The Landlord At Lions Head by William D. Howells
Westover got home from the Enderby dance at last with the forecast of a violent cold in his system, which verified itself the next morning. He had been housed a week, when Jeff Durgin came to see him. "Why didn't you let me know you were sick?" he demanded, "I'd have come and looked after you."
"Thank you," said Westover, with as much stiffness as he could command in his physical limpness. "I shouldn't have allowed you to look after me; and I want you to understand, now, that there can't be any sort of friendliness between us till you've accounted for your behavior with Lynde the other night."
"You mean at the party?" Jeff asked, tranquilly.
"Yes!" cried Westover. "If I had not been shut up ever since, I should have gone to see you and had it out with you. I've only let you in, now, to give you the chance to explain; and I refuse to hear a word from you till you do." Westover did not think that this was very forcible, and he was not much surprised that it made Jeff smile.
"Why, I don't know what there is to explain. I suppose you think I got him drunk; I know what you thought that night. But he was pretty well loaded when he struck my champagne. It wasn't a question of what he was going to do any longer, but how he was going to do it. I kept an eye on him, and at the right time I helped the caterer's man to get him up into that room where he wouldn't make any trouble. I expected to go back and look after him, but I forgot him."
"I don't suppose, really, that you're aware what a devil's argument that is," said Westover. "You got Lynde drunk, and then you went back to his sister, and allowed her to treat you as if you were a gentleman, and didn't deserve to be thrown out of the house." This at last was something like what Westover had imagined he would say to Jeff, and he looked to see it have the imagined effect upon him.
"Do you suppose," asked Jeff, with cheerful cynicism, "that it was the first time she was civil to a man her brother got drunk with?"
"No! But all the more you ought to have considered her helplessness. It ought to have made her the more sacred"--Jeff gave an exasperating shrug--"to you, and you ought to have kept away from her for decency's sake."
"I was engaged to dance with her."
"I can't allow you to be trivial with me, Durgin," said Westover. "You've acted like a blackguard, and worse, if there is anything worse."
Jeff stood at a corner of the fire, leaning one elbow on the mantel, and he now looked thoughtfully down on Westover, who had sunk weakly into a chair before the hearth. "I don't deny it from your point of view, Mr. Westover," he said, without the least resentment in his tone. "You believe that everything is done from a purpose, or that a thing is intended because it's done. But I see that most things in this world are not thought about, and not intended. They happen, just as much as the other things that we call accidents."
"Yes," said Westover, "but the wrong things don't happen from people who are in the habit of meaning the right ones."
"I believe they do, fully half the time," Jeff returned; "and, as far as the grand result is concerned, you might as well think them and intend them as not. I don't mean that you ought to do it; that's another thing, and if I had tried to get Lynde drunk, and then gone to dance with his sister, I should have been what you say I am. But I saw him getting worse without meaning to make him so; and I went back to her because--I wanted to."
"And you think, I suppose," said Westover, "that she wouldn't have cared any more than you cared if she had known what you did."
"I can't say anything about that."
The painter continued, bitterly: "You used to come in here, the first year, with notions of society women that would have disgraced a Goth, or a gorilla. Did you form your estimate of Miss Lynde from those premises?"
"I'm not a boy now," Jeff answered, "and I haven't stayed all the kinds of a fool I was."
"Then you don't think Miss Lynde would speak to you, or look at you, after she knew what you had done?"
"I should like to tell her and see," said Jeff, with a hardy laugh. "But I guess I sha'n't have the chance. I've never been a favorite in society, and I don't expect to meet her again."
"Perhaps you'd like to have me tell her?"
"Why, yes, I believe I should, if you could tell me what she thought--not what she said about it."
"You are a brute," answered Westover, with a puzzled air. What puzzled him most and pleased him least was the fellow's patience under his severity, which he seemed either not to feel or not to mind. It was of a piece with the behavior of the rascally boy whom he had cuffed for frightening Cynthia and her little brother long ago, and he wondered what final malevolence it portended.
Jeff said, as if their controversy were at an end and they might now turn to more personal things: "You look pretty slim, Mr. Westover. A'n't there something I can do for you-get you? I've come in with a message from mother. She says if you ever want to get that winter view of Lion's Head, now's your time. She wants you to come up there; she and Cynthia both do. They can make you as comfortable as you please, and they'd like to have a visit from you. Can't you go?"
Westover shook his head ruefully. "It's good of them, and I want you to thank them for me. But I don't know when I'm going to get out again."
"Oh, you'll soon get out," said Jeff. "I'm going to look after you a little," and this time Westover was too weak to protest. He did not forbid Jeff's taking off his overcoat; he suffered him to light his spirit-lamp and make a punch of the whiskey which he owned the doctor was giving him; and when Jeff handed him the steaming glass, and asked him, "How's that?" he answered, with a pleasure in it which he knew to be deplorable, "It's fine."
Jeff stayed the whole evening with him, and made him more comfortable than he had been since his cold began. Westover now talked seriously and frankly with him, but no longer so harshly, and in his relenting he felt a return of his old illogical liking for him. He fancied in Durgin's kindness to himself an indirect regret, and a desire to atone for what he had done, and he said: "The effect is in you--the worst effect. I don't think either of the young Lyndes very exemplary people. But you'd be doing yourself a greater wrong than you've done then if you didn't recognize that you had been guilty toward them."
Jeff seemed struck by this notion. "What do you want me to do? What can I do? Chase myself out of society? Something like that? I'm willing. It's too easy, though. As I said, I've never been wanted much, there, and I shouldn't be missed."
"Well, then, how would you like to leave it to the people at Lion's Head to say what you should do?" Westover suggested.
I shouldn't like it," said Jeff, promptly. "They'd judge it as you do --as if they'd done it themselves. That's the reason women are not fit to judge." His gay face darkened. "But tell 'em if you want to."
"Bah!" cried the painter. "Why should I want to I'm not a woman in everything."
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Westover. I didn't mean that. I only meant that you're an idealist. I look at this thing as if some one else had done it; I believe that's the practical way; and I shouldn't go in for punishing any one else for such a thing very severely." He made another punch--for himself this time, he said; but Westover joined him in a glass of it.
"It won't do to take that view of your faults, Jeff," he said, gravely.
"What's the reason?" Jeff demanded; and now either the punch had begun to work in Westover's brain, or some other influence of like force and quality. He perceived that in this earth-bound temperament was the potentiality of all the success it aimed at. The acceptance of the moral fact as it was, without the unconscious effort to better it, or to hold himself strictly to account for it, was the secret of the power in the man which would bring about the material results he desired; and this simplicity of the motive involved had its charm.
Westover was aware of liking Durgin at that moment much more than he ought, and of liking him helplessly. In the light of his good-natured selfishness, the injury to the Lyndes showed much less a sacrilege than it had seemed; Westover began to see it with Jeff's eyes, and to see it with reference to what might be low and mean in them, instead of what might be fine and high.
He was sensible of the growth Jeff had made intellectually. He had not been at Harvard nearly four years for nothing. He had phrases and could handle them. In whatever obscure or perverse fashion, he had profited by his opportunities. The fellow who could accuse him of being an idealist, and could in some sort prove it, was no longer a naughty boy to be tutored and punished. The revolt latent in him would be violent in proportion to the pressure put upon him, and Westover began to be without the wish to press his fault home to him so strongly. In the optimism generated by the punch, he felt that he might leave the case to Jeff himself; or else in the comfort we all experience in sinking to a lower level, he was unwilling to make the effort to keep his own moral elevation. But he did make an effort to save himself by saying: "You can't get what you've done before yourself as you can the action of some one else. It's part of you, and you have to judge the motive as well as the effect."
"Well, that's what I'm doing," said Jeff; "but it seems to me that you're trying to have me judge of the effect from a motive I didn't have. As far as I can make out, I hadn't any motive at all."
He laughed, and all that Westover could say was, "Then you're still responsible for the result." But this no longer appeared so true to him.