The Landlord At Lions Head by William D. Howells
One morning toward the end of August, Whitwell, who was starting homeward, after leaving his ladies, burdened with their wishes and charges for the morrow, met Westover coming up the hill with his painting-gear in his hand. "Say!" he hailed him. "Why don't you come down to the house to-night? Jackson's goin' to come, and, if you ha'n't seen him work the plantchette for a spell, you'll be surprised. There a'n't hardly anybody he can't have up. You'll come? Good enough!"
What affected Westover first of all at the seance, and perhaps most of all, was the quality of the air in the little house; it was close and stuffy, mixed with an odor of mould and an ancient smell of rats. The kerosene-lamp set in the centre of the table, where Jackson afterward placed his planchette, devoured the little life that was left in it. At the gasps which Westover gave, with some despairing glances at the closed windows, Whitwell said: "Hot? Well, I guess it is a little. But, you see, Jackson has got to be careful about the night air; but I guess I can fix it for you." He went out into the ell, and Westover heard him raising a window. He came back and asked, "That do? It 'll get around in here directly," and Westover had to profess relief.
Jackson came in presently with the little Canuck, whom Whitwell presented to Westover: "Know Jombateeste?"
The two were talking about a landslide which had taken place on the other side of the mountain; the news had just come that they had found among the ruins the body of the farm-hand who had been missing since the morning of the slide; his funeral was to be the next day.
Jackson put his planchette on the table, and sat down before it with a sigh; the Canuck remained standing, and on foot he was scarcely a head higher than the seated Yankees. "Well," Jackson said, "I suppose he knows all about it now," meaning the dead farm-hand.
"Yes," Westover suggested, "if he knows anything."
"Know anything!" Whitwell shouted. "Why, man, don't you believe he's as much alive as ever he was?"
"I hope so," said Westover, submissively.
"Don't you know it?"
"Not as I know other things. In fact, I don't know it," said Westover, and he was painfully aware of having shocked his hearers by the agnosticism so common among men in towns that he had confessed it quite simply and unconsciously. He perceived that faith in the soul and life everlasting was as quick as ever in the hills, whatever grotesque or unwonted form it wore. Jackson sat with closed eyes and his head fallen back; Whitwell stared at the painter, with open mouth; the little Canuck began to walk up and down impatiently; Westover felt a reproach, almost an abhorrence, in all of them.
Whitwell asked: "Why, don't you think there's any proof of it?"
"Proof? Oh Yes. There's testimony enough to carry conviction to the stubbornest mind on any other point. But it's very strange about all that. It doesn't convince anybody but the witnesses. If a man tells me he's seen a disembodied spirit, I can't believe him. I must see the disembodied spirit myself."
"That's something so," said Whitwell, with a relenting laugh.
"If one came back from the dead, to tell us of a life beyond the grave, we should want the assurance that he'd really been dead, and not merely dreaming."
Whitwell laughed again, in the delight the philosophic mind finds even in the reasoning that hates it.
The Canuck felt perhaps the simpler joy that the average man has in any strange notion that he is able to grasp. He stopped in his walk and said: "Yes, and if you was dead and went to heaven, and stayed so long you smelt, like Lazarus, and you come back and tol' 'em what you saw, nobody goin' believe you."
"Well, I guess you're right there, Jombateeste," said Whitwell, with pleasure in the Canuck's point. After a moment he suggested to Westover: "Then I s'pose, if you feel the way you do, you don't care much about plantchette?"
"Oh yes, I do," said the painter. "We never know when we may be upon the point of revelation. I wouldn't miss any chance."
Whether Whitwell felt an ironic slant in the words or not, he paused a moment before he said: "Want to start her up, Jackson?"
Jackson brought to the floor the forefeet of his chair, which he had tilted from it in leaning back, and without other answer put his hand on the planchette. It began to fly over the large sheet of paper spread upon the table, in curves and angles and eccentrics.
"Feels pootty lively to-night," said Whitwell, with a glance at Westover.
The little Canuck, as if he had now no further concern in the matter, sat down in a corner and smoked silently. Whitwell asked, after a moment's impatience:
"Can't you git her down to business, Jackson?"
Jackson gasped: "She'll come down when she wants to."
The little instrument seemed, in fact, trying to control itself. Its movements became less wild and large; the zigzags began to shape themselves into something like characters. Jackson's wasted face gave no token of interest; Whitwell laid half his gaunt length across the table in the endeavor to make out some meaning in them; the Canuck, with his hands crossed on his stomach, smoked on, with the same gleam in his pipe and eye.
The planchette suddenly stood motionless.
"She done?" murmured Whitwell.
"I guess she is, for a spell, anyway," said Jackson, wearily.
"Let's try to make out what she says." Whitwell drew the sheets toward himself and Westover, who sat next him. "You've got to look for the letters everywhere. Sometimes she'll give you fair and square writin', and then again she'll slat the letters down every which way, and you've got to hunt 'em out for yourself. Here's a B I've got. That begins along pretty early in the alphabet. Let's see what we can find next."
Westover fancied he could make out an F and a T.
Whitwell exulted in an unmistakable K and N; and he made sure of an I, and an E. The painter was not so sure of an S. "Well, call it an S," said Whitwell. "And I guess I've got an O here, and an H. Hello! Here's an A as large as life. Pootty much of a mixture."
"Yes; I don't see that we're much better off than we were before," said Westover.
"Well, I don't know about that," said Whitwell.
"Write 'em down in a row and see if we can't pick out some sense. I've had worse finds than this; no vowels at all sometimes; but here's three."
He wrote the letters down, while Jackson leaned back against the wall, in patient quiet.
"Well, sir," said Whitwell, pushing the paper, where he had written the letters in a line, to Westover, "make anything out of 'em?"
Westover struggled with them a moment. "I can make out one word-shaft."
"Anything else?" demanded Whitwell, with a glance of triumph at Jackson.
Westover studied the remaining letters. "Yes, I get one other word- broken."
"Just what I done! But I wanted you to speak first. It's Broken Shaft. Jackson, she caught right onto what we was talkin' about. This life," he turned to Westover, in solemn exegesis, "is a broken shaft when death comes. It rests upon the earth, but you got to look for the top of it in the skies. That's the way I look at it. What do you think, Jackson? Jombateeste?"
"I think anybody can't see that. Better go and get some heye-glass."
Westover remained in a shameful minority. He said, meekly: "It suggests a beautiful hope."
Jackson brought his chair-legs down again, and put his hand on the planchette.
"Feel that tinglin'?" asked. Whitwell, and Jackson made yes with silent lips. "After he's been workin' the plantchette for a spell, and then leaves off, and she wants to say something more," Whitwell explained to Westover, "he seems to feel a kind of tinglin' in his arm, as if it was asleep, and then he's got to tackle her again. Writin' steady enough now, Jackson!" he cried, joyously. "Let's see." He leaned over and read, "Thomas Jefferson--" The planchette stopped, "My, I didn't go to do that," said Whitwell, apologetically. "You much acquainted with Jefferson's writin's?" he asked of Westover.
The painter had to own his ignorance of all except the diction that the government is best which governs least; but he was not in a position to deny that Jefferson had ever said anything about a broken shaft.
"It may have come to him on the other side," said Whitwell.
"Perhaps," Westover assented.
The planchette began to stir itself again. "She's goin' ahead !" cried Whitwell. He leaned over the table so as to get every letter as it was formed. "D--Yes! Death. Death is the Broken Shaft. Go on!" After a moment of faltering the planchette formed another letter. It was a U, and it was followed by an R, and so on, till Durgin had been spelled. "Thunder!" cried Whitwell. "If anything's happened to Jeff!"
Jackson lifted his hand from the planchette.
"Oh, go on, Jackson!" Whitwell entreated. "Don't leave it so!"
"I can't seem to go on," Jackson whispered, and Westover could not resist the fear that suddenly rose among them. But he made the first struggle against it. "This is nonsense. Or, if there's any sense in it, it means that Jeff's ship has broken her shaft and put back."
Whitwell gave a loud laugh of relief. "That's so! You've hit it, Mr. Westover."
Jackson said, quietly: "He didn't mean to start home till tomorrow. And how could he send any message unless he was--"
"Easily!" cried Westover. "It's simply an instance of mental impression- of telepathy, as they call it."
"That's so!" shouted Whitwell, with eager and instant conviction.
Westover could see that Jackson still doubted. "If you believe that a disembodied spirit can communicate with you, why not an embodied spirit? If anything has happened to your brother's ship, his mind would be strongly on you at home, and why couldn't it convey its thought to you?"
"Because he ha'n't started yet," said Jackson.
Westover wanted to laugh; but they all heard voices without, which seemed to be coming nearer, and he listened with the rest. He made out Frank Whitwell's voice, and his sister's; and then another voice, louder and gayer, rose boisterously above them. Whitwell flung the door open and plunged out into the night. He came back, hauling Jeff Durgin in by the shoulder.
"Here, now," he shouted to Jackson, "you just let this feller and plantchette fight it out together!"
"What's the matter with plantchette ?" said Jeff, before he said to his brother, "Hello, Jackson!" and to the Canuck, "Hello, Jombateeste!" He shook hands conventionally with them both, and then with the painter, whom he greeted with greater interest. "Glad to see you here, Mr. Westover. Did I take you by surprise?" he asked of the company at large.
"No, sir," said Whitwell. "Didn't surprise us any, if you are a fortnight ahead of time," he added, with a wink at the others.
"Well, I took a notion I wouldn't wait for the cattle-ship, and I started back on a French boat. Thought I'd try it. They live well. But I hoped I should astonish you a little, too. I might as well waited."
Whitwell laughed. "We heard from you--plantchette kept right round after you."
"That so?" asked Jeff, carelessly.
"Fact. Have a good voyage?" Whitwell had the air of putting a casual question.
"First-rate," said Jeff. "Plantchette say not?"
"No. Only about the broken shaft."
"Broken shaft? We didn't have any broken shaft. Plantchette's got mixed a little. Got the wrong ship."
After a moment of chop-fallenness, Whitwell said:
"Then somebody's been makin' free with your name. Curious how them devils cut up oftentimes."
He explained, and Jeff laughed uproariously when he understood the whole case. "Plantchette's been havin' fun with you."
Whitwell gave himself time for reflection. "No, sir, I don't look at it that way. I guess the wires got crossed some way. If there's such a thing as the spirits o' the livin' influencin' plantchette, accordin' to Mr. Westover's say, here, I don't see why it wa'n't. Jeff's being so near that got control of her and made her sign his name to somebody else's words. It shows there's something in it."
"Well, I'm glad to come back alive, anyway," said Jeff, with a joviality new to Westover. "I tell you, there a'n't many places finer than old Lion's Head, after all. Don't you think so, Mr. Westover? I want to get the daylight on it, but it does well by moonlight, even." He looked round at the tall girl, who had been lingering to hear the talk of planchette; at the backward tilt he gave his head, to get her in range, she frowned as if she felt his words a betrayal, and slipped out of the room; the boy had already gone, and was making himself heard in the low room overhead.
"There's a lot of folks here this summer, mother says," he appealed from the check he had got to Jackson. "Every room taken for the whole month, she says."
"We've been pretty full all July, too," said Jackson, blankly.
"Well, it's a great business; and I've picked up a lot of hints over there. We're not so smart as we think we are. The Swiss can teach us a thing or two. They know how to keep a hotel."
"Go to Switzerland?" asked Whitwell.
"I slipped over into the edge of it."
"I want to know! Well, now them Alps, now--they so much bigger 'n the White Hills, after all?"
"Well, I don't know about all of 'em," said Jeff. "There may be some that would compare with our hills, but I should say that you could take Mount Washington up and set it in the lap of almost any one of the Alps I saw, and it would look like a baby on its mother's knee."
"I want to know!" said Whitwell again. His tone expressed disappointment, but impartiality; he would do justice to foreign superiority if he must. "And about the ocean. What about waves runnin? mountains high?"
"Well, we didn't have it very rough. But I don't believe I saw any waves much higher than Lion's Head." Jeff laughed to find Whitwell taking him seriously. "Won't that satisfy you?"
"Oh, it satisfies me. Truth always does. But, now, about London. You didn't seem to say so much about London in your letters, now. Is it so big as they let on? Big--that is, to the naked eye, as you may say?"
"There a'n't any one place where you can get a complete bird's-eye view of it," said Jeff, "and two-thirds of it would be hid in smoke, anyway. You've got to think of a place that would take in the whole population of New England, outside of Massachusetts, and not feel as if it had more than a comfortable meal."
Whitwell laughed for joy in the bold figure.
"I'll tell you. When you've landed and crossed up from Liverpool, and struck London, you feel as if you'd gone to sea again. It's an ocean-- a whole Atlantic of houses."
"That's right!" crowed Whitwell. "That's the way I thought it was. Growin' any?"
Jeff hesitated. "It grows in the night. You've heard about Chicago growing?"
"Well, London grows a whole Chicago every night."
"Good!" said Whitwell. "That suits me. And about Paris, now. Paris strike you the same way?"
"It don't need to," said Jeff. "That's a place where I'd like to live. Everybody's at home there. It's a man's house and his front yard, and I tell you they keep it clean. Paris is washed down every morning; scrubbed and mopped and rubbed dry. You couldn't find any more dirt than you could in mother's kitchen after she's hung out her wash. That so, Mr. Westover?"
Westover confirmed in general Jeff's report of the cleanliness of Paris.
"And beautiful! You don't know what a good-looking town is till you strike Paris. And they're proud of it, too. Every man acts as if he owned it. They've had the statue of Alsace in that Place de la Concorde of yours, Mr. Whitwell, where they had the guillotine all draped in black ever since the war with Germany; and they mean to have her back, some day."
"Great country, Jombateeste!" Whitwell shouted to the Canuck.
The little man roused himself from the muse in which he was listening and smoking. "Me, I'm Frantsh," he said.
"Yes, that's what Jeff was sayin'," said Whitwell. "I meant France."
"Oh," answered Jombateeste, impatiently, "I thought you mean the Hunited State."
"Well, not this time," said Whitwell, amid the general laughter.
"Good for Jombateeste," said Jeff. "Stand up for Canada every time, John. It's the livest country, in the world three months of the year, and the ice keeps it perfectly sweet the other nine."
Whitwell could not brook a diversion from the high and serious inquiry they had entered upon. "It must have made this country look pretty slim when you got back. How'd New York look, after Paris?"
"Like a pigpen," said Jeff. He left his chair and walked round the table toward a door opening into the adjoining room. For the first time Westover noticed a figure in white seated there, and apparently rapt in the talk which had been going on. At the approach of Jeff, and before he could have made himself seen at the doorway, a tremor seemed to pass over the figure; it fluttered to its feet, and then it vanished into the farther dark of the room. When Jeff disappeared within, there was a sound of rustling skirts and skurrying feet and the crash of a closing door, and then the free rise of laughing voices without. After a discreet interval, Westover said: "Mr. Whitwell, I must say good-night. I've got another day's work before me. It's been a most interesting evening."
"You must try it again," said Whitwell, hospitably. "We ha'n't got to the bottom of that broken shaft yet. You'll see 't plantchette 'll have something more to say about it: Heigh, Jackson?" He rose to receive Westover's goodnight; the others nodded to him.
As the painter climbed the hill to the hotel he saw two figures on the road below; the one in white drapery looked severed by a dark line slanting across it at the waist. In the country, he knew, such an appearance might mark the earliest stages of love-making, or mere youthful tenderness, in which there was nothing more implied or expected. But whatever the fact was, Westover felt a vague distaste for it, which, as it related itself to a more serious possibility, deepened to something like pain. It was probable that it should come to this between those two, but Westover rebelled against the event with a sense of its unfitness for which he could not give himself any valid reason; and in the end he accused himself of being a fool.
Two ladies sat on the veranda of the hotel and watched a cloud-wreath trying to lift itself from the summit of Lion's Head. In the effort it thinned away to transparency in places; in others, it tore its frail texture asunder and let parts of the mountain show through; then the fragments knitted themselves loosely together, and the vapor lay again in dreamy quiescence.
The ladies were older and younger, and apparently mother and daughter. The mother had kept her youth in face and figure so admirably that in another light she would have looked scarcely the elder. It was the candor of the morning which confessed the fine vertical lines running up and down to her lips, only a shade paler than the girl's, and that showed her hair a trifle thinner in its coppery brown, her blue eyes a little dimmer. They were both very graceful, and they had soft, caressing voices; they now began to talk very politely to each other, as if they were strangers, or as if strangers were by. They talked of the landscape, and of the strange cloud effect before them. They said that they supposed they should see the Lion's Head when the cloud lifted, and they were both sure they had never been quite so near a cloud before. They agreed that this was because in Switzerland the mountains were so much higher and farther off. Then the daughter said, without changing the direction of her eyes or the tone of her voice, "The gentleman who came over from the station with us last night," and the mother was aware of Jeff Durgin advancing toward the corner of the veranda where they sat.
"I hope you have got rested," he said, with the jovial bluntness which was characteristic of him with women.
"Oh, yes indeed," said the elder lady. Jeff had spoken to her, but had looked chiefly at the younger. "I slept beautifully. So quiet here, and with this delicious air! Have you just tasted it?"
"No; I've been up ever since daylight, driving round," said Jeff. "I'm glad you like the air," he said, after a certain hesitation. "We always want to have people do that at Lion's Head. There's no air like it, though perhaps I shouldn't say so."
"Shouldn't?" the lady repeated.
"Yes; we own the air here--this part of it." Jeff smiled easily down at the lady's puzzled face.
"Oh! Then you are--are you a son of the house?"
"Son of the hotel, yes," said Jeff, with increasing ease. The lady continued her question in a look, and he went on: "I've been scouring the country for butter and eggs this morning. We shall get all our supplies from Boston next year, I hope, but we depend on the neighbors a little yet."
"How very interesting!" said the lady. "You must have a great many queer adventures," she suggested in a provisional tone.
"Well, nothing's queer to me in the hill country. But you see some characters here." He nodded over his shoulder to where Whitwell stood by the flag-staff, waiting the morning impulse of the ladies. "There's one of the greatest of them now."
The lady put up a lorgnette and inspected Whitwell. "What are those strange things he has got in his hatband?"
"The flowers and the fungi of the season," said Jeff. "He takes parties of the ladies walking, and that collection is what he calls his almanac."
"Really?" cried the girl. "That's charming!"
"Delightful!" said the mother, moved by the same impulse, apparently.
"Yes," said Jeff. "You ought to hear him talk. I'll introduce him to you after breakfast, if you like."
"Oh, we should only be too happy," said the mother, and her daughter, from her inflection, knew that she would be willing to defer her happiness.
But Jeff did not. "Mr. Whitwell !" he called out, and Whitwell came across the grass to the edge of the veranda. "I want to introduce you to Mrs. Vostrand--and Miss Vostrand."
Whitwell took their slim hands successively into his broad, flat palm, and made Mrs. Vostrand repeat her name to him. "Strangers at Lion's Head, I presume?" Mrs. Vostrand owned as much; and he added: "Well, I guess you won't find a much sightlier place anywhere; though, accordin' to Jeff's say, here, they've got bigger mountains on the other side. Ever been in Europe?"
"Why, yes," said Mrs. Vostrand, with a little mouth of deprecation. "In fact, we've just come home. We've been living there."
"That so?" returned Whitwell, in humorous toleration. "Glad to get back, I presume?"
"Oh yes--yes," said Mrs. Vostrand, in a sort of willowy concession, as if the character before her were not to be crossed or gainsaid.
"Well, it 'll do you good here," said Whitwell. "'N' the young lady, too. A few tramps over these hills 'll make you look like another woman." He added, as if he had perhaps made his remarks too personal to the girl, "Both of you."
"Oh yes," the mother assented, fervently. "We shall count upon your showing us all their-mysteries."
Whitwell looked pleased. "I'll do my best-whenever you're ready." He went on: "Why, Jeff, here, has just got back, too. Jeff, what was the name of that French boat you said you crossed on? I want to see if I can't make out what plantchette meant by that broken shaft. She must have meant something, and if I could find out the name of the ship-- Tell the ladies about it?" Jeff laughed, with a shake of the head, and Whitwell continued, "Why, it was like this," and he possessed the ladies of a fact which they professed to find extremely interesting. At the end of their polite expressions he asked Jeff again: "What did you say the name was?"
"Aquitaine," said Jeff, briefly.
"Why, we came on the Aquitaine!" said Mrs. Vostrand, with a smile for Jeff. "But how did we happen not to see one another?"
"Oh, I came second-cabin," said Jeff. "I worked my way over on a cattle- ship to London, and, when I decided not to work my way back, I found I hadn't enough money for a first-cabin passage. I was in a hurry to get back in time to get settled at Harvard, and so I came second-cabin. It wasn't bad. I used to see you across the rail."
"Well!" said Whitwell.
"How very--amusing!" said Mrs. Vostrand. "What a small world it is!" With these words she fell into a vagary; her daughter recalled her from it with a slight movement. "Breakfast? How impatient you are, Genevieve! Well!" She smiled the sweetest parting to Whitwell, and suffered herself to be led away by Jeff.
"And you're at Harvard? I'm so interested! My own boy will be going there soon."
"Well, there's no place like Harvard," said Jeff. "I'm in my Sophomore year now."
"Oh, a Sophomore! Fancy!" cried Mrs. Vostrand, as if nothing could give her more pleasure. "My son is going to prepare at St. Mark's. Did you prepare there?"
"No, I prepared at Lovewell Academy, over here." Jeff nodded in a southerly direction.
"Oh, indeed!" said Mrs. Vostrand, as if she knew where Lovewell was, and instantly recognized the name of the ancient school.
They had reached the dining room, and Jeff pushed the screen-door open with one hand, and followed the ladies in. He had the effect of welcoming them like invited guests; he placed the ladies himself at a window, where he said Mrs. Vostrand would be out of the draughts, and they could have a good view of Lion's Head.
He leaned over between them, when they were seated, to get sight of the mountain, and, "There!" he said. "That cloud's gone at last." Then, as if it would be modester in the proprietor of the view to leave them to their flattering raptures in it, he moved away and stood talking a moment with Cynthia Whitwell near the door of the serving-room. He talked gayly, with many tosses of the head and turns about, while she listened with a vague smile, motionlessly.
"She's very pretty," said Miss Vostrand to her mother.
"Yes. The New England type," murmured the mother.
"They all have the same look, a good deal," said the girl, glancing over the room where the waitresses stood ranged against the wall with their hands folded at their waists. "They have better faces than figures, but she is beautiful every way. Do you suppose they are all schoolteachers? They look intellectual. Or is it their glasses?"
"I don't know," said the mother. "They used to be; but things change here so rapidly it may all be different. Do you like it?"
"I think it's charming here," said the younger lady, evasively. "Everything is so exquisitely clean. And the food is very good. Is this corn-bread--that you've told me about so much?"
"Yes, this is corn-bread. You will have to get accustomed to it."
"Perhaps it won't take long. I could fancy that girl knowing about everything. Don't you like her looks?"
"Oh, very much." Mrs. Vostrand turned for another glance at Cynthia.
"What say?" Their smiling waitress came forward from the wall where she was leaning, as if she thought they had spoken to her.
"Oh, we were speaking--the young lady to whom Mr. Durgin was talking--she is--"
"She's the housekeeper--Miss Whitwell."
"Oh, indeed! She seems so young--"
"I guess she knows what to do-o-o," the waitress chanted. "We think she's about ri-i-ght." She smiled tolerantly upon the misgiving of the stranger, if it was that, and then retreated when the mother and daughter began talking together again.
They had praised the mountain with the cloud off, to Jeff, very politely, and now the mother said, a little more intimately, but still with the deference of a society acquaintance: "He seems very gentlemanly, and I am sure he is very kind. I don't quite know what to do about it, do you?"
"No, I don't. It's all strange to me, you know."
"Yes, I suppose it must be. But you will get used to it if we remain in the country. Do you think you will dislike it?"
"Oh no! It's very different."
"Yes, it's different. He is very handsome, in a certain way." The daughter said nothing, and the mother added: "I wonder if he was trying to conceal that he had come second-cabin, and was not going to let us know that he crossed with us?"
"Do you think he was bound to do so?"
"No. But it was very odd, his not mentioning it. And his going out on a cattle-steamer?" the mother observed.
"Oh, but that's very chic, I've heard," the daughter replied. "I've heard that the young men like it and think it a great chance. They have great fun. It isn't at all like second-cabin."
"You young people have your own world," the mother answered, caressingly.