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Chapter 18

Mrs. Kenton's difficulties in setting her husband right were indefinitely heightened by the suspicion that the most unsuspicious of men fell into concerning Breckon. Did Breckon suppose that the matter could be turned off in that way? he stupidly demanded; and when he was extricated from this error by his wife's representation that Breckon had not changed at all, but had never told Ellen that he wished to speak with him of anything but his returning to his society, Kenton still could not accept the fact. He would have contended that at least the other matter must have been in Breckon's mind; and when he was beaten from this position, and convinced that the meaning they had taken from Ellen's words had never been in any mind but their own, he fell into humiliation so abject that he could hide it only by the hauteur with which he carried himself towards Breckon when they met at dinner. He would scarcely speak to the young man; Ellen did not come to the table; Lottie and Boyne and their friend Mr. Pogis were dining with the Rasmiths, and Mrs. Kenton had to be, as she felt, cringingly kind to Breckon in explaining just the sort of temporary headache that kept her eldest daughter away. He was more than ordinarily sympathetic and polite, but he was manifestly bewildered by Kenton's behavior. He refused an hilarious invitation from Mrs. Rasmith, when he rose from table, to stop and have his coffee with her on his way out of the saloon. His old adorer explained that she had ordered a small bottle of champagne in honor of its being the night before they were to get into Boulogne, and that he ought to sit down and help her keep the young people straight. Julia, she brokenly syllabled, with the gay beverage bubbling back into her throat, was not the least use; she was worse than any. Julia did not look it, in the demure regard which she bent upon her amusing mother, and Breckon persisted in refusing. He said he thought he might safely leave them to Boyne, and Mrs. Rasmith said into her handkerchief, "Oh yes! Boyne!" and pressed Boyne's sleeve with her knobbed and jewelled fingers.

It was evident where most of the small bottle had gone, but Breckon was none the cheerfuller for the spectacle of Mrs. Rasmith. He could not have a moment's doubt as to the sort of work he had been doing in New York if she were an effect of it, and he turned his mind from the sad certainty back to the more important inquiry as to what offence his wish to advise with Judge Kenton could have conveyed. Ellen had told him in the afternoon that she had spoken with her father about it, and she had not intimated any displeasure or reluctance on him; but apparently he had decided not to suffer himself to be approached.

It might be as well. Breckon had not been able to convince himself that his proposal to consult Judge Kenton was not a pose. He had flashes of owning that it was contemplated merely as a means of ingratiating himself with Ellen. Now, as he found his way up and down among the empty steamer-chairs, he was aware, at the bottom of his heart, of not caring in the least for Judge Kenton's repellent bearing, except as it possibly, or impossibly, reflected some mood of hers. He could not make out her not coming to dinner; the headache was clearly an excuse; for some reason she did not wish to see him, he argued, with the egotism of his condition.

The logic of his conclusion was strengthened at breakfast by her continued absence; and this time Mrs. Kenton made no apologies for her. The judge was a shade less severe; or else Breckon did not put himself so much in the way to be withheld as he had the night before. Boyne and Lottie carried on a sort of muted scrap, unrebuked by their mother, who seemed too much distracted in some tacit trouble to mind them. From time to time Breckon found her eyes dwelling upon him wonderingly, entreatingly; she dropped them, if she caught his, and colored.

In the afternoon it was early evident that they were approaching Boulogne. The hatch was opened and the sailors began getting up the baggage of the passengers who were going to disembark. It seemed a long time for everybody till the steamer got in; those going ashore sat on their hand-baggage for an hour before the tug came up to take, them off. Mr. Pogis was among them; he had begun in the forenoon to mark the approaching separation between Lottie and himself by intervals of unmistakable withdrawal. Another girl might have cared, but Lottie did not care, for her failure to get a rise out of him by her mockingly varied "Oh, I say!" and "Well, rather!" In the growth of his dignified reserve Mr. Pogis was indifferent to jeers. By whatever tradition of what would or would not do he was controlled in relinquishing her acquaintance, or whether it was in obedience to some imperative ideal, or some fearful domestic influence subtly making itself felt from the coasts of his native island, or some fine despair of equalling the imagined grandeur of Lottie's social state in Tuskingum by anything he could show her in England, it was certain that he was ending with Lottie then and there. At the same time he was carefully defining himself from the Rasmiths, with whom he must land. He had his state-room things put at an appreciable distance, where he did not escape a final stab from Lottie.

"Oh, do give me a rose out of that," she entreated, in travestied imploring, as he stood looking at a withered bouquet which the steward had brought up with his rugs.

"I'm takin' it home," he explained, coldly.

"And I want to take a rose back to New York. I want to give it to a friend of mine there."

Mr. Pogis hesitated. Then he asked, "A man?" "Well, rather!" said Lottie.

He answered nothing, but looked definitively down at the flowers in his hand.

"Oh, I say!" Lottie exulted.

Boyne remained fixed in fealty to the Rasmiths, with whom Breckon was also talking as Mrs. Kenton came up with the judge. She explained how sorry her daughter Ellen was at not being able to say goodbye; she was still not at all well; and the ladies received her excuses with polite patience. Mrs. Rasmith said she did not know what they should do without Boyne, and Miss Rasmith put her arm across his shoulders and pulled him up to her, and implored, "Oh, give him to me, Mrs. Kenton!"

Boyne stole an ashamed look at his mother, and his father said, with an unbending to Breckon which must have been the effect of severe expostulation from Mrs. Kenton, "I suppose you and the ladies will go to Paris together."

"Why, no," Breckon said, and he added, with mounting confusion, "I—I had arranged to keep on to Rotterdam. I was going to mention it."

"Keep on to Rotterdam!" Mrs. Rasmith's eyes expressed the greatest astonishment.

"Why, of course, mother!" said her daughter. "Don't you know? Boyne told us."

Boyne, after their parting, seized the first chance of assuring his mother that he had not told Miss Rasmith that, for he had not known it, and he went so far in her condemnation to wonder how she could say such a thing. His mother said it was not very nice, and then suggested that perhaps she had heard it from some one else, and thought it was he. She acquitted him of complicity with Miss Rasmith in forbearing to contradict her; and it seemed to her a fitting time to find out from Boyne what she honestly could about the relation of the Rasmiths to Mr. Breckon. It was very little beyond their supposition, which every one else had shared, that he was going to land with them at Boulogne, and he must have changed his mind very suddenly. Boyne had not heard the Rasmiths speak of it. Miss Rasmith never spoke of Mr. Breckon at all; but she seemed to want to talk of Ellen; she was always asking about her, and what was the matter with her, and how long she had been sick.

"Boyne," said his mother, with a pang, "you didn't tell her anything about Ellen?"

"Momma!" said the boy, in such evident abhorrence of the idea that she rested tranquil concerning it. She paid little attention to what Boyne told her otherwise of the Rasmiths. Her own horizon were so limited that she could not have brought home to herself within them that wandering life the Rasmiths led from climate to climate and sensation to sensation, with no stay so long as the annually made in New York, where they sometimes passed months enough to establish themselves in giving and taking tea in a circle of kindred nomads. She conjectured as ignorantly as Boyne himself that they were very rich, and it would not have enlightened her to know that the mother was the widow of a California politician, whom she had married in the sort of middle period following upon her less mortuary survival of Miss Rasmith's father, whose name was not Rasmith.

What Mrs. Kenton divined was that they had wanted to get Breckon, and that so far as concerned her own interest in him they had wanted to get him away from Ellen. In her innermost self-confidences she did not permit herself the notion that Ellen had any right to him; but still it was a relief to have them off the ship, and to have him left. Of all the witnesses of the fact, she alone did not find it awkward. Breckon himself found it very awkward. He did not wish to be with the Rasmiths, but he found it uncomfortable not being with them, under the circumstances, and he followed them ashore in tingling reveries of explanation and apology. He had certainly meant to get off at Boulogne, and when he had suddenly and tardily made up his mind to keep on to Rotterdam, he had meant to tell them as soon as he had the labels on his baggage changed. He had not meant to tell them why he had changed his mind, and he did not tell them now in these tingling reveries. He did not own the reason in his secret thoughts, for it no longer seemed a reason; it no longer seemed a cause. He knew what the Rasmiths would think; but he could easily make that right with his conscience, at least, by parting with the Kentons at Rotterdam, and leaving them to find their unconducted way to any point they chose beyond. He separated himself uncomfortably from them when the tender had put off with her passengers and the ship had got under way again, and went to the smoking-room, while the judge returned to his book and Mrs. Kenton abandoned Lottie to her own devices, and took Boyne aside for her apparently fruitless inquiries.

They were not really so fruitless but that at the end of them she could go with due authority to look up her husband. She gently took his book from him and shut it up. "Now, Mr. Kenton," she began, "if you don't go right straight and find Mr. Breckon and talk with him, I—I don't know what I will do. You must talk to him—"

"About Ellen?" the judge frowned.

"No, certainly not. Talk with him about anything that interests you. Be pleasant to him. Can't you see that he's going on to Rotterdam on our account?"

"Then I wish he wasn't. There's no use in it."

"No matter! It's polite in him, and I want you to show him that you appreciate it."

"Now see here, Sarah," said the judge, "if you want him shown that we appreciate his politeness why don't you do it yourself?"

"I? Because it would look as if you were afraid to. It would look as if we meant something by it."

"Well, I am afraid; and that's just what I'm afraid of. I declare, my heart comes into my mouth whenever I think what an escape we had. I think of it whenever I look at him, and I couldn't talk to him without having that in my mind all the time. No, women can manage those things better. If you believe he is going along on our account, so as to help us see Holland, and to keep us from getting into scrapes, you're the one to make it up to him. I don't care what you say to show him our gratitude. I reckon we will get into all sorts of trouble if we're left to ourselves. But if you think he's stayed because he wants to be with Ellen, and—"

"Oh, I don't KNOW what I think! And that's silly I can't talk to him. I'm afraid it'll seem as if we wanted to flatter him, and goodness knows we don't want to. Or, yes, we do! I'd give anything if it was true. Rufus, do you suppose he did stay on her account? My, oh my! If I could only think so! Wouldn't it be the best thing in the world for the poor child, and for all of us? I never saw anybody that I liked so much. But it's too good to be true."

"He's a nice fellow, but I don't think he's any too good for Ellen."

"I'm not saying he is. The great thing is that he's good enough, and gracious knows what will happen if she meets some other worthless fellow, and gets befooled with him! Or if she doesn't take a fancy to some one, and goes back to Tuskingum without seeing any one else she likes, there is that awful wretch, and when she hears what Dick did to him—she's just wrong-headed enough to take up with him again to make amends to him. Oh, dear oh, dear! I know Lottie will let it out to her yet!"

The judge began threateningly, "You tell Lottie from me—"

"What?" said the girl herself, who had seen her father and mother talking together in a remote corner of the music-room and had stolen light-footedly upon them just at this moment.

"Lottie, child," said her mother, undismayed at Lottie's arrival in her larger anxiety, "I wish you would try and be agreeable to Mr. Breckon. Now that he's going on with us to Holland, I don't want him to think we're avoiding him."

"Why?"

"Oh, because."

"Because you want to get him for Ellen?"

"Don't be impudent," said her father. "You do as your mother bids you."

"Be agreeable to that old Breckon? I think I see myself! I'd sooner read! I'm going to get a book now." She left them as abruptly as she had come upon them, and ran across to the bookcase, where she remained two stepping and peering through the glass doors at the literature within, in unaccustomed question concerning it.

"She's a case," said the judge, looking at her not only with relenting, but with the pride in her sufficiency for all the exigencies of life which he could not feel in Ellen. "She can take care of herself."

"Oh yes," Mrs. Kenton sadly assented, "I don't think anybody will ever make a fool of Lottie."

"It's a great deal more likely to be the other way," her father suggested.

"I think Lottie is conscientious," Mrs. Kenton protested. "She wouldn't really fool with a man."

"No, she's a good girl," the judge owned.

"It's girls like Ellen who make the trouble and the care. They are too good, and you have to think some evil in this world. Well!" She rose and gave her husband back his book.

"Do you know where Boyne is?"

"No. Do you want him to be pleasant to Mr. Breckon?"

"Somebody has got to. But it would be ridiculous if nobody but Boyne was."

She did not find Boyne, after no very exhaustive search, and the boy was left to form his bearing towards Breckon on the behavior of the rest of his family. As this continued helplessly constrained both in his father and mother, and voluntarily repellent in Lottie, Boyne decided upon a blend of conduct which left Breckon in greater and greater doubt of his wisdom in keeping on to Rotterdam. There was no good reason which he would have been willing to give himself, from the beginning. It had been an impulse, suddenly coming upon him in the baggage-room where he had gone to get something out of his trunk, and where he had decided to have the label of his baggage changed from the original destination at Boulogne to the final port of the steamer's arrival. When this was once done he was sorry, but he was ashamed to have the label changed back. The most assignable motive for his act was his reluctance to go on to Paris with the Rasmiths, or rather with Mrs. Rasmith; for with her daughter, who was not a bad fellow, one could always manage. He was quite aware of being safely in his own hands against any design of Mrs. Rasmith's, but her machinations humiliated him for her; he hated to see her going through her manoeuvres, and he could not help grieving for her failures, with a sort of impersonal sympathy, all the more because he disliked her as little as he respected her.

The motive which he did not assign to himself was that which probably prevailed with him, though in the last analysis it was as selfish, no doubt, as the one he acknowledged. Ellen Kenton still piqued his curiosity, still touched his compassion. He had so far from exhausted his wish or his power to befriend her, to help her, that he had still a wholly unsatisfied longing to console her, especially when she drooped into that listless attitude she was apt to take, with her face fallen and her hands let lie, the back of one in the palm of the other, in her lap. It was possibly the vision of this following him to the baggage-room, when he went to open his trunk, that as much as anything decided him to have the label changed on his baggage, but he did not own it then, and still less did he own it now, when he found himself quite on his own hands for his pains.

He felt that for some reason the Kentons were all avoiding him. Ellen, indeed, did not take part, against him, unless negatively, for she had appeared neither at lunch nor at dinner as the vessel kept on its way after leaving Boulogne; and when he ventured to ask for her Mrs. Kenton answered with embarrassment that she was not feeling very well. He asked for her at lunch, but not at dinner, and when he had finished that meal he went on the promenade-deck, and walked forlornly up and down, feeling that he had been a fool.

Mrs. Kenton went below to her daughter's room, and found Ellen there on the sofa, with her book shut on her thumb at the place where the twilight had failed her.

"Ellen, dear," her mother said, "aren't you feeling well?"

"Yes, I'm well enough," said the girl, sensible of a leading in the question. "Why?"

"Oh, nothing. Only—only I can't make your father behave naturally with Mr. Breckon. He's got his mind so full of that mistake we both came so near making that he can't think of anything else. He's so sheepish about it that he can hardly speak to him or even look at him; and I must confess that I don't do much better. You know I don't like to put myself forward where your father is, and if I did, really I don't believe I could make up my mouth to say anything. I did want Lottie to be nice to him, but Lottie dislikes him so! And even Boyne—well, it wouldn't matter about Boyne, if he didn't seem to be carrying out a sort of family plan—Boyne barely answers him when he speaks to him. I don't know what he can think." Ellen was a good listener, and Mrs. Kenton, having begun, did not stop till she had emptied the bag. "I just know that he didn't get off at Boulogne because he wanted to stay on with us, and thought he could be useful to us at The Hague, and everywhere; and here we're acting as ungratefully! Why, we're not even commonly polite to him, and I know he feels it. I know that he's hurt."

Ellen rose and stood before the glass, into which he asked of her mother's reflected face, while she knotted a fallen coil of hair into its place, "Where is he?"

"I don't know. He went on deck somewhere."

Ellen put on her hat and pinned it, and put on her jacket and buttoned it. Then she started towards the door. Her mother made way for her, faltering, "What are you going to do, Ellen?"

"I am going to do right."

"Don't-catch cold!" her mother called after her figure vanishing down the corridor, but the warning couched in these terms had really no reference to the weather.

The girl's impulse was one of those effects of the weak will in her which were apt to leave her short of the fulfilment of a purpose. It carried her as her as the promenade, which she found empty, and she went and leaned upon the rail, and looked out over the sorrowful North Sea, which was washing darkly away towards where the gloomy sunset had been.

Steps from the other side of the ship approached, hesitated towards her, and then arrested themselves. She looked round.

"Why, Miss Kenton!" said Breckon, stupidly.

"The sunset is over, isn't it?" she answered.

"The twilight isn't." Breckon stopped; then he asked, "Wouldn't you like to take a little walk?"

"Yes," she answered, and smiled fully upon him. He had never known before how radiant a smile she lead.

"Better have my arm. It's getting rather dark."

"Well." She put her hand on his arm and he felt it tremble there, while she palpitated, "We are all so glad you could go on to Rotterdam. My mother wanted me to tell you."

"Oh, don't speak of that," said Breckon, not very appositely. Presently he forced a laugh, in order to add, with lightness, "I was afraid perhaps I had given you all some reason to regret it!"

She said, "I was afraid you would think that—or momma was—and I couldn't bear to have you."

"Well, then, I won't."

William Dean Howells

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