The Landlord At Lions Head by William D. Howells
The day after Thanksgiving, when Westover was trying to feel well after the turkey and cranberry and cider which a lady had given him at a consciously old-fashioned Thanksgiving dinner, but not making it out sufficiently to be able to work, he was astonished to receive a visit from Whitwell.
"Well, sir," said the philosopher, without giving himself pause for the exchange of reflections upon his presence in Boston, which might have been agreeable to him on a less momentous occasion. "It's all up with Lion's Head."
"What do you mean?" demanded Westover, with his mind upon the mountain, which he electrically figured in an incredible destruction.
"She's burnt. Burnt down the day before yist'd'y aft'noon. A'n't hardly a stick of her left. Ketehed Lord knows how, from the kitchen chimney, and a high northwest wind blowin', that ca'd the sparks to the barn, and set fire to that, too. Hasses gone; couldn't get round to 'em; only three of us there, and mixed up so about the house till it was so late the critters wouldn't come out. Folks from over Huddle way see the blaze, and helped ail they could; but it wa'n't no use. I guess all we saved, about, was the flag-pole."
"But you're all right yourselves? Cynthia"
"Well, there was our misfortune," said Whitwell, while Westover's heart stopped in a mere wantonness of apprehension. "If she'd be'n there, it might ha' be'n diff'ent. We might ha' had more sense; or she would, anyway. But she was over to Lovewell stockin' up for Thanksgivin', and I had to make out the best I could, with Frank and Jombateeste. Why, that Canuck didn't seem to have no more head on him than a hen. I was disgusted; but Cynthy wouldn't let me say anything to him, and I d' know as 't 'ould done any good, myself. We've talked it all over in every light, ever since; guess we've set up most the time talkin', and nothin' would do her but I should come down and see you before I took a single step about it."
"How--step about what?" asked Westover, with a remote sense of hardship at being brought in, tempered by the fact that it was Cynthia who had brought him in.
"Why, that devil," said Whitwell, and Westover knew that he meant Jeff, "went and piled on all the insurance he could pile on, before he left; and I don't know what to do about it."
"I should think the best thing was to collect the insurance," Westover suggested, distractedly.
"It a'n't so easy as what that comes to," said Whitwell. "I couldn't collect the insurance; and here's the point, anyway. When a hotel's made a bad season, and she's fully insured, she's pootty certain to burn up some time in the winter. Everybody knows that comical devil wanted lion's Head to burn up so 't he could build new, and I presume there a'n't a man, woman, or child anywhere round but what believes I set her on fire. Hired to do it. Now, see? Jeff off in Europe; daytime; no lives lost; prop'ty total loss. 's a clear case. Heigh? I tell you, I'm afraid I've got trouble ahead."
Westover tried to protest, to say something in derision or defiance; but he was shaken himself, and he ended by getting his hat and coat; Whitwell had kept his own on, in the excitement. "We'll go out and see a lawyer. A friend of mine; it won't cost you anything." He added this assurance at a certain look of reluctance that came into Whitwell's face, and that left it as soon as he had spoken. Whitwell glanced round the studio even cheerily. "Who'd ha' thought," he said, fastening upon the study which Westover had made of Lion's head the winter before, "that the old place would 'a' gone so soon?" He did not mean the mountain which he was looking at, but the hotel that was present to his mind's eye; and Westover perceived as he had not before that to Whitwell the hotel and not the mountain was Lion's Head.
He remembered to ask now where Whitwell had left his family, and Whitwell said that Frank and Cynthia were at home in his own house with Jombateeste; but he presumed he could not get back to them now before the next day. He refused to be interested in any of the aspects of Boston which Westover casually pointed out, but when they had seen the lawyer he came forth a new man, vividly interested in everything. The lawyer had been able to tell them that though the insurance companies would look sharply into the cause of the fire, there was no probability, hardly a possibility, that they would inculpate him, and he need give himself no anxiety about the affair.
"There's one thing, though," Whitwell said to Westover when they got out upon the street. "Hadn't I ought to let Jeff know?"
"Yes, at once. You'd better cable him. Have you got his address?"
Whitwell had it, and he tasted all the dramatic quality of sending word to Jeff, which he would receive in Florence an hour after it left Boston. "I did hope I could ha' cabled once to Jackson while he was gone," he said, regretfully, "but, unless we can fix up a wire with the other world, I guess I shan't ever do it now. I suppose Jackson's still hangin' round Mars, some'res."
He had a sectarian pride in the beauty of the Spiritual Temple which Westover walked him by on his way to see Trinity Church and the Fine Arts Museum, and he sorrowed that he could not attend a service' there. But he was consoled by the lunch which he had with Westover at a restaurant where it was served in courses. "I presume this is what Jeff's goin' to give 'em at Lion's Head when he gits it goin' again."
"How is it he's in Florence?" it occurred to Westover to ask. "I thought he was going to Nice for the winter."
"I don't know. That's the address he give in his last letter," said Whitwell. "I'll be glad when I've done with him for good and all. He's all kinds of a devil."
It was in Westover's mind to say that he wished the Whitwells had never had anything to do with Durgin after his mother's death. He had felt it a want of delicacy in them that they had been willing to stay on in his employ, and his ideal of Cynthia had suffered a kind of wound from what must have been her decision in the matter. He would have expected something altogether different from her pride, her self-respect. But he now merely said: "Yes, I shall be glad, too. I'm afraid he's a bad fellow."
His words seemed to appeal to Whitwell's impartiality. "Well, I d' know as I should say bad, exactly. He's a mixture."
"He's a bad mixture," said Westover.
"Well, I guess you're partly right there," Whitwell admitted, with a laugh. After a dreamy moment he asked: "Ever hear anything more about that girl here in Boston?"
Westover knew that he meant Bessie Lynde. "She's abroad somewhere, with her aunt."
Whitwell had not taken any wine; apparently he was afraid of forming instantly the habit of drink if he touched it; but he tolerated Westover's pint of Zinfandel, and he seemed to warm sympathetically to a greater confidence as the painter made away with it. "There's one thing I never told Cynthy yet; well, Jombateeste didn't tell me himself till after Jeff was gone; and then, thinks I, what's the use? But I guess you had better know."
He leaned forward across the table, and gave Jombateeste's story of the encounter between Jeff and Alan Lynde in the clearing. "Now what do you suppose was the reason Jeff let up on the feller? Of course, he meant to choke the life out of him, and his just ketchin' sight of Jombateeste--do you believe that was enough to stop him, when he'd started in for a thing like that? Or what was it done it?"
Westover listened with less thought of the fact itself than of another fact that it threw light upon. It was clear to him now that the Class- Day scrapping which had left its marks upon Jeff's face was with Lynde, and that when Jeff got him in his power he was in such a fury for revenge that no mere motive of prudence could have arrested him. In both events, it must have been Bessie Lynde that was the moving cause; but what was it that stayed Jeff in his vengeance?
"Let him up, and let him walk away, you say?" he demanded of Whitwell.
Whitwell nodded. "That's what Jombateeste said. Said Jeff said if he let the feller look back he'd shoot him. But he didn't haf to."
"I can't make it out," Westover sighed.
"It's been too much for me," Whitwell said. "I told Jombateeste he'd better keep it to himself, and I guess he done so. S'pose Jeff still had a sneakin' fondness for the girl?"
"I don't know; perhaps," Westover asserted.
Whitwell threw his head back in a sudden laugh that showed all the work of his dentist. "Well, wouldn't it be a joke if he was there in Florence after her? Be just like Jeff."
"It would be like Jeff; I don't know whether it would be a joke or not. I hope he won't find it a joke, if it's so," said Westover, gloomily. A fantastic apprehension seized him, which made him wish for the moment that it might be so, and which then passed, leaving him simply sorry for any chance that might bring Bessie Lynde into the fellow's way again.
For the evening Whitwell's preference would have been a lecture of some sort, but there was none advertised, and he consented to go with Westover to the theatre. He came back to the painter at dinner-time, after a wary exploration of the city, which had resulted not only in a personal acquaintance with its monuments, but an immunity from its dangers and temptations which he prided himself hardly less upon. He had seen Faneuil Hall, the old State House, Bunker Hill, the Public Library, and the Old South Church, and he had not been sandbagged or buncoed or led astray from the paths of propriety. In the comfortable sense of escape, he was disposed, to moralize upon the civilization of great cities, which he now witnessed at first hand for the first time; and throughout the evening, between the acts of the "Old Homestead," which he found a play of some merit, but of not so much novelty in its characters as he had somehow led himself to expect, he recurred to the difficulties and dangers that must beset a young man in coming to a place like Boston. Westover found him less amusing than he had on his own ground at Lion's Head, and tasted a quality of commonplace in his deliverances which made him question whether he had not, perhaps, always owed more to this environment than he had suspected. But they parted upon terms of mutual respect and in the common hope of meeting again. Whitwell promised to let Westover know what he heard of Jeff, but, when the painter had walked the philosopher home to his hotel, he found a message awaiting him at his studio from Jeff direct:
Whitwell's despatch received. Wait letter. "DURGIN."
Westover raged at the intelligent thrift of this telegram, and at the implication that he not only knew all about the business of Whitwell's despatch, but that he was in communication with him, and would be sufficiently interested to convey Jeff's message to him. Of course, Durgin had at once divined that Whitwell must have come to him for advice, and that he would hear from him, whether he was still in Boston or not. By cabling to Westover, Jeff saved the cost of an elaborate address to Whitwell at Lion's Head, and had brought the painter in for further consultation and assistance in his affairs. What vexed him still more was his own consciousness that he could not defeat this impudent expectation. He had, indeed, some difficulty with himself to keep from going to Whitwell's hotel with the despatch at once, and he slept badly, in his fear that he might not get it to him in the morning before he left town.
The sum of Jeff's letter when it came, and it came to Westover and not to Whitwell, was to request the painter to see a lawyer in his behalf, and put his insurance policies in his hands, with full authority to guard his interests in the matter. He told Westover where his policies would be found, and enclosed the key of his box in the Safety Vaults, with a due demand for Westover's admission to it. He registered his letter, and he jocosely promised Westover to do as much for him some day, in pleading that there was really no one else he could turn to. He put the whole business upon him, and Westover discharged himself of it as briefly as he could by delivering the papers to the lawyer he had already consulted for Whitwell.
"Is this another charity patient?" asked his friend, with a grin.
"No," replied Westover. "You can charge this fellow along the whole line."
Before he parted with the lawyer he had his misgivings, and he said: "I shouldn't want the blackguard to think I had got a friend a fat job out of him."
The lawyer laughed intelligently. "I shall only make the usual charge. Then he is a blackguard."
"There ought to be a more blistering word."
"One that would imply that he was capable of setting fire to his property?"
"I don't say that. But I'm glad he was away when it took fire," said Westover.
"You give him the benefit of the doubt."
"Yes, of every kind of doubt."