The Landlord At Lions Head by William D. Howells
Jackson kept his promise to write to Westover, but he was better than his word to his mother, and wrote to her every week that winter.
"I seem just to live from letter to letter. It's ridic'lous," she said to Cynthia once when the girl brought the mail in from the barn, where the men folks kept it till they had put away their horses after driving over from Lovewell with it. The trains on the branch road were taken off in the winter, and the post-office at the hotel was discontinued. The men had to go to the town by cutter, over a highway that the winds sifted half full of snow after it had been broken out by the ox-teams in the morning. But Mrs. Durgin had studied the steamer days and calculated the time it would take letters to come from New York to Lovewell; and, unless a blizzard was raging, some one had to go for the mail when the day came. It was usually Jombateeste, who reverted in winter to the type of habitant from which he had sprung. He wore a blue woollen cap, like a large sock, pulled over his ears and close to his eyes, and below it his clean-shaven brown face showed. He had blue woollen mittens, and boots of russet leather, without heels, came to his knees; he got a pair every time he went home on St. John's day. His lean little body was swathed in several short jackets, and he brought the letters buttoned into one of the innermost pockets. He produced the letter from Jackson promptly enough when Cynthia came out to the barn for it, and then he made a show of getting his horse out of the cutter shafts, and shouting international reproaches at it, till she was forced to ask, "Haven't you got something for me, Jombateeste?"
"You expec' some letter?" he said, unbuckling a strap and shouting louder.
"You know whether I do. Give it to me."
"I don' know. I think I drop something on the road. I saw something white; maybe snow; good deal of snow."
"Don't plague! Give it here!"
"Wait I finish unhitch. I can't find any letter till I get some time to look."
"Oh, now, Jombateeste! Give me my letter!"
"W'at you want letter for? Always same thing. Well! 'Old the 'oss; I goin' to feel."
Jombateeste felt in one pocket after another, while Cynthia clung to the colt's bridle, and he was uncertain till the last whether he had any letter for her. When it appeared she made a flying snatch at it and ran; and the comedy was over, to be repeated in some form the next week.
The girl somehow always possessed herself of what was in her letters before she reached the room where Mrs. Durgin was waiting for hers. She had to read that aloud to Jackson's mother, and in the evening she had to read it again to Mrs. Durgin and Whitwell and Jombateeste and Frank, after they had done their chores, and they had gathered in the old farm- house parlor, around the air-tight sheet-iron stove, in a heat of eighty degrees. Whitwell listened, with planchette ready on the table before him, and he consulted it for telepathic impressions of Jackson's actual mental state when the reading was over.
He got very little out of the perverse instrument. "I can't seem to work her. If Jackson was here--"
"We shouldn't need to ask planchette about him," Cynthia once suggested, with the spare sense of humor that sometimes revealed itself in her.
"Well, I guess that's something so," her father candidly admitted. But the next time he consulted the helpless planchette as hopefully as before. "You can't tell, you can't tell," he urged.
"The trouble seems to be that planchette can't tell," said Mrs. Durgin, and they all laughed. They were not people who laughed a great deal, and they were each intent upon some point in the future that kept them from pleasure in the present. The little Canuck was the only one who suffered himself a contemporaneous consolation. His early faith had so far lapsed from him that he could hospitably entertain the wild psychical conjectures of Whitwell without an accusing sense of heresy, and he found the winter of northern New England so mild after that of Lower Canada that he experienced a high degree of animal comfort in it, and looked forward to nothing better. To be well fed, well housed, and well heated; to smoke successive pipes while the others talked, and to catch through his smoke-wreaths vague glimpses of their meanings, was enough. He felt that in being promoted to the care of the stables in Jackson's absence he occupied a dignified and responsible position, with a confidential relation to the exile which justified him in sending special messages to him, and attaching peculiar value to Jackson's remembrances.
The exile's letters said very little about his health, which in the sense of no news his mother held to be good news, but they were full concerning the monuments and the ethnological interest of life in Egypt.
They were largely rescripts of each day's observations and experiences, close and full, as his mother liked them in regard to fact, and generously philosophized on the side of politics and religion for Whitwell. The Eastern question became in the snow-choked hills of New England the engrossing concern of this speculative mind, and he was apt to spring it upon Mrs. Durgin and Cynthia at mealtimes and other defenceless moments. He tried to debate it with Jombateeste, who conceived of it as a form of spiritualistic inquiry, and answered from the hay-loft, where he was throwing down fodder for the cattle to Whitwell, volubly receiving it on the barn floor below, that he believed, him, everybody got a hastral body, English same as Mormons.
"Guess you mean Moslems," said Whitwell, and Jombateeste asked the difference, defiantly.
The letters which came to Cynthia could not be made as much a general interest, and, in fact, no one else cared so much for them as for Jackson's letters, not even Jeff's mother. After Cynthia got one of them, she would ask, perfunctorily, what Jeff said, but when she was told there was no news she did not press her question.
"If Jackson don't get back in time next summer," Mrs. Durgin said, in one of the talks she had with the girl, "I guess I shall have to let Jeff and you run the house alone."
"I guess we shall want a little help from you," said Cynthia, demurely. She did not refuse the implication of Mrs. Durgin's words, but she would not assume that there was more in them than they expressed.
When Jeff came home for the three days' vacation at Thanksgiving, he wished again to relinquish his last year at Harvard, and Cynthia had to summon all her forces to keep him to his promise of staying. He brought home the books with which he was working off his conditions, with a half- hearted intention of study, and she took hold with him, and together they fought forward over the ground he had to gain. His mother was almost willing at last that he should give up his last year in college.
"What is the use?" she asked. "He's give up the law, and he might as well commence here first as last, if he's goin' to."
The girl had no reason to urge against this; she could only urge her feeling that he ought to go back and take his degree with the rest of his class.
"If you're going to keep Lion's Head the way you pretend you are," she said to him, as she could not say to his mother, "you want to keep all your Harvard friends, don't you, and have them remember you? Go back, Jeff, and don't you come here again till after you've got your degree. Never mind the Christmas vacation, nor the Easter. Stay in Cambridge and work off your conditions. You can do it, if you try. Oh, don't you suppose I should like to have you here?" she reproached him.
He went back, with a kind of grudge in his heart, which he confessed in his first letter home to her, when he told her that she was right and he was wrong. He was sure now, with the impulse which their work on them in common had given him, that he should get his conditions off, and he wanted her and his mother to begin preparing their minds to come to his Class Day. He planned how they could both be away from the hotel for that day. The house was to be opened on the 20th of June, but it was not likely that there would be so many people at once that they could not give the 21st to Class Day; Frank and his father could run Lion's Head somehow, or, if they could not, then the opening could be postponed till the 24th. At all events, they must not fail to come. Cynthia showed the whole letter to his mother, who refused to think of such a thing, and then asked, as if the fact had not been fully set before her: "When is it to be?"
"The 21st of June."
"Well, he's early enough with his invitation," she grumbled.
"Yes, he is," said Cynthia; and she laughed for shame and pleasure as she confessed, "I was thinking he was rather late."
She hung her head and turned her face away. But Mrs. Durgin understood. "You be'n expectin' it all along, then."
"I guess so."
"I presume," said the elder woman, "that he's talked to you about it. He never tells me much. I don't see why you should want to go. What's it like?"
"Oh, I don't know. But it's the day the graduating class have to themselves, and all their friends come."
"Well, I don't know why anybody should want to go," said Mrs. Durgin. "I sha'n't. Tell him he won't want to own me when he sees me. What am I goin' to wear, I should like to know? What you goin' to wear, Cynthy?"