Part I.
Chapter XXIII.
 

Jeff came into the ugly old family parlor, where his mother sat mending by the kerosene-lamp which she had kept through all the household changes, and pushed enough of her work aside from the corner of the table to rest his arm upon it.

"Mother, I want you to listen to me, and to wait till I get done. Will you?"

She looked up at him over her spectacles from the stocking she was darning; the china egg gleamed through the frayed place. "What notion have you got in your head, now?"

"It's about Jackson. He isn't well. He's got to leave off work and go away."

The mother's hand dropped at the end of the yarn she had drawn through the stocking heel, and she stared at Jeff. Then she resumed her work with the decision expressed in her tone. "Your father lived to be sixty years old, and Jackson a'n't forty! The doctor said there wa'n't any reason why he shouldn't live as long as his father did."

"I'm not saying he won't live to a hundred. I'm saying he oughtn't to stay another winter here," Jeff said, decisively.

Mrs. Durgin was silent for a time, and then she said. "Jeff, is that your notion about Jackson, or whose is it?"

"It's mine, now."

Mrs, Durgin waited a moment. Then she began, with a feeling quite at variance with her words:

"Well, I'll thank Cynthy Whit'ell to mind her own business! Of course," she added, and in what followed her feeling worked to the surface in her words, "I know 't she thinks the world of Jackson, and he does of her; and I presume she means well. I guess she'd be more apt to notice, if there was any change, than what I should. What did she say?"

Jeff told, as nearly as he could remember, and he told what Cynthia and he had afterward jointly worked out as to the best thing for Jackson to do. Mrs. Durgin listened frowningly, but not disapprovingly, as it seemed; though at the end she asked: "And what am I going to do, with Jackson gone?"

Jeff laughed, with his head down. "Well, I guess you and Cynthy could run it, with Frank and Mr. Whitwell."

"Mr. Whit'ell!" said Mrs. Durgin, concentrating in her accent of his name the contempt she could not justly pour out on the others.

"Oh," Jeff went on, "I did think that I could take hold with you, if you could bring yourself to let me off this last year at Harvard."

"Jeff!" said his mother, reproachfully. "You know you don't mean that you'd give up your last year in college?"

"I do mean it, but I don't expect you to do it; and I don't ask it. I suggested it to Cynthy, when we got to talking it over, and she saw it wouldn't do."

"Well, she showed some sense that time," Mrs. Durgin said.

"I don't know when Cynthy hasn't shown sense; except once, and then I guess it was my fault."

"What do you mean?"

"Why, this afternoon I asked her to marry me some time, and she said she would." He looked at his mother and laughed, and then he did not laugh. He had expected her to be pleased; he had thought to pave the way with this confession for the declaration of his intention not to study law, and to make his engagement to Cynthia serve him in reconciling his mother to the other fact. But a menacing suspense followed his words.

His mother broke out at last: "You asked Cynthy Whit'ell to marry you! And she said she would! Well, I can tell her she won't, then!"

"And I can tell you she will!" Jeff stormed back. He rose to his feet and stood over his mother.

She began steadily, as if he had not spoken. "If that designin'--"

"Look out, mother! Don't you say anything against Cynthia! She's been the best girl to you in the world, and you know it. She's been as true to you as Jackson has himself. She hasn't got a selfish bone in her body, and she's so honest she couldn't design anything against you or any one, unless she told you first. Now you take that back! Take it back! She's no more designing than--than you are!"

Mrs. Durgin was not moved by his storming, but she was inwardly convinced of error. "I do take it back. Cynthy is all right. She's all you say and more. It's your fault, then, and you've got yourself to thank, for whosever fault it is, she'll pack--"

"If Cynthy packs, I pack!" said Jeff. "Understand that. The moment she leaves this house I leave it, too, and I'll marry her anyway. Frank 'd leave and--and--Pshaw! What do you care for that? But I don't know what you mean! I always thought you liked Cynthy and respected her. I didn't believe I could tell you a thing that would please you better than that she had said she would have me. But if it don't, all right."

Mrs. Durgin held her peace in bewilderment; she stared at her son with dazed eyes, under the spectacles lifted above her forehead. She felt a change of mood in his unchanged tone of defiance, and she met him half- way. "I tell you I take back what I called Cynthia, and I told you so. But--but I didn't ever expect you to marry her."

"Why didn't you? There isn't one of the summer folks to compare with her. She's got more sense than all of 'em. I've known her ever since I can remember. Why didn't you expect it?"

"I didn't expect it."

"Oh, I know! You thought I'd see somebody in Boston--some swell girl. Well, they wouldn't any of them look at me, and if they would, they wouldn't look at you."

"I shouldn't care whether they looked at me or not."

"I tell you they wouldn't look at me. You don't understand about these things, and I do. They marry their own kind, and I'm not their kind, and I shouldn't be if I was Daniel Webster himself. Daniel Webster! Who remembers him, or cares for him, or ever did? You don't believe it? You think that because I've been at Harvard--Oh, can't I make you see it? I'm what they call a jay in Harvard, and Harvard don't count if you're a jay."

His mother looked at him without speaking. She would not confess the ambition he taxed her with, and perhaps she had nothing so definite in her mind. Perhaps it was only her pride in him, and her faith in a splendid future for him, that made her averse to his marriage in the lot she had always known, and on a little lower level in it that her own. She said at last:

"I don't know what you mean by being a jay. But I guess we better not say anything more about this to-night."

"All right," Jeff returned. There never were any formal good-nights between the Durgins, and he went away now without further words.

His mother remained sitting where he left her. Two or three times she drew her empty darning-needle through the heel of the stocking she was mending.

She was still sitting there when Jackson passed on his way to bed, after leaving the office in charge of the night porter. He faltered, as he went by, and as he stood on the threshold she told him what Jeff had told her.

"That's good," he said, lifelessly. "Good for Jeff," he added, thoughtfully, conscientiously.

"Why a'n't it good for her, too?" demanded Jeff's mother, in quick resentment of the slight put upon him.

"I didn't say it wa'n't," said Jackson. "But it's better for Jeff."

"She may be very glad to get him!"

"I presume she is. She's always cared for him, I guess. She'll know how to manage him."

"I don't know," said Mrs. Durgin, "as I like to have you talk so, about Jeff. He was here, just now, wantin' to give up his last year in Harvard, so 's to let you go off on a vacation. He thinks you've worked yourself down."

Jackson made no recognition of Jeff's professed self-sacrifice. "I don't want any vacation. I'm feeling first-rate now. I guess that stuff I had from the writin' medium has begun to take hold of me. I don't know when I've felt so well. I believe I'm going to get stronger than ever I was. Jeff say I needed a rest?"

Something like a smile of compassion for the delusion of his brother dawned upon the sick man's wasted face, which was blotched with large freckles, and stared with dim, large eyes from out a framework of grayish hair, and grayish beard cut to the edges of the cheeks and chin.