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Chapter 10

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."

"With Lottie?"

"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."

"Me?"

"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.

William Dean Howells

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