Kenton was unable to make any formal response, and, in fact, he was so preoccupied with the question whether the fellow was more a fool or a fraud that he made no answer at all, beyond a few inarticulate grumblings of assent. These sufficed for Bittridge, apparently, for he went on contentedly: "Whenever I've been tempted to go a little wild, the thought of how mother would feel has kept me on the track like nothing else would. No, judge, there isn't anything in this world like a good mother, except the right kind of a wife."
Kenton rose, and said he believed he must go upstairs. Bittridge said, "All right; I'll see you later, judge," and swung easily off to advise with the clerk as to the best theatre.
Kenton was so unhappy that he could not wait for his wife to come to him in their own room; he broke in upon her and Ellen in the parlor, and at his coming the girl flitted out, in the noiseless fashion which of late had made her father feel something ghostlike in her. He was afraid she was growing to dislike him, and trying to avoid him, and now he presented himself quite humbly before his wife, as if he had done wrong in coming. He began with a sort of apology for interrupting, but his wife said it was all right, and she added, "We were not talking about anything in particular." She was silent, and then she added again: "Sometimes I think Ellen hasn't very fine perceptions, after all. She doesn't seem to feel about people as I supposed she would."
"You mean that she doesn't feel as you would suppose about those people?"
Mrs. Kenton answered, obliquely. "She thinks it's a beautiful thing in him to be so devoted to his mother."
"Humph! And what does she think of his mother?"
"She thinks she has very pretty hair."
Mrs. Kenton looked gravely down at the work she had in her hands, and Kenton did not know what to make of it all. He decided that his wife must feel, as he did, a doubt of the child's sincerity, with sense of her evasiveness more tolerant than his own. Yet he knew that if it came to a question of forcing Ellen to do what was best for her, or forbidding her to do what was worst, his wife would have all the strength for the work, and he none. He asked her, hopelessly enough, "Do you think she still cares for him?"
"I think she wishes to give him another trial; I hope she will." Kenton was daunted, and he showed it. "She has got to convince herself, and we have got to let her. She believes, of course, that he's here on her account, and that flatters her. Why should she be so different from other girls?" Mrs. Kenton demanded of the angry protest in her husband's eye.
His spirit fell, and he said, "I only wish she were more like them."
"Well, then, she is just as headstrong and as silly, when it comes to a thing like this. Our only hope is to let her have her own way."
"Do you suppose he cares for her, after all?"
Mrs. Kenton was silent, as if in exhaustive self-question. Then she answered: "No, I don't in that way. But he believes he can get her."
"Then, Sarah, I think we have a duty to the poor child. You must tell her what you have told me."
Mrs. Kenton smiled rather bitterly, in recognition of the fact that the performance of their common duty must fall wholly to her. But she merely said: "There is no need of my telling her. She knows it already."
"And she would take him in spite of knowing that he didn't really care for her?"
"I don't say that. She wouldn't own it to herself."
"And what are you going to do?"
"Nothing. We must let things take their course."
They had a great deal more talk that came to the same end. They played their sad comedy, he in the part of a father determined to save his child from herself, and she in hers of resisting and withholding him. It ended as it had so often ended before—he yielded, with more faith in her wisdom than she had herself.
At luncheon the Bittridges could not join the Kentons, or be asked to do so, because the table held only four, but they stopped on their way to their own table, the mother to bridle and toss in affected reluctance, while the son bragged how he had got the last two tickets to be had that night for the theatre where he was going to take his mother. He seemed to think that the fact had a special claim on the judge's interest, and she to wish to find out whether Mrs. Kenton approved of theatre-going. She said she would not think of going in Ballardsville, but she supposed it was more rulable in New York.
During the afternoon she called at the Kenton apartment to consult the ladies about what she ought to wear. She said she had nothing but a black 'barege' along, and would that do with the hat she had on? She had worn it to let them see, and now she turned her face from aide to side to give them the effect of the plumes, that fell like a dishevelled feather- duster round and over the crown. Mrs. Kenton could only say that it would do, but she believed that it was the custom now for ladies to take their hats off in the theatre.
Mrs. Bittridge gave a hoarse laugh. "Oh, dear! Then I'll have to fix my hair two ways? I don't know what Clarence WILL say."
The mention of her son's name opened the way for her to talk of him in relation to herself, and the rest of her stay passed in the celebration of his filial virtues, which had been manifest from the earliest period. She could not remember that she ever had to hit the child a lick, she said, or that he had ever made her shed a tear.
When she went, Boyne gloomily inquired, "What makes her hair so much darker at the roots than it is at the points?" and his mother snubbed him promptly.
"You had no business to be here, Boyne. I don't like boys hanging about where ladies are talking together, and listening."
This did not prevent Lottie from answering, directly for Boyne, and indirectly for Ellen, "It's because it's begun to grow since the last bleach."
It was easier to grapple with Boyne than with Lottie, and Mrs. Kenton was willing to allow her to leave the room with her brother unrebuked. She was even willing to have had the veil lifted from Mrs. Bittridge's hair with a rude hand, if it world help Ellen.
"I don't want you to think, momma," said the girl, "that I didn't know about her hair, or that I don't see how silly she is. But it's all the more to his credit if he can be so good to her, and admire her. Would yon like him better if he despised her?"
Mrs. Kenton felt both the defiance and the secret shame from which it sprang in her daughter's words; and she waited for a moment before she answered, "I would like to be sure he didn't!"
"If he does, and if he hides it from her, it's the same as if he didn't; it's better. But you all wish to dislike him."
"We don't wish to dislike him, Ellen, goodness knows. But I don't think he would care much whether we disliked him or not. I am sure your poor father and I would be only too glad to like him."
"Lottie wouldn't," said Ellen, with a resentment her mother found pathetic, it was so feeble and aimless.
"Lottie doesn't matter," she said. She could not make out how nearly Ellen was to sharing the common dislike, or how far she would go in fortifying herself against it. She kept with difficulty to her negative frankness, and she let the girl leave the room with a fretful sigh, as if provoked that her mother would not provoke her further. There were moments when Mrs. Kenton believed that Ellen was sick of her love, and that she would pluck it out of her heart herself if she were left alone. She was then glad Bittridge had come, so that Ellen might compare with the reality the counterfeit presentment she had kept in her fancy; and she believed that if she could but leave him to do his worst, it would be the best for Ellen.
In the evening, directly after dinner, Bittridge sent up his name for Mrs. Kenton. The judge had remained to read his paper below, and Lottie and Boyne had gone to some friends in another apartment. It seemed to Mrs. Kenton a piece of luck that she should be able to see him alone, and she could not have said that she was unprepared for him to come in, holding his theatre-tickets explanatorily in his hand, or surprised when he began:
"Mrs. Kenton, my mother's got a bad headache, and I've come to ask a favor of you. She can't use her ticket for to-night, and I want you to let Miss Ellen come with me. Will you?"
Bittridge had constituted himself an old friend of the whole family from the renewal of their acquaintance, and Mrs. Kenton was now made aware of his being her peculiar favorite, in spite of the instant repulsion she felt, she was not averse to what he proposed. Her fear was that Ellen would be so, or that she could keep from influencing her to this test of her real feeling for Bittridge. "I will ask her, Mr. Bittridge," she said, with a severity which was a preliminary of the impartiality she meant to use with Ellen.
"Well, that's right," he answered, and while she went to the girl's room he remained examining the details of the drawing-room decorations in easy security, which Mrs. Kenton justified on her return.
"Ellen will be ready to go with you, Mr. Bittridge."
"Well, that's good," said the young man, and while he talked on she sat wondering at a nature which all modesty and deference seemed left out of, though he had sometimes given evidence of his intellectual appreciation of these things. He talked to Mrs. Kenton not only as if they were in every-wise equal, but as if they were of the same age, almost of the same sex.
Ellen came in, cloaked and hatted, with her delicate face excited in prospect of the adventure; and her mother saw Bittridge look at her with more tenderness than she had ever seen in him before. "I'll take good care of her, Mrs. Kenton," he said, and for the first time she felt herself relent a little towards him.
A minute after they were gone Lottie bounced into the room, followed by Boyne.
"Momma!" she shouted, "Ellen isn't going to the theatre with that fellow?"
"Yes, she is."
"And you let her, momma! Without a chaperon?"
Boyne's face had mirrored the indignation in his sister's, but at this unprecedented burst of conventionality he forgot their momentary alliance. "Well, you're a pretty one to talk about chaperons! Walking all over Tuskingum with fellows at night, and going buggy-riding with everybody, and out rowing, and here fairly begging Jim Plumpton to come down to the steamer and see you off again!"
"Shut up!" Lottie violently returned, "or I'll tell momma how you've been behaving with Rita Plumpton yourself."
"Well, tell!" Boyne defied her.
"Oh, it don't matter what a brat of a boy says or does, anyway," said Lottie. "But I think Ellen is disgracing the family. Everybody in the hotel is laughing at that wiggy old Mrs. Bittridge, with her wobbly eyes, and they can see that he's just as green! The Plumptons have been laughing so about them, and I told them that we had nothing to do with them at home, and had fairly turned Bittridge out of the house, but he had impudence enough for anything; and now to find Ellen going off to the theatre with him alone!"
Lottie began to cry with vexation as she whipped out of the room, and Boyne, who felt himself drawn to her side again, said, very seriously: "Well, it ain't the thing in New York, you know, momma; and anybody can see what a jay Bittridge is. I think it's too bad to let her."
"It isn't for you to criticise your mother, Boyne," said Mrs. Kenton, but she was more shaken than she would allow. Her own traditions were so simple that the point of etiquette which her children had urged had not occurred to her. The question whether Ellen should go with Bittridge at all being decided, she would, of course, go in New York as she would go in Tuskingum. Now Mrs. Kenton perceived that she must not, and she had her share of humiliation in the impression which his mother, as her friend, apparently, was making with her children's acquaintances in the hotel. If they would think everybody in Tuskingum was like her, it would certainly be very unpleasant, but she would not quite own this to herself, still less to a fourteen-year-old boy. "I think what your father and I decide to be right will be sufficient excuse for you with your friends."
"Does father know it?" Boyne asked, most unexpectedly.
Having no other answer ready, Mrs. Kenton said, "You had better go to bed, my son."
"Well," he grumbled, as he left the room, "I don't know where all the pride of the Kentons is gone to."
In his sense of fallen greatness he attempted to join Lottie in her room, but she said, "Go away, nasty thing!" and Boyne was obliged to seek his own room, where he occupied himself with a contrivance he was inventing to enable you to close your door and turn off your gas by a system of pulleys without leaving your bed, when you were tired of reading.
Mrs. Kenton waited for her husband in much less comfort, and when he came, and asked, restlessly, "Where are the children?" she first told him that Lottie and Boyne were in their rooms before she could bring herself to say that Ellen had gone to the theatre with Bittridge.
It was some relief to have him take it in the dull way he did, and to say nothing worse than, "Did you think it was well to have her!"
"You may be sure I didn't want her to. But what would she have said if I had refused to let her go? I can tell you it isn't an easy matter to manage her in this business, and it's very easy for you to criticise, without taking the responsibility."
"I'm not criticising," said Kenton. "I know you have acted for the best."
"The children," said Mrs. Kenton, wishing to be justified further, "think she ought to have had a chaperon. I didn't think of that; it isn't the custom at home; but Lottie was very saucy about it, and I had to send Boyne to bed. I don't think our children are very much comfort to us."
"They are good children," Kenton said, said—provisionally.
"Yes, that is the worst of it. If they were bad, we wouldn't expect any comfort from them. Ellen is about perfect. She's as near an angel as a child can be, but she could hardly have given us more anxiety if she had been the worst girl in the world."
"That's true," the father sadly assented.
"She didn't really want to go with him to-night, I'll say that for her, and if I had said a single word against it she wouldn't have gone. But all at once, while she sat there trying to think how I could excuse her, she began asking me what she should wear. There's something strange about it, Rufus. If I believed in hypnotism, I should say she had gone because he willed her to go."
"I guess she went because she wanted to go because she's in love with him," said Kenton, hopelessly.
"Yes," Mrs. Kenton agreed. "I don't see how she can endure the sight of him. He's handsome enough," she added, with a woman's subjective logic. "And there's something fascinating about him. He's very graceful, and he's got a good figure."
"He's a hound!" said Kenton, exhaustively.
"Oh yes, he's a hound," she sighed, as if there could be no doubt on that point. "It don't seem right for him to be in the same room with Ellen. But it's for her to say. I feel more and more that we can't interfere without doing harm. I suppose that if she were not so innocent herself she would realize what he was better. But I do think he appreciates her innocence. He shows more reverence for her than for any one else."
"How was it his mother didn't go?" asked Kenton.
"She had a headache, he said. But I don't believe that. He always intended to get Ellen to go. And that's another thing Lottie was vexed about; she says everybody is laughing at Mrs. Bittridge, and it's mortifying to have people take her for a friend of ours."
"If there were nothing worse than that," said Kenton, "I guess we could live through it. Well, I don't know how it's going to all end."
They sat talking sadly, but finding a certain comfort in their mutual discouragement, and in their knowledge that they were doing the best they could for their child, whose freedom they must not infringe so far as to do what was absolutely best; and the time passed not so heavily till her return. This was announced by the mounting of the elevator to their landing, and then by low, rapid pleading in a man's voice outside. Kenton was about to open the door, when there came the formless noise of what seemed a struggle, and Ellen's voice rose in a muffed cry: "Oh! Oh! Let me be! Go away! I hate you!" Kenton the door open, and Ellen burst in, running to hide her face in her mother's breast, where she sobbed out, "He—he kissed me!" like a terrified child more than an insulted woman. Through the open door came the clatter of Bittridge's feet as he ran down-stairs.
When Mrs. Kenton came from quieting the hysterical girl in her room she had the task, almost as delicate and difficult, of quieting her husband. She had kept him, by the most solemn and exhaustive entreaty, from following Bittridge downstairs and beating him with his stick, and now she was answerable to him for his forbearance. "If yon don't behave yourself, Rufus," she had to say, "you will have some sort of stroke. After all, there's no harm done."
"No harm! Do you call it no harm for that hound to kiss Ellen?"
"He wouldn't have attempted it unless something had led up to it, I suppose."
"Sarah! How can you speak so of that angel?"
"Oh, that angel is a girl like the rest. You kissed me before we were engaged."
"That was very different."
"I don't see how. If your daughter is so sacred, why wasn't her mother? You men don't think your wives are sacred. That's it!"
"No, no, Sarah! It's because I don't think of you as apart from myself, that I can't think of you as I do of Ellen. I beg your pardon if I seemed to set her above you. But when I kissed you we were very young, and we lived in a simple day, when such things meant no harm; and I was very fond of you, and you were the holiest thing in the world to me. Is Ellen holy to that fellow?"
"I know," Mrs. Kenton relented. "I'm not comparing him to you. And there is a difference with Ellen. She isn't like other girls. If it had been Lottie—"
"I shouldn't have liked it with Lottie, either," said the major, stiffly. "But if it had been Lottie she would have boxed his ears for him, instead of running to you. Lottie can take care of herself. And I will take care of Ellen. When I see that scoundrel in the morning—"
"What will you do, an old man like you! I can tell you, it's something you've just got to bear it if you don't want the scandal to fill the whole hotel. It's a very fortunate thing, after all. It'll put an end to the whole affair."
"Do you think so, Sarah? If I believed that. What does Ellen say?"
"Nothing; she won't say anything—just cries and hides her face. I believe she is ashamed of having made a scene before us. But I know that she's so disgusted with him that she will never look at him again, and if it's brought her to that I should think his kissing her the greatest blessing in the world to us all. Yes, Ellen!"
Mrs. Kenton hurried off at a faint call from the girl's room, and when she came again she sat down to a long discussion of the situation with her husband, while she slowly took down her hair and prepared it for the night. Her conclusion, which she made her husband's, was that it was most fortunate they should be sailing so soon, and that it was the greatest pity they were not sailing in the morning. She wished him to sleep, whether she slept herself or not, and she put the most hopeful face possible upon the matter. "One thing you can rest assured of, Rufus, and that is that it's all over with Ellen. She may never speak to you about him, and you mustn't ever mention him, but she feels just as you could wish. Does that satisfy you? Some time I will tell you all she says."
"I don't care to hear," said Kenton. "All I want is for him to keep away from me. I think if he spoke to me I should kill him."
"I can't help it, Sarah. I feel outraged to the bottom of my soul. I could kill him."
Mrs. Kenton turned her head and looked steadfastly at him over her shoulder. "If you strike him, if you touch him, Mr. Kenton, you will undo everything that the abominable wretch has done for Ellen, and you will close my mouth and tie my hands. Will you promise that under no provocation whatever will you do him the least harm? I know Ellen better than you do, and I know that you will make her hate you unless—"
"Oh, I will promise. You needn't be afraid. Lord help me!" Kenton groaned. "I won't touch him. But don't expect me to speak to him."
"No, I don't expect that. He won't offer to speak to you."
They slept, and in the morning she stayed to breakfast with Ellen in their apartment, and let her husband go down with their younger children. She could trust him now, whatever form his further trial should take, and he felt that he was pledging himself to her anew, when Bittridge came hilariously to meet him in the reading-room, where he went for a paper after breakfast.
"Ah, judge!" said the young man, gayly. "Hello, Boyne!" he added to the boy, who had come with his father; Lottie had gone directly up-stairs from the breakfast-room. "I hope you're all well this morning? Play not too much for Miss Ellen?"
Kenton looked him in the face without answering, and then tried to get away from him, but Bittridge followed him up, talking, and ignoring his silence.
"It was a splendid piece, judge. You must take Mrs. Kenton. I know you'll both like it. I haven't ever seen Miss Ellen so interested. I hope the walk home didn't fatigue her. I wanted to get a cab, but she would walk: The judge kept moving on, with his head down. He did not speak, and Bittridge was forced to notice his silence. "Nothing the matter, I hope, with Miss Ellen, judge?"
"Go away," said the judge, in a low voice, fumbling the head of his stick.
"Why, what's up?" asked Bittridge, and he managed to get in front of Kenton and stay him at a point where Kenton could not escape. It was a corner of the room to which the old man had aimlessly tended, with no purpose but to avoid him:
"I wish you to let me alone, sir," said Kenton at last. "I can't speak to you."
"I understand what you mean, judge," said Bittridge, with a grin, all the more maddening because it seemed involuntary. "But I can explain everything. I just want a few words with you. It's very important; it's life or death with me, sir," he said, trying to look grave. "Will you let me go to your rooms with you?"
Kenton made no reply.
Bittridge began to laugh. "Then let's sit down here, or in the ladies' parlor. It won't take me two minutes to make everything right. If you don't believe I'm in earnest I know you don't think I am, but I can assure you—Will you let me speak with you about Miss Ellen?"
Still Kenton did not answer, shutting his lips tight, and remembering his promise to his wife.
Bittridge laughed, as if in amusement at what he had done. "Judge, let me say two words to you in private! If you can't now, tell me when you can. We're going back this evening, mother and I are; she isn't well, and I'm not going to take her to Washington. I don't want to go leaving you with the idea that I wanted to insult Miss Ellen. I care too much for her. I want to see you and Mrs. Kenton about it. I do, indeed. And won't you let me see you, somewhere?"
Kenton looked away, first to one side and then to another, and seemed stifling.
"Won't you speak to me! Won't you answer me? See here! I'd get down on my knees to you if it would do you any good. Where will you talk with me?"
"Nowhere!" shouted Kenton. "Will you go away, or shall I strike you with my stick?"
"Oh, I don't think," said Bittridge, and suddenly, in the wantonness of his baffled effrontery, he raised his hand and rubbed the back of it in the old man's face.
Boyne Kenton struck wildly at him, and Bittridge caught the boy by the arm and flung him to his knees on the marble floor. The men reading in the arm-chairs about started to their feet; a porter came running, and took hold of Bittridge. "Do you want an officer, Judge Kenton?" he panted.
"No, no!" Kenton answered, choking and trembling. "Don't arrest him. I wish to go to my rooms, that's all. Let him go. Don't do anything about it."
"I'll help you, judge," said the porter. "Take hold of this fellow," he said to two other porters who came up. "Take him to the desk, and tell the clerk he struck Judge Kenton, but the judge don't want him arrested."
Before Kenton reached the elevator with Boyne, who was rubbing his knees and fighting back the tears, he heard the clerk's voice saying, formally, to the porters, "Baggage out of 35 and 37" and adding, as mechanically, to Bittridge: "Your rooms are wanted. Get out of them at once!"
It seemed the gathering of neighborhood about Kenton, where he had felt himself so unfriended, against the outrage done him, and he felt the sweetness of being personally championed in a place where he had thought himself valued merely for the profit that was in him; his eyes filled, and his voice failed him in thanking the elevator-boy for running before him to ring the bell of his apartment.
The next day, in Tuskingum, Richard, Kenton found among the letters of his last mail one which he easily knew to be from his sister Lottie, by the tightly curled-up handwriting, and by the unliterary look of the slanted and huddled address of the envelope: The only doubt he could have felt in opening it was from the unwonted length at which she had written him; Lottie usually practised a laconic brevity in her notes, which were suited to the poverty of her written vocabulary rather than the affluence of her spoken word.
"Dear Dick" [her letter ran, tripping and stumbling in its course], "I have got to tell you about something that has just happened here, and you needent laugh at the speling, or the way I tell it, but just pay attention to the thing itself, if you please. That disgusting Bittridge has been here with his horrid wiggy old mother, and momma let him take Ellen to the theatre. On the way home he tried to make her promise she would marry him and at the door he kissed her. They had an awful night with her hiseterics, and I heard momma going in and out, and trying to comfort her till daylight, nearly. In the morning I went down with poppy and Boyne to breakfast, and after I came up, father went to the reading-room to get a paper, and that Bittridge was there waiting for him, and wanted to speak with him about Ellen. Poppa wouldent say a word to him, and he kept following poppa up, to make him. Boyne says be wouldent take no for an ansir, and hung on and hungon, till poppa threatened to hitt him with his cane. Then he saw it was no use, and he took his hand and rubbed it in poppa's face, and Boyne believes he was trying to pull poppa's nose. Boyne acted like I would have done; he pounded Bittridge in the back; but of course Bittridge was too strong for him, and threw him on the floor, and Boyne scraped his knee so that it bledd. Then the porters came up, and caught Bittridge, and wanted to send for a policeman, but father wouldent let them, and the porters took Bittridge to the desk and the clerk told him to get out instantly and they left as soon as old Wiggy could get her things on. I don't know where they went, but he told poppa they were going home to-day any way. Now, Dick, I don't know what you will want to do, and I am not going to put you up to anything, but I know what I would do, pretty well, the first time Bittridge showed himself in Tuskingum. You can do just as you please, and I don't ask you to believe me if you're think I'm so exciteable that I cant tell the truth. I guess Boyne will say the same. Much love to Mary. Your affectionate sister, "Lottie.
"P. S.—Every word Lottie says is true, but I am not sure he meant to pull his nose. The reason why he threw me down so easily is, I have grown about a foot, and I have not got up my strength. BOYNE.
"This is strictly confidential. They don't know we are writing. LATTIE."
After reading this letter, Richard Kenton tore it into small pieces, so that there should not be even so much witness as it bore to facts that seemed to fill him with fury to the throat. His fury was, in agreement with his temperament, the white kind and cold kind. He was able to keep it to himself for that reason; at supper his wife knew merely that he had something on his mind that he did not wish to talk of; and experience had taught her that it would be useless to try making him speak.
He slept upon his wrath, and in the morning early, at an hour when he knew there would be no loafers in the place, he went to an out-dated saddler's shop, and asked the owner, a veteran of his father's regiment, "Welks, do you happen to have a cowhide among your antiquities?"
"Regular old style?" Welks returned. "Kind they make out of a cow's hide and use on a man's?"
"Something of that sort," said Richard, with a slight smile.
The saddler said nothing more, but rummaged among the riff-raff on an upper shelf. He got down with the tapering, translucent, wicked-looking thing in his hand. "I reckon that's what you're after, squire."
"Reckon it is, Welks," said Richard, drawing it through his tubed left hand. Then he buttoned it under his coat, and paid the quarter which Welks said had always been the price of a cowhide even since he could remember, and walked away towards the station.
"How's the old colonel" Welks called after him, having forgotten to ask before.
"The colonel's all right," Richard called back, without looking round.
He walked up and down in front of the station. A local train came in from Ballardsville at 8.15, and waited for the New York special, and then returned to Ballardsville. Richard had bought a ticket for that station, and was going to take the train back, but among the passengers who descended from it when it drew in was one who saved him the trouble of going.
Bittridge, with his overcoat hanging on his arm, advanced towards him with the rest, and continued to advance, in a sort of fascination, after his neighbors, with the instinct that something was about to happen, parted on either side of Richard, and left the two men confronted. Richard did not speak, but deliberately reached out his left hand, which he caught securely into Bittridge's collar; then he began to beat him with the cowhide wherever he could strike his writhing and twisting shape. Neither uttered a word, and except for the whir of the cowhide in the air, and the rasping sound of its arrest upon the body of Bittridge, the thing was done in perfect silence. The witnesses stood well back in a daze, from which they recovered when Richard released Bittridge with a twist of the hand that tore his collar loose and left his cravat dangling, and tossed the frayed cowhide away, and turned and walked homeward. Then one of them picked up Bittridge's hat and set it aslant on his head, and others helped pull his collar together and tie his cravat.
For the few moments that Richard Kenton remained in sight they scarcely found words coherent enough for question, and when they did, Bittridge had nothing but confused answers to give to the effect that he did not know what it meant, but he would find out. He got into a hack and had himself driven to his hotel, but he never made the inquiry which he threatened.
In his own house Richard Kenton lay down awhile, deadly sick, and his wife had to bring him brandy before he could control his nerves sufficiently to speak. Then he told her what he had done, and why, and Mary pulled off his shoes and put a hot-water bottle to his cold feet. It was not exactly the treatment for a champion, but Mary Kenton was not thinking of that, and when Richard said he still felt a little sick at the stomach she wanted him to try a drop of camphor in addition to the brandy. She said he must not talk, but she wished him so much to talk that she was glad when he began.
"It seemed to be something I had to do, Mary, but I would give anything if I had not been obliged to do it:
"Yes, I know just how you feel, Dick, and I think it's pretty hard this has come on you. I do think Ellen might—"
"It wasn't her fault, Mary. You mustn't blame her. She's had more to bear than all the rest of us." Mary looked stubbornly unconvinced, and she was not moved, apparently, by what he went on to say. "The thing now is to keep what I've done from making more mischief for her."
"What do you mean, Dick? You don't believe he'll do anything about it, do you?"
"No, I'm not afraid of that. His mouth is shut. But you can't tell how Ellen will take it. She may side with him now."
"Dick! If I thought Ellen Kenton could be such a fool as that!"
"If she's in love with him she'll take his part."
"But she can't be in love with him when she knows how he acted to your father!"
"We can't be sure of that. I know how he acted to father; but at this minute I pity him so that I could take his part against father. And I can understand how Ellen—Anyway, I must make a clean breast of it. What day is this Thursday? And they sail Saturday! I must write—"
He lifted himself on his elbow, and made as if to throw off the shawl she had spread upon him.
"No, no! I will write, Dick! I will write to your mother. What shall I say?" She whirled about, and got the paper and ink out of her writing- desk, and sat down near him to keep him from getting up, and wrote the date, and the address, "Dear Mother Kenton," which was the way she always began her letters to Mrs. Kenton, in order to distinguish her from her own mother. "Now what shall I say?"
"Simply this," answered Richard. "That I knew of what had happened in New York, and when I met him this morning I cowhided him. Ugh!"
"Well, that won't do, Dick. You've got to tell all about it. Your mother won't understand."
"Then you write what you please, and read it to me. It makes me sick to think of it." Richard closed his eyes, and Mary wrote:
"DEAR MOTHER KENTON,—I am sitting by Richard, writing at his request, about what he has done. He received a letter from New York telling him of the Bittridges' performances there, and how that wretch had insulted and abused you all. He bought a cowhide; meaning to go over to Ballardsville, and use it on him there, but B. came over on the Accommodation this morning, and Richard met him at the station. He did not attempt to resist, for Richard took him quite by surprise. Now, Mother Kenton, you know that Richard doesn't approve of violence, and the dear, sweet soul is perfectly broken-down by what he had to do. But he had to do it, and he wishes you to know at, once that he did it. He dreads the effect upon Ellen, and we must leave it to your judgment about telling her. Of course, sooner or later she must find it out. You need not be alarmed about Richard. He is just nauseated a little, and he will be all right as soon as his stomach is settled. He thinks you ought to have this letter before you sail, and with affectionate good-byes to all, in which Dick joins, "Your loving daughter, "Mary KENTON."
"There! Will that do?"
"Yes, that is everything that can be said," answered Richard, and Mary kissed him gratefully before sealing her letter.
"I will put a special delivery on it," she said, and her precaution availed to have the letter delivered to Mrs. Kenton the evening the family left the hotel, when it was too late to make any change in their plans, but in time to give her a bad night on the steamer, in her doubt whether she ought to let the family go, with this trouble behind them.
But she would have had a bad night on the steamer in any case, with the heat, and noise, and smell of the docks; and the steamer sailed with her at six o'clock the next morning with the doubt still open in her mind. The judge had not been of the least use to her in helping solve it, and she had not been able to bring herself to attack Lottie for writing to Richard. She knew it was Lottie who had made the mischief, but she could not be sure that it was mischief till she knew its effect upon Ellen. The girl had been carried in the arms of one of the stewards from the carriage to her berth in Lottie's room, and there she had lain through the night, speechless and sleepless.
Ellen did not move or manifest any consciousness when the steamer left her dock and moved out into the stream, or take any note of the tumult that always attends a great liner's departure. At breakfast-time her mother came to her from one of the brief absences she made, in the hope that at each turn she should find her in a different mood, and asked if she would not have something to eat.
"I'm not hungry," she answered. "When will it sail?"
"Why, Ellen! We sailed two hours ago, and the pilot has just left us."
Ellen lifted herself on her elbow and stared at her. "And you let me!" she said, cruelly.
"Ellen! I will not have this!" cried her mother, frantic at the reproach. "What do you mean by my letting you? You knew that we were going to sail, didn't you? What else did you suppose we had come to the steamer for?"
"I supposed you would let me stay, if I wanted to: But go away, momma, go away! You're all against me—you, and poppa, and Lottie, and Boyne. Oh, dear! oh, dear!" She threw herself down in her berth and covered her face with the sheet, sobbing, while her mother stood by in an anguish of pity and anger. She wanted to beat the girl, she wanted to throw herself upon her, and weep with her in the misery which she shared with her.
Lottie came to the door of the state-room with an arm-load of long- stemmed roses, the gift of the young Mr. Plumpton, who had not had so much to be entreated to come down to the steamer and see her off as Boyne had pretended. "Momma," she said, "I have got to leave these roses in here, whether Ellen likes it or not. Boyne won't have them in his room, because he says the man that's with him would have a right to object; and this is half my room, anyway."
Mrs. Kenton frowned and shook her head, but Ellen answered from under the sheet, "I don't mind the roses, Lottie. I wish you'd stay with me a little while."
Lottie hesitated, having in mind the breakfast for which the horn had just sounded. But apparently she felt that one good turn deserved another, and she answered: "All right; I will, Nell. Momma, you tell Boyne to hurry, and come to Ellen as soon as he's done, and then I will go. Don't let anybody take my place."
"I wish," said Ellen, still from under the sheet, "that momma would have your breakfast sent here. I don't want Boyne."
Women apparently do not require any explanation of these swift vicissitudes in one another, each knowing probably in herself the nerves from which they proceed. Mrs. Kenton promptly assented, in spite of the sulky reluctance which Lottie's blue eyes looked at her; she motioned her violently to silence, and said: "Yes, I will, Ellen. I will send breakfast for both of you."
When she was gone, Ellen uncovered her face and asked Lottie to dip a towel in water and give it to her. As she bathed her eyes she said, "You don't care, do you, Lottie?"
"Not very much," said Lottie, unsparingly. I can go to lunch, I suppose."
"Maybe I'll go to lunch with you," Ellen suggested, as if she were speaking of some one else.
Lottie wasted neither sympathy nor surprise on the question. "Well, maybe that would be the best thing. Why don't you come to breakfast?"
"No, I won't go to breakfast. But you go."
When Lottie joined her family in the dining-saloon she carelessly explained that Ellen had said she wanted to be alone. Before the young man, who was the only other person besides the Kentons at their table, her mother could not question her with any hope that the bad would not be made worse, and so she remained silent. Judge Kenton sat with his eyes fixed on his plate, where as yet the steward had put no breakfast for him; Boyne was supporting the dignity of the family in one of those moments of majesty from which he was so apt to lapse into childish dependence. Lottie offered him another alternative by absently laying hold of his napkin on the table.
"That's mine," he said, with husky gloom.
She tossed it back to him with prompt disdain and a deeply eye-lashed glance at a napkin on her right. The young man who sat next it said, with a smile, "Perhaps that's yours-unless I've taken my neighbor's."
Lottie gave him a stare, and when she had sufficiently punished him for his temerity said, rather sweetly, "Oh, thank you," and took the napkin.
"I hope we shall all have use for them before long," the young man ventured again.
"Well, I should think as much," returned the girl, and this was the beginning of a conversation which the young man shared successively with the judge and Mrs. Kenton as opportunity offered. He gave the judge his card across the table, and when the judge had read on it, "Rev. Hugh Breckon," he said that his name was Kenton, and he introduced the young man formally to his family. Mr. Breckon had a clean-shaven face, with an habitual smile curving into the cheeks from under a long, straight nose; his chin had a slight whopper-jaw twist that was charming; his gay eyes were blue, and a full vein came down his forehead between them from his smooth hair. When he laughed, which was often, his color brightened.
Boyne was named last, and then Mr. Breckon said, with a smile that showed all his white teeth, "Oh yes, Mr. Boyne and I are friends already—ever since we found ourselves room-mates," and but for us, as Lottie afterwards noted, they might never have known Boyne was rooming with him, and could easily have made all sorts of insulting remarks about Mr. Breckon in their ignorance.
The possibility seemed to delight Mr. Breckon; he invited her to make all the insulting remarks she could think of, any way, and professed himself a loser, so far as her real opinion was withheld from him by reason of his rashness in giving the facts away. In the electrical progress of their acquaintance she had begun walking up and down the promenade with him after they came up from breakfast; her mother had gone to Ellen; the judge had been made comfortable in his steamer-chair, and Boyne had been sent about his business.
"I will try to think some up," she promised him, "as soon as I HAVE any real opinion of you," and he asked her if he might consider that a beginning.
She looked at him out of her indomitable blue eyes, and said, "If it hadn't been for your card, and the Reverend on it, I should have said you were an actor."
"Well, well," said Mr. Breckon, with a laugh, perhaps I am, in a way. I oughtn't to be, of course, but if a minister ever forces himself, I suppose he's acting."
"I don't see," said Lottie, instantly availing herself of the opening, "how you can get up and pray, Sunday after Sunday, whether you feel like it or not."
The young man said, with another laugh, but not so gay, "Well, the case has its difficulties."
"Or perhaps you just read prayers," Lottie sharply conjectured.
"No," he returned, "I haven't that advantage—if you think it one. I'm a sort of a Unitarian. Very advanced, too, I'm afraid."
"Is that a kind of Universalist?"
"Not—not exactly. There's an old joke—I'm not sure it's very good— which distinguishes between the sects. It's said that the Universalists think God is too good to damn them, and the Unitarians think they are too good to be damned." Lottie shrank a little from him. "Ah!" he cried, "you think it sounds wicked. Well, I'm sorry. I'm not clerical enough to joke about serious things."
He looked into her face with a pretended anxiety. "Oh, I don't know," she said, with a little scorn. "I guess if you can stand it, I can."
"I'm not sure that I can. I'm afraid it's more in keeping with an actor's profession than my own. Why," he added, as if to make a diversion, "should you have thought I was an actor?"
"I suppose because you were clean-shaved; and your pronunciation. So Englishy."
"Is it? Perhaps I ought to be proud. But I'm not an Englishman. I am a plain republican American. May I ask if you are English?"
"Oh!" said Lottie. "As if you thought such a thing. We're from Ohio."
Mr. Breckon said, "Ah!" Lottie could not make out in just what sense.
By this time they were leaning on the rail of the promenade, looking over at what little was left of Long Island, and she said, abruptly: "I think I will go and see how my father is getting along."
"Oh, do take me with you, Miss Kenton!" Mr: Breckon entreated. "I am feeling very badly about that poor old joke. I know you don't think well of me for it, and I wish to report what I've been saying to your father, and let him judge me. I've heard that it's hard to live up to Ohio people when you're at your best, and I do hope you'll believe I have not been quite at my best. Will you let me come with you?"
Lottie did not know whether he was making fun of her or not, but she said, "Oh, it's a free country," and allowed him to go with her.
His preface made the judge look rather grave; but when he came to the joke, Kenton laughed and said it was not bad.
"Oh, but that isn't quite the point," said Mr. Breckon. "The question is whether I am good in repeating it to a young lady who was seeking serious instruction on a point of theology."
"I don't know what she would have done with the instruction if she had got it," said the judge, dryly, and the young man ventured in her behalf:
"It would be difficult for any one to manage, perhaps."
"Perhaps," Kenton assented, and Lottie could see that he was thinking Ellen would know what to do with it.
She resented that, and she was in the offence that girls feel when their elders make them the subject of comment with their contemporaries. "Well, I'll leave you to discuss it alone. I'm going to Ellen," she said, the young man vainly following her a few paces, with apologetic gurgles of laughter.
"That's right," her father consented, and then he seized the opening to speak about Ellen. "My eldest daughter is something of an invalid, but I hope we shall have her on deck before the voyage is over. She is more interested in those matters than her sister."
"Oh!" Mr. Breckon interpolated, in a note of sympathetic interest. He could not well do more.
It was enough for Judge Kenton, who launched himself upon the celebration of Ellen's gifts and qualities with a simple-hearted eagerness which he afterwards denied when his wife accused him of it, but justified as wholly safe in view of Mr. Breckon's calling and his obvious delicacy of mind. It was something that such a person would understand, and Kenton was sure that he had not unduly praised the girl. A less besotted parent might have suspected that he had not deeply interested his listener, who seemed glad of the diversion operated by Boyne's coming to growl upon his father, "Mother's bringing Ellen up."
"Oh, then, I mustn't keep your chair," said the minister, and he rose promptly from the place he had taken beside the judge, and got himself away to the other side of the ship before the judge could frame a fitting request for him to stay.
"If you had," Mrs. Kenton declared, when he regretted this to her, "I don't know what I would have done. It's bad enough for him to hear you bragging about the child without being kept to help take care of her, or keep her amused, as you call it. I will see that Ellen is kept amused without calling upon strangers." She intimated that if Kenton did not act with more self-restraint she should do little less than take Ellen ashore, and abandon him to the voyage alone. Under the intimidation he promised not to speak of Ellen again.
At luncheon, where Mr. Breckon again devoted himself to Lottie, he and Ellen vied in ignoring each other after their introduction, as far as words went. The girl smiled once or twice at what he was saying to her sister, and his glance kindled when it detected her smile. He might be supposed to spare her his conversation in her own interest, she looked so little able to cope with the exigencies of the talk he kept going.
When he addressed her she answered as if she had not been listening, and he turned back to Lottie. After luncheon he walked with her, and their acquaintance made such a swift advance that she was able to ask him if he laughed that way with everybody.
He laughed, and then he begged her pardon if he had been rude.
"Well, I don't see what there is to laugh at so much. When you ask me a thing I tell you just what I think, and it seems to set you off in a perfect gale. Don't you expect people to say what they think?"
"I think it's beautiful," said the young man, going into the gale, and I've got to expecting it of you, at any rate. But—but it's always so surprising! It isn't what you expect of people generally, is it?"
"I don't expect it of you," said Lottie.
"No?" asked Mr. Breckon, in another gale. "Am I so uncandid?"
"I don't know about uncandid. But I should say you were slippery."
At this extraordinary criticism the young man looked graver than he had yet been able to do since the beginning of their acquaintance. He said, presently, "I wish you would explain what you mean by slippery."
"You're as close as a trap!"
"It makes me tired."
"If you're not too tired now I wish you would say how."
"Oh, you understand well enough. You've got me to say what I think about all sorts of things, and you haven't expressed your opinion on a single, solitary point?"
Lottie looked fiercely out to sea, turning her face so as to keep him from peering around into it in the way he had. For that reason, perhaps, he did not try to do so. He answered, seriously: "I believe you are partly right. I'm afraid I haven't seemed quite fair. Couldn't you attribute my closeness to something besides my slipperiness?" He began to laugh again. "Can't you imagine my being interested in your opinions so much more than my own that I didn't care to express mine?"
Lottie said, impatiently, "Oh, pshaw!" She had hesitated whether to say, "Rats!"
"But now," he pursued, "if you will suggest some point on which I can give you an opinion, I promise solemnly to do so," but he was not very solemn as he spoke.
"Well, then, I will," she said. "Don't yon think it's very strange, to say the least, for a minister to be always laughing so much?"
Mr. Breckon gave a peal of delight, and answered, "Yes, I certainly do." He controlled himself so far as to say: "Now I think I've been pretty open with you, and I wish you'd answer me a question. Will you?"
"Well, I will—one," said Lottie.
"It may be two or three; but I'll begin with one. Why do you think a minister ought to be more serious than other men?"
"Why? Well, I should think you'd know. You wouldn't laugh at a funeral, would you?"
"I've been at some funerals where it would have been a relief to laugh, and I've wanted to cry at some weddings. But you think it wouldn't do?"
"Of course it wouldn't. I should think you'd know as much as that," said Lottie, out of patience with him.
"But a minister isn't always marrying or burying people; and in the, intervals, why shouldn't he be setting them an example of harmless cheerfulness?"
"He ought to be thinking more about the other world, I should say."
"Well, if he believes there is another world—"
"Why! Don't you?" she broke out on him.
Mr. Breckon ruled himself and continued—"as strenuously and unquestionably as he ought, he has greater reason than other men for gayety through his faith in a happier state of being than this. That's one of the reasons I use against myself when I think of leaving off laughing. Now, Miss Kenton," he concluded, "for such a close and slippery nature, I think I've been pretty frank," and he looked round and down into her face with a burst of laughter that could be heard an the other side of the ship. He refused to take up any serious topic after that, and he returned to his former amusement of making her give herself away.
That night Lottie came to her room with an expression so decisive in her face that Ellen, following it with vague, dark eyes as it showed itself in the glass at which her sister stood taking out the first dismantling hairpins before going to bed, could not fail of something portentous in it.
"Well," said Lottie, with severe finality, "I haven't got any use for THAT young man from this time out. Of all the tiresome people, he certainly takes the cake. You can have him, Ellen, if you want him."
"What's the matter with him?" asked Ellen, with a voice in sympathy with the slow movement of her large eyes as she lay in her berth, staring at Lottie.
"There's everything the matter, that oughtn't to be. He's too trivial for anything: I like a man that's serious about one thing in the universe, at least, and that's just what Mr. Breckon isn't." She went at such length into his disabilities that by the time she returned to the climax with which she started she was ready to clamber into the upper berth; and as she snapped the electric button at its head she repeated, "He's trivial."
"Isn't it getting rough?" asked Ellen. "The ship seems to be tipping."
"Yes, it is," said Lottie, crossly. "Good-night."
If the Rev. Mr. Breckon was making an early breakfast in the hope of sooner meeting Lottie, who had dismissed him the night before without encouraging him to believe that she wished ever to see him again, he was destined to disappointment. The deputation sent to breakfast by the paradoxical family whose acquaintance he had made on terms of each forbidding intimacy, did not include the girl who had frankly provoked his confidence and severely snubbed it. He had left her brother very sea-sick in their state-room, and her mother was reported by her father to be feeling the motion too much to venture out. The judge was, in fact, the only person at table when Breckon sat down; but when he had accounted for his wife's absence, and confessed that he did not believe either of his daughters was coming, Ellen gainsaid him by appearing and advancing quite steadily along the saloon to the place beside him. It had not gone so far as this in the judge's experience of a neurotic invalid without his learning to ask her no questions about herself. He had always a hard task in refraining, but he had grown able to refrain, and now he merely looked unobtrusively glad to see her, and asked her where Lottie was.
"Oh, she doesn't want any breakfast, she says. Is momma sick, too? Where's Boyne?"
The judge reported as to her mother, and Mr. Breckon, after the exchange of a silent salutation with the girl, had a gleeful moment in describing Boyne's revolt at the steward's notion of gruel. "I'm glad to see you so well, Miss Kenton," he concluded.
"I suppose I will be sick, too, if it gets rougher," she said, and she turned from him to give a rather compendious order to the table steward.
"Well, you've got an appetite, Ellen," her father ventured.
"I don't believe I will eat anything," she checked him, with a falling face.
Breckon came to the aid of the judge. "If you're not sick now, I prophesy you won't be, Miss Kenton. It can't get much rougher, without doing something uncommon."
"Is it a storm?" she asked, indifferently.
"It's what they call half a gale, I believe. I don't know how they measure it."
She smiled warily in response to his laugh, and said to her father, "Are you going up after breakfast, poppa?"
"Why, if you want to go, Ellen—"
"Oh, I wasn't asking for that; I am going back to Lottie. But I should think you would like the air. Won't it do you good?"
"I'm all right," said the judge, cheered by her show of concern for some one else. "I suppose it's rather wet on deck?" he referred himself to Breckon.
"Well, not very, if you keep to the leeward. She doesn't seem a very wet boat."
"What is a wet boat" Ellen asked, without lifting her sad eyes.
"Well, really, I'm afraid it's largely a superstition. Passengers like to believe that some boats are less liable to ship seas—to run into waves—than others; but I fancy that's to give themselves the air of old travellers."
She let the matter lapse so entirely that he supposed she had forgotten it in all its bearings, when she asked, "Have you been across many times?"
"Not many-four or five."
"This is our first time," she volunteered.
"I hope it won't be your last. I know you will enjoy it." She fell listless again, and Breckon imagined he had made a break. "Not," he added, with an endeavor for lightness, "that I suppose you're going for pleasure altogether. Women, nowadays, are above that, I understand. They go abroad for art's sake, and to study political economy, and history, and literature—"
"My daughter," the judge interposed, "will not do much in that way, I hope."
The girl bent her head over her plate and frowned.
"Oh, then," said Breckon, "I will believe that she's going for purely selfish enjoyment. I should like to be justified in making that my object by a good example."
Ellen looked up and gave him a look that cut him short in his glad note. The lifting of her eyelids was like the rise of the curtain upon some scene of tragedy which was all the more impressive because it seemed somehow mixed with shame. This poor girl, whom he had pitied as an invalid, was a sufferer from some spiritual blight more pathetic than broken health. He pulled his mind away from the conjecture that tempted it and went on: "One of the advantages of going over the fourth or fifth time is that you're relieved from a discoverer's duties to Europe. I've got absolutely nothing before me now, but at first I had to examine every object of interest on the Continent, and form an opinion about thousands of objects that had no interest for me. I hope Miss Kenton will take warning from me."
He had not addressed Ellen directly, and her father answered: "We have no definite plans as yet, but we don't mean to overwork ourselves even if we've come for a rest. I don't know," he added, "but we had better spend our summer in England. It's easier getting about where you know the language."
The judge seemed to refer his ideas to Breckon for criticism, and the young man felt authorized to say, "Oh, so many of them know the language everywhere now, that it's easy getting about in any country."
"Yes, I suppose so," the judge vaguely deferred.
"Which," Ellen demanded of the young man with a nervous suddenness, "do you think is the most interesting country?"
He found himself answering with equal promptness, "Oh, Italy, of course."
"Can we go to Italy, poppa?" asked the girl.
"I shouldn't advise you to go there at once" Breckon intervened, smiling. "You'd find it Pretty hot there now. Florence, or Rome, or Naples"—you can't think of them."
"We have it pretty hot in Central Ohio," said the judge, with latent pride in his home climate, "What sort of place is Holland?"
"Oh, delightful! And the boat goes right on to Rotterdam, you know."
"Yes. We had arranged to leave it at Boulogne," but we could change. Do you think your mother would like Holland?" The judge turned to his daughter.
"I think she would like Italy better. She's read more about it," said the girl.
"Rise of the Dutch Republic," her father suggested.
"Yea, I know. But she's read more about Italy!"
"Oh, well," Breckon yielded, "the Italian lakes wouldn't be impossible. And you might find Venice fairly comfortable."
"We could go to Italy, then," said the judge to his daughter, "if your mother prefers."
Breckon found the simplicity of this charming, and he tasted a yet finer pleasure in the duplicity; for he divined that the father was seeking only to let his daughter have her way in pretending to yield to her mother's preference.
It was plain that the family's life centred, as it ought, about this sad, sick girl, the heart of whose mystery he perceived, on reflection, he had not the wish to pluck out. He might come to know it, but he would not try to know it; if it offered itself he might even try not to know it. He had sometimes found it more helpful with trouble to be ignorant of its cause.
In the mean time he had seen that these Kentons were sweet, good people, as he phrased their quality to himself. He had come to terms of impersonal confidence the night before with Boyne, who had consulted him upon many more problems and predicaments of life than could have yet beset any boy's experience, probably with the wish to make provision for any possible contingency of the future. The admirable principles which Boyne evolved for his guidance from their conversation were formulated with a gravity which Breckon could outwardly respect only by stifling his laughter in his pillow. He rather liked the way Lottie had tried to weigh him in her balance and found him, as it were, of an imponderable levity. With his sense of being really very light at most times, and with most people, he was aware of having been particularly light with Lottie, of having been slippery, of having, so far as responding to her frankness was concerned, been close. He relished the unsparing honesty with which she had denounced him, and though he did not yet know his outcast condition with relation to her, he could not think of her without a smile of wholly disinterested liking. He did not know, as a, man of earlier date would have known, all that the little button in the judge's lapel meant; but he knew that it meant service in the civil war, a struggle which he vaguely and impersonally revered, though its details were of much the same dimness for him as those of the Revolution and the War of 1812. The modest distrust which had grown upon the bold self- confidence of Kenton's earlier manhood could not have been more tenderly and reverently imagined; and Breckon's conjecture of things suffered for love's sake against sense and conviction in him were his further tribute to a character which existed, of course, mainly in this conjecture. It appeared to him that Kenton was held not only in the subjection to his wife's, judgment, which befalls, and doubtless becomes, a man after many years of marriage, but that he was in the actual performance of more than common renunciation of his judgment in deference to the good woman. She in turn, to be sure, offered herself a sacrifice to the whims of the sick girl, whose worst whim was having no wish that could be ascertained, and who now, after two days of her mother's devotion, was cast upon her own resources by the inconstant barometer. It had become apparent that Miss Kenton was her father's favorite in a special sense, and that his partial affection for her was of much older date than her mother's. Not less charming than her fondness for her father was the openness with which she disabled his wisdom because of his partiality to her.
When they left the breakfast table the first morning of the rough weather, Breckon offered to go on deck with Miss Kenton, and put her where she could see the waves. That had been her shapeless ambition, dreamily expressed with reference to some time, as they rose. Breckon asked, "Why not now?" and he promised to place her chair on deck where she could enjoy the spectacle safe from any seas the boat might ship. Then she recoiled, and she recoiled the further upon her father's urgence. At the foot of the gangway she looked wistfully up the reeling stairs, and said that she saw her shawl and Lottie's among the others solemnly swaying from the top railing. "Oh, then," Breckon pressed her, "you could be made comfortable without the least trouble."
"I ought to go and see how Lottie is getting along," she murmured.
Her father said he would see for her, and on this she explicitly renounced her ambition of going up. "You couldn't do anything," she said, coldly.
"If Miss Lottie is very sea-sick she's beyond all earthly aid," Breckon ventured. "She'd better be left to the vain ministrations of the stewardess."
Ellen looked at him in apparent distrust of his piety, if not of his wisdom. "I don't believe I could get up the stairs," she said.
"Well," he admitted, "they're not as steady as land—going stairs." Her father discreetly kept silence, and, as no one offered to help her, she began to climb the crazy steps, with Breckon close behind her in latent readiness for her fall.
From the top she called down to the judge, "Tell momma I will only stay a minute." But later, tucked into her chair on the lee of the bulkhead, with Breckon bracing himself against it beside her, she showed no impatience to return. "Are they never higher than that" she required of him, with her wan eyes critically on the infinite procession of the surges.
"They must be," Breckon answered, "if there's any truth in common report. I've heard of their running mountains high. Perhaps they used rather low mountains to measure them by. Or the measurements may not have been very exact. But common report never leaves much to the imagination."
"That was the way at Niagara," the girl assented; and Breckon obligingly regretted that he had never been there. He thought it in good taste that she should not tell him he ought to go. She merely said, "I was there once with poppa," and did not press her advantage. "Do they think," she asked, "that it's going to be a very long voyage?"
"I haven't been to the smoking-room—that's where most of the thinking is done on such points; the ship's officers never seem to know about it— since the weather changed. Should you mind it greatly?"
"I wouldn't care if it never ended," said the girl, with such a note of dire sincerity that Breckon instantly changed his first mind as to her words implying a pose. She took any deeper implication from them in adding, "I didn't know I should like being at sea."
"Well, if you're not sea-sick," he assented, "there are not many pleasanter things in life."
She suggested, "I suppose I'm not well enough to be sea-sick." Then she seemed to become aware of something provisional in his attendance, and she said, "You mustn't stay on my account. I can get down when I want to."
"Do let me stay," he entreated, "unless you'd really rather not," and as there was no chair immediately attainable, he crouched on the deck beside hers.
"It makes me think," she said, and he perceived that she meant the sea, "of the cold-white, heavy plunging foam in 'The Dream of Fair Women.' The words always seemed drenched!"
"Ah, Tennyson, yes," said Breckon, with a disposition to smile at the simple-heartedness of the literary allusion. "Do young ladies read poetry much in Ohio?"
"I don't believe they do," she answered. "Do they anywhere?"
"That's one of the things I should like to know. Is Tennyson your favorite poet?"
"I don't believe I have any," said Ellen. "I used to like Whither, and Emerson; aid Longfellow, too."
"Used to! Don't you now?"
"I don't read them so much now," and she made a pause, behind which he fancied her secret lurked. But he shrank from knowing it if he might.
"You're all great readers in your family," he suggested, as a polite diversion.
"Lottie isn't," she answered, dreamily. "She hates it."
"Ah, I referred more particularly to the others," said Breckon, and he began to laugh, and then checked himself. "Your mother, and the judge— and your brother—"
"Boyne reads about insects," she admitted.
"He told me of his collection of cocoons. He seems to be afraid it has suffered in his absence."
"I'm afraid it has," said Ellen, and then remained silent.
"There!" the young man broke out, pointing seaward. "That's rather a fine one. Doesn't that realize your idea of something mountains high? Unless your mountains are very high in Ohio!"
"It is grand. And the gulf between! But we haven't any in our part. It's all level. Do you believe the tenth wave is larger than the rest?"
"Why, the difficulty is to know which the tenth wave is, or when to begin counting."
"Yes," said the girl, and she added, vaguely: "I suppose it's like everything else in that. We have to make-believe before we can believe anything."
"Something like an hypothesis certainly seems necessary," Breckon assented, with a smile for the gravity of their discourse. "We shouldn't have the atomic theory without it." She did not say anything, and he decided that the atomic theory was beyond the range of her reading. He tried to be more concrete. "We have to make-believe in ourselves before we can believe, don't we? And then we sometimes find we are wrong!" He laughed, but she asked, with tragical seriousness:
"And what ought you to do when you find out you are mistaken in yourself?"
"That's what I'm trying to decide," he replied. "Sometimes I feel like renouncing myself altogether; but usually I give myself another chance. I dare say if I hadn't been so forbearing I might have agreed with your sister about my unfitness for the ministry."
"She thinks I laugh too much!"
"I don't see why a minister shouldn't laugh if he feels like it. And if there's something to laugh at."
"Ah, that's just the point! Is there ever anything to laugh at? If we looked closely enough at things, oughtn't we rather to cry?" He laughed in retreat from the serious proposition. "But it wouldn't do to try making each other cry instead of laugh, would it? I suppose your sister would rather have me cry."
"I don't believe Lottie thought much about it," said Ellen; and at this point Mr. Breckon yielded to an impulse.
"I should think I had really been of some use if I had made you laugh, Miss Kenton."
"You look as if you laughed with your whole heart when you did laugh."
She glanced about, and Breckon decided that she had found him too personal. "I wonder if I could walk, with the ship tipping so?" she asked.
"Well, not far," said Breckon, with a provisional smile, and then he was frightened from his irony by her flinging aside her wraps and starting to her feet. Before he could scramble to his own, she had slid down the reeling promenade half to the guard, over which she seemed about to plunge. He hurled himself after her; he could not have done otherwise; and it was as much in a wild clutch for support as in a purpose to save her that he caught her in his arms and braced himself against the ship's slant. "Where are you going? What are you trying to do?" he shouted.
"I wanted to go down-stairs," she protested, clinging to him.
"You were nearer going overboard," he retorted. "You shouldn't have tried." He had not fully formulated his reproach when the ship righted herself with a counter-roll and plunge, and they were swung staggering back together against the bulkhead. The door of the gangway was within reach, and Breckon laid hold of the rail beside it and put the girl within. "Are you hurt?" he asked.
"No, no; I'm not hurt," she panted, sinking on the cushioned benching where usually rows of semi-sea-sick people were lying.
"I thought you might have been bruised against the bulkhead," he said. "Are you sure you're not hurt that I can't get you anything? From the steward, I mean?"
"Only help me down-stairs," she answered. "I'm perfectly well," and Breckon was so willing on these terms to close the incident that he was not aware of the bruise on his own arm, which afterwards declared itself in several primitive colors. "Don't tell them," she added. "I want to come up again."
"Why, certainly not," he consented; but Boyne Kenton, who had been an involuntary witness of the fact from a point on the forward promenade, where he had stationed himself to study the habits of the stormy petrel at a moment so favorable to the acquaintance of the petrel (having left a seasick bed for the purpose), was of another mind. He had been alarmed, and, as it appeared in the private interview which he demanded of his mother, he had been scandalized.
"It is bad enough the way Lottie is always going on with fellows. And now, if Ellen is going to begin!"
" But, Boyne, child," Mrs. Kenton argued, in an equilibrium between the wish to laugh at her son and the wish to box his ears, "how could she help his catching her if he was to save her from pitching overboard?"
"That's just it! He will always think that she did it just so he would have to catch her."
"I don't believe any one would think that of Ellen," said Mrs. Kenton, gravely.
"Momma! You don't know what these Eastern fellows are. There are so few of them that they're used to having girls throw themselves at them, and they will think anything, ministers and all. You ought to talk to Ellen, and caution her. Of course, she isn't like Lottie; but if Lottie's been behaving her way with Mr. Breckon, he must suppose the rest of the family is like her."
"Boyne," said his mother, provisionally, "what sort of person is Mr. Breckon?"
"Well, I think he's kind of frivolous."
"Do you, Boyne?"
"I don't suppose he means any harm by it, but I don't like to see a minister laugh so much. I can't hardly get him to talk seriously about anything. And I just know he makes fun of Lottie. I don't mean that he always makes fun with me. He didn't that night at the vaudeville, where I first saw him."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't you remember? I told you about it last winter."
"And was Mr. Breckon that gentleman?"
"Yes; but he didn't know who I was when we met here."
"Well, upon my word, Boyne, I think you might have told us before," said his mother, in not very definite vexation. "Go along, now!"
Boyne stood talking to his mother, with his hands, which he had not grown to, largely planted on the jambs of her state-room door. She was keeping her berth, not so much because she was sea-sick as because it was the safest place in the unsteady ship to be in. "Do you want me to send Ellen to you!"
"I will attend to Ellen, Boyne," his mother snubbed him. "How is Lottie?"
"I can't tell whether she's sick or not. I went to see about her and she motioned me away, and fairly screamed when I told her she ought to keep out in the air. Well, I must be going up again myself, or—"
Before lunch, Boyne had experienced the alternative which he did not express, although his theory and practice of keeping in the open air ought to have rendered him immune. Breckon saw his shock of hair, and his large eyes, like Ellen's in their present gloom, looking out of it on the pillow of the upper berth, when he went to their room to freshen himself for the luncheon, and found Boyne averse even to serious conversation: He went to lunch without him. None of the Kentons were at table, and he had made up his mind to lunch alone when Ellen appeared, and came wavering down the aisle to the table. He stood up to help her, but seeing how securely she stayed herself from chair to chair he sank down again.
"Poppy is sick, too, now," she replied, as if to account for being alone.
"And you're none the worse for your little promenade?" The steward came to Breckon's left shoulder with a dish, and after an effort to serve himself from it he said, with a slight gasp, "The other side, please." Ellen looked at him, but did not speak, and he made haste to say: "The doctor goes so far as to admit that its half a gale. I don't know just what measure the first officer would have for it. But I congratulate you on a very typical little storm, Miss Kenton; perfectly safe, but very decided. A great many people cross the Atlantic without anything half as satisfactory. There is either too much or too little of this sort of thing." He went on talking about the weather, and had got such a distance from the point of beginning that he had cause to repent being brought back to it when she asked:
"Did the doctor think, you were hurt?"
"Well, perhaps I ought to be more ashamed than I am," said Breckon. "But I thought I had better make sure. And it's only a bruise—"
"Won't you let ME help you!" she asked, as another dish intervened at his right. "I hurt you."
Breckon laughed at her solemn face and voice. "If you'll exonerate yourself first," he answered: "I couldn't touch a morsel that conveyed confession of the least culpability on your part. Do you consent? Otherwise, I pass this dish. And really I want some!"
"Well," she sadly consented, and he allowed her to serve his plate.
"More yet, please," he said. "A lot!"
"Is that enough?"
"Well, for the first helping. And don't offer to cut it up for me! My proud spirit draws the line at cutting up. Besides, a fork will do the work with goulash."
"Is that what it is?" she asked, but not apparently because she cared to know.
"Unless you prefer to naturalize it as stew. It seems to have come in with the Hungarian bands. I suppose you have them in—"
"Tuskingum? No, it is too small. But I heard them at a restaurant in New York where my brother took us."
"In the spirit of scientific investigation? It's strange how a common principle seems to pervade both the Hungarian music and cooking—the same wandering airs and flavors—wild, vague, lawless harmonies in both. Did you notice it?"
Ellen shook her head. The look of gloom which seemed to Breckon habitual in it came back into her face, and he had a fantastic temptation to see how far he could go with her sad consciousness before she should be aware that he was experimenting upon it. He put this temptation from him, and was in the enjoyment of a comfortable self-righteousness when it returned in twofold power upon him with the coming of some cutlets which capriciously varied the repast.
"Ah, now, Miss Kenton, if you were to take pity on my helplessness!"
"Why, certainly!" She possessed herself of his plate, and began to cut up the meat for him. "Am I making the bites too small?" she asked, with an upward glance at him.
"Well, I don't know. Should you think so?" he returned, with a smile that out-measured the morsels on the plate before her.
She met his laughing eyes with eyes that questioned his honesty, at first sadly, and then indignantly. She dropped the knife and fork upon the plate and rose.
"Oh, Miss Kenton!" he penitently entreated.
But she was down the slanting aisle and out of the reeling door before he could decide what to do.
It seemed to Breckon that he had passed through one of those accessions of temperament, one of those crises of natural man, to put it in the terms of an older theology than he professed, that might justify him in recurring to his original sense of his unfitness for his sacred calling, as he would hardly ham called it: He had allowed his levity to get the better of his sympathy, and his love of teasing to overpower that love of helping which seemed to him his chief right and reason for being a minister: To play a sort of poor practical joke upon that melancholy girl (who was also so attractive) was not merely unbecoming to him as a minister; it was cruel; it was vulgar; it was ungentlemanly. He could not say less than ungentlemanly, for that seemed to give him the only pang that did him any good. Her absolute sincerity had made her such an easy prey that he ought to have shrunk from the shabby temptation in abhorrence.
It is the privilege of a woman, whether she wills it or not, to put a man who is in the wrong concerning her much further in the wrong than he could be from his offence. Breckon did not know whether he was suffering more or less because he was suffering quite hopelessly, but he was sure that he was suffering justly, and he was rather glad, if anything, that he must go on suffering. His first impulse had been to go at once to Judge Kenton and own his wrong, and take the consequences—in fact, invite them. But Breckon forbore for two reasons: one, that he had already appeared before the judge with the confession of having possibly made an unclerical joke to his younger daughter; the other, that the judge might not consider levity towards the elder so venial; and though Breckon wished to be both punished and pardoned, in the final analysis, perhaps, he most wished to be pardoned. Without pardon he could see no way to repair the wrong he had done. Perhaps he wished even to retrieve himself in the girl's eyes, or wished for the chance of trying.
Ellen went away to her state-room and sat down on the sofa opposite Lottie, and she lost herself in a muse in which she was found by the voice of the sufferer in the berth.
"If you haven't got anything better to do than come in here and stare at me, I wish you would go somewhere else and stare. I can tell you it isn't any joke."
"I didn't know I was staring at you," said Ellen, humbly.
"It would be enough to have you rising and sinking there, without your staring at all: If you're going to stay, I wish you'd lie down. I don't see why you're so well, anyway, after getting us all to come on this wild-goose chase."
"I know, I know," Ellen strickenly deprecated. "But I'm not going to stay. I jest came for my things."
"Is that giggling simpleton sick? I hope he is!"
"Mr. Breckon?" Ellen asked, though she knew whom Lottie meant. "No, he isn't sick. He was at lunch."
"He was at breakfast."
"She and Boyne are both in bed. I don't know whether they're very sick."
"Well, then, I'll just tell you what, Ellen Kenton!" Lottie sat up in accusal. "You were staring at something he said; and the first thing we all know it will be another case of Bittridge!" Ellen winced, but Lottie had no pity. "You don't know it, because you don't know anything, and I'm not blaming you; but if you let that simpleton—I don't care if he is a minister!—go 'round with you when your family are all sick abed, you'll be having the whole ship to look after you."
"Be still, Lottie!" cried Ellen. "You are awful," and, with a flaming face, she escaped from the state-room.
She did not know where else to go, and she beat along the sides of the corridor as far as the dining-saloon. She had a dim notion of trying to go up into the music-room above, but a glance at the reeling steep of the stairs forbade. With her wraps on her arm and her sea-cap in her hand, she stood clinging to the rail-post.
Breckon came out of the saloon. "Oh, Miss Kenton," he humbly entreated, "don't try to go on deck! It's rougher than ever."
"I was going to the music-room," she faltered.
"Let me help you, then," he said again. They mounted the gangway-steps, but this time with his hand under her elbow, and his arm alert as before in a suspended embrace against her falling.
She had lost the initiative of her earlier adventure; she could only submit herself to his guidance. But he almost outdid her in meekness, when he got her safely placed in a corner whence she could not be easily flung upon the floor. "You must have found it very stuffy below; but, indeed, you'd better not try going out."
"Do you think it isn't safe here?" she asked.
"Oh yes. As long as you keep quiet. May I get you something to read? They seem to have a pretty good little library."
They both glanced at the case of books; from which the steward-librarian was setting them the example of reading a volume.
"No, I don't want to read. You musn't let me keep you from it."
"Well, one can read any time. But one hasn't always the chance to say that one is ashamed. Don't pretend you don't understand, Miss Kenton! I didn't really mean anything. The temptation to let you exaggerate my disability was too much for me. Say that you despise me! It would be such a comfort."
"Weren't you hurt?"
"A little—a little more than a little, but not half so much as I deserved—not to the point of not being able to cut up my meat. Am I forgiven? I'll promise to cut up all your meat for you at dinner! Ah, I'm making it worse!"
"Oh no. Please don't speak of it"
"Could you forbid my thinking of it, too?" He did not wait for her to answer. "Then here goes! One, two, three, and the thought is banished forever. Now what shall we speak of, or think of? We finished up the weather pretty thoroughly this morning. And if you have not the weather and the ship's run when you're at sea, why, you are at sea. Don't you think it would be a good plan, when they stick those little flags into the chart, to show how far we've come in the last twenty-four hours, if they'd supply a topic for the day? They might have topics inscribed on the flags-standard topics, that would serve for any voyage. We might leave port with History—say, personal history; that would pave the way to a general acquaintance among the passengers. Then Geography, and if the world is really round, and what keeps the sea from spilling. Then Politics, and the comparative advantages of monarchical and republican governments, for international discussion. Then Pathology, and whether you're usually sea-sick, and if there is any reliable remedy. Then—for those who are still up—Poetry and Fiction; whether women really like Kipling, and what kind of novels you prefer. There ought to be about ten topics. These boats are sometimes very slow. Can't you suggest something, Miss Kenton? There is no hurry! We've got four to talk over, for we must bring up the arrears, you know. And now we'll begin with personal history. Your sister doesn't approve of me, does she?"
"My sister?" Ellen faltered, and, between the conscience to own the fact and the kindness to deny it, she stopped altogether.
"I needn't have asked. She told me so herself, in almost as many words. She said I was slippery, and as close as a trap. Miss Kenton! I have the greatest wish to know whether I affect you as both slippery and close!"
"I don't always know what Lottie means."
"She means what she says; and I feel that I am under condemnation till I reform. I don't know how to stop being slippery, but I'm determined to stop being close. Will you tell her that for me? Will you tell her that you never met an opener, franker person?—of course, except herself!—and that so far from being light I seemed to you particularly heavy? Say that I did nothing but talk about myself, and that when you wanted to talk about yourself you couldn't get in a word edgewise. Do try, now, Miss Kenton, and see if you can! I don't want you to invent a character for me, quite."
"Why, there's nothing to say about me," she began in compliance with his gayety, and then she fell helpless from it.
"Well, then, about Tuskingum. I should like to hear about Tuskingum, so much!"
"I suppose we like it because we've always lived there. You haven't been much in the West, have you?"
"Not as much as I hope to be." He had found that Western people were sometimes sensitive concerning their section and were prepared to resent complacent ignorance of it. "I've always thought it must be very interesting."
"It isn't," said the girl. "At least, not like the East. I used to be provoked when the lecturers said anything like that; but when you've been to New York you see what they mean."
"The lecturers?" he queried.
"They always stayed at our house when they lectured in Tuskingum."
"Ah! Oh yes," said Breckon, grasping a situation of which he had heard something, chiefly satirical. "Of course. And is your father—is Judge Kenton literary? Excuse me!"
"Only in his history. He's writing the history of his regiment; or he gets the soldiers to write down all they can remember of the war, and then he puts their stories together."
"How delightful!" said Breckon. "And I suppose it's a great pleasure to him."
"I don't believe it is," said Ellen. "Poppa doesn't believe in war any more."
"Indeed!" said Breckon. "That is very interesting."
"Sometimes when I'm helping him with it—"
"Ah, I knew you must help him!"
"And he comes to a place where there has been a dreadful slaughter, it seems as if he felt worse about it than I did. He isn't sure that it wasn't all wrong. He thinks all war is wrong now."
"Is he—has he become a follower of Tolstoy?"
"He's read him. He says he's the only man that ever gave a true account of battles; but he had thought it all out for himself before he read Tolstoy about fighting. Do you think it is right to revenge an injury?"
"Why, surely not!" said Breckon, rather startled.
"That is what we say," the girl pursued. "But if some one had injured you—abused your confidence, and—insulted you, what would you do?"
"I'm not sure that I understand," Breckon began. The inquiry was superficially impersonal, but he reflected that women are never impersonal, or the sons of women, for that matter, and he suspected an intimate ground. His suspicions were confirmed when Miss Kenton said: "It seems easy enough to forgive anything that's done to yourself; but if it's done to some one else, too, have you the right—isn't it wrong to let it go?"
"You think the question of justice might come in then? Perhaps it ought. But what is justice? And where does your duty begin to be divided?" He saw her following him with alarming intensity, and he shrank from the responsibility before him. What application might not she make of his words in the case, whatever it was, which he chose not to imagine? "To tell you the truth, Miss Kenton, I'm not very clear on that point —I'm not sure that I'm disinterested."
"Yes; you know that I abused your confidence at luncheon; and until I know whether the wrong involved any one else—" He looked at her with hovering laughter in his eyes which took wing at the reproach in hers. "But if we are to be serious—"
"Oh no," she said, "it isn't a serious matter." But in the helplessness of her sincerity she could not carry it off lightly, or hide from him that she was disappointed.