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Chapter 26

"There is just one thing," said the judge, as he wound up his watch that night, "that makes me a little uneasy still."

Mrs. Kenton, already in her bed turned her face upon him with a despairing "Tchk! Dear! What is it? I thought we had talked over everything."

"We haven't got Lottie's consent yet."

"Well, I think I see myself asking Lottie!" Mrs. Kenton began, before she realized her husband's irony. She added, "How could you give me such a start?"

"Well, Lottie has bossed us so long that I couldn't help mentioning it," said the judge.

It was a lame excuse, and in its most potential implication his suggestion proved without reason. If Lottie never gave her explicit approval to Ellen's engagement, she never openly opposed it. She treated it, rather, with something like silent contempt, as a childish weakness on Ellen's part which was beneath her serious consideration. Towards Breckon, her behavior hardly changed in the severity which she had assumed from the moment she first ceased to have any use for him. "I suppose I will have to kiss him," she said, gloomily, when her mother told her that he was to be her brother, and she performed the rite with as much coldness as was ever put in that form of affectionate welcome. It is doubtful if Breckon perfectly realized its coldness; he never knew how much he enraged her by acting as if she were a little girl, and saying lightly, almost trivially, "I'm so glad you're going to be a sister to me."

With Ellen, Lottie now considered herself quits, and from the first hour of Ellen's happiness she threw off all the care with all the apparent kindness which she had used towards her when she was a morbid invalid. Here again, if Lottie had minded such a thing, she might have been as much vexed by Ellen's attitude as by Breckon's. Ellen never once noticed the withdrawal of her anxious oversight, or seemed in the least to miss it. As much as her meek nature would allow, she arrogated to herself the privileges and prerogatives of an elder sister, and if it had been possible to make Lottie ever feel like a chit, there were moments when Ellen's behavior would have made her feel like a chit. It was not till after their return to Tuskingum that Lottie took her true place in relation to the affair, and in the preparations for the wedding, which she appointed to be in the First Universalist Church, overruling both her mother's and sister's preferences for a home wedding, that Lottie rose in due authority. Mrs. Kenton had not ceased to feel quelled whenever her younger daughter called her mother instead of momma, and Ellen seemed not really to care. She submitted the matter to Breckon, who said, "Oh yes, if Lottie wishes," and he laughed when Ellen confessed, "Well, I said we would."

With the lifting of his great anxiety, he had got back to that lightness which was most like him, and he could not always conceal from Lottie herself that he regarded her as a joke. She did not mind it, she said, from such a mere sop as, in the vast content of his love, he was.

This was some months after Lottie had got at Scheveningen from Mr. Plumpton that letter which decided her that she had no use for him. There came the same day, and by the same post with it, a letter from one of her young men in Tuskingum, who had faithfully written to her all the winter before, and had not intermitted his letters after she went abroad. To Kenton he had always seemed too wise if not too good for Lottie, but Mrs. Kenton, who had her own doubts of Lottie, would not allow this when it came to the question, and said, woundedly, that she did not see why Lottie was not fully his equal in every way.

"Well," the judge suggested, "she isn't the first young lawyer at the Tuskingum bar."

"Well, I wouldn't wish her to be," said Mrs. Kenton, who did not often make jokes.

"Well, I don't know that I would," her husband assented, and he added, "Pretty good, Sarah."

"Lottie," her mother summed up, "is practical, and she is very neat. She won't let Mr. Elroy go around looking so slovenly. I hope she will make him have his hair cut, and not look as if it were bitten off. And I don't believe he's had his boots blacked since—"

"He was born," the judge proposed, and she assented.

"Yes. She is very saving, and he is wasteful. It will be a very good match. You can let them build on the other corner of the lot, if Ellen is going to be in New York. I would miss Lottie more than Ellen about the housekeeping, though the dear knows I will miss them both badly enough."

"Well, you can break off their engagements," said the judge.

As yet, and until Ellen was off her hands, Lottie would not allow Mr. Elroy to consider himself engaged to her. His conditional devotion did not debar him from a lover's rights, and, until Breckon came on from New York to be married, there was much more courtship of Lottie than of Ellen in the house. But Lottie saved herself in the form if not the fact, and as far as verbal terms were concerned, she was justified by them in declaring that she would not have another sop hanging round.

It was Boyne, and Boyne alone, who had any misgivings in regard to Ellen's engagement, and these were of a nature so recondite that when he came to impart them to his mother, before they left Scheveningen, and while there was yet time for that conclusion which his father suggested to Mrs. Kenton too late, Boyne had an almost hopeless difficulty in stating them. His approaches, even, were so mystical that his mother was forced to bring him to book sharply.

"Boyne, if you don't tell me right off just what you mean, I don't know what I will do to you! What are you driving at, for pity's sake? Are you saying that she oughtn't to be engaged to Mr. Breckon?"

"No, I'm not saying that, momma," said Boyne, in a distress that caused his mother to take a reef in her impatience.

"Well, what are you saying, then?"

"Why, you know how Ellen is, momma. You know how conscientious and—and—sensitive. Or, I don't mean sensitive, exactly."

"Well?"

"Well, I don't think she ought to be engaged to Mr. Breckon out of—gratitude."

"Gratitude?"

"Yes. I just know that she thinks—or it would be just like her—that he saved me that day. But he only met me about a second before we came to her and poppa, and the officers were taking me right along towards them." Mrs. Kenton held herself stormily in, and he continued: "I know that he translated for us before the magistrate, but the magistrate could speak a little English, and when he saw poppa he saw that it was all right, anyway. I don't want to say anything against Mr. Breckon, and I think he behaved as well any one could; but if Ellen is going to marry him out of gratitude for saving me—"

Mrs. Kenton could hold in no longer. "And is this what you've been bothering the life half out of me for, for the last hour?"

"Well, I thought you ought to look at it in that light, momma."

"Well, Boyne," said his mother, "sometimes I think you're almost a fool!" and she turned her back upon her son and left him.

Boyne's place in the Kenton family, for which he continued to have the highest regard, became a little less difficult, a little less incompatible with his self-respect as time went on. His spirit, which had lagged a little after his body in stature, began, as his father said, to catch up. He no longer nourished it so exclusively upon heroical romance as he had during the past year, and after his return to Tuskingum he went into his brother Richard's once, and manifested a certain curiosity in the study of the law. He read Blackstone, and could give a fair account of his impressions of English law to his father. He had quite outlived the period of entomological research, and he presented his collections of insects (somewhat moth-eaten) to his nephew, on whom he also bestowed his postage-stamp album; Mary Kenton accepted them in trust, the nephew being of yet too tender years for their care. In the preoccupations of his immediate family with Ellen's engagement, Boyne became rather close friends with his sister-in-law, and there were times when he was tempted to submit to her judgment the question whether the young Queen of Holland did not really beckon to him that day. But pending the hour when he foresaw that Lottie should come out with the whole story, in some instant of excitement, Boyne had not quite the heart to speak of his experience. It assumed more and more respectability with him, and lost that squalor which had once put him to shame while it was yet new. He thought that Mary might be reasoned into regarding him as the hero of an adventure, but he is still hesitating whether to confide in her. In the meantime she knows all about it. Mary and Richard both approved of Ellen's choice, though they are somewhat puzzled to make out just what Mr. Breckon's religion is, and what his relations to his charge in New York may be. These do not seem to them quite pastoral, and he himself shares their uncertainty. But since his flock does not include Mrs. Rasmith and her daughter, he is content to let the question remain in abeyance. The Rasmiths are settled in Rome with an apparent permanency which they have not known elsewhere for a long time, and they have both joined in the friendliest kind of letter on his marriage to their former pastor, if that was what Breckon was. They have professed to know from the first that he was in love with Ellen, and that he is in love with her now is the strong present belief of his flock, if they are a flock, and if they may be said to have anything so positive as a belief in regard to anything.

Judge Kenton has given the Elroys the other corner of the lot, and has supplied them the means of building on it. Mary and Lottie run diagonally into the home-house every day, and nothing keeps either from coming into authority over the old people except the fear of each other in which they stand. The Kentons no longer make any summer journeys, but in the winter they take Boyne and go to see Ellen in New York. They do not stay so long as Mrs. Kenton would like. As soon as they have fairly seen the Breckons, and have settled comfortably down in their pleasant house on West Seventy-fourth Street, she detects him in a secret habit of sighing, which she recognizes as the worst symptom of homesickness, and then she confides to Ellen that she supposes Mr. Kenton will make her go home with him before long. Ellen knows it is useless to interfere. She even encourages her father's longings, so far as indulging his clandestine visits to the seedsman's, and she goes with him to pick up second-hand books about Ohio in the War at the dealers', who remember the judge very flatteringly.

As February draws on towards March it becomes impossible to detain Kenton. His wife and son return with him to Tuskingum, where Lottie has seen to the kindling of a good fire in the furnace against their arrival, and has nearly come to blows with Mary about provisioning them for the first dinner. Then Mrs. Kenton owns, with a comfort which she will not let her husband see, that there is no place like home, and they take up their life in the place where they have been so happy and so unhappy. He reads to her a good deal at night, and they play a game of checkers usually before they go to bed; she still cheats without scruple, for, as she justly says, he knows very well that she cannot bear to be beaten.

The colonel, as he is still invariably known to his veterans, works pretty faithfully at the regimental autobiography, and drives round the country, picking up material among them, in a buggy plastered with mud. He has imagined, since his last visit to Breckon, who dictates his sermons, if they are sermons, taking a stenographer with him, and the young lady, who is in deadly terror of the colonel's driving, is of the greatest use to him, in the case of veterans who will not or cannot give down (as they say in their dairy-country parlance), and has already rescued many reminiscences from perishing in their faltering memories. She writes them out in the judge's library when the colonel gets home, and his wife sometimes surprises Mr. Kenton correcting them there at night after she supposes he has gone to bed.

Since it has all turned out for the best concerning Bittridge, she no longer has those pangs of self-reproach for Richard's treatment of him which she suffered while afraid that if the fact came to Ellen's knowledge it might make her refuse Breckon. She does not find her daughter's behavior in the matter so anomalous as it appears to the judge.

He is willing to account for it on the ground of that inconsistency which he has observed in all human behavior, but Mrs. Kenton is not inclined to admit that it is so very inconsistent. She contends that Ellen had simply lived through that hateful episode of her psychological history, as she was sure to do sooner or later and as she was destined to do as soon as some other person arrived to take her fancy.

If this is the crude, common-sense view of the matter, Ellen herself is able to offer no finer explanation, which shall at the same time be more thorough. She and her husband have not failed to talk the affair over, with that fulness of treatment which young married people give their past when they have nothing to conceal from each other. She has attempted to solve the mystery by blaming herself for a certain essential levity of nature which, under all her appearance of gravity, sympathized with levity in others, and, for what she knows to the contrary, with something ignoble and unworthy in them. Breckon, of course, does not admit this, but he has suggested that she was first attracted to him by a certain unseriousness which reminded her of Bittridge, in enabling him to take her seriousness lightly. This is the logical inference which he makes from her theory of herself, but she insists that it does not follow; and she contends that she was moved to love him by an instant sense of his goodness, which she never lost, and in which she was trying to equal herself with him by even the desperate measure of renouncing her happiness, if that should ever seem her duty, to his perfection. He says this is not very clear, though it is awfully gratifying, and he does not quite understand why Mrs. Bittridge's letter should have liberated Ellen from her fancied obligations to the past. Ellen can only say that it did so by making her so ashamed ever to have had anything to do with such people, and making her see how much she had tried her father and mother by her folly. This again Breckon contends is not clear, but he says we live in a universe of problems in which another, more or less, does not much matter. He is always expecting that some chance shall confront him with Bittridge, and that the man's presence will explain everything; for, like so many Ohio people who leave their native State, the Bittridges have come East instead of going West, in quitting the neighborhood of Tuskingum. He is settled with his idolized mother in New York, where he is obscurely attached to one of the newspapers. That he has as yet failed to rise from the ranks in the great army of assignment men may be because moral quality tells everywhere, and to be a clever blackguard is not so well as to be simply clever. If ever Breckon has met his alter ego, as he amuses himself in calling him, he has not known it, though Bittridge may have been wiser in the case of a man of Breckon's publicity, not to call it distinction. There was a time, immediately after the Breckons heard from Tuskingum that the Bittridges were in New York, when Ellen's husband consulted her as to what might be his duty towards her late suitor in the event which has not taken place, and when he suggested, not too seriously, that Richard's course might be the solution. To his suggestion Ellen answered: "Oh no, dear! That was wrong," and this remains also Richard's opinion.

THE END.

William Dean Howells

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