“I suppose mother’s told you about Cynthy and me, Jackson?” he began.
Jackson answered, with lack-lustre eyes, “Yes.” Presently he asked: “What’s become of the other girl?”
“Damn her! I don’t know what’s become of her, and I don’t care!” Jeff exploded, furiously.
“Then you don’t care for her any more?” Jackson pursued, with the same languid calm.
“I never cared for her.”
Jackson was silent, and the matter seemed to have faded out of his mind. But it was keenly alive in Jeff’s mind, and he was in the strange necessity which men in the flush of life and health often feel of seeking counsel of those who stand in the presence of death, as if their words should have something of the mystical authority of the unknown wisdom they are about to penetrate.
“What I want to know is, what I am going to do about Cynthy?”
“I don’t know,” Jackson answered, vaguely, and he expressed by his indirection the sense he must sometimes have had of his impending fate—“I don’t know what she’s going to do, her or mother, either.”
“Yes,” Jeff assented, “that’s what I think of. And I’d do anything that I could—that you thought was right.”
Jackson apparently concentrated his mind upon the question by an effort. “Do you care as much for Cynthy as you used to?”
“Yes,” said Jeff, after a moment, “as much as I ever did; and more. But I’ve been thinking, since the thing happened, that, if I’d cared for her the way she did for me, it wouldn’t have happened. Look here, Jackson! You know I’ve never pretended to be like some men—like Mr. Westover, for example—always looking out for the right and the wrong, and all that. I didn’t make myself, and I guess if the Almighty don’t make me go right it’s because He don’t want me to. But I have got a conscience about Cynthy, and I’d be willing to help out a little if I knew how, about her. The devil of it is, I’ve got to being afraid. I don’t mean that I’m not fit for her; any man’s fit for any woman if he wants her bad enough; but I’m afraid I sha’n’t ever care for her in the right way. That’s the point. I’ve cared for just one woman in this world, and it a’n’t Cynthy, as far as I can make out. But she’s gone, and I guess I could coax Cynthy round again, and I could be what she wants me to be, after this.”
Jackson lay upon his shawl, looking up at the sky full of islands of warm clouds in its sea of blue; he was silent so long that Jeff began to think he had not been listening; he could not hear him breathe, and he came forward to him quickly from the shadow of the tree where he sat.
“Well?” Jackson whispered, turning his eyes upon him.
“Well?” Jeff returned.
“I guess you’d better let it alone,” said Jackson.
“All right. That’s what I think, too.”