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Chapter 53

LIII.

As soon as Westover had posted his letter he began to blame himself for it. He saw that the right and manly thing would have been to write to Mrs. Vostrand, and tell her frankly what he thought of Durgin. Her folly, her insincerity, her vulgarity, had nothing to do with the affair, so far as he was concerned. If she had once been so kind to him as to bind him to her in grateful friendship, she certainly had a claim upon his best offices. His duty was to her, and not at all to Durgin. He need not have said anything against him because it was against him, but because it was true; and if he had written he must not have said anything less than the truth.

He could have chosen not to write at all. He could have said that her mawkish hypocrisy was a little too much; that she was really wanting him to whitewash Durgin for her, and she had no right to put upon him the responsibility for the step she clearly wished to take. He could have made either of these decisions, and defended them to himself; but in what he had done he had altogether shirked. While he was writing to Durgin, and pretending that he could justly leave this affair to him, he was simply indulging a bit of sentimental pose, far worse than anything in Mrs. Vostrand's sham appeal for his help.

He felt, as the time went by, that she had not written of her own impulse, but at her daughter's urgence, and that it was this poor creature whose trust he had paltered with. He believed that Durgin would not fail to make her unhappy, yet he had not done what he might to deliver her out of his hand. He had satisfied a wretched pseudo-magnanimity toward a faithless scoundrel, as he thought Durgin, at the cost of a woman whose anxious hope of his aid had probably forced her mother's hand.

At first he thought his action irrevocable, and he bitterly upbraided himself for not taking council with Cynthia upon Mrs. Vostrand's letter. He had thought of doing that, and then he had dismissed the thought as involving pain that he had no right to inflict; but now he perceived that the pain was such as she must suffer in the event, and that he had stupidly refused himself the only means of finding out the right thing to do. Her true heart and her clear mind would have been infallible in the affair, and he had trusted to his own muddled impulse.

He began to write other letters: to Durgin, to Mrs. Vostrand, to Genevieve; but none of them satisfied him, and he let the days go by without doing anything to retrieve his error or fulfil his duty. At last he did what he ought to have done at first: he enclosed Mrs. Vostrand's letter to Cynthia, and asked her what she thought he ought to have done. While he was waiting Cynthia's answer to his letter, a cable message reached him from Florence:

   "Kind letter received. Married to-day. Written.

                         "Vostrand."

The next mail brought Cynthia's reply, which was very brief:

   "I am sorry you had to write at all; nothing could have prevented
   it. Perhaps if he cares for her he will be good to her."

Since the matter was now irremediable, Westover crept less miserably through the days than he could have believed he should, until the letter which Mrs. Vostrand's cable promised came to hand.

   "Dear friend," she wrote, "your generous and satisfactory answer
   came yesterday. It was so delicate and high,-minded, and so like
   you, to write to Mr. Durgin, and leave the whole affair to him; and
   he did not lose a moment in showing us your beautiful letter. He
   said you were a man after his own heart, and I wish you could have
   heard how he praised you. It made Genevieve quite jealous, or would
   have, if it had been any one else. But she is so happy in your
   approval of her marriage, which is to take place before the
   'sindaco' to-morrow, We shall only have the civil rite; she feels
   that it is more American, and we are all coming home to Lion's Head
   in the spring to live and die true Americans. I wish you could
   spend the summer with us there, but, until Lion's Head is rebuilt,
   we can't ask you. I don't know exactly how we shall do ourselves,
   but Mr. Durgin is full of plans, and we leave everything to him.
   He is here, making Genevieve laugh so that I can hardly write.
   He joins us in love and thanks, and our darling Bice sends you a
   little kiss.

        "MEDORA VOSTRAND.

   "P. S.  Mr. D. has told us all about the affairs you alluded to.
   With Miss L. we cannot feel that he was to blame; but he blames
   himself in regard to Miss W. He says his only excuse is that he was
   always in love with Genevieve; and I think that is quite excuse
   enough. M. V."

From time to time during the winter Westover wrote to Cynthia, and had letters from her in which he pleased himself fancying almost a personal effect of that shyness which he thought a charming thing in her. But no doubt this was something he read into them; on their face they were plain, straightforward accounts of the life she led in the little old house at Lion's Head, under the shadow of the black ruin on the hill. Westover had taken to sending her books and magazines, and in thanking him for these she would sometimes speak of things she had read in them. Her criticism related to the spirit rather than the manner of the things she spoke of, and it pleased him that she seemed, with all her insight, to have very little artistic sense of any kind; in the world where he lived there were so many women with an artistic sense in every kind that he was rather weary of it.

There never was anything about Durgin in the letters, and Westover was both troubled and consoled by this silence. It might be from consciousness, and it probably was; it might be from indifference. In the worst event, it hid any pain she might have felt with a dignity from which no intimation of his moved her. The nearest she came to speaking of Jeff was when she said that Jombateeste was going to work at the brick-yards in Cambridge as soon as the spring opened, and was not going to stay any longer at Lion's Head.

Her brother Frank, she reported, had got a place with part work in the drug-and-book store at Lovewell, where he could keep on more easily with his studies; he had now fully decided to study for the ministry; he had always wanted to be an Episcopalian.

One day toward the end of April, when several weeks had passed without bringing Westover any word from Cynthia, her father presented himself, and enjoyed in the painter's surprise the sensation of having dropped upon him from the clouds. He gave due accounts of the health of each of his household; ending with Jombateeste. "You know he's out at the brick, as he calls it, in Cambridge."

"Cynthia said he was coming. I didn't know he had come yet," said Westover. "I must go out and look him up, if you think I could find him among all those Canucks."

"Well, I don't know but you'd better look us up at the same time," said Whitwell, with additional pleasure in the painter's additional surprise. "I guess we're out in Cambridge, too," he added, at Westover's start of question. "We're out there, visitin' one of our summer folks, as you might say. Remember Mis' Fredericks?"

"Why, what the deuce kept you from telling me so at once?" Westover demanded, indignantly.

"Guess I hadn't got round to it," said Whitwell, with dry relish.

"Do you mean that Cynthia's there?"

"Well, I guess they wouldn't cared much for a visit from me."

Whitwell took advantage of Westover's moment of mystification to explain that Jeff had written over to him from Italy, offering him a pretty good rent for his house, which he wanted to occupy while he was rebuilding Lion's Head. He was going to push the work right through in the summer, and be ready for the season the year after. That was what Whitwell understood, and he understood that Jeff's family was going to stay in Lovewell, but Jeff himself wanted to be on the ground day and night.

"So that's kind of turned us out of doors, as you may say, and Cynthia's always had this idee of comin' down Boston way: and she didn't know anybody that could advise with her as well as Mis' Fredericks, and she wrote to her, and Mis' Fredericks answered her to come right down and talk it over." Westover felt a pang of resentment that Cynthia, had not turned to him for counsel, but he said nothing, and Whitwell went on: "She said she was, ashamed to bother you, you'd had the whole neighborhood on your hands so much, and so she wrote to Mis' Fredericks."

Westover had a vague discomfort in it all, which ultimately defined itself as a discontent with the willingness of the Whitwells to let Durgin occupy their house upon any terms, for any purpose, and a lingering grudge that Cynthia should have asked help of any one but himself, even from a motive of delicacy.

In the evening he went out to see the girl at the house of Mrs. Fredericks, whom he found living in the Port. They had a first moment of intolerable shyness on her part. He had been afraid to see her, with the jealousy for her dignity he always felt, lest she should look as if she had been unhappy about Durgin. But he found her looking, not only very well, but very happy and full of peace, as soon as that moment of shyness passed. It seemed to Westover as if she had begun to live on new terms, and that a harassing element, which had always been in it, had gone out of her life, and in its absence she was beginning to rejoice in a lasting repose. He found himself rejoicing with her, and he found himself on simpler and franker terms with her than ever before. Neither of them spoke of Jeff, or made any approach to mention him, and Westover believed that this was not from a morbid feeling in her, but from a final and enduring indifference.

He saw her alone, for Mrs. Fredericks and her daughter had gone into town to a concert, which he made her confess she would have gone to herself if it had not been that her father said he was coming out to see her. She would not let him joke about the sacrifice he pretended she had made; he had a certain pain in fancying that his visit was the highest and finest favor that life could do her. She told him of the ambition she had that she might get a school somewhere in the neighborhood of Boston, and then find something for her brother to do, while he began his studies in the Theological School at Harvard. Frank was still at Lovewell, it seemed.

At the end of the long call he made, he said, abruptly, when he had risen to go, "I should like to paint you."

"Who? Me?" she cried, as if it were the most incredible thing, while a glad color rushed over her face.

"Yes. While you're waiting to get your school, couldn't you come in with your father, now and then, and sit for me?"

"What's he want me to come fer?" Whitwell demanded, when the plan was laid before him. He was giving his unlimited leisure to the exploration of Boston, and his tone expressed something of the injury, which he also put into words, as a sole objection to the proposed interruption. "Can't you go alone, Cynthy?" Cynthia said she did not know, but when the point was referred to Mrs. Fredericks, she was sure Cynthia could not go alone, and she acquainted them both, as far as she could, with that mystery of chaperonage which had never touched their lives before. Whitwell seemed to think that his daughter would give the matter up; and perhaps she might have done so, though she seemed reluctant, if Mrs. Fredericks had not further instructed them that it was the highest possible honor Mr. Westover was offering them, and that if he had proposed to paint her daughter she would simply have gone and lived with him while he was doing it.

Whitwell found some compensation for the time lost to his study of Boston in the conversation of the painter, which he said was worth a hundred cents on the dollar every time, though it dealt less with the metaphysical aspect of the latest facts of science than the philosopher could have wished. He did not, to be sure, take very much stock in the picture as it advanced, somewhat fitfully, with a good many reversions to its original state of sketch. It appeared to him always a slight and feeble representation of Cynthia, though, of course, a native politeness forbade him to express his disappointment. He avowed a faith in Westover's ability to get it right in the end, and always bade him go on, and take as much time to it as he wanted.

He felt less uneasy than at first, because he had now found a little furnished house in the woodenest outskirts of North Cambridge, which he hired cheap from the recently widowed owner, and they were keeping house there. Jombateeste lived with them, and worked in the brick-yards. Out of hours he helped Cynthia, and kept the ugly little place looking trim and neat, and left Whitwell free for the tramps home to nature, which he began to take over the Belmont uplands as soon as the spring opened. He was not homesick, as Cynthia was afraid he might be; his mind was fully occupied by the vast and varied interests opened to it by the intellectual and material activities of the neighboring city; and he found ample scope for his physical energies in doing Cynthia's errands, as well as studying the strange flora of the region. He apparently thought that he had made a distinct rise and advance in the world. Sometimes, in the first days of his satisfaction with his establishment, he expressed the wish that Jackson could only have seen how he was fixed, once. In his preoccupation with other things, he no longer attempted to explore the eternal mysteries with the help of planchette; the ungrateful instrument gathered as much dust as Cynthia would suffer on the what-not in the corner of the solemn parlor; and after two or three visits to the First Spiritual Temple in Boston, he lapsed altogether from an interest in the other world, which had, perhaps, mainly flourished in the absence of pressing subjects of inquiry, in this.

When at last Westover confessed that he had carried his picture of Cynthia as far as he could, Whitwell did his best to hide his disappointment. "Well, sir," he said, tolerantly and even cheeringly, "I presume we're every one of us a different person to whoever looks at us. They say that no two men see the same star."

"You mean that she doesn't look so to you," suggested the painter, who seemed not at all abashed.

"Well, you might say—Why, here! It's like her; photograph couldn't get it any better; but it makes me think-well, of a bird that you've come on sudden, and it stoops as if it was goin' to fly—"

"Ah," said Westover, "does it make you think of that?"

William Dean Howells