The Landlord At Lions Head by William D. Howells
Cynthia found Mrs. Durgin in the old farm-house kitchen at work getting breakfast when she came up to the hotel in the morning. She was early, but the elder woman had been earlier still, and her heavy face showed more of their common night-long trouble than the girl's.
She demanded, at sight of her, "What's the matter with you and Jeff, Cynthy?"
Cynthia was unrolling the cloud from her hair. She said, as she tied on her apron: "You must get him to tell you, Mrs. Durgin."
"Then there is something?"
"Has Jeff been using you wrong?"
Cynthia stooped to open the oven door, and to turn the pan of biscuit she found inside. She shut the door sharply to, and said, as she rose: "I don't want to tell anything about it, and I sha'n't, Mrs. Durgin. He can do it, if he wants to. Shall I make the coffee?"
"Yes; you seem to make it better than I do. Do you think I shouldn't believe you was fair to him?"
"I wasn't thinking of that. But it's his secret. If he wants to keep it, he can keep it, for all me."
"You ha'n't give each other up?"
"I don't know." Cynthia turned away with a trembling chin, and began to beat the coffee up with an egg she had dropped into the pot. She put the breakfast on the table when it was ready, but she would not sit down with the rest. She said she did not want any breakfast, and she drank a cup of coffee in the kitchen.
It fell to Jeff mainly to keep the talk going. He had been out at the barn with Jombateeste since daybreak, looking after the cattle, and the joy of the weather had got into his nerves and spirits. At first he had lain awake after he went to bed, but he had fallen asleep about midnight, and got a good night's rest. He looked fresh and strong and very handsome. He talked resolutely to every one at the table, but Jombateeste was always preoccupied with eating at his meals, and Frank Whitwell had on a Sunday silence, which was perhaps deepened by a feeling that there was something wrong between his sister and Jeff, and it would be rash to commit himself to an open friendliness until he understood the case. His father met Jeff's advances with philosophical blandness and evasion, and Mrs. Durgin was provisionally dry and severe both with the Whitwells and her son. After breakfast she went to the parlor, and Jeff set about a tour of the hotel, inside and out. He looked carefully to the details of its winter keeping. Then he came back and boldly joined his mother where she sat before her stove, whose subdued heat she found pleasant in the lingering cold of the early spring.
He tossed his hat on the table beside her, and sat down on the other side of the stove. "Well, I must say the place has been well looked after. I don't believe Jackson himself could have kept it in better shape. When was the last you heard from him?"
"I hope," said his mother, gravely, "you've been lookin' after your end at Boston, too."
"Well, not as well as you have here, mother," said Jeff, candidly. "Has Cynthy told you?"
"I guess she expected you to tell me, if there was anything."
"There's a lot; but I guess I needn't go over it all. I've been playing the devil."
"Yes, I have. I've been going with another girl down there, one the kind you wanted me to make up to, and I went so far I--well, I made love to her; and then I thought it over, and found out I didn't really care for her, and I had to tell her so, and then I came up to tell Cynthy. That's about the size of it. What do you think of it?"
"D' you tell Cynthy?"
"Yes, I told her."
"What 'd she say?"
"She said I'd better go back to the other girl." Jeff laughed hardily, but his mother remained impassive.
"I guess she's right; I guess you had."
"That seems to be the general opinion. That's what Mr. Westover advised. I seem to be the only one against it. I suppose you mean that I'm not fit for Cynthy. I don't deny it. All I say is I want her, and I don't want the other one. What are you going to do in a case like that?"
"The way I should look at it," said his mother, "is this: whatever you are, Cynthy made you. You was a lazy, disobedient, worthless boy, and it was her carin' for you from the first that put any spirit and any principle into you. It was her that helped you at school when you was little things together; and she helped you at the academy, and she's helped you at college. I'll bet she could take a degree, or whatever it is, at Harvard better than you could now; and if you ever do take a degree, you've got her to thank for it."
"That's so," said Jeff. "And what's the reason you didn't want me to marry her when I came in here last summer and told you I'd asked her to?"
"You know well enough what the reason was. It was part of the same thing as my wantin' you to be a lawyer; but I might knowed that if you didn't have Cynthy to go into court with you, and put the words into your mouth, you wouldn't make a speech that would"--Mrs. Durgin paused for a fitting figure--"save a flea from the gallows."
Jeff burst into a laugh. "Well, I guess that's so, mother. And now you want me to throw away the only chance I've got of learning how to run Lion's Head in the right way by breaking with Cynthy."
"Nobody wants you to run Lion's Head for a while yet," his mother returned, scornfully. "Jackson is going to run Lion's Head. He'll be home the end of June, and I'll run Lion's Head till he gets here. You talk," she went on, "as if it was in your hands to break with Cynthy, or throw away the chance with her. The way I look at it, she's broke with you, and you ha'n't got any chance with her. Oh, Jeff," she suddenly appealed to him, "tell me all about it! What have you been up to? If I understood it once, I know I can make her see it in the right light."
"The better you understand it, mother, the less you'll like it; and I guess Cynthy sees it in the right light already. What did she say?"
"Nothing. She said she'd leave it to you."
"Well, that's like Cynthy. I'll tell you, then," said Jeff; and he told his mother his whole affair with Bessie Lynde. He had to be very elemental, and he was aware, as he had never been before, of the difference between Bessie's world and his mother's world, in trying to make Bessie's world conceivable to her.
He was patient in going over every obscure point, and illustrating from the characters and condition of different summer folks the facts of Bessie's entourage. It is doubtful, however, if he succeeded in conveying to his mother a clear and just notion of the purely chic nature of the girl. In the end she seemed to conceive of her simply as a hussy, and so pronounced her, without limit or qualification, in spite of Jeff's laughing attempt to palliate her behavior, and to inculpate himself. She said she did not see what he had done that was so much out of the way. That thing had led him on from the beginning; she had merely got her come-uppings, when all was said. Mrs. Durgin believed Cynthia would look at it as she did, if she could have it put before her rightly. Jeff shook his head with persistent misgiving. His notion was that Cynthia saw the affair only too clearly, and that there was no new light to be thrown on it from her point of view. Mrs. Durgin would not allow this; she was sure that she could bring Cynthia round; and she asked Jeff whether it was his getting that fellow drunk that she seemed to blame him for the most. He answered that he thought that was pretty bad, but he did not believe that was the worst thing in Cynthia's eyes. He did not forbid his mother's trying to do what she could with her, and he went away for a walk, and left the house to the two women. Jombateeste was in the barn, which he preferred to the house, and Frank Whitwell had gone to church over at the Huddle. As Jeff passed Whitwell's cottage in setting out on his stroll he saw the philosopher through the window, seated with his legs on the table, his hat pushed back, and his spectacles fallen to the point of his nose, reading, and moving his lips as he read.
The forenoon sun was soft, but the air was cool.
There was still plenty of snow on the upper slopes of the hills, and there was a drift here and there in a corner of pasture wall in the valley; but the springtime green was beginning to hover over the wet places in the fields; the catkins silvered the golden tracery of the willow branches by the brook; there was a buzz of bees about them, and about the maples, blackened by the earlier flow of sap through the holes in the bark made by the woodpeckers' bills. Now and then the tremolo of a bluebird shook in the tender light and the keen air. At one point in the road where the sun fell upon some young pines in a sheltered spot a balsamic odor exhaled from them.
These gentle sights and sounds and odors blended in the influence which Jeff's spirit felt more and more. He realized that he was a blot on the loveliness of the morning. He had a longing to make atonement and to win forgiveness. His heart was humbled toward Cynthia, and he went wondering how his mother would make it out with her, and how, if she won him any advantage, he should avail himself of it and regain the girl's trust; he had no doubt of her love. He perceived that there was nothing for him hereafter but the most perfect constancy of thought and deed, and he desired nothing better.
At a turn of his road where it branched toward the Huddle a group of young girls stood joking and laughing; before Jeff came up with them they separated, and all but one continued on the way beyond the turning. She came toward Jeff, who gayly recognized her as she drew near.
She blushed and bridled at his bow and at his beauty and splendor, and in her embarrassment pertly said that she did not suppose he would have remembered her. She was very young, but at fifteen a country girl is not so young as her town sister at eighteen in the ways of the other sex.
Jeff answered that he should have known her anywhere, in spite of her looking so much older than she did in the summer when she had come with berries to the hotel. He said she must be feeling herself quite a young lady now, in her long dresses, and he praised the dress which she had on. He said it became her style; and he found such relief from his heavy thoughts in these harmless pleasantries that he kept on with them. He had involuntarily turned with her to walk back to her house on the way he had come, and he asked her if he might not carry her catkins for her. She had a sheaf of them in the hollow of her slender arm, which seemed to him very pretty, and after a little struggle she yielded them to him. The struggle gave him still greater relief from his self-reproach, and at her gate he begged her to let him keep one switch of the pussywillows, and he stood a moment wondering whether he might not ask her for something else. She chose one from the bundle, and drew it lightly across his face before she put it in his hand. "You may have this for Cynthy," she said, and she ran laughingly up the pathway to her door.