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.
He tried to make talk about other things. She responded vaguely, and when she had given herself time she said she believed she would go to Lottie; she was quite sure she could get down the stairs alone. He pursued her anxiously, politely, and at the head of her corridor took leave of her with a distinct sense of having merited his dismissal.
"I see what you mean, Lottie," she said, "about Mr. Breckon."
Lottie did not turn her head on the pillow. "Has it taken you the whole day to find it out?"