from her, but he was always willing to compromise for
   money. I am afraid that he never really loved her and that we were
   both deceived by his fervent protestations. We managed to get away
   from Florence without his knowing it, and we have spent the last two
   years in Lausanne, very happily, though very quietly. Our dear
   Checco is in the university there, his father having given up the
   plan of sending him to Harvard, and we had him with us, while we
   were taking measures to secure the divorce. Even in the simple way
   we lived Genevieve attracted a great deal of attention, as she
   always has done, and she would have had several eligible offers if
   she had been divorced, or if her affections had not already been
   engaged, as I did not know at the time.

   "We were in this state of uncertainty up to the middle of last
   summer, when the news of poor Gigi's sudden death came. I am sorry
   to say that his habits in some respects were not good, and that
   probably hastened it some; it had obliged him to leave the army.
   Genevieve did not feel that she could consistently put on black for
   him, and I did not urge her, under the peculiar circumstances;
   there is so much mere formality in those kind of things at the best;
   but we immediately returned to Florence to try and see if we could
   not get back some of her effects which his family had seized. I am
   opposed to lawsuits if they can possibly be avoided, and we arranged
   with poor Gigi's family by agreeing to let them have Genevieve's
   furniture if they would promise never to molest her with the child,
   and I must say they have behaved very well. We are on the best of
   terms with them, and they have let us have some of the things back
   which were endeared to her by old associations, at a very reasonable
   rate.

   "This brings me to the romantic part of my letter, and I will say at
   once that we found your friend Mr. Durgin in Florence, in the very
   hotel we went to. We all met in the dining-room, at the table
   d'hote one evening, and Genevieve and he took to each other at once.
   He spent the evening with us in our private drawing-room, and she
   said to me, after he went, that for the first time in years she felt
   rested. It seems that she had always secretly fancied him, and that
   she gave up to me in the matter of marrying poor Gigi, because she
   knew I had my heart set upon it, and she was not very certain of her
   own feelings when Mr. D. offered himself in Boston; but the
   conviction that she had made a mistake grew upon, her more and more
   after she had married Gigi.

   "Well, now, Mr. Westover, I suppose you have guessed by this time
   that Mr. Durgin has renewed his offer, and Genevieve has
   conditionally accepted him; we do not feel that she is like an
   ordinary widow, and that she has to fill up a certain season of
   mourning; she and Gigi have been dead to each other for years; and
   Mr. Durgin is as fond of our dear little Bice as her own father
   could be, and they are together all the time. Her name is Beatrice
   de' Popolani Grassi. Isn't it lovely? She has poor Gigi's black
   eyes, with the most beautiful golden hair, which she gets from our
   aide. You remember Genevieve's hair back in the dear old days,
   before any trouble had come, and we were all so happy together? And
   this brings me to what I wanted to say. You are the oldest friend
   we have, and by a singular coincidence you are the oldest friend of
   Mr. Durgin, too. I cannot bear to risk my child's happiness a
   second time, and though Mr. Vostrand fully approves of the match,
   and has cabled his consent from Seattle, Washington, still, you
   know, a mother's heart cannot be at rest without some positive
   assurance. I told Mr. Durgin quite frankly how I felt, and he
   agreed with me that after our experience with poor Gigi we could not
   be too careful, and he authorized me to write to you and find out
   all you knew about him. He said you had known him ever since he was
   a boy, and that if there was anything bad in his record you could
   tell it, and he did not want you to spire the truth. He knows you
   will be just, and he wants you to write out the facts as they struck
   you at the time.

   "I shall be on pins and needles, as the saying is, till we hear from
   you, and you know hew Genevieve and Mr. D. must be feeling. She is
   fully resolved not to have him without your endorsement, and he is
   quite willing to abide by what you say.

   "I could almost wish you to cable me just Good or Bad, but I know
   that this will not be wise, and I am going to wait for your letter,
   and get your opinion in full.

   "We all join in the kindest regards. Mr. D. is talking with
   Genevieve while I write, and has our darling Bice on his knees.
   You cannot imagine what a picture it makes, her childish delicacy
   contrasted with his stalwart strength. She says to send you a
   baciettino, and I wish you were here to receive it from her angel
   lips. Yours faithfully,

               "MEDORA VOSTRAND.

   "P. S.—Mr. D. says that he fell in love with Genevieve across the
   barrier between the first and second cabin when he came over with us
   on the Aquitaine four years ago, and that he has never ceased to
   love her, though at one time he persuaded himself that he cared for
   another because he felt that she was lost to him forever, and it was
   no use: He really did care for the lady he was engaged to, and had a
   true affection for her, which he mistook for a warmer feeling. He
   says that she was worthy of any man's love and of the highest
   respect. I tell Genevieve that, she ought to honor him for it, and
   that she must never be jealous of a memory. We are very happy in
   Mr. Vostrand's cordial approval of the match. He is so glad to
   think that Mr. D. is a business man. His cable from Seattle was
   most enthusiastic.

                  "M. D."

Westover did not know whether to laugh or cry when he read this letter, which covered several sheets of paper in lines that traversed each other in different directions. His old, youthful ideal of Mrs. Vostrand finally perished in its presence, though still he could not blame her for wishing to see her daughter well married after having seen her married so ill. He asked himself, without getting any very definite response, whether Mrs. Vostrand had always been this kind of a woman, or had grown into it by the use of arts which her peculiar plan of life had rendered necessary to her. He remembered the intelligent toleration of Cynthia in speaking of her, and his indignation in behalf of the girl was also thrill of joy for her escape from the fate which Mrs. Vostrand was so eagerly invoking for her daughter. But he thought of Genevieve with something of the same tenderness, and with a compassion that was for her alone. She seemed to him a victim who was to be sacrificed a second time, and he had clearly a duty to her which he must not evade. The only question could be how best to discharge it, and Westover took some hours from his work to turn the question over in his mind. In the end, when he was about to give the whole affair up for the present, and lose a night's sleep over it later, he had an inspiration, and he acted upon it at once. He perceived that he owed no formal response to the sentimental insincerities of Mrs. Vostrand's letter, and he decided to write to Durgin himself, and to put the case altogether in his hands. If Durgin chose to show the Vostrands what he should write, very well; if he chose not to show it, then Westover's apparent silence would be a sufficient reply to Mrs. Vostrand's appeal.

   "I prefer to address you," he began, "because I do not choose to let
   you think that I have any feeling to indulge against you, and
   because I do not think I have the right to take you out of your own
   keeping in any way. You would be in my keeping if I did, and I do
   not wish that, not only because it would be a bother to me, but
   because it would be a wrong to you.

   "Mrs. Vostrand, whose letter to me I will leave you to answer by
   showing her this, or in any other manner you choose, tells me you do
   not want me to spare the truth concerning you. I have never been
   quite certain what the truth was concerning you; you know that
   better than I do; and I do not propose to write your biography here.
   But I will remind you of a few things.

   "The first day I saw you, I caught you amusing yourself with the
   terror of two little children, and I had the pleasure of cuffing you
   for it. But you were only a boy then, and afterward you behaved so
   well that I decided you were not so much cruel as thoughtlessly
   mischievous. When you had done all you could to lead me to this
   favorable conclusion, you suddenly turned and avenged yourself on
   me, so far as you could, for the help I had given the little ones
   against you. I never greatly blamed you for that, for I decided
   that you had a vindictive temperament, and that you were not
   responsible for your temperament, but only for your character.

   "In your first year at Harvard your associations were bad, and your
   conduct generally was so bad that you were suspended. You were
   arrested with other rowdy students, and passed the night in a police
   station. I believe you were justly acquitted of any specific
   offence, and I always believed that if you had experienced greater
   kindness socially during your first year in college you would have
   been a better man.

   "You seem to have told Mrs. Vostrand of your engagement, and I will
   not speak of that. It was creditable to you that so wise and good a
   girl as your betrothed should have trusted you, and I do not know
   that it was against you that another girl who was neither wise nor
   good should have trusted you at the same time. You broke with the
   last, because you had to choose between the two; and, so far as I
   know, you accepted with a due sense of your faithlessness your
   dismissal by the first. In this connection I must remind you that
   while you were doing your best to make the party to your second
   engagement believe that you were in love with her, you got her
   brother, an habitual inebriate, drunk, and were, so far,
   instrumental in breaking down the weak will with which he was
   struggling against his propensity. It is only fair to you that I
   should add that you persuaded me you got him only a little drunker
   than he already got himself, and that you meant to have looked after
   him, but forgot him in your preoccupation with his sister.

   "I do not know what took place between you and these people after
   you broke your engagement with the sister, until your encounter with
   the brother in Whitwell's Clearing, and I know of this only at
   second hand. I can well believe that you had some real or fancied
   injury to pay off; and I give you all the credit you may wish to
   claim for sparing him at last. For one of your vindictive
   temperament it must have been difficult.

   "I have told you the worst things I know of you, and I do not
   pretend to know them more than superficially. I am not asked to
   judge you, and I will not. You must be your own judge. You are to
   decide whether these and other acts of yours are the acts of a man
   good enough to be intrusted with the happiness of a woman who has
   already been very unhappy.

   "You have sometimes, however—oftener than I wished—come to me for
   advice, and I now offer you some advice voluntarily. Do not suppose
   that because you love this woman, as you believe, you are fit to be
   the keeper of her future. Ask yourself how you have dealt hitherto
   with those who have loved you, and whom in a sort you loved, and do
   not go further unless the answer is such as you can fully and
   faithfully report to the woman you wish to marry. What you have
   made yourself you will be to the end. You once called me an
   idealist, and perhaps you will call this idealism. I will only add,
   and I will give the last word in your defence, you alone know what
   you are."
William Dean Howells