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Chapter 8

VIII.

In a little sunken place, behind a rock, some rods away, Westover found Jeff lurking with his dog, both silent and motionless. "Hello?" he said, inquiringly.

"Come back to show you the way," said the boy. "Thought you couldn't find it alone."

"Oh, why didn't you say you'd wait?" The boy grinned. "I shouldn't think a fellow like you would want to be afraid of any man, even for the fun of scaring a little girl." Jeff stopped grinning and looked interested, as if this was a view of the case that had not occurred to him. "But perhaps you like to be afraid."

"I don't know as I do," said the boy, and Westover left him to the question a great part of the way home. He did not express any regret or promise any reparation. But a few days after that, when he had begun to convoy parties of children up to see Westover at work, in the late afternoon, on their way home from school, and to show the painter off to them as a sort of family property, he once brought the young Whitwells. He seemed on perfect terms with them now, and when the crowd of larger children hindered the little boy's view of the picture, Jeff, in his quality of host, lifted him under his arms and held him up so that he could look as long as he liked.

The girl seemed ashamed of the good understanding before Westover. Jeff offered to make a place for her among the other children who had looked long enough, but she pulled the front of her bonnet across her face and said that she did not want to look, and caught her brother by the hand and ran away with him. Westover thought this charming, somewhat; he liked the intense shyness which the child's intense passion had hidden from him before.

Jeff acted as host to the neighbors who came to inspect the picture, and they all came, within a circuit of several miles around, and gave him their opinions freely or scantily, according to their several temperaments. They were mainly favorable, though there was some frank criticism, too, spoken over the painter's shoulder as openly as if he were not by. There was no question but of likeness; all finer facts were far from them; they wished to see how good a portrait Westover had made, and some of them consoled him with the suggestion that the likeness would come out more when the picture got dry.

Whitwell, when he came, attempted a larger view of the artist's work, but apparently more out of kindness for him than admiration of the picture. He said he presumed you could not always get a thing like that just right the first time, and that you had to keep trying till you did get it; but it paid in the end. Jeff had stolen down from the house with his dog, drawn by the fascination which one we have injured always has for us; when Whitwell suddenly turned upon him and asked, jocularly, "What do you think, Jeff?" the boy could only kick his dog and drive it home, as a means of hiding his feelings.

He brought the teacher to see the picture the last Friday before the painter went away. She was a cold-looking, austere girl, pretty enough, with eyes that wandered away from the young man, although Jeff used all his arts to make her feel at home in his presence. She pretended to have merely stopped on her way up to see Mrs. Durgin, and she did not venture any comment on the painting; but, when Westover asked something about her school, she answered him promptly enough as to the number and ages and sexes of the school-children. He ventured so far toward a joke with her as to ask if she had much trouble with such a tough subject as Jeff, and she said he could be good enough when he had a mind. If he could get over his teasing, she said, with the air of reading him a lecture, she would not have anything to complain of; and Jeff looked ashamed, but rather of the praise than the blame. His humiliation seemed complete when she said, finally: "He's a good scholar."

On the Tuesday following, Westover meant to go. It was the end of his third week, and it had brought him into September. The weather since he had begun to paint Lion's Head was perfect for his work; but, with the long drought, it had grown very warm. Many trees now had flamed into crimson on the hill-slopes; the yellowing corn in the fields gave out a thin, dry sound as the delicate wind stirred the blades; but only the sounds and sights were autumnal. The heat was oppressive at midday, and at night the cold had lost its edge. There was no dew, and Mrs. Durgin sat out with Westover on the porch while he smoked a final pipe there. She had come to join him for some fixed purpose, apparently, and she called to her boy, "You go to bed, Jeff," as if she wished to be alone with Westover; the men folks were already in bed; he could hear them cough now and then.

"Mr. Westover," the woman began, even as she swept her skirts forward before she sat down, "I want to ask you whether you would let that picture of yours go on part board? I'll give you back just as much as you say of this money."

He looked round and saw that she had in the hand dropped in her lap the bills he had given her after supper.

"Why, I couldn't, very well, Mrs. Durgin—" he began.

"I presume you'll think I'm foolish," she pursued. "But I do want that picture; I don't know when I've ever wanted a thing more. It's just like Lion's Head, the way I've seen it, day in and day out, every summer since I come here thirty-five years ago; it's beautiful!"

"Mrs. Durgin," said Westover, "you gratify me more than I can tell you. I wish—I wish I could let you have the picture. I—I don't know what to say—"

"Why don't you let me have it, then? If we ever had to go away from here—if anything happened to us—it's the one thing I should want to keep and take with me. There! That's the way I feel about it. I can't explain; but I do wish you'd let me have it."

Some emotion which did not utter itself in the desire she expressed made her voice shake in the words. She held out the bank-notes to him, and they rustled with the tremor of her hand.

"Mrs. Durgin, I suppose I shall have to be frank with you, and you mustn't feel hurt. I have to live by my work, and I have to get as much as I can for it—"

"That's what I say. I don't want to beat you down on it. I'll give you whatever you think is right. It's my money, and my husband feels just as I do about it," she urged.

"You don't quite understand," he said, gently. "I expect to have an exhibition of my pictures in Boston this fall, and I hope to get two or three hundred dollars for Lion's Head."

"I've been a proper fool," cried the woman, and she drew in a long breath.

"Oh, don't mind," he begged; "it's all right. I've never had any offer for a picture that I'd rather take than yours. I know the thing can't be altogether bad after what you've said. And I'll tell you what! I'll have it photographed when I get to Boston, and I'll send you a photograph of it."

"How much will that be?" Mrs. Durgin asked, as if taught caution by her offer for the painting.

"Nothing. And if you'll accept it and hang it up here somewhere I shall be very glad."

"Thank you," said Mrs. Durgin, and the meekness, the wounded pride, he fancied in her, touched him.

He did not know at first how to break the silence which she let follow upon her words. At last he said:

"You spoke, just now, about taking it with you. Of course, you don't think of leaving Lion's Head?"

She did not answer for so long a time that he thought she had not perhaps heard him or heeded what he said; but she answered, finally: "We did think of it. The day you come we had about made up our minds to leave."

"Oh!"

"But I've been thinkin' of something since you've been here that I don't know but you'll say is about as wild as wantin' to buy a three-hundred-dollar picture with a week's board." She gave a short, self-scornful laugh; but it was a laugh, and it relieved the tension.

"It may not be worth any more," he said, glad of the relief.

"Oh, I guess it is," she rejoined, and then she waited for him to prompt her.

"Well?"

"Well, it's this; and I wanted to ask you, anyway. You think there'd be any chance of my gettin' summer folks to come here and board if I was to put an advertisement in a Boston paper? I know it's a lonesome place, and there ain't what you may call attractions. But the folks from the hotels, sometimes, when they ride over in a stage to see the view, praise up the scenery, and I guess it is sightly. I know that well enough; and I ain't afraid but what I can do for boarders as well as some, if not better. What do you think?"

"I think that's a capital idea, Mrs. Durgin."

"It's that or go," she said. "There ain't a livin' for us on the farm any more, and we got to do somethin'. If there was anything else I could do! But I've thought it out and thought it out, and I guess there ain't anything I can do but take boarders—if I can get them."

"I should think you'd find it rather pleasant on some accounts. Your boarders would be company for you," said Westover.

"We're company enough for ourselves," said Mrs. Durgin. "I ain't ever been lonesome here, from the first minute. I guess I had company enough when I was a girl to last me the sort that hotel folks are. I presume Mr. Whitwell spoke to you about my father?"

"Yes; he did, Mrs. Durgin."

"I don't presume he said anything that wa'n't true. It's all right. But I know how my mother used to slave, and how I used to slave myself; and I always said I'd rather do anything than wait on boarders; and now I guess I got to come to it. The sight of summer folks makes me sick! I guess I could 'a' had 'em long ago if I'd wanted to. There! I've said enough." She rose, with a sudden lift of her powerful frame, and stood a moment as if expecting Westover to say something.

He said: "Well, when you've made your mind up, send your advertisement to me, and I'll attend to it for you."

"And you won't forget about the picture?"

"No; I won't forget that."

The next morning he made ready for an early start, and in his preparations he had the zealous and even affectionate help of Jeff Durgin. The boy seemed to wish him to carry away the best impression of him, or, at least, to make him forget all that had been sinister or unpleasant in his behavior. They had been good comrades since the first evil day; they had become good friends even; and Westover was touched by the boy's devotion at parting. He helped the painter get his pack together in good shape, and he took pride in strapping it on Westover's shoulders, adjusting and readjusting it with care, and fastening it so that all should be safe and snug. He lingered about at the risk of being late for school, as if to see the last of the painter, and he waved his hat to him when Westover looked back at the house from half down the lane. Then he vanished, and Westover went slowly on till he reached that corner of the orchard where the slanting gravestones of the family burial-ground showed above the low wall. There, suddenly, a storm burst upon him. The air rained apples, that struck him on the head, the back, the side, and pelted in violent succession on his knapsack and canvases, camp-stool and easel. He seemed assailed by four or five skilful marksmen, whose missiles all told.

When he could lift his face to look round he heard a shrill, accusing voice, "Oh, Jeff Durgin!" and he saw another storm of apples fly through the air toward the little Whitwell girl, who dodged and ran along the road below and escaped in the direction of the schoolhouse. Then the boy's face showed itself over the top of one of the gravestones, all agrin with joy. He waited and watched Westover keep slowly on, as if nothing had happened, and presently he let some apples fall from his hands and walked slowly back to the house, with his dog at his heels.

When Westover reached the level of the road and the shelter of the woods near Whitwell's house, he unstrapped his load to see how much harm had been done to his picture. He found it unhurt, and before he had got the burden back again he saw Jeff Durgin leaping along the road toward the school-house, whirling his satchel of books about his head and shouting gayly to the girl, now hidden by the bushes at the other end of the lane: "Cynthy! Oh, Cynthy! Wait for me! I want to tell you something!"

William Dean Howells