As soon as she and Lottie were gone Breckon began, rather more formidably than he liked, but helplessly so: "Judge Kenton, I should be glad of a few moments with you on—on an important—on a matter that is important to me."
"Well," said the judge, cautiously. Whatever was coming, he wished to guard himself from the mistake that he had once so nearly fallen into, and that still made him catch his breath to think of. "How can I be of use to you?"
"I don't know that you can be of any use—I don't know that I ought to speak to you. But I thought you might perhaps save me from—save my taking a false step."
He looked at Kenton as if he would understand, and Kenton supposed that he did. He said, "My daughter once mentioned your wish to talk with me."
"Your daughter?" Breckon stared at him in stupefaction.
"Yes; Ellen. She said you wished to consult me about going back to your charge in New York, when we were on the ship together. But I don't know that I'm very competent to give advice in such—"
"Oh!" Breckon exclaimed, in a tone of immense relief, which did not continue itself in what he went on to say. "That! I've quite made up my mind to go back." He stopped, and then he burst out, "I want to speak with you about her." The judge sat steady, still resolute not to give himself away, and the young man scarcely recovered from what had been a desperate plunge in adding: "I know that it's usual to speak with her—with the lady herself first, but—I don't know! The circumstances are peculiar. You only know about me what you've seen of me, and I would rather make my mistakes in the order that seems right to me, although it isn't just the American way."
He smiled rather piteously, and the judge said, rather encouragingly, "I don't quite know whether I follow you."
Breckon blushed, and sought help in what remained of his coffee. "The way isn't easy for me. But it's this: I ask your leave to ask Miss Ellen to marry me." The worst was over now, and looked as if it were a relief. "She is the most beautiful person in the world to me, and the best; but as you know so little of me, I thought it right to get your leave—to tell you—to—to—That is all." He fell back in his chair and looked a at Kenton.
"It is unusual," the judge began.
"Yes, Yes; I know that. And for that reason I speak first to you. I'll be ruled by you implicitly."
"I don't mean that," Kenton said. "I would have expected that you would speak to her first. But I get your point of view, and I must say I think you're right. I think you are behaving—honorably. I wish that every one was like you. But I can't say anything now. I must talk with her mother. My daughter's life has not been happy. I can't tell you. But as far as I am concerned, and I think Mrs. Kenton, too, I would be glad—We like you Mr. Breckon. We think you are a good man.
"Oh, thank you. I'm not so sure—"
"We'd risk it. But that isn't all. Will you excuse me if I don't say anything more just yet—and if I leave you?"
"Why, certainly." The judge had risen and pushed back his chair, and Breckon did the same. "And I shall—hear from you?"
"Why, certainly," said the judge in his turn.
"It isn't possible that you put him off!" his wife reproached him, when he told what had passed between him and Breckon. "Oh, you couldn't have let him think that we didn't want him for her! Surely you didn't!"
"Will you get it into your head," he flamed back, "that he hasn't spoken to Ellen yet, and I couldn't accept him till she had?"
"Oh yes. I forgot that." Mrs. Kenton struggled with the fact, in the difficulty of realizing so strange an order of procedure. "I suppose it's his being educated abroad that way. But, do go back to him, Rufus, and tell him that of course—"
"I will do nothing of the kind, Sarah! What are you thinking of?"
"Oh, I don't know what I'm thinking of! I must see Ellen, I suppose. I'll go to her now. Oh, dear, if she doesn't—if she lets such a chance slip through her fingers—But she's quite likely to, she's so obstinate! I wonder what she'll want us to do."
She fled to her daughter's room and found Boyne there, sitting beside his sister's bed, giving her a detailed account of his adventure of the day before, up to the moment Mr. Breckon met him, in charge of the detectives. Up to that moment, it appeared to Boyne, as nearly as he could recollect, that he had not broken down, but had behaved himself with a dignity which was now beginning to clothe his whole experience. In the retrospect, a quiet heroism characterized his conduct, and at the moment his mother entered the room he was questioning Ellen as to her impressions of his bearing when she first saw him in the grasp of the detectives.
His mother took him by the arm, and said, "I want to speak with Ellen, Boyne," and put him out of the door.
Then she came back and sat down in his chair. "Ellen. Mr. Breckon has been speaking to your father. Do you know what about?"
"About his going back to New York?" the girl suggested.
Her mother kept her patience with difficulty. "No, not about that. About you! He's asked your father—I can't understand yet why he did it, only he's so delicate and honorable, and goodness known we appreciate it—whether he can tell you that—that—" It was not possible for such a mother as Mrs. Kenton to say "He loves you"; it would have sounded as she would have said, too sickish, and she compromised on: "He likes you, and wants to ask you whether you will marry him. And, Ellen," she continued, in the ample silence which followed, "if you don't say you will, I will have nothing more to do With such a simpleton. I have always felt that you behaved very foolishly about Mr. Bittridge, but I hoped that when you grew older you would see it as we did, and—and behave differently. And now, if, after all we've been through with you, you are going to say that you won't have Mr. Breckon—"
Mrs. Kenton stopped for want of a figure that would convey all the disaster that would fall upon Ellen in such an event, and she was given further pause when the girl gently answered, "I'm not going to say that, momma."
"Then what in the world are you going to say?" Mrs. Kenton demanded.
Ellen had turned her face away on the pillow, and now she answered, quietly, "When Mr. Breckon asks me I will tell him."
"Well, you had better!" her mother threatened in return, and she did not realize the falsity of her position till she reported Ellen's words to the judge.
"Well, Sarah, I think she had you there," he said, and Mrs. Kenton then said that she did not care, if the child was only going to behave sensibly at last, and she did believe she was.
"Then it's all right" said the judge, and he took up the Tuskingum Intelligencer, lying till then unread in the excitements which had followed its arrival the day before, and began to read it.
Mrs. Kenton sat dreamily watching him, with her hands fallen in her lap. She suddenly started up, with the cry, "Good gracious! What are we all thinking of?"
Kenton stared at her over the top of his paper. "How, thinking of?"
"Why Mr. Breckon! He must be crazy to know what we've decided, poor fellow!"
"Oh," said the judge, folding the Intelligencer on his knee. "I had forgotten. Somehow, I thought it was all settled."
Mrs. Kenton took his paper from him, and finished folding it. "It hasn't begun to be settled. You must go and let him know."
"Won't he look me up?" the judge suggested.
"You must look him up. Go at once dear! Think how anxious he must be!"
Kenton was not sure that Breckon looked very anxious when he found him on the brick promenade before the Kurhaus, apparently absorbed in noting the convulsions of a large, round German lady in the water, who must have supposed herself to be bathing. But perhaps the young man did not see her; the smile on his face was too vague for such an interest when he turned at Kenton's approaching steps.
The judge hesitated for an instant, in which the smile left Breckon's face. "I believe that's all right, Mr. Breckon," he said. "You'll find Mrs. Kenton in our parlor," and then the two men parted, with an "Oh, thank you!" from Breckon, who walked back towards the hotel, and left Kenton to ponder upon the German lady; as soon as he realized that she was not a barrel, the judge continued his walk along the promenade, feeling rather ashamed.
Mrs. Kenton had gone to Ellen's room again when she had got the judge off upon his mission. She rather flung in upon her. "Oh, you are up!" she apologized to Ellen's back. The girl's face was towards the glass, and she was tilting her head to get the effect of the hat on it, which she now took off.
"I suppose poppa's gone to tell him," she said, sitting tremulously down.
"Didn't you want him to?" her mother asked, stricken a little at sight of her agitation.
"Yes, I wanted him to, but that doesn't make it any easier. It makes it harder. Momma!"
"You know you've got to tell him, first."
"Tell him?" Mrs. Kenton repeated, but she knew what Ellen meant.
"About—Mr. Bittridge. All about it. Every single thing. About his kissing me that night."
At the last demand Mrs. Kenton was visibly shaken in her invisible assent to the girl's wish. "Don't you think, Ellen, that you had better tell him that—some time?"
"No, now. And you must tell him. You let me go to the theatre with him." The faintest shadow of resentment clouded the girl's face, but still Mrs. Kenton, thought she knew her own guilt, could not yield.
"Why, Ellen," she pleaded, not without a reproachful sense of vulgarity in such a plea, "don't you suppose HE ever—kissed any one?"
"That doesn't concern me, momma," said Ellen, without a trace of consciousness that she was saying anything uncommon. "If you won't tell him, then that ends it. I won't see him."
"Oh, well!" her mother sighed. "I will try to tell him. But I'd rather be whipped. I know he'll laugh at me."
"He won't laugh at you," said the girl, confidently, almost comfortingly. "I want him to know everything before I meet him. I don't want to have a single thing on my mind. I don't want to think of myself!"
Mrs. Kenton understood the woman—soul that spoke in these words. "Well," she said, with a deep, long breath, "be ready, then."
But she felt the burden which had been put upon her to be so much more than she could bear that when she found her husband in their parlor she instantly resolved to cast it upon him. He stood at the window with his hat on.
"Has Breckon been here yet?" he asked.
"Have you seen him yet?" she returned.
"Yes, and I thought he was coming right here. But perhaps he stopped to screw his courage up. He only knew how little it needed with us!"
"Well, now, it's we who've got to have the courage. Or you have. Do you know what Ellen wants to have done?" Mrs. Kenton put it in these impersonal terms, and as a preliminary to shirking her share of the burden.
"She doesn't want to have him refused?"
"She wants to have him told all about Bittridge."
After a momentary revolt the judge said, "Well, that's right. It's like Ellen."
"There's something else that's more like her," said Mrs. Kenton, indignantly. "She wants him to told about what Bittridge did that night—about him kissing her."
The judge looked disgusted with his wife for the word; then he looked aghast. "About—"
"Yes, and she won't have a word to say to him till he is told, and unless he is told she will refuse him."
"Did she say that?"
"No, but I know she will."
"If she didn't say she would, I think we may take the chances that she won't."
"No, we mustn't take any such chances. You must tell him."
"I? No, I couldn't manage it. I have no tact, and it would sound so confoundedly queer, coming from one man to another. It would be—indelicate. It's something that nobody but a woman—Why doesn't she tell him herself?"
"She won't. She considers it our part, and something we ought to do before he commits himself."
"Very well, then, Sarah, you must tell him. You can manage it so it won't by so—queer.
"That is just what I supposed you would say, Mr. Kenton, but I must say I didn't expect it of you. I think it's cowardly."
"Look out, Sarah! I don't like that word."
"Oh, I suppose you're brave enough when it comes to any kind of danger. But when it comes to taking the brunt of anything unpleasant—"
"It isn't unpleasant—it's queer."
"Why do you keep saying that over and over? There's nothing queer about it. It's Ellenish but isn't it right?"
"It's right, yes, I suppose. But it's squeamish."
"I see nothing squeamish about it. But I know you're determined to leave it to me, and so I shall do it. I don't believe Mr. Breckon will think it's queer or squeamish."
"I've no doubt he'll take it in the right way; you'll know how to—" Kenton looked into his hat, which he had taken off and then put it on again. His tone and his manner were sufficiently sneaking, and he could not make them otherwise. It was for this reason, no doubt, that he would not prolong the interview.
"Oh yes, go!" said Mrs. Kenton, as he found himself with his hand on the door. "Leave it all to me, do!" and he was aware of skulking out of the room. By the time that it would have taken him so long as to walk to the top of the grand stairway he was back again. "He's coming!" he said, breathlessly. "I saw him at the bottom of the stairs. Go into your room and wash your eyes. I'LL tell him."
"No, no, Rufus! Let me! It will be much better. You'll be sure to bungle it."
"We must risk that. You were quite right, Sarah. It would have been cowardly in me to let you do it."
"Rufus! You know I didn't mean it! Surely you're not resenting that?"
"No. I'm glad you made me see it. You're all right, Sarah, and you'll find that it will all come out all right. You needn't be afraid I'll bungle it. I shall use discretion. Go—"
"I shall not stir a step from this parlor! You've got back all your spirit, dear," said the old wife, with young pride in her husband. "But I must say that Ellen is putting more upon you than she has any right to. I think she might tell him herself."
"No, it's our business—my business. We allowed her to get in for it. She's quite right about it. We must not let him commit himself to her till he knows the thing that most puts her to shame. It isn't enough for us to say that it was really no shame. She feels that it casts a sort of stain—you know what I mean, Sarah, and I believe I can make this young man know. If I can't, so much the worse for him. He shall never see Ellen again."
"Do you think he would be worthy of her if he couldn't?"
"I think Ellen is perfectly ridiculous."
"Then that shows that I am right in deciding not to leave this thing to you. I feel as she does about it, and I intend that he shall."
"Do you intend to let her run the chance of losing him?"
"That is what I intend to do."
"Well, then, I'll tell you what: I am going to stay right here. We will both see him; it's right for us to do it." But at a rap on the parlor door Mrs. Kenton flew to that of her own room, which she closed upon her with a sort of Parthian whimper, "Oh, do be careful, Rufus!"
Whether Kenton was careful or not could never be known, from either Kenton himself or from Breckon. The judge did tell him everything, and the young man received the most damning details of Ellen's history with a radiant absence which testified that they fell upon a surface sense of Kenton, and did not penetrate to the all-pervading sense of Ellen herself below. At the end Kenton was afraid he had not understood.
"You understand," he said, "that she could not consent to see you before you knew just how weak she thought she had been." The judge stiffened to defiance in making this humiliation. "I don't consider, myself, that she was weak at all."
"Of course not!" Breckon beamed back at him.
"I consider that throughout she acted with the greatest—greatest—And that in that affair, when he behaved with that—that outrageous impudence, it was because she had misled the scoundrel by her kindness, her forbearance, her wish not to do him the least shadow of injustice, but to give him every chance of proving himself worthy of her tolerance; and—"
The judge choked, and Breckon eagerly asked, "And shall I—may I see her now?"
"Why—yes," the judge faltered. "If you're sure—"
"What about?" Breckon demanded.
"I don't know whether she will believe that I have told you."
"I will try to convince her. Where shall I see her?"
"I will go and tell her you are here. I will bring her—"
Kenton passed into the adjoining room, where his wife laid hold of him, almost violently. "You did it beautifully, Rufus," she huskily whispered, "and I was so afraid you would spoil everything. Oh, how manly you were, and how perfect he was! But now it's my turn, and I will go and bring Ellen—You will let me, won't you?"
"You may do anything you please, Sarah. I don't want to have any more of this," said the judge from the chair he had dropped into.
"Well, then, I will bring her at once," said Mrs. Kenton, staying only in her gladness to kiss him on his gray head; he received her embrace with a superficial sultriness which did not deceive her.
Ellen came back without her mother, and as soon as she entered the room, and Breckon realized that she had come alone, he ran towards her as if to take her in his arms. But she put up her hand with extended fingers, and held him lightly off.
"Did poppa tell you?" she asked, with a certain defiance. She held her head up fiercely, and spoke steadily, but he could see the pulse beating in her pretty neck.
"Yes, he told me—"
"Oh, I love you, Ellen—"
"That isn't it. Did you care?"
Breckon had an inspiration, an inspiration from the truth that dwelt at the bottom of his soul and had never yet failed to save him. He let his arms fall and answered, desperately: "Yes, I did. I wished it hadn't happened." He saw the pulse in her neck cease to beat, and he swiftly added, "But I know that it happened just because you were yourself, and were so—"
"If you had said you didn't care," she breathlessly whispered, "I would never have spoken to you." He felt a conditional tremor creeping into the fingers which had been so rigid against his breast. "I don't see how I lived through it! Do you think you can?"
"I think so," he returned, with a faint, far suggestion of levity that brought from her an imperative, imploring—
Then he added, solemnly, "It had no more to do with you, Ellen, than an offence from some hateful animal—"
"Oh, how good you are!" The fingers folded themselves, and her arms weakened so that there was nothing to keep him from drawing her to him. "What—what are you doing?" she asked, with her face smothered against his.
"Oh, Ell-en, Ellen, Ellen! Oh, my love, my dearest, my best!"
"But I have been such a fool!" she protested, imagining that she was going to push him from her, but losing herself in him more and more.
"Yes, yes, darling! I know it. That's why I love you so!"