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Chapter 16

In one of those dramatic reveries which we all hold with ourselves when fortune has pressingly placed us, Ellen Kenton had imagined it possible for her to tell her story to the man who had so gently and truly tried to be her friend. It was mostly in the way of explaining to him how she was unworthy of his friendship that the story was told, and she fancied telling it without being scandalized at violating the conventions that should have kept her from even dreaming of such a thing. It was all exalted to a plane where there was no question of fit or unfit in doing it, but only the occasion; and he would never hear of the unworthiness which she wished to ascribe to herself. Sometimes he mournfully left her when she persisted, left her forever, and sometimes he refused, and retained with her in a sublime kindness, a noble amity, lofty and serene, which did not seek to become anything else. In this case she would break from her reveries with self-accusing cries, under her breath, of "Silly, silly! Oh, how disgusting!" and if at that moment Breckon were really coming up to sit by her, she would blush to her hair, and wish to run away, and failing the force for this, would sit cold and blank to his civilities, and have to be skilfully and gradually talked back to self-respect and self-tolerance.

The recurrence of these reveries and their consequence in her made it difficult for him to put in effect the promise he had given himself in Miss Rasmith's presence. If Ellen had been eager to welcome his coming, it would have been very simple to keep away from her, but as she appeared anxious to escape him, and had to be entreated, as it were, to suffer his society, something better than his curiosity was piqued, though that was piqued, too. He believed that he saw her lapsing again into that morbid state from which he had seemed once able to save her, and he could not help trying again. He was the more bound to do so by the ironical observance of Miss Rasmith, who had to be defied first, and then propitiated; certainly, when she saw him apparently breaking faith with her, she had a right to some sort of explanation, but certainly also she had no right to a blind and unreasoning submission from him. His embarrassment was heightened by her interest in Miss Kenton, whom, with an admirable show of now finding her safe from Breckon's attractions, she was always wishing to study from his observation. What was she really like? The girl had a perfect fascination for her; she envied him his opportunities of knowing her, and his privileges of making that melancholy face light up with that heart-breaking smile, and of banishing that delicious shyness with which she always seemed to meet him. Miss Rasmith had noticed it; how could she help noticing it?

Breckon wished to himself that she had been able to help noticing it, or were more capable of minding her own business than she showed herself, and his heart closed about Ellen with a tenderness that was dangerously indignant. At the same time he felt himself withheld by Miss Rasmith's witness from being all to the girl that he wished to be, and that he now seemed to have been in those first days of storm, while Miss Rasmith and her mother were still keeping their cabin. He foresaw that it would end in Miss Rasmith's sympathetic nature not being able to withhold itself from Ellen's need of cheerful companionship, and he was surprised, as little as he was pleased, one morning, when he came to take the chair beside her to find Miss Rasmith in it, talking and laughing to the girl, who perversely showed herself amused. Miss Rasmith made as if to offer him the seat, but he had to go away disappointed, after standing long enough before them to be aware that they were suspending some topic while he stayed.

He naturally supposed the topic to be himself, but it was not so, or at least not directly so. It was only himself as related to the scolding he had given Miss Rasmith for trifling with the innocence of Boyne, which she wished Miss Kenton to understand as the effect of a real affection for her brother. She loved all boys, and Boyne was simply the most delightful creature in the world. She went on to explain how delightful he was, and showed a such an appreciation of the infantile sweetness mingled with the mature severity of Boyne's character that Ellen could not help being pleased and won. She told some little stories of Boyne that threw a light also their home life in Tuskingum, and Miss Rasmith declared herself perfectly fascinated, and wished that she could go and live in Tuskingum. She protested that she should not find it dull; Boyne alone would be entertainment enough; and she figured a circumstance so idyllic from the hints she had gathered, that Ellen's brow darkened in silent denial, and Miss Rasmith felt herself, as the children say in the game, very hot in her proximity to the girl's secret. She would have liked to know it, but whether she felt that she could know it when she liked enough, or whether she should not be so safe with Breckon in knowing it, she veered suddenly away, and said that she was so glad to have Boyne's family know the peculiar nature of her devotion, which did not necessarily mean running away with him, though it might come to that. She supposed she was a little morbid about it from what Mr. Breckon had been saying; he had a conscience that would break the peace of a whole community, though he was the greatest possible favorite, not only with his own congregation, which simply worshipped him, but with the best society, where he was in constant request.

It was not her fault if she did not overdo these history, but perhaps it was all true about the number of girls who were ready and willing to marry him. It might even be true, though she had no direct authority for saying it, that he had made up his mind never to marry, and that was the reason why he felt himself so safe in being the nicest sort of friend. He was safe, Miss Rasmith philosophized, but whether other people were so safe was a different question. There were girls who were said to be dying for him; but of course those things were always said about a handsome young minister. She had frankly taken him on his own ground, from the beginning, and she believed that this was what he liked. At any rate, they had agreed that they were never to be anything but the best of friends, and they always had been.

Mrs. Kenton came and shyly took the chair on Miss Rasmith's other side, and Miss Rasmith said they had been talking about Mr. Breckon, and she repeated what she had been saying to Ellen. Mrs. Kenton assented more openly than Ellen could to her praises, but when she went away, and her daughter sat passive, without comment or apparent interest, the mother drew a long, involuntary sigh.

"Do you like her, Ellen?"

"She tries to be pleasant, I think."

"Do you think she really knows much about Mr. Breckon?"

"Oh yes. Why not? She belongs to his church."

"He doesn't seem to me like a person who would have a parcel of girls tagging after him."

"That is what they do in the East, Boyne says."

"I wish she would let Boyne alone. She is making a fool of the child. He's round with her every moment. I think she ought to be ashamed, such an old thing!"

Ellen chose to protest, or thought it fair to do so. "I don't believe she is doing him any harm. She just lets him talk out, and everybody else checks him up so. It was nice of her to come and talk with me, when we had all been keeping away from her. Perhaps he sent her, though. She says they have always been such good friends because she wouldn't be anything else from the beginning."

"I don't see why she need have told you that."

"Oh, it was just to show he was run after. I wonder if he thinks we are running after him? Momma, I am tired of him! I wish he wouldn't speak to me any more."

"Why! do you really dislike him, Ellen?"

"No, not dislike him. But it tires me to have him trying to amuse me. Don't you understand?"

Mrs. Kenton said yes, she understood, but she was clear only of the fact that Ellen seemed flushed and weak at that moment. She believed that it was Miss Rasmith and not Mr. Breckon who was to blame, but she said: "Well, you needn't worry about it long. It will only be a day or two now till we get to Boulogne, and then he will leave us. Hadn't you better go down now, and rest awhile in your berth? I will bring your things."

Ellen rose, pulling her wraps from her skirts to give them to her mother. A voice from behind said between their meeting shoulders: "Oh, are you going down? I was just coming to beg Miss Kenton to take a little walk with me," and they looked round together and met Breckon's smiling face.

"I'm afraid," Mrs. Kenton began, and then, like a well-trained American mother, she stopped and left the affair to her daughter.

"Do you think you can get down with them, momma?" the girl asked, and somehow her mother's heart was lightened by her evasion, not to call it uncandor. It was at least not morbid, it was at least like other girls, and Mrs. Kenton imparted what comfort there was in it to the judge, when he asked where she had left Ellen.

"Not that it's any use," she sighed, when she had seen him share it with a certain shamefacedness. "That woman has got her grip on him, and she doesn't mean to let go."

Kenton understood Miss Rasmith by that woman; but he would not allow himself to be so easily cast down. This was one of the things that provoked Mrs. Kenton with him; when he had once taken hope he would not abandon it without reason. "I don't see any evidence of her having her grip on him. I've noticed him, and he doesn't seem attentive to her. I should say he tried to avoid her. He certainly doesn't avoid Ellen."

"What are you thinking of, Rufus?"

"What are you? You know we'd both be glad if he fancied her."

"Well, suppose we would? I don't deny it. He is one of the most agreeable gentlemen I ever saw; one of the kindest and nicest."

"He's more than that," said the judge. "I've been sounding him on various points, and I don't see where he's wrong. Of course, I don't know much about his religious persuasion, if it is one, but I think I'm a pretty fair judge of character, and that young man has character. He isn't a light person, though he likes joking and laughing, and he appreciates Ellen."

"Yes, so do we. And there's about as much prospect of his marrying her. Rufus, it's pretty hard! She's just in the mood to be taken with him, but she won't let herself, because she knows it's of no use. That Miss Rasmith has been telling her how much he is run after, and I could see that that settled it for Ellen as plainly as if she said so. More plainly, for there's enough of the girl in her to make her say one thing when she means another. She was just saying she was sick of him, and never wanted to speak to him again, when he came up and asked her to walk, and she went with him instantly. I knew what she meant. She wasn't going to let him suppose that anything Miss Rasmith had said was going to change her."

"Well, then," said the judge, "I don't see what you're scared at."

"I'm not SCARED. But, oh, Rufus! It can't come to anything! There isn't time!" An hysterical hope trembled in her asseveration of despair that made him smile.

"I guess if time's all that's wanted—"

"He is going to get off at Boulogne."

"Well, we can get off there, too."

"Rufus, if you dare to think of such a thing!"

"I don't. But Europe isn't so big but what he can find us again if he wants to."

"Ah, if he wants to!"

Ellen seemed to have let her mother take her languor below along with the shawls she had given her. Buttoned into a close jacket, and skirted short for the sea, she pushed against the breeze at Breckon's elbow with a vigor that made him look his surprise at her. Girl-like, she took it that something was wrong with her dress, and ran herself over with an uneasy eye.

Then he explained: "I was just thinking how much you were like Miss Lottie-if you'll excuse my being so personal. And it never struck me before."

"I didn't suppose we looked alike," said Ellen.

"No, certainly. I shouldn't have taken you for sisters. And yet, just now, I felt that you were like her. You seem so much stronger this morning—perhaps it's that the voyage is doing you good. Shall you be sorry to have it end?"

"Shall you? That's the way Lottie would answer."

Breckon laughed. "Yes, it is. I shall be very sorry. I should be willing to have it rough again, it that would make it longer. I liked it's being rough. We had it to ourselves." He had not thought how that sounded, but if it sounded particular, she did not notice it.

She merely said, "I was surprised not to be seasick, too."

"And should you be willing to have it rough again?"

"You wouldn't see anything more of your friends, then."

"Ah, yes; Miss Rasmith. She is a great talker, Did you find her interesting?"

"She was very interesting."

"Yes? What did she talk about?"

Ellen realized the fact too late to withhold "Why, about you."

"And was that what made her interesting?"

"Now, what would Lottie say to such a thing as that?" asked Ellen, gayly.

"Something terribly cutting, I'm afraid. But don't you! From you I don't want to believe I deserve it, no matter what Miss Rasmith said me."

"Oh, she didn't say anything very bad. Unless you mind being a universal favorite."

"Well, it makes a man out rather silly."

"But you can't help that."

"Now you remind me of Miss Lottie again!"

"But I didn't mean that," said Ellen, blushing and laughing. "I hope you wouldn't think I could be so pert."

"I wouldn't think anything that wasn't to your praise," said Breckon, and a pause ensued, after which the words he added seemed tame and flat. "I suspect Miss Rasmith has been idealizing the situation. At any rate, I shouldn't advise you to trust her report implicitly. I'm at the head of a society, you know, ethical or sociological, or altruistic, whatever you choose to call it, which hasn't any very definite object of worship, and yet meets every Sunday for a sort of worship; and I have to be in the pulpit. So you see?"

Ellen said, "I think I understand," with a temptation to smile at the ruefulness of his appeal.

Breckon laughed for her. "That's the mischief and the absurdity of it. But it isn't so bad as it seems. They're really most of them hard-headed people; and those that are not couldn't make a fool of a man that nature hadn't begun with. Still, I'm not very well satisfied with my work among them—that is, I'm not satisfied with myself." He was talking soberly enough, and he did not find that she was listening too seriously. "I'm going away to see whether I shall come back." He looked at her to make sure that she had taken his meaning, and seemed satisfied that she had. "I'm not sure that I'm fit for any sort of ministry, and I may find the winter in England trying to find out. I was at school in England, you know."

Ellen confessed that she had not known that.

"Yes; I suppose that's what made me seem 'so Englishy' the first day to Miss Lottie, as she called it. But I'm straight enough American as far as parentage goes. Do you think you will be in England-later?"

"I don't know. If poppa gets too homesick we will go back in the fall."

"Miss Kenton," said the young man, abruptly, "will you let me tell you how much I admire and revere your father?"

Tears came into her eyes and her throat swelled. "But you don't know," she begun; and then she stopped.

"I have been wanting to submit something to his judgment; but I've been afraid. I might seem to be fishing for his favor."

"Poppa wouldn't think anything that was unjust," said Ellen, gravely.

"Ah," Breckon laughed, "I suspect that I should rather have him unjust. I wish you'd tell me what he would think."

"But I don't know what it is," she protested, with a reflected smile.

"I was in hopes Miss Rasmith might have told you. Well, it is simply this, and you will see that I'm not quite the universal favorite she's been making you fancy me. There is a rift in my lute, a schism in my little society, which is so little that I could not have supposed there was enough of it to break in two. There are some who think their lecturer—for that's what I amount to—ought to be an older, if not a graver man. They are in the minority, but they're in the right, I'm afraid; and that's why I happen to be here telling you all this. It's a question of whether I ought to go back to New York or stay in London, where there's been a faint call for me." He saw the girl listening devoutly, with that flattered look which a serious girl cannot keep out of her face when a man confides a serious matter to her. "I might safely promise to be older, but could I keep my word if I promised to be graver? That's the point. If I were a Calvinist I might hold fast by faith, and fight it out with that; or if I were a Catholic I could cast myself upon the strength of the Church, and triumph in spite of temperament. Then it wouldn't matter whether I was grave or gay; it might be even better if I were gay. But," he went on, in terms which, doubtless, were not then for the first time formulated in his mind, "being merely the leader of a sort of forlorn hope in the Divine Goodness, perhaps I have no right to be so cheerful."

The note of a sad irony in his words appealed to such indignation for him in Ellen as she never felt for herself. But she only said, "I don't believe Poppa could take that in the wrong way if you told him."

Breckon stared. "Yes your father! What would he say?"

"I can't tell you. But I'm sure he would know what you meant."

"And you," he pursued, "what should YOU say?"

"I? I never thought about such a thing. You mustn't ask me, if you're serious; and if you're not—"

"But I am; I am deeply serious. I would like, to know how the case strikes you. I shall be so grateful if you will tell me."

"I'm sorry I can't, Mr. Breckon. Why don't you ask poppa?"

"No, I see now I sha'n't be able. I feel too much, after telling you, as if I had been posing. The reality has gone out of it all. And I'm ashamed."

"You mustn't be," she said, quietly; and she added, "I suppose it would be like a kind of defeat if you didn't go back?"

"I shouldn't care for the appearance of defeat," he said, courageously. "The great question is, whether somebody else wouldn't be of more use in my place."

"Nobody could be," said she, in a sort of impassioned absence, and then coming to herself, "I mean, they wouldn't think so, I don't believe."

"Then you advise—"

"No, no! I can't; I don't. I'm not fit to have an opinion about such a thing; it would be crazy. But poppa—"

They were at the door of the gangway, and she slipped within and left him. His nerves tingled, and there was a glow in his breast. It was sweet to have surprised that praise from her, though he could not have said why he should value the praise or a girl of her open ignorance and inexperience in everything that would have qualified her to judge him. But he found himself valuing it supremely, and wonderingly wishing to be worthy of it.

William Dean Howells

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