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Chapter 55

LV

When Westover turned out of the baking little street where the Whitwells lived into an elm-shaded stretch of North Avenue, he took off his hat and strolled bareheaded along in the cooler air. He was disappointed not to have seen Cynthia, and yet he found himself hurrying away after his failure, with a sense of escape, or at least of respite.

What he had come to say, to do, was the effect of long experience and much meditation. The time had arrived when he could no longer feign to himself that his feelings toward the girl were not those of a lover, but he had his modest fears that she could never imagine him in that character, and that if he should ask her to do so he should shock and grieve her, and inflict upon himself an incurable wound.

During this last absence of his he had let his fancy dwell constantly upon her, until life seemed worth having only if she would share it with him. He was an artist, and he had always been a bohemian, but at heart he was philistine and bourgeois. His ideal was a settlement, a fixed habitation, a stated existence, a home where he could work constantly in an air of affection, and unselfishly do his part to make his home happy. It was a very simple-hearted ambition, and I do not quite know how to keep it from appearing commonplace and almost sordid; but such as it was, I must confess that it was his. He had not married his model, because he was mainly a landscapist, perhaps; and he had not married any of his pupils, because he had not been in love with them, charming and good and lovely as he had thought some of them; and of late he had realized more and more why his fancy had not turned in their direction. He perceived that it was already fixed, and possibly had long been fixed.

He did not blink the fact that there were many disparities, and that there would be certain disadvantages which could never be quite overcome. The fact had been brought rather strenuously home to him by his interview with Cynthia's father. He perceived, as indeed he had always known, that with a certain imaginative lift in his thinking and feeling, Whitwell was irreparably rustic, that he was and always must be practically Yankee. Westover was not a Yankee, and he did not love or honor the type, though its struggles against itself touched and amused him. It made him a little sick to hear how Whitwell had profited by Durgin's necessity, and had taken advantage of him with conscientious and self-applausive rapacity, while he admired his prosperity, and tried to account for it by doubt of its injustice. For a moment this seemed to him worse than Durgin's conscientious toughness, which was the antithesis of Whitwell's remorseless self-interest. For the moment this claimed Cynthia of its kind, and Westover beheld her rustic and Yankee of her father's type. If she was not that now, she would grow into that through the lapse from the personal to the ancestral which we all undergo in the process of the years.

The sight of her face as he had pictured it, and of the soul which he had imagined for it, restored him to a better sense of her, but he felt the need of escaping from the suggestion of her father's presence, and taking further thought. Perhaps he should never again reach the point that he was aware of deflecting from now; he filled his lungs with long breaths, which he exhaled in sighs of relief. It might have been a mistake on the spiritual as well as the worldly side; it would certainly not have promoted his career; it might have impeded it. These misgivings flitted over the surface of thought that more profoundly was occupied with a question of other things. In the time since he had seen her last it might very well be that a young and pretty girl had met some one who had taken her fancy; and he could not be sure that her fancy had ever been his, even if this had not happened. He had no proof at all that she had ever cared or could care for him except gratefully, respectfully, almost reverentially, with that mingling of filial and maternal anxiety which had hitherto been the warmest expression of her regard. He tried to reason it out, and could not. He suddenly found himself bitterly disappointed that he had missed seeing her, for if they had met, he would have known by this time what to think, what to hope. He felt old—he felt fully thirty-six years old—as he passed his hand over his crown, whose gossamer growth opposed so little resistance to his touch. He had begun to lose his hair early, but till then he had not much regretted his baldness. He entered into a little question of their comparative ages, which led him to the conclusion that Cynthia must now be about twenty-five.

Almost at the same moment he saw her coming up the walk toward him from far down the avenue. For a reason, or rather a motive, of his own he pretended to himself that it was not she, but he knew instantly that it was, and he put on his hat. He could see that she did not know him, and it was a pretty thing to witness the recognition dawn on her. When it had its full effect, he was aware of a flutter, a pause in her whole figure before she came on toward him, and he hurried his steps for the charm of her beautiful blushing face.

It was the spiritual effect of figure and face that he had carried in his thought ever since he had arrived at that one-sided intimacy through his study of her for the picture he had just seen. He had often had to ask himself whether he had really perceived or only imagined the character he had translated into it; but here, for the moment at least, was what he had seen. He hurried forward and joyfully took the hand she gave him. He thought he should speak of that at once, but it was not possible, of course. There had to come first the unheeded questions and answers about each other's health, and many other commonplaces. He turned and walked home with her, and at the gate of the little ugly house she asked him if he would not come in and take tea with them.

Her father talked with him while she got the tea, and when it was ready her brother came in from his walk home out of Old Cambridge and helped her put it on the table. He had grown much taller than Westover, and he was very ecclesiastical in his manner; more so than he would be, probably, if he ever became a bishop, Westover decided. Jombateeste, in an interval of suspended work at the brick yard, was paying a visit to his people in Canada, and Westover did not see him.

All the time while they sat at table and talked together Westover realized more and more that for him, at least, the separation of the last two years had put that space between them which alone made it possible for them to approach each other on new ground. A kind of horror, of repulsion, for her engagement to Jeff Durgin had ceased from his sense of her; it was as if she had been unhappily married, and the man, who had been unworthy and unkind, was like a ghost who could never come to trouble his joy. He was more her contemporary, he found, than formerly; she had grown a great deal in the past two years, and a certain affliction which her father's fixity had given him concerning her passed in the assurance of change which she herself gave him.

She had changed her world, and grown to it, but her nature had not changed. Even her look had not changed, and he told her how he had seen his picture in her at the moment of their meeting in the street. They all went in to verify his impression from the painting. "Yes, that is the way you looked."

"It seems to me that is the way I felt," she asserted.

Frank went about the house-work, and left her to their guest. When Whitwell came back from the post-office, where he said he would only be gone a minute, he did not rejoin Westover and Cynthia in the parlor.

The parlor door was shut; he had risked his fate, and they were talking it over. Cynthia was not sure; she was sure of nothing but that there was no one in the world she cared for so much; but she was not sure that was enough. She did not pretend that she was surprised; she owned that she had sometimes expected it; she blamed herself for not expecting it then.

Westover said that he did not blame her for not knowing her mind; he had been fifteen years learning his own fully. He asked her to take all the time she wished. If she could not make sure after all, he should always be sure that she was wise and good. She told him everything there was to tell of her breaking with Jeff, and he thought the last episode a supreme proof of her wisdom and goodness.

After a certain time they went for a walk in the warm summer moonlight under the elms, where they had met on the avenue.

"I suppose," she said, as they drew near her door again, "that people don't often talk it over as we've done."

"We only know from the novels," he answered. "Perhaps people do, oftener than is ever known. I don't see why they shouldn't."

"No."

"I've never wished to be sure of you so much as since you've wished to be sure of yourself."

"And I've never been so sure as since you were willing to let me," said Cynthia.

"I am glad of that. Try to think of me, if that will help my cause, as some one you might have always known in this way. We don't really know each other yet. I'm a great deal older than you, but still I'm not so very old."

"Oh, I don't care for that. All I want to be certain of is that the feeling I have is really—the feeling."

"I know, dear," said Westover, and his heart surged toward her in his tenderness for her simple conscience, her wise question. "Take time. Don't hurry. Forget what I've said—or no; that's absurd! Think of it; but don't let anything but the truth persuade you. Now, good-night, Cynthia."

"Good-night—Mr. Westover."

"Mr. Westover!" he reproached her.

She stood thinking, as if the question were crucial. Then she said, firmly, "I should always have to call you Mr. Westover."

"Oh, well," he returned, "if that's all!"

PG EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:
     Boldest man is commonly a little behind a timid woman
     Could not imagine the summer life of the place
     Crimson which stained the tops and steeps of snow
     Crimson torch of a maple, kindled before its time
     Disposition to use his friends
     Errors of a weak man, which were usually the basest
     Exchanging inaudible banalities
     Fear of asking too much and the folly of asking too little
     Government is best which governs least
     He might walk home with her if he would not seem to do so
     He's the same kind of a man that he was a boy
     Hollow hilarities which people use to mask their indifference
     Honesty is difficult
     I don't ever want to take the whip-hand
     I suppose they must feel it
     I sha'n't forget this very soon
     If one must, it ought to be champagne
     Insensate pride that mothers have in their children's faults
     Intent upon some point in the future
     Iron forks had two prongs
     Jefferson
     Joyful shame of children who have escaped punishment
     Man that could be your friend if he didn't like you
     Married Man: after the first start-off he don't try
     No two men see the same star
     Nothing in the way of sport, as people commonly understand it
     Pathetic hopefulness
     People whom we think unequal to their good fortune
     Picture which, he said to himself, no one would believe in
     Quiet but rather dull look of people slightly deaf
     Society interested in a woman's past, not her future
     Stupefied by a life of unalloyed prosperity and propriety
     The great trouble is for the man to be honest with her
     To be exemplary is as dangerous as to be complimentary
     W'at you want letter for? Always same thing
     Want something hard, don't you know; but I want it to be easy
     We're company enough for ourselves
     With all her insight, to have very little artistic sense
     Women talked their follies and men acted theirs
     World made up of two kinds of people
     World seems to always come out at the same hole it went in at
William Dean Howells