It was some time before they arrived at a common agreement as to what Kenton thought, and when they reached it they decided that they must leave the matter altogether to Ellen, as they had done before. They would never force her to anything, and if, after all that her mother could say, she still wished to see the fellow, they would not deny her.
When it came to this, Ellen was a long time silent, so long a time that her mother was beginning restively to doubt whether she was going to speak at all. Then she drew a long, silent breath. "I suppose I ought to despise myself, momma, for caring for him, when he's never really said that he cared for me."
"No, no," her mother faltered.
"But I do, I do!" she gave way piteously. "I can't help it! He doesn't say so, even now."
"No, he doesn't." It hurt her mother to own the fact that alone gave her hope.
The girl was a long time silent again before she asked, "Has poppa got the tickets?"
"Why, he wouldn't, Ellen, child, till he knew how you felt," her mother tenderly reproached her.
"He'd better not wait!" The tears ran silently down Ellen's cheeks, and her lips twitched a little between these words and the next; she spoke as if it were still of her father, but her mother understood. "If he ever does say so, don't you speak a word to me, momma; and don't you let poppa."
"No; indeed I won't," her mother promised. "Have we ever interfered, Ellen? Have we ever tried to control you?"
"He WOULD have said so, if he hadn't seen that everybody was against him." The mother bore without reply the ingratitude and injustice that she knew were from the child's pain and not from her will. "Where is his letter? Give me his letter!" She nervously twitched it from her mother's hand and ran it into her pocket. She turned away to go and put off her hat, which she still wore from coming in with Lottie; but she stopped and looked over her shoulder at her mother. "I'm going to answer it, and I don't want you ever to ask me what I've said. Will you?"
"No, I won't, Nelly."
The next night she went with Boyne and Lottie to the apartment overhead to spend their last evening with the young people there, who were going into the country the next day. She came back without the others, who wished to stay a little longer, as she said, with a look of gay excitement in her eyes, which her mother knew was not happiness. Mrs. Kenton had an impulse to sweep into her lap the lithograph plans of the steamer, and the passage ticket which lay open on the table before herself and her husband. But it was too late to hide them from Ellen. She saw them, and caught up the ticket, and read it, and flung it down again. "Oh, I didn't think you would do it!" she burst out; and she ran away to her room, where they could hear her sobbing, as they sat haggardly facing each other.
"Well, that settles it," said Benton at last, with a hard gulp.
"Oh, I suppose so," his wife assented.
On his part, now, he had a genuine regret for her disappointment from the sad safety of the trouble that would keep them at home; and on her part she could be glad of it if any sort of comfort could come out of it to him.
"Till she says go," he added, "we've got to stay."
"Oh yes," his wife responded. "The worst of it is, we can't even go back to Tuskingum." He looked up suddenly at her, and she saw that he had not thought of this. She made "Tchk!" in sheer amaze at him.
"We won't cross that river till we come to it," he said, sullenly, but half-ashamed. The next morning the situation had not changed overnight, as they somehow both crazily hoped it might, and at breakfast, which they had at a table grown more remote from others with the thinning out of the winter guests of the hotel, the father and mother sat down alone in silence which was scarcely broken till Lottie and Boyne joined them.
"Where's Ellen?" the boy demanded.
"She's having her breakfast in her room," Mrs. Kenton answered.
"She says she don't want to eat anything," Lottie reported. "She made the man take it away again."
The gloom deepened in the faces of the father and mother, but neither spoke, and Boyne resumed the word again in a tone of philosophic speculation. "I don't see how I'm going to get along, with those European breakfasts. They say you can't get anything but cold meat or eggs; and generally they don't expect to give you anything but bread and butter with your coffee. I don't think that's the way to start the day, do you, poppa?"
Kenton seemed not to have heard, for he went on silently eating, and the mother, who had not been appealed to, merely looked distractedly across the table at her children.
"Mr. Plumpton says he's coming down to see us off," said Lottie, smoothing her napkin in her lap. "Do you know the time of day when the boat sails, momma?"
"Yes," her brother broke in, "and if I had been momma I'd have boxed your ears for the way you went on with him. You fairly teased him to come. The way Lottie goes on with men is a shame, momma."
"What time does the boat sail, momma!" Lottie blandly persisted. "I promised to let Mr. Plumpton know."
"Yes, so as to get a chance to write to him," said Boyne. "I guess when he sees your spelling!"
"Momma! Do wake up! What time does our steamer sail?"
A light of consciousness came into Mrs. Renton's eyes at last, and she sighed gently. "We're not going, Lottie."
"Not going! Why, but we've got the tickets, and I've told—"
"Your father has decided not to go, for the present. We may go later in the summer, or perhaps in the fall."
Boyne looked at his father's troubled face, and said nothing, but Lottie was not stayed from the expression of her feelings by any ill-timed consideration for what her father's might be. "I just know," she fired, "it's something to do with that nasty Bittridge. He's been a bitter dose to this family! As soon as I saw Ellen have a letter I was sure it was from him; and she ought to be ashamed. If I had played the simpleton with such a fellow I guess you wouldn't have let me keep you from going to Europe very much. What is she going to do now? Marry him? Or doesn't he want her to?"
"Lottie!" said her mother, and her father glanced up at her with a face that silenced her.
"When you've been half as good a girl as Ellen has been, in this whole matter," he said, darkly, "it will be time for you to complain of the way you've been treated."
"Oh yes, I know you like Ellen the best," said the girl, defiantly.
"Don't say such a thing, Lottie!" said her mother. "Your father loves all his children alike, and I won't have you talking so to him. Ellen has had a great deal to bear, and she has behaved beautifully. If we are not going to Europe it is because we have decided that it is best not to go, and I wish to hear nothing more from you about it."
"Oh yes! And a nice position it leaves me in, when I've been taking good-bye of everybody! Well, I hope to goodness you won't say anything about it till the Plumptons get away. I couldn't have the face to meet them if you did."
"It won't be necessary to say anything; or you can say that we've merely postponed our sailing. People are always doing that."
"It's not to be a postponement," said Kenton, so sternly that no one ventured to dispute him, the children because they were afraid of him, and their mother because she was suffering for him.
At the steamship office, however, the authorities represented that it was now so near the date of his sailing that they could not allow him to relinquish his passages except at his own risk. They would try to sell his ticket for him, but they could not take it back, and they could not promise to sell it. There was reason in what they said, but if there had been none, they had the four hundred dollars which Kenton had paid for his five berths and they had at least the advantage of him in the argument by that means. He put the ticket back in his pocket-book without attempting to answer them, and deferred his decision till he could advise with his wife, who, after he left the breakfast-table upon his errand to the steamship office, had abandoned her children to their own devices, and gone to scold Ellen for not eating.
She had not the heart to scold her when she found the girl lying face downward in the pillow, with her thin arms thrown up through the coils and heaps of her loose-flung hair. She was so alight that her figure scarcely defined itself under the bedclothes; the dark hair, and the white, outstretched arms seemed all there was of her. She did not stir, but her mother knew she was not sleeping. "Ellen," she said, gently, "you needn't be troubled about our going to Europe. Your father has gone down to the steamship office to give back his ticket."
The girl flashed her face round with nervous quickness. "Gone to give back his ticket!"
"Yes, we decided it last night. He's never really wanted to go, and—"
"But I don't wish poppa to give up his ticket!" said Ellen. "He must get it again. I shall die if I stay here, momma. We have got to go. Can't you understand that?"
Mrs. Kenton did not know what to answer. She had a strong superficial desire to shake her daughter as a naughty child which has vexed its mother, but under this was a stir stronger pity for her as a woman, which easily, prevailed. "Why, but, Ellen dear! We thought from what you said last night—"
"But couldn't you SEE," the girl reproached her, and she began to cry, and turned her face into the pillow again and lay sobbing.
"Well," said her mother, after she had given her a little time, "you needn't be troubled. Your father can easily get the ticket again; he can telephone down for it. Nothing has been done yet. But didn't you really want to stay, then?"
"It isn't whether I want to stay or not," Ellen spoke into her pillow. "You know that. You know that I have got to go. You know that if I saw him—Oh, why do you make me talk?"
"Yes, I understand, child." Then, in the imperious necessity of blaming some one, Mrs. Kenton added: "You know how it is with your father. He is always so precipitate; and when he heard what you said, last night, it cut him to the heart. He felt as if he were dragging you away, and this morning he could hardly wait to get through his breakfast before he rushed down to the steamship office. But now it's all right again, and if you want to go, we'll go, and your father will only be too glad."
"I don't want father to go against his will. You said he never wanted to go to Europe." The girl had turned her face upon her mother again; and fixed her with her tearful, accusing eyes.
"The doctors say he ought to go. He needs the change, and I think we should all be the better far getting away."
"I shall not," said Ellen. "But if I don't—"
"Yes," said her mother, soothingly.
"You know that nothing has changed. He hasn't changed and I haven't. If he was bad, he's as bad as ever, and I'm just as silly. Oh, it's like a drunkard! I suppose they know it's killing them, but they can't give it up! Don't you think it's very strange, momma? I don't see why I should be so. It seems as if I had no character at all, and I despise myself so! Do you believe I shall ever get over it? Sometimes I think the best thing for me would be to go into an asylum."
"Oh yes, dear; you'll get over it, and forget it all. As soon as you see others—other scenes—and get interested—"
"And you don't you don't think I'd better let him come, and—"
Ellen began to sob again, and toss her head upon the pillow. "What shall I do? What shall I do?" she wailed. "He hasn't ever done anything bad to me, and if I can overlook his—his flirting—with that horrid thing, I don't know what the rest of you have got to say. And he says he can explain everything. Why shouldn't I give him the chance, momma? I do think it is acting very cruel not to let him even say a word."
"You can see him if you wish, Ellen," said her mother, gravely. "Your father and I have always said that. And perhaps it would be the best thing, after all."
"Oh, you say that because you think that if I did see him, I should be so disgusted with him that I'd never want to speak to him again. But what if I shouldn't?"
"Then we should wish you to do whatever you thought was for your happiness, Ellen. We can't believe it would be for your good; but if it would be for your happiness, we are willing. Or, if you don't think it's for your happiness, but only for his, and you wish to do it, still we shall be willing, and you know that as far as your father and I are concerned, there will never be a word of reproach—not a whisper."
"Lottie would despise me; and what would Richard say?"
"Richard would never say anything to wound you, dear, and if you don't despise yourself, you needn't mind Lottie."
"But I should, momma; that's the worst of it! I should despise myself, and he would despise me too. No, if I see him, I am going to do it because I am selfish and wicked, and wish to have my own way, no matter who is harmed by it, or—anything; and I'm not going to have it put on any other ground. I could see him," she said, as if to herself, "just once more—only once more—and then if I didn't believe in him, I could start right off to Europe."
Her mother made no answer to this, and Ellen lay awhile apparently forgetful of her presence, inwardly dramatizing a passionate scene of dismissal between herself and her false lover. She roused herself from the reverie with a long sigh, and her mother said, "Won't you have some breakfast, now; Ellen?"
"Yes; and I will get up. You needn't be troubled any more about me, momma. I will write to him not to come, and poppa must go back and get his ticket again."
"Not unless you are doing this of your own free will, child. I can't have you feeling that we are putting any pressure upon you."
"You're not. I'm doing it of my own will. If it isn't my free will, that isn't your fault. I wonder whose fault it is? Mine, or what made me so silly and weak?"
"You are not silly and weak," said her mother, fondly, and she bent over the girl and would have kissed her, but Ellen averted her face with a piteous "Don't!" and Mrs. Kenton went out and ordered her breakfast brought back.
She did not go in to make her eat it, as she would have done in the beginning of the girl's trouble; they had all learned how much better she was for being left to fight her battles with herself singlehanded. Mrs. Kenton waited in the parlor till her husband same in, looking gloomy and tired. He put his hat down and sank into a chair without speaking. "Well?" she said.
"We have got to lose the price of the ticket, if we give it back. I thought I had better talk with you first," said Kenton, and he explained the situation.
"Then you had better simply have it put off till the next steamer. I have been talking with Ellen, and she doesn't want to stay. She wants to go." His wife took advantage of Kenton's mute amaze (in the nervous vagaries even of the women nearest him a man learns nothing from experience) to put her own interpretation on the case, which, as it was creditable to the girl's sense and principle, he found acceptable if not imaginable. "And if you will take my advice," she ended, "you will go quietly back to the steamship office and exchange your ticket for the next steamer, or the one after that, if you can't get good rooms, and give Ellen time to get over this before she leaves. It will be much better for her to conquer herself than to run away, for that would always give her a feeling of shame, and if she decides before she goes, it will strengthen her pride and self-respect, and there will be less danger—when we come back."
"Do you think he's going to keep after her!"
"How can I tell? He will if he thinks it's to his interest, or he can make anybody miserable by it."
Kenton said nothing to this, but after a while he suggested, rather timorously, as if it were something he could not expect her to approve, and was himself half ashamed of, "I believe if I do put it off, I'll run out to Tuskingum before we sail, and look after a little matter of business that I don't think Dick can attend to so well."
His wife knew why he wanted to go, and in her own mind she had already decided that if he should ever propose to go, she should not gainsay him. She had, in fact, been rather surprised that he had not proposed it before this, and now she assented, without taxing him with his real motive, and bringing him to open disgrace before her. She even went further in saying: "Very well, then you had better go. I can get on very well here, and I think it will leave Ellen freer to act for herself if you are away. And there are some things in the house that I want, and that Richard would be sure to send his wife to get if I asked him, and I won't have her rummaging around in my closets. I suppose you will want to go into the house?"
"I suppose so," said Renton, who had not let a day pass, since he left his house, without spending half his homesick time in it. His wife suffered his affected indifference to go without exposure, and trumped up a commission for him, which would take him intimately into the house.