Breckon had not seen the former interest between himself and Ellen lapse to commonplace acquaintance without due sense of loss. He suffered justly, but he did not suffer passively, or without several attempts to regain the higher ground. In spite of these he was aware of being distinctly kept to the level which he accused himself of having chosen, by a gentle acquiescence in his choice more fatal than snubbing. The advances that he made across the table, while he still met Miss Kenton alone there, did not carry beyond the rack supporting her plate. She talked on whatever subject he started with that angelic sincerity which now seemed so far from him, but she started none herself; she did not appeal to him for his opinion upon any question more psychological than the barometer; and,
"In a tumultuous privacy of storm,"
he found himself as much estranged from her as if a fair-weather crowd had surrounded them. He did not believe that she resented the levity he had shown; but he had reason to fear that she had finally accepted it as his normal mood, and in her efforts to meet him in it, as if he had no other, he read a tolerance that was worse than contempt. When he tried to make her think differently, if that was what she thought of him, he fancied her rising to the notion he wished to give her, and then shrinking from it, as if it must bring her the disappointment of some trivial joke.
It was what he had taught her to expect of him, and he had himself to blame. Now that he had thrown that precious chance away, he might well have overvalued it. She had certain provincialisms which he could not ignore. She did not know the right use of will and shall, and would and should, and she pronounced the letter 'r' with a hard mid-Western twist. Her voice was weak and thin, and she could not govern it from being at times a gasp and at times a drawl. She did not dress with the authority of women who know more of their clothes than the people they buy them of; she did not carry herself like a pretty girl; she had not the definite stamp of young-ladyism. Yet she was undoubtedly a lady in every instinct; she wore with pensive grace the clothes which she had not subjected to her personal taste; and if she did not carry herself like a pretty girl, she had a beauty which touched and entreated.
More and more Breckon found himself studying her beauty—her soft, brown brows, her gentle, dark eyes, a little sunken, and with the lids pinched by suffering; the cheeks somewhat thin, but not colorless; the long chin, the clear forehead, and the massed brown hair, that seemed too heavy for the drooping neck. It was not the modern athletic type; it was rather of the earlier period, when beauty was associated with the fragility despised by a tanned and golfing generation. Ellen Kenton's wrists were thin, and her hands long and narrow. As he looked at her across the racks during those two days of storm, he had sometimes the wish to take her long, narrow hands in his, and beg her to believe that he was worthier her serious friendship than he had shown himself. What he was sure of at all times now was that he wished to know the secret of that patient pathos of hers. She was not merely, or primarily, an invalid. Her family had treated her as an invalid, but, except Lottie, whose rigor might have been meant sanatively, they treated her more with the tenderness people use with a wounded spirit; and Breckon fancied moments of something like humility in her, when she seemed to cower from his notice. These were not so imaginable after her family took to their berths and left her alone with him, but the touching mystery remained, a sort of bewilderment, as he guessed it, a surprise such as a child might show at some incomprehensible harm. It was this grief which he had refused not merely to know—he still doubted his right to know it—but to share; he had denied not only his curiosity but his sympathy, and had exiled himself to a region where, when her family came back with the fair weather, he felt himself farther from her than before their acquaintance began.
He had made an overture to its renewal in the book he lent her, and then Mrs. Rasmith and her daughter had appeared on deck, and borne down upon him when he was walking with Lottie Kenton and trying to begin his self-retrieval through her. She had left him; but they had not, and in the bonds of a prophet and his followers he found himself bound with them for much more conversation than he had often held with them ashore. The parochial duties of an ethical teacher were not strenuous, and Breckon had not been made to feel them so definitely before. Mrs. Rasmith held that they now included promising to sit at her table for the rest of the voyage; but her daughter succeeded in releasing him from the obligation; and it was she who smilingly detached the clinging hold of the elder lady. "We mustn't keep Mr. Breckon from his friends, mother," she said, brightly, and then he said he should like the pleasure of introducing them, and both of the ladies declared that they would be delighted.
He bowed himself off, and half the ship's-length away he was aware, from meeting Lottie with her little Englishman, that it was she and not Ellen whom he was seeking. As the couple paused in whirring past Breckon long enough to let Lottie make her hat fast against the wind, he heard the Englishman shout:
"I say, that sister of yours is a fine girl, isn't she?"
"She's a pretty good—looker," Lottie answered back. "What's the matter with HER sister?"
"Oh, I say!" her companion returned, in a transport with her slangy pertness, which Breckon could not altogether refuse to share.
He thought that he ought to condemn it, and he did condemn Mrs. Kenton for allowing it in one of her daughters, when he came up to her sitting beside another whom he felt inexpressibly incapable of it. Mrs. Kenton could have answered his censure, if she had known it, that daughters, like sons, were not what their mothers but what their environments made them, and that the same environment sometimes made them different, as he saw. She could have told him that Lottie, with her slangy pertness, had the truest and best of the men she knew at her feet, and that Ellen, with her meekness, had been the prey of the commonest and cheapest spirit in her world, and so left him to make an inference as creditable to his sex as he could. But this bold defence was as far from the poor lady as any spoken reproach was from him. Her daughter had to check in her a mechanical offer to rise, as if to give Breckon her place, the theory and practice of Tuskingum being that their elders ought to leave young people alone together.
"Don't go, momma," Ellen whispered. "I don't want you to go."
Breckon, when he arrived before them, remained talking on foot, and, unlike Lottie's company, he talked to the mother. This had happened before from him, but she had not got used to it, and now she deprecated in everything but words his polite questions about her sufferings from the rough weather, and his rejoicing that the worst was probably over. She ventured the hope that it was so, for she said that Mr. Kenton had about decided to keep on to Holland, and it seemed to her that they had had enough of storms. He said he was glad that they were going right on; and then she modestly recurred to the earlier opinion he had given her husband that it would be better to spend the rest of the summer in Holland than to go to Italy, as if she wished to conform herself in the wisdom of Mr. Kenton's decision. He repeated his conviction, and he said that if he were in their place he should go to The Hague as soon as they had seen Rotterdam, and make it their headquarters for the exploration of the whole country.
"You can't realize how little it is; you can get anywhere in an hour; the difficulty is to keep inside of Holland when you leave any given point. I envy you going there."
Mrs. Kenton inferred that he was going to stop in France, but if it were part of his closeness not to tell, it was part of her pride not to ask. She relented when he asked if he might get a map of his and prove the littleness of Holland from it, and in his absence she could not well avoid saying to Ellen, "He seems very pleasant."
"Yes; why not?" the girl asked.
"I don't know. Lottie is so against him."
"He was very kind when you were all sick."
"Well, you ought to know better than Lottie; you've seen him so much more." Ellen was silent, and her mother advanced cautiously, "I suppose he is very cultivated."
"How can I tell? I'm not."
"Why, Ellen, I think you are. Very few girls have read so much."
"Yes, but he wouldn't care if I were cultivated, Ha is like all the rest. He would like to joke and laugh. Well, I think that is nice, too, and I wish I could do it. But I never could, and now I can't try. I suppose he wonders what makes me such a dead weight on you all."
"You know you're not that, Ellen! You musn't let yourself be morbid. It hurts me to have you say such things."
"Well, I should like to tell him why, and see what he would say."
"Why not? If he is a minister he must have thought about all kinds of things. Do you suppose he ever knew of a girl before who had been through what I have? Yes, I would like to know what he would really say."
"I know what he ought to say! If he knew, he would say that no girl had ever behaved more angelically."
"Do you think he would? Perhaps he would say that if I hadn't been so proud and silly—Here he comes! Shall we ask him?"
Breckon approached with his map, and her mother gasped, thinking how terrible such a thing would be if it could be; Ellen smiled brightly up at him. "Will you take my chair? And then you can show momma your map. I am going down," and while he was still protesting she was gone.
"Miss Kenton seems so much better than she did the first day," he said, as he spread the map out on his knees, and gave Mrs. Kenton one end to hold.
"Yes," the mother assented, as she bent over to look at it.
She followed his explanation with a surface sense, while her nether mind was full of the worry of the question which Ellen had planted in it. What would such a man think of what she had been through? Or, rather, how would he say to her the only things that in Mrs. Kenton's belief he could say? How could the poor child ever be made to see it in the light of some mind not colored with her family's affection for her? An immense, an impossible longing possessed itself of the mother's heart, which became the more insistent the more frantic it appeared. She uttered "Yes" and "No" and "Indeed" to what he was saying, but all the time she was rehearsing Ellen's story in her inner sense. In the end she remembered so little what had actually passed that her dramatic reverie seemed the reality, and when she left him she got herself down to her state-room, giddy with the shame and fear of her imaginary self-betrayal. She wished to test the enormity, and yet not find it so monstrous, by submitting the case to her husband, and she could scarcely keep back her impatience at seeing Ellen instead of her father.
"Momma, what have you been saying to Mr. Breckon about me?"
"Nothing," said Mrs. Kenton, aghast at first, and then astonished to realize that she was speaking the simple truth. "He said how much better you were looking; but I don't believe I spoke a single word. We were looking at the map."
"Very well," Ellen resumed. "I have been thinking it all over, and now I have made up my mind."
She paused, and her mother asked, tremulously, "About what, Ellen?"
"You know, momma. I see all now. You needn't be afraid that I care anything about him now," and her mother knew that she meant Bittridge, "or that I ever shall. That's gone forever. But it's gone," she added, and her mother quaked inwardly to hear her reason, "because the wrong and the shame was all for me—for us. That's why I can forgive it, and forget. If we had done anything, the least thing in the world, to revenge ourselves, or to hurt him, then—Don't you see, momma?"
"I think I see, Ellen."
"Then I should have to keep thinking about it, and what we had made him suffer, and whether we hadn't given him some claim. I don't wish ever to think of him again. You and poppa were so patient and forbearing, all through; and I thank goodness now for everything you put up with; only I wish I could have borne everything myself."
"You had enough to bear," Mrs. Kenton said, in tender evasion.
"I'm glad that I had to bear so much, for bearing it is what makes me free now." She went up to her mother and kissed her, and gazed into her face with joyful, tearful looks that made her heart sink.