Part I.
Chapter XXI.
 

That afternoon Westover saw Jeff helping Cynthia Whitwell into his buckboard, and then, after his lively horse had made some paces of a start, spring to the seat beside her, and bring it to a stand. "Can I do anything for you over at Lovewell, Mr. Westover?" he called, and he smiled toward the painter. Then he lightened the reins on the mare's back; she squared herself for a start in earnest, and flashed down the sloping hotel road to the highway below, and was lost to sight in the clump of woods to the southward.

"That's a good friend of yours, Cynthy," he said, leaning toward the girl with a simple comfort in her proximity. She was dressed in a pale-pink color, with a hat of yet paler pink; without having a great deal of fashion, she had a good deal of style. She looked bright and fresh; there was a dash of pink in her cheeks, which suggested the color of the sweetbrier, its purity and sweetness, and if there was something in Cynthia's character and temperament that suggested its thorns too, one still could not deny that she was like that flower. She liked to shop, and she liked to ride after a good horse, as the neighbors would have said; she was going over to Lovewell to buy a number of things, and Jeff Durgin was driving her there with the swift mare that was his peculiar property. She smiled upon him without the usual reservations she contrived to express in her smiles.

"Well, I don't know anybody I'd rather have for my friend than Mr. Westover." She added: "He acted like a friend the very first time I saw him."

Jeff laughed with shameless pleasure in the reminiscence her words suggested. "Well, I did get my come-uppings that time. And I don't know but he's been a pretty good friend to me, too. I'm not sure he likes me; but Mr. Westover is a man that could be your friend if he didn't like you."

"What have you done to make him like you?" asked the girl.

"Nothing!" said Jeff, with a shout of laughter in his conviction. "I've done a lot of things to make him despise me from the start. But if you like a person yourself, you want him to like you whether you deserve it or not."

"I don't know as I do."

"You say that because you always deserve it. You can't tell how it is with a fellow like me. I should want you to like me, Cynthy, whatever you thought of me." He looked round into her face, but she turned it away.

They had struck the level, long for the hill country, at the foot of the hotel road, and the mare, that found herself neither mounting nor descending a steep, dropped from the trot proper for an acclivity into a rapid walk.

"This mare can walk like a Kentucky horse," said Jeff. "I believe I could teach her single-foot." He added, with a laugh, "If I knew how," and now Cynthia laughed with him.

"I was just going to say that."

"Yes, you don't lose many chances to give me a dig, do you?"

"Oh, I don't know as I look for them. Perhaps I don't need to." The pine woods were deep on either side. They whispered in the thin, sweet wind, and gave out their odor in the high, westering sun. They covered with their shadows the road that ran velvety between them.

"This is nice," said Jeff, letting himself rest against the back of the seat. He stretched his left arm along the top, and presently it dropped and folded itself about the waist of the girl.

"You may take your arm away, Jeff," she said, quietly.

"Why?"

"Because it has no right there, for one thing!" She drew herself a little aside and looked round at him. "You wouldn't put it round a town girl if you were riding with her."

"I shouldn't be riding with her: Girls don't go buggy-riding in town any more," said Jeff, brutally.

"Then I shall know what to do the next time you ask me."

"Oh, they'd go quick enough if I asked them up here in the country. Etiquette don't count with them when they're on a vacation."

"I'm not on a vacation; so it counts with me. Please take your arm away," said Cynthia.

"Oh, all right. But I shouldn't object to your putting your arm around me."

"You will never have the chance."

"Why are you so hard on me, Cynthy ?" asked Jeff. "You didn't used to be so."

"People change."

"Do I?"

"Not for the better."

Jeff was dumb. She was pleased with her hit, and laughed. But her laugh did not encourage him to put his arm round her again. He let the mare walk on, and left her to resume the conversation at whatever point she would.

She made no haste to resume it. At last she said, with sufficient apparent remoteness from the subject they had dropped: "Jeff, I don't know whether you want me to talk about it. But I guess I ought to, even if it isn't my place exactly. I don't think Jackson's very well, this summer."

Jeff faced round toward her. "What makes you think he isn't well?"

"He's weaker. Haven't you noticed it?"

"Yes, I have noticed that. He's worked down; that's all."

"No, that isn't all. But if you don't think so--"

"I want to know what you think, Cynthy," said Jeff, with the amorous resentment all gone from his voice. "Sometimes folks outside notice the signs more--I don't mean that you're an outsider, as far as we're concerned--"

She put by that point. "Father's noticed it, too; and he's with Jackson a good deal."

"I'll look after it. If he isn't so well, he's got to have a doctor. That medium's stuff can't do him any good. Don't you think he ought to have a doctor?"

"Oh yes."

"You don't think a doctor can do him much good?"

"He ought to have one," said the girl, noncommittally.

"Cynthia, I've noticed that Jackson was weak, too; and it's no use pretending that he's simply worked down. I believe he's worn out. Do you think mother's ever noticed it?"

"I don't believe she has."

"It's the one thing I can't very well make up my mind to speak to her about. I don't know what she would do." He did not say, "If she lost Jackson," but Cynthia knew he meant that, and they were both silent. "Of course," he went on, "I know that she places a great deal of dependence upon you, but Jackson's her main stay. He's a good man, and he's a good son. I wish I'd always been half as good."

Cynthia did not protest against his self-reproach as he possibly hoped she would. She said: "I think Jackson's got a very good mind. He reads a great deal, and he's thought a great deal, and when it comes to talking, I never heard any one express themselves better. The other night, we were out looking at the stars--I came part of the way home with him; I didn't like to let him go alone, he seemed so feeble and he got to showing me Mars. He thinks it's inhabited, and he's read all that the astronomers say about it, and the seas and the canals that they've found on it. He spoke very beautifully about the other life, and then he spoke about death." Cynthia's voice broke, and she pulled her handkerchief out of her belt, and put it to her eyes. Jeff's heart melted in him at the sight; he felt a tender affection for her, very unlike the gross content he had enjoyed in her presence before, and he put his arm round her again, but this time almost unconsciously, and drew her toward him. She did not repel him; she even allowed her head to rest a moment on his shoulder; though she quickly lifted it, and drew herself away, not resentfully, it seemed, but for her greater freedom in talking.

"I don't believe he's going to die," Jeff said, consolingly, more as if it were her brother than his that he meant. "But he's a very sick man, and he's got to knock off and go somewhere. It won't do for him to pass another winter here. He must go to California, or Colorado; they'd be glad to have him there, either of them; or he can go to Florida, or over to Italy. It won't matter how long he stays--"

"What are you talking about, Jeff Durgin?" Cynthia demanded, severely." What would your mother do? What would she do this winter?"

"That brings me to something, Cynthia," said Jeff, "and I don't want you to say anything till I've got through. I guess I could help mother run the place as well as Jackson, and I could stay here next winter."

"You?"

"Now, you let me talk! My mind's made up about one thing: I'm not going to be a lawyer. I don't want to go back to Harvard. I'm going to keep a hotel, and, if I don't keep one here at Lion's Head, I'm going to keep it somewhere else."

"Have you told your mother?"

"Not yet: I wanted to hear what you would say first."

"I? Oh, I haven't got anything to do with it," said Cynthia.

"Yes, you have! You've got everything to do with it, if you'll say one thing first. Cynthia, you know how I feel about you. It's been so ever since we were boy and girl here. I want you to promise to marry me. Will you?"

The girl seemed neither surprised nor very greatly pleased; perhaps her pleasure had spent itself in that moment of triumphant expectation when she foresaw what was coming, or perhaps she was preoccupied in clearing the way in her own mind to a definite result.

"What do you say, Cynthia?" Jeff pursued, with more injury than misgiving in his voice at her delay in answering. "Don't you-care for me?"

"Oh yes, I presume I've always done that--ever since we were boy and girl, as you say. But----"

"Well?" said Jeff, patiently, but not insecurely.

"Have you?"

"Have I what?"

"Always cared for me."

He could not find his voice quite as promptly as before. He cleared his throat before he asked: "Has Mr. Westover been saying anything about me?"

"I don't know what you mean, exactly; but I presume you do."

"Well, then--I always expected to tell you--I did have a fancy for that girl, for Miss Vostrand, and I told her so. It's like something that never happened. She wouldn't have me. That's all."

"And you expect me to take what she wouldn't have?"

"If you like to call it that. But I should call it taking a man that had been out of his head for a while, and had come to his senses again."

"I don't know as I should ever feel safe with a man that had been out of his head once."

"You wouldn't find many men that hadn't," said Jeff, with a laugh that was rather scornful of her ignorance.

"No, I presume not," she sighed. "She was beautiful, and I believe she was good, too. She was very nice. Perhaps I feel strangely about it. But, if she hadn't been so nice, I shouldn't have been so willing that you should have cared for her."

"I suppose I don't understand," said Jeff, "but I know I was hard hit. What's the use? It's over. She's married. I can't go back and unlive it all. But if you want time to think--of course you do--I've taken time enough--"

He was about to lift the reins on the mare's back as a sign to her that the talk was over for the present, and to quicken her pace, when Cynthia put out her hand and laid it on his, and said with a certain effect of authority: "I shouldn't want you should give up your last year in Harvard."

"Just as you say, Cynthy;" and in token of intelligence he wound his arm round her neck and kissed her. It was not the first kiss by any means; in the country kisses are not counted very serious, or at all binding, and Cynthia was a country girl; but they both felt that this kiss sealed a solemn troth between them, and that a common life began for them with it.