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 7

VII.

Four or five days of perfect weather followed one another, and Westover worked hard at his picture in the late afternoon light he had chosen for it. In the morning he tramped through the woods and climbed the hills with Jeff Durgin, who seemed never to do anything about the farm, and had a leisure unbroken by anything except a rare call from his mother to help her in the house. He built the kitchen fire, and got the wood for it; he picked the belated pease and the early beans in the garden, and shelled them; on the Monday when the school opened he did a share of the family wash, which seemed to have been begun before daylight, and Westover saw him hanging out the clothes before he started off with his books. He suffered no apparent loss of self-respect in these employments, and, while he still had his days free, he put himself at Westover's disposal with an effect of unimpaired equality. He had expected, evidently, that Westover would want to fish or shoot, or at least join him in the hunt for woodchucks, which he still carried on with abated zeal for lack of his company when the painter sat down to sketch certain bits that struck him. When he found that Westover cared for nothing in the way of sport, as people commonly understand it, he did not openly contemn him. He helped him get the flowers he studied, and he learned to know true mushrooms from him, though he did not follow his teaching in eating the toadstools, as his mother called them, when they brought them home to be cooked.

If it could not be said that he shared the affection which began to grow up in Westover from their companionship, there could be no doubt of the interest he took in him, though it often seemed the same critical curiosity which appeared in the eye of his dog when it dwelt upon the painter. Fox had divined in his way that Westover was not only not to be molested, but was to be respectfully tolerated, yet no gleam of kindness ever lighted up his face at sight of the painter; he never wagged his tail in recognition of him; he simply recognized him and no more, and he remained passive under Westover's advances, which he had the effect of covertly referring to Jeff, when the boy was by, for his approval or disapproval; when he was not by, the dog's manner implied a reservation of opinion until the facts could be submitted to his master.

On the Saturday morning which was the last they were to have together, the three comrades had strayed from the vague wood road along one of the unexpected levels on the mountain slopes, and had come to a standstill in a place which the boy pretended not to know his way out of. Westover doubted him, for he had found that Jeff liked to give himself credit for woodcraft by discovering an escape from the depths of trackless wildernesses.

"I guess you know where we are," he suggested.

"No, honestly," said the boy; but he grinned, and Westover still doubted him.

"Hark! What's that?" he said, hushing further speech from him with a motion of his hand. It was the sound of an axe.

"Oh, I know where we are," said Jeff. "It's that Canuck chopping in Whitwell's clearing. Come along."

He led the way briskly down the mountain-side now, stopping from time to time and verifying his course by the sound of the axe. This came and went, and by-and-by it ceased altogether, and Jeff crept forward with a real or feigned uncertainty. Suddenly he stopped. A voice called, "Heigh, there!" and the boy turned and fled, crashing through the underbrush at a tangent, with his dog at his heels.

Westover looked after them, and then came forward. A lank figure of a man at the foot of a poplar, which he had begun to fell, stood waiting him, one hand on his axe-helve and the other on his hip. There was the scent of freshly smitten bark and sap-wood in the air; the ground was paved with broad, clean chips.

"Good-morning," said Westover.

"How are you?" returned the other, without moving or making any sign of welcome for a moment. But then he lifted his axe and struck it into the carf on the tree, and came to meet Westover.

As he advanced he held out his hand. "Oh, you're the one that stopped that fellow that day when he was tryin' to scare my children. Well, I thought I should run across you some time." He shook hands with Westover, in token of the gratitude which did not express itself in words. "How are you? Treat you pretty well up at the Durgins'? I guess so. The old woman knows how to cook, anyway. Jackson's about the best o' the lot above ground, though I don't know as I know very much against the old man, either. But that boy! I declare I 'most feel like takin' the top of his head off when he gets at his tricks. Set down."

Whitwell, as Westover divined the man to be, took a seat himself on a high stump, which suited his length of leg, and courteously waved Westover to a place on the log in front of him. A long, ragged beard of brown, with lines of gray in it, hung from his chin and mounted well up on his thin cheeks toward his friendly eyes. His mustache lay sunken on his lip, which had fallen in with the loss of his upper teeth. From the lower jaw a few incisors showed at this slant and that as he talked.

"Well, well!" he said, with the air of wishing the talk to go on, but without having anything immediately to offer himself.

Westover said, "Thank you," as he dropped on the log, and Whitwell added, relentingly: "I don't suppose a fellow's so much to blame, if he's got the devil in him, as what the devil is."

He referred the point with a twinkle of his eyes to Westover, who said: "It's always a question, of course, whether it's the devil. It may be original sin with the fellow himself."

"Well, that's something so," said Whitwell, with pleasure in the distinction rather than assent. "But I guess it ain't original sin in the boy. Got it from his gran'father pootty straight, I should say, and maybe the old man had it secondhand. Ha'd to say just where so much cussedness gits statted."

"His father's father?" asked Westover, willing to humor Whitwell's evident wish to philosophize the Durgins' history.

"Mother's. He kept the old tavern stand on the west side of Lion's Head, on the St. Albans Road, and I guess he kept a pootty good house in the old times when the stages stopped with him. Ever noticed how a man on the mean side in politics always knows how to keep a hotel? Well, it's something curious. If there was ever a mean side to any question, old Mason was on it. My folks used to live around there, and I can remember when I was a boy hangin' around the bar-room nights hearin' him argue that colored folks had no souls; and along about the time the fugitive-slave law was passed the folks pootty near run him out o' town for puttin' the United States marshal on the scent of a fellow that was breakin' for Canada. Well, it was just so when the war come. It was known for a fact that he was in with them Secesh devils up over the line that was plannin' a raid into Vermont in '63. He'd got pootty low down by that time; railroads took off all the travel; tavern 'd got to be a regular doggery; old man always drank some, I guess. That was a good while after his girl had married Durgin. He was dead against it, and it broke him up consid'able when she would have him: Well, one night the old stand burnt up and him in it, and neither of 'em insured."

Whitwell laughed with a pleasure in his satire which gave the monuments in his lower jaw a rather sinister action. But, as if he felt a rebuke in Westover's silence, he added: "There ain't anything against Mis' Durgin. She's done her part, and she's had more than her share of hard knocks. If she was tough, to sta't with, she's had blows enough to meller her. But that's the way I account for the boy. I s'pose—I'd oughtn't to feel the way I do about him, but he's such a pest to the whole neighborhood that he'd have the most pop'la' fune'l. Well, I guess I've said enough. I'm much obliged to you, though, Mr.—"

"Westover," the painter suggested. "But the boy isn't so bad all the time."

"Couldn't be," said Whitwell, with a cackle of humorous enjoyment. "He has his spells of bein' decent, and he's pootty smart, too. But when the other spell ketches him it's like as if the devil got a-hold of him, as I said in the first place. I lost my wife here two-three years along back, and that little girl you see him tormentin', she's a regular little mother to her brother; and whenever Jeff Durgin sees her with him, seems as if the Old Scratch got into him. Well, I'm glad I didn't come across him that day. How you gittin' along with Lion's Head? Sets quiet enough for you?" Whitwell rose from the stump and brushed the clinging chips from his thighs. "Folks trouble you any, lookin' on?"

"Not yet," said Westover.

"Well, there ain't a great many to," said Whitwell, going back to his axe. "I should like to see you workin' some day. Do' know as I ever saw an attist at it."

"I should like to have you," said Westover. "Any time."

"All right." Whitwell pulled his axe out of the carf, and struck it in again with a force that made a wide, square chip leap out. He looked over his shoulder at Westover, who was moving away. "Say, stop in some time you're passin'. I live in that wood-colored house at the foot of the Durgins' lane."

William Dean Howells