The Landlord At Lions Head by William D. Howells
The painter could not make out at first whether the girl herself was pleased with the picture or not, and in his uncertainty he could not give it her at once, as he had hoped and meant to do. It was by a kind of accident he found afterward that she had always been passionately proud of his having painted her. This was when he returned from the last sojourn he had made in Paris, whither he went soon after the Whitwells settled in North Cambridge. He left the picture behind him to be framed and then sent to her with a letter he had written, begging her to give it houseroom while he was gone. He got a short, stiff note in reply after he reached Paris, and he had not tried to continue the correspondence. But as soon as he returned he went out to see the Whitwells in North Cambridge. They were still in their little house there; the young widower had married again; but neither he nor his new wife had cared to take up their joint life in his first home, and he had found Whitwell such a good tenant that he had not tried to put up the rent on him. Frank was at home, now, with an employment that gave him part of his time for his theological studies; Cynthia had been teaching school ever since the fall after Westover went away, and they were all, as Whitwell said, in clover. He was the only member of the family at home when Westover called on the afternoon of a warm summer day, and he entertained him with a full account of a visit he had paid Lion's Head earlier in the season.
"Yes, sir," he said, as if he had already stated the fact, "I've sold my old place there to that devil." He said devil without the least rancor; with even a smile of good-will, and he enjoyed the astonishment Westover expressed in his demand:
"Sold Durgin your house?"
"Yes; I see we never wanted to go back there to live, any of us, and I went up to pass the papers and close the thing out. Well, I did have an offer for it from a feller that wanted to open a boa'din'-house there and get the advantage of Jeff's improvements, and I couldn't seem to make up my mind till I'd looked the ground over. Fust off, you know, I thought I'd sell to the other feller, because I could see in a minute what a thorn it 'd be in Jeff's flesh. But, dumn it all! When I met the comical devil I couldn't seem to want to pester him. Why, here, thinks I, if we've made an escape from him--and I guess we have, about the biggest escape--what have I got ag'in' him, anyway? I'd ought to feel good to him; and I guess that's the way I did feel, come to boil it down. He's got a way with him, you know, when you're with him, that makes you like him. He may have a knife in your ribs the whole while, but so long's he don't turn it, you don't seem to know it, and you can't help likin' him. Why, I hadn't been with Jeff five minutes before I made up my mind to sell to him. I told him about the other offer--felt bound to do it--and he was all on fire. 'I want that place, Mr. Whitwell,' s'd he. 'Name your price.' Well, I wa'n't goin' to take an advantage of the feller, and I guess he see it. 'You've offered me three thousand,' s'd I, 'n' I don't want to be no ways mean about it. Five thousand buys the place.' 'It's mine,' s'd he; just like that. I guess he see he had a gentleman to deal with, and we didn't say a word more. Don't you think I done right to sell to him? I couldn't 'a' got more'n thirty-five hundred out the other feller, to save me, and before Jeff begun his improvements I couldn't 'a' realized a thousand dollars on the prop'ty."
"I think you did right to sell to him," said Westover, saddened somewhat by the proof Whitwell alleged of his magnanimity.
"Well, Sir, I'm glad you do. I don't believe in crowdin' a man because you got him in a corner, an' I don't believe in bearin' malice. Never did. All I wanted was what the place was wo'th--to him. 'Twa'n't wo'th nothin' to me! He's got the house and the ten acres around it, and he's got the house on Lion's Head, includin' the Clearin', that the poottiest picnic-ground in the mountains. Think of goin' up there this summer?"
"No," said Westover, briefly.
"Well, I some wish yon did. I sh'd like to know how Jeff's improvements struck you. Of course, I can't judge of 'em so well, but I guess he's made a pootty sightly thing of it. He told me he'd had one of the leadin' Boston architects to plan the thing out for him, and I tell you he's got something nice. 'Tain't so big as old Lion's Head, and Jeff wants to cater to a different style of custom, anyway. The buildin's longer'n what she is deep, and she spreads in front so's to give as many rooms a view of the mountain as she can. Know what 'runnaysonce' is? Well, that's the style Jeff said it was; it's all pillars and pilasters; and you ride up to the office through a double row of colyums, under a kind of a portico. It's all painted like them old Colonial houses down on Brattle Street, buff and white. Well, it made me think of one of them old pagan temples. He's got her shoved along to the south'ard, and he's widened out a piece of level for her to stand on, so 't that piece o' wood up the hill there is just behind her, and I tell you she looks nice, backin' up ag'inst the trees. I tell you, Jeff's got a head on him! I wish you could see that dinin'-room o' his: all white colyums, and frontin' on the view. Why, that devil's got a regular little theatyre back o' the dinin'-room for the young folks to act ammyture plays in, and the shows that come along, and he's got a dance-hall besides; the parlors ain't much--folks like to set in the office; and a good many of the rooms are done off into soots, and got their own parlors. I tell you, it's swell, as they say. You can order what you please for breakfast, but for lunch and dinner you got to take what Jeff gives you; but he treats you well. He's a Durgin, when it comes to that. Served in cou'ses, and dinner at seven o'clock. I don't know where he got his money for 't all, but I guess he put in his insurance fust, and then he put a mortgage on the buildin'; be as much as owned it; said he'd had a splendid season last year, and if he done as well for a copule of seasons more he'd have the whole prop'ty free o' debt."
Westover could see that the prosperity of the unjust man had corrupted the imagination and confounded the conscience of this simple witness, and he asked, in the hope of giving his praises pause: "What has he done about the old family burying-ground in the orchard?"
"Well, there!" said Whitwell. "That got me more than any other one thing: I naturally expected that Jeff 'd had 'em moved, for you know and I know, Mr. Westover, that a place like that couldn't be very pop'la' with summer folks; they don't want to have anything to kind of make 'em serious, as you may say. But that devil got his architect to treat the place, as he calls it, and he put a high stone wall around it, and planted it to bushes and evergreens so 't looks like a piece of old garden, down there in the corner of the orchard, and if you didn't hunt for it you wouldn't know it was there. Jeff said 't when folks did happen to find it out, he believed they liked it; they think it's picturesque and ancient. Why, some on 'em wanted him to put up a little chapel alongside and have services there; and Jeff said he didn't know but he'd do it yet. He's got dark-colored stones up for Mis' Durgin and Jackson, so 't they look as old as any of 'em. I tell you, he knows how to do things."
"It seems so," said Westover, with a bitterness apparently lost upon the optimistic philosopher.
"Yes, sir. I guess it's all worked out for the best. So long's he didn't marry Cynthy, I don't care who he married, and--I guess he's made out fust-rate, and he treats his wife well, and his mother-in-law, too. You wouldn't hardly know they was in the house, they're so kind of quiet; and if a guest wants to see Jeff, he's got to send and ask for him; clerk does everything, but I guess Jeff keeps an eye out and knows what's goin' on. He's got an elegant soot of appartments, and he lives as private as if he was in his own house, him and his wife. But when there's anything goin' on that needs a head, they're both right on deck.
"He don't let his wife worry about things a great deal; he's got a fust- rate of a housekeeper, but I guess old Mis' Vostrand keeps the housekeeper, as you may say. I hear some of the boa'ders talkin' up there, and one of 'em said 't the great thing about Lion's Head was 't you could feel everywheres in it that it was a lady's house. I guess Jeff has a pootty good time, and a time 't suits him. He shows up on the coachin' parties, and he's got himself a reg'lar English coachman's rig, with boots outside his trouse's, and a long coat and a fuzzy plug-hat: I tell you, he looks gay! He don't spend his winters at Lion's Head: he is off to Europe about as soon as the house closes in the fall, and he keeps bringin' home new dodges. Guess you couldn't get no boa'd there for no seven dollars a week now! I tell you, Jeff's the gentleman now, and his wife's about the nicest lady I ever saw. Do' know as I care so much about her mother; do' know as I got anything ag'inst her, either, very much. But that little girl, Beechy, as they call her, she's a beauty! And round with Jeff all the while! He seems full as fond of her as her own mother does, and that devil, that couldn't seem to get enough of tormentin' little children when he was a boy, is as good and gentle with that little thing as-pie!"
Whitwell seemed to have come to an end of his celebration of Jeff's success, and Westover asked:
"And what do you make now, of planchette's brokenshaft business? Or don't you believe in planchette any more?"
Whitwell's beaming face clouded. "Well, sir, that's a thing that's always puzzled me. If it wa'n't that it was Jackson workin' plantchette that night, I shouldn't placed much dependence on what she said; but Jackson could get the truth out of her, if anybody could. Sence I b'en up there I b'en figurin' it out like this: the broken shaft is the old Jeff that he's left off bein'--"
Whitwell stopped midway in his suggestion, with an inquiring eye on the painter, who asked: "You think he's left off being the old Jeff?"
"Well, sir, you got me there," the philosopher confessed. "I didn't see anything to the contrary, but come to think of it--"
"Why couldn't the broken shaft be his unfulfilled destiny on the old lines? What reason is there to believe he isn't what he's always been?"
"Well, come to think of it--"
"People don't change in a day, or a year," Westover went on, "or two or three years, even. Sometimes I doubt if they ever change."
"Well, all that I thought," Whitwell urged, faintly, against the hard scepticism of a man ordinarily so yielding, "is 't there must be a moral government of the universe somewheres, and if a bad feller is to get along and prosper hand over hand, that way, don't it look kind of as if--"
"There wasn't any moral government of the universe? Not the way I see it," said Westover. "A tree brings forth of its kind. As a man sows he reaps. It's dead sure, pitilessly sure. Jeff Durgin sowed success, in a certain way, and he's reaping it. He once said to me, when I tried to waken his conscience, that he should get where he was trying to go if he was strong enough, and being good had nothing to do with it. I believe now he was right. But he was wrong too, as such a man always is. That kind of tree bears Dead Sea apples, after all. He sowed evil, and he must reap evil. He may never know it, but he will reap what he has sown. The dreadful thing is that others must share in his harvest. What do you think?"
Whitwell scratched his head. "Well, sir, there's something in what you say, I guess. But here! What's the use of thinkin' a man can't change? Wa'n't there ever anything in that old idee of a change of heart? What do you s'pose made Jeff let up on that feller that Jombateeste see him have down, that day, in my Clearin'? What Jeff would natch'ly done would b'en to shake the life out of him; but he didn't; he let him up, and he let him go. What's the reason that wa'n't the beginnin' of a new life for him?"
"We don't know all the ins and outs of that business," said Westover, after a moment. "I've puzzled over it a good deal. The man was the brother of that girl that Jeff had jilted in Boston. I've found out that much. I don't know just the size and shape of the trouble between them, but Jeff may have felt that he had got even with his enemy before that day. Or he may have felt that if he was going in for full satisfaction, there was Jombateeste looking on."
"That's true," said Whitwell, greatly daunted. After a while he took refuge in the reflection, "Well, he's a comical devil."
Westover said, in a sort of absence: "Perhaps we're all broken shafts, here. Perhaps that old hypothesis of another life, a world where there is room enough and time enough for all the beginnings of this to complete themselves--"
"Well, now you're shoutin'," said Whitwell. "And if plantchette--" Westover rose. "Why, a'n't you goin' to wait and see Cynthy? I'm expectin' her along every minute now; she's just gone down to Harvard Square. She'll be awfully put out when she knows you've be'n here."
"I'll come out again soon," said Westover. "Tell her--"
" Well, you must see your picture, anyway. We've got it in the parlor. I don't know what she'll say to me, keepin' you here in the settin'-room all the time."
Whitwell led him into the little dark front hall, and into the parlor, less dim than it should have been because the afternoon sun was burning full upon its shutters. The portrait hung over the mantel, in a bad light, but the painter could feel everything in it that he could not see.
"Yes, it had that look in it."
"Well, she ha'n't took wing yet, I'm thankful to think," said Whitwell, and he spoke from his own large mind to the sympathy of an old friend who he felt could almost share his feelings as a father.