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.
When Westover turned out of the baking little street where the Whitwells lived into an elm-shaded stretch of North Avenue, he took off his hat and strolled bareheaded along in the cooler air. He was disappointed not to have seen Cynthia, and yet he found himself hurrying away after his failure, with a sense of escape, or at least of respite.
What he had come to say, to do, was the effect of long experience and much meditation. The time had arrived when he could no longer feign to himself that his feelings toward the girl were not those of a lover, but he had his modest fears that she could never imagine him in that character, and that if he should ask her to do so he should shock and grieve her, and inflict upon himself an incurable wound.