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Chapter 17

Ellen discovered her father with a book in a distant corner of the dining-saloon, which he preferred to the deck or the library for his reading, in such intervals as the stewards, laying and cleaning the tables, left him unmolested in it. She advanced precipitately upon him, and stood before him in an excitement which, though he lifted his dazed eyes to it from his page, he was not entirely aware of till afterwards. Then he realized that her cheeks were full of color, and her eyes of light, and that she panted as if she had been running when she spoke.

"Poppa," she said, "there is something that Mr. Breckon wants to speak to you—to ask you about. He has asked me, but I want you to see him, for I think he had better tell you himself."

While he still stared at her she was as suddenly gone as she had come, and he remained with his book, which the meaning had as suddenly left. There was no meaning in her words, except as he put it into them, and after he had got it in he struggled with it in a sort of perfunctory incredulity. It was not impossible; it chiefly seemed so because it seemed too good to be true; and the more he pondered it the more possible, if not probable, it became. He could not be safe with it till he had submitted it to his wife; and he went to her while he was sure of repeating Ellen's words without varying from them a syllable.

To his astonishment, Mrs. Kenton was instantly convinced. "Why, of course," she said, "it can't possibly mean anything else. Why should it be so very surprising? The time hasn't been very long, but they've been together almost every moment; and he was taken with her from the very beginning—I could see that. Put on your other coat," she said, as she dusted the collar of the coat the judge was wearing. "He'll be looking you up, at once. I can't say that it's unexpected," and she claimed a prescience in the matter which all her words had hitherto denied.

Kenton did not notice her inconsistency. "If it were not so exactly what I wished," he said, "I don't know that I should be surprised at it myself. Sarah, if I had been trying to imagine any one for Ellen, I couldn't have dreamed of a person better suited to her than this young man. He's everything that I could wish him to be. I've seen the pleasure and comfort she took in his way from the first moment. He seemed to make her forget—Do you suppose she has forgotten that miserable wretch Do you think—"

"If she hadn't, could she be letting him come to speak to you? I don't believe she ever really cared for Bittridge—or not after he began flirting with Mrs. Uphill." She had no shrinking from the names which Kenton avoided with disgust. "The only question for you is to consider what you shall say to Mr. Breckon."

"Say to him? Why, of course, if Ellen has made up her mind, there's only one thing I can say."

"Indeed there is! He ought to know all about that disgusting Bittridge business, and you have got to tell him."

"Sarah, I couldn't. It is too humiliating. How would it do to refer him to—You could manage that part so much better. I don't see how I could keep it from seeming an indelicate betrayal of the poor child—"

"Perhaps she's told him herself," Mrs. Kenton provisionally suggested.

The judge eagerly caught at the notion. "Do you think so? It would be like her! Ellen would wish him to know everything."

He stopped, and his wife could see that he was trembling with excitement. "We must find out. I will speak to Ellen—"

"And—you don't think I'd better have the talk with him first?"

"Certainly not!"

"Why, Rufus! You were not going to look him up?"

"No," he hesitated; but she could see that some such thing had been on his mind.

"Surely," she said, "you must be crazy!" But she had not the heart to blight his joy with sarcasm, and perhaps no sarcasm would have blighted it.

"I merely wondered what I had better say in case he spoke to me before you saw Ellen—that's all. Sarah! I couldn't have believed that anything could please me so much. But it does seem as if it were the assurance of Ellen's happiness; and she has deserved it, poor child! If ever there was a dutiful and loving daughter—at least before that wretched affair—she was one."

"She has been a good girl," Mrs. Kenton stoically admitted.

"And they are very well matched. Ellen is a cultivated woman. He never could have cause to blush for her, either her mind or her manners, in any circle of society; she would do him credit under any and all circumstances. If it were Lottie—"

"Lottie is all right," said her mother, in resentment of his preference; but she could not help smiling at it. "Don't you be foolish about Ellen. I approve of Mr. Breckon as much as you do. But it's her prettiness and sweetness that's taken his fancy, and not her wisdom, if she's got him."

"If she's got him?"

"Well, you know what I mean. I'm not saying she hasn't. Dear knows, I don't want to! I feel just as you do about it. I think it's the greatest piece of good fortune, coming on top of all our trouble with her. I couldn't have imagined such a thing."

He was instantly appeased. "Are you going to speak with Ellen" he radiantly inquired.

"I will see. There's no especial hurry, is there?"

"Only, if he should happen to meet me—"

"You can keep out of his way, I reckon. Or You can put him off, somehow."

"Yes," Kenton returned, doubtfully. "Don't," he added, "be too blunt with Ellen. You know she didn't say anything explicit to me."

"I think I will know how to manage, Mr. Kenton."

"Yes, of course, Sarah. I'm not saying that."

Breckon did not apparently try to find the judge before lunch, and at table he did not seem especially devoted to Ellen in her father's jealous eyes. He joked Lottie, and exchanged those passages or repartee with her in which she did not mind using a bludgeon when she had not a rapier at hand; it is doubtful if she was very sensible of the difference. Ellen sat by in passive content, smiling now and then, and Boyne carried on a dignified conversation with Mr. Pogis, whom he had asked to lunch at his table, and who listened with one ear to the vigorous retorts of Lottie in her combat with Breckon.

The judge witnessed it all with a grave displeasure, more and more painfully apparent to his wife. She could see the impatience, the gathering misgiving, in his face, and she perceived that she must not let this come to conscious dissatisfaction with Breckon; she knew her husband capable of indignation with trifling which would complicate the situation, if it came to that. She decided to speak with Ellen as soon as possible, and she meant to follow her to her state-room when they left the table. But fate assorted the pieces in the game differently. Boyne walked over to the place where Miss Rasmith was sitting with her mother; Lottie and Mr. Pogis went off to practise duets together, terrible, four-handed torments under which the piano presently clamored; and Ellen stood for a moment talked to by Mr. Breckon, who challenged her then for a walk on deck, and with whom she went away smiling.

Mrs. Kenton appealed with the reflection of the girl's happiness in her face to the frowning censure in her husband's; but Kenton spoke first. "What does he mean?" he demanded, darkly. "If he is making a fool of her he'll find that that game can't be played twice, with impunity. Sarah, I believe I should choke him."

"Mr. Kenton!" she gasped, and she trembled in fear of him, even while she kept herself with difficulty from shaking him for his folly. "Don't say such a thing! Can't you see that they want to talk it over? If he hasn't spoken to you it's because he wants to know how you took what she said." Seeing the effect of these arguments, she pursued: "Will you never have any sense? I will speak to Ellen the very minute I get her alone, and you have just got to wait. Don't you suppose it's hard for me, too? Have I got nothing to bear?"

Kenton went silently back to his book, which he took with him to the reading-room, where from time to time his wife came to him and reported that Ellen and Breckon were still walking up and down together, or that they were sitting down talking, or were forward, looking over at the prow, or were watching the deck-passengers dancing. Her husband received her successive advices with relaxing interest, and when she had brought the last she was aware that the affair was entirely in her hands with all the responsibility. After the gay parting between Ellen and Breckon, which took place late in the afternoon, she suffered an interval to elapse before she followed the girl down to her state-room. She found her lying in her berth, with shining eyes and glad, red cheeks; she was smiling to herself.

"That is right, Ellen," her mother said. "You need rest after your long tramp."

"I'm not tired. We were sitting down a good deal. I didn't think how late it was. I'm ever so much better. Where's Lottie?"

"Off somewhere with that young Englishman," said Mrs. Kenton, as if that were of no sort of consequence. "Ellen," she added, abruptly, trying within a tremulous smile to hide her eagerness, "what is this that Mr. Breckon wants to talk with your father about?"

"Mr. Breckon? With poppa?"

"Yes, certainly. You told him this morning that Mr. Breckon—"

"Oh! Oh yes!" said Ellen, as if recollecting something that had slipped her mind. "He wants poppa to advise him whether to go back to his congregation in New York or not."

Mrs. Kenton sat in the corner of the sofa next the door, looking into the girl's face on the pillow as she lay with her arms under her head. Tears of defeat and shame came into her eyes, and she could not see the girl's light nonchalance in adding:

"But he hasn't got up his courage yet. He thinks he'll ask him after dinner. He says he doesn't want poppa to think he's posing. I don't know what he means."

Mrs. Kenton did not speak at once. Her bitterest mortification was not for herself, but for the simple and tender father-soul which had been so tried already. She did not know how he would bear it, the disappointment, and the cruel hurt to his pride. But she wanted to fall on her knees in thankfulness that he had betrayed himself only to her.

She started in sudden alarm with the thought. "Where is he now—Mr. Breckon?"

"He's gone with Boyne down into the baggage-room."

Mrs. Kenton sank back in her corner, aware now that she would not have had the strength to go to her husband even to save him from the awful disgrace of giving himself away to Breckon. "And was that all?" she faltered.

"All?"

"That he wanted to speak to your father about?"

She must make irrefragably sure, for Kenton's sake, that she was not misunderstanding.

"Why, of course! What else? Why, momma! what are you crying about?"

"I'm not crying, child. Just some foolishness of your father's. He understood—he thought—" Mrs. Kenton began to laugh hysterically. "But you know how ridiculous he is; and he supposed—No, I won't tell you!"

It was not necessary. The girl's mind, perhaps because it was imbued already with the subject, had possessed itself of what filled her mother's. She dropped from the elbow on which she had lifted herself, and turned her face into the pillow, with a long wail of shame.

William Dean Howells

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