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Chapter 15

Few witnesses of the fact that Julia Rasmith and her mother had found themselves on the same steamer with the Rev. Hugh Breckon would have been of such a simple mind as to think they were there by accident, if they had also been witnesses of their earlier history. The ladies could have urged that in returning from California only a few days before the Amstel sailed, and getting a state-room which had been unexpectedly given up, they had some claim to a charitable interpretation of their behavior, but this plea could not have availed them with any connoisseur of women. Besides, it had been a matter of notoriety among such of Mr. Breckon's variegated congregation as knew one another that Mrs. Rasmith had set her heart on him, it Julia had not set her cap for him. In that pied flock, where every shade and dapple of doubt, from heterodox Jew to agnostic Christian, foregathered, as it has been said, in the misgiving of a blessed immortality, the devotion of Mrs. Rasmith to the minister had been almost a scandal. Nothing had saved the appearance from this character but Mr. Breckon's open acceptance of her flatteries and hospitalities; this was so frank, and the behavior of Julia herself so judicious under the circumstances, that envy and virtue were, if not equally silenced, equally baffled. So far from pretending not to see her mother's manoeuvres, Julia invited public recognition of them; in the way of joking, which she kept within the limits of filial fondness, she made fun of her mother's infatuation to Breckon himself, and warned him against the moment when her wiles might be too much for him. Before other people she did not hesitate to save him from her mother, so that even those who believed her in the conspiracy owned that no girl could have managed with more cleverness in a situation where not every one would have refused to be placed. In this situation Julia Rasmith had the service of a very clear head, and as was believed by some, a cool heart; if she and her mother had joint designs upon the minister, hers was the ambition, and her mother's the affection that prompted them. She was a long, undulant girl, of a mixed blondness that left you in doubt, after you had left her, whether her hair or her complexion were not of one tint; but her features were good, and there could be no question of her captivating laugh, and her charming mouth, which she was always pulling down with demure irony. She was like her mother in her looks, but her indolent, droning temperament must have been from her father, whose memory was lost in that antiquity which swallows up the record of so many widows' husbands, and who could not have left her what was left of her mother's money, for none of it had ever been his. It was still her mother's, and it was supposed to be the daughter's chief attraction. There must, therefore, have been a good deal of it, for those who were harshest with the minister did not believe that a little money would attract him. Not that they really thought him mercenary; some of his people considered him gay to the verge of triviality, but there were none that accused him of insincerity. They would have liked a little more seriousness in him, especially when they had not much of their own, and would have had him make up in severity of behavior for what he lacked, and what they wished him to lack, in austerity of doctrine.

The Amstel had lost so much time in the rough weather of her first days out that she could not make it up with her old-fashioned single screw. She was at best a ten-day boat, counting from Sandy Hook to Boulogne, and she had not been four days out when she promised to break her record for slowness. Three days later Miss Rasmith said to Breckon, as he took the chair which her mother agilely abandoned to him beside her: "The head steward says it will be a twelve-day trip, end our bedroom steward thinks more. What is the consensus of opinion in the smoking-room? Where are you going, mother? Are you planning to leave Mr. Breckon and me alone again? It isn't necessary. We couldn't get away from each other if we tried, and all we ask—Well, I suppose age must be indulged in its little fancies," she called after Mrs. Rasmith.

Breckon took up the question she had asked him. "The odds are so heavily in favor of a fifteen-days' run that there are no takers."

"Now you are joking again," she said. "I thought a sea-voyage might make you serious."

"It has been tried before. Besides, it's you that I want to be serious."

"What about? Besides, I doubt it."

"About Boyne."

"Oh! I thought you were going to say some one else."

"No, I think that is very well settled."

"You'll never persuade my mother," said Miss Rasmith, with a low, comfortable laugh.

"But if you are satisfied—"

"She will have to resign herself? Well, perhaps. But why do you wish me to be serious about Boyne?"

"I have no doubt he amuses you. But that doesn't seem a very good reason why you should amuse yourself with him."

"No? Why not?"

"Well, because the poor boy is in earnest; and you're not exactly—contemporaries."

"Why, how old is Boyne?" she asked, with affected surprise.

"About fifteen, I think," said Breckon, gravely.

"And I'm but a very few months past thirty. I don't see the great disparity. But he is merely a brother to me—an elder brother—and he gives me the best kind of advice."

"I dare say you need it, but all the same, I am afraid you are putting ideas into his head."

"Well, if he began it? If he put them in mine first?"

She was evidently willing that he should go further, and create the common ground between them that grows up when one gives a reproof and the other accepts it; but Breckon, whether he thought that he had now done his duty, and need say no more, or because he was vexed with her, left the subject.

"Mrs. Rasmith says you are going to Switzerland for the rest of the summer."

"Yes, to Montreux. Are you going to spend it in Paris?"

"I'm going to Paris to see. I have had some thoughts of Etretat; I have cousins there."

"I wish that I could go to the sea-side. But this happens to be one of the summers when nothing but mountains can save my mother's life. Shall you get down to Rome before you go back?"

"I don't know. If I sail from Naples I shall probably pass through Rome."

"You had better stop off. We shall be there in November, and they say Rome is worth seeing," she laughed demurely. "That is what Boyne understands. He's promised to use his influence with his family to let him run down to see us there, if he can't get them all to come. You might offer to personally conduct them."

"Yes." said Breckon, with the effect of cloture. "Have you made many acquaintances an board?"

"What! Two lone women? You haven't introduced us to any but the Kentons. But I dare say they are the best. The judge is a dear, and Mrs. Kenton is everything that is motherly and matronly. Boyne says she is very well informed, and knows all about the reigning families. If he decides to marry into them, she can be of great use in saving him from a mesalliance. I can't say very much for Miss Lottie. Miss Lottie seems to me distinctly of the minx type. But that poor, pale girl is adorable. I wish she liked me!"

"What makes you think she doesn't like you?" Breckon asked.

"What? Women don't require anything to convince them that other women can't bear them. They simply know it. I wonder what has happened to her?"

"Why do you think anything has happened to her?"

"Why? Well, girls don't have that air of melancholy absence for nothing. She is brooding upon something, you may be sure. But you have had so many more opportunities than I! Do you mean that you haven't suspected a tragical past far her?"

"I don't know," said Breckon, a little restively, "that I have allowed myself to speculate about her past."

"That is, you oughtn't to have allowed yourself to do so. Well, there I agree with you. But a woman may do so without impertinence, and I am sure that Miss Kenton has a story. I have watched her, and her face has told me everything but the story."

Breckon would not say that some such revelation had been made to him, and in the absence of an answer from him Miss Rasmith asked, "Is she cultivated, too?"

"Too?"

"Like her mother."

"Oh! I should say she had read a good dial. And she's bookish, yes, in a simple-hearted kind of way."

"She asks you if you have read 'the book of the year,' and whether you don't think the heroine is a beautiful character?"

"Not quite so bad as that. But if you care to be serious about her!"

"Oh, I do!"

"I doubt it. Then, I should say that she seems to have grown up in a place where the interests are so material that a girl who was disposed to be thoughtful would be thrown back upon reading for her society more than in more intellectual centres—if there are such things. She has been so much with books that she does not feel odd in speaking of them as if they were the usual topics of conversation. It gives her a certain quaintness."

"And that is what constitutes her charm?"

"I didn't know that we were speaking of her charm."

"No, that is true. But I was thinking of it. She fascinates me. Are they going to get off at Boulogne?"

"No, they are going on to Rotterdam."

"To be sure! Boyne told me. And are you going on with them?"

"I thought we talked of my going to Paris." Breckon looked round at her, and she made a gesture of deprecation.

"Why, of course! How could I forget? But I'm so much interested in Miss Kenton that I can't think of anything else."

"Not even of Miss Rasmith?"

"Not even of Miss Rasmith. I know that she has a history, and that it's a sad one." She paused in ironical hesitation. "You've been so good as to caution me about her brother—and I never can be grateful enough—and that makes me almost free to suggest—"

She stopped again, and he asked, hardily, "What?"

"Oh, nothing. It isn't for me to remind my pastor, my ghostly adviser"—she pulled down her mouth and glanced at him demurely—"and I will only offer the generalization that a girl is never so much in danger of having her heart broken as when she's had it broken—Oh, are you leaving me?" she cried, as Breckon rose from his chair.

"Well, then, send Boyne to me." She broke into a laugh as he faltered. "Are you going to sit down again? That is right. And I won't talk any more about Miss Kenton."

"I don't mind talking of her," said Breckon. "Perhaps it will even be well to do so if you are in earnest. Though it strikes me that you have rather renounced the right to criticise me."

"Now, is that logical? It seems to me that in putting myself in the attitude of a final friend at the start, and refusing to be anything more, I leave established my right to criticise you on the firmest basis. I can't possibly be suspected of interested motives. Besides, you've just been criticizing me, if you want a woman's reason!"

"Well, go on."

"Why, I had finished. That's the amusing part. I should have supposed that I could go on forever about Miss Kenton, but I have nothing to go upon. She has kept her secret very well, and so have the rest of them. You think I might have got it out of Boyne? Perhaps I might, but you know I have my little scruples. I don't think it would be quite fair, or quite nice."

"You are scrupulous. And I give you credit for having been more delicate than I've been."

"You don't mean you've been trying to find it out!"

"Ah, now I'm not sure about the superior delicacy!"

"Oh, how good!" said Miss Rasmith. "What a pity you should be wasted in a calling that limits you so much."

"You call it limiting? I didn't know but I had gone too far."

"Not at all! You know there's nothing I like so much as those little digs."

"I had forgotten. Then you won't mind my saying that this surveillance seems to me rather more than I have any right to from you."

"How exquisitely you put it! Who else could have told me to mind my own business so delightfully? Well, it isn't my business. I acknowledge that, and I spoke only because I knew you would be sorry if you had gone too far. I remembered our promise to be friends."

She threw a touch of real feeling into her tone, and he responded, "Yes, and I thank you for it, though it isn't easy."

She put out her hand to him, and, as he questioningly took it, she pressed his with animation. "Of course it isn't! Or it wouldn't be for any other man. But don't you suppose I appreciate that supreme courage of yours? There is nobody else-nobody!—who could stand up to an impertinence and turn it to praise by such humility."

"Don't go too far, or I shall be turning your praise to impertinence by my humility. You're quite right, though, about the main matter. I needn't suppose anything so preposterous as you suggest, to feel that people are best left alone to outlive their troubles, unless they are of the most obvious kind."

"Now, if I thought I had done anything to stop you from offering that sort of helpfulness which makes you a blessing to everybody, I should never forgive myself."

"Nothing so dire as that, I believe. But if you've made me question the propriety of applying the blessing in all cases, you have done a very good thing."

Miss Rasmith was silent and apparently serious. After a moment she said, "And I, for my part, promise to let poor little Boyne alone."

Breckon laughed. "Don't burlesque it! Besides, I haven't promised anything."

"That is very true," said Miss Rasmith, and she laughed, too.

William Dean Howells

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