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Chapter 4

The piety of his son Richard had maintained the place at Tuskingum in perfect order outwardly, and Kenton's heart ached with tender pain as he passed up the neatly kept walk from the gate, between the blooming ranks of syringas and snowballs, to his door, and witnessed the faithful care that Richard's hired man had bestowed upon every detail. The grass between the banks of roses and rhododendrons had been as scrupulously lawn-mowered and as sedulously garden-hosed as if Kenton himself had been there to look after its welfare, or had tended the shrubbery as he used to do in earlier days with his own hand. The oaks which he had planted shook out their glossy green in the morning gale, and in the tulip-trees, which had snowed their petals on the ground in wide circles defined by the reach of their branches, he heard the squirrels barking; a red-bird from the woody depths behind the house mocked the cat-birds in the quince-trees. The June rose was red along the trellis of the veranda, where Lottie ought to be sitting to receive the morning calls of the young men who were sometimes quite as early as Kenton's present visit in their devotions, and the sound of Ellen's piano, played fitfully and absently in her fashion, ought to be coming out irrespective of the hour. It seemed to him that his wife must open the door as his steps and his son's made themselves heard on the walk between the box borders in their upper orchard, and he faltered a little.

"Look here, father," said his son, detecting his hesitation. "Why don't you let Mary come in with you, and help you find those things?"

"No, no," said Kenton, sinking into one of the wooden seats that flanked the door-way. "I promised your mother that I would get them myself. You know women don't like to have other women going through their houses."

"Yes, but Mary!" his son urged.

"Ah! It's just Mary, with her perfect housekeeping, that your mother wouldn't like to have see the way she left things," said Kenton, and he smiled at the notion of any one being housekeeper enough to find a flaw in his wife's. "My, but this is pleasant!" he added. He took off his hat and let the breeze play through the lank, thin hair which was still black on his fine, high forehead. He was a very handsome old man, with a delicate aquiline profile, of the perfect Roman type which is perhaps oftener found in America than ever it was in Rome. "You've kept it very nice, Dick," he said, with a generalizing wave of his hat.

"Well, I couldn't tell whether you would be coming back or not, and I thought I had better be ready for you."

"I wish we were," said the old man, "and we shall be, in the fall, or the latter part of the summer. But it's better now that we should go—on Ellen's account."

"Oh, you'll enjoy it," his son evaded him.

"You haven't seen anything of him lately?" Kenton suggested.

"He wasn't likely to let me see anything of him," returned the son.

"No," said the father. "Well!" He rose to put the key into the door, and his son stepped down from the little porch to the brick walk.

"Mary will have dinner early, father; and when you've got through here, you'd better come over and lie down a while beforehand."

Kenton had been dropped at eight o'clock from a sleeper on the Great Three, and had refused breakfast at his son's house, upon the plea that the porter had given him a Southern cantaloupe and a cup of coffee on the train, and he was no longer hungry.

"All right," he said. "I won't be longer than I can help." He had got the door open and was going to close it again.

His son laughed. "Better not shut it, father. It will let the fresh air in."

"Oh, all right," said the old man.

The son lingered about, giving some orders to the hired man in the vegetable garden, for an excuse, in the hope that his father might change his mind and ask him to come into the house with him; he felt it so forlorn for him to be going through those lifeless rooms alone. When he looked round, and saw his father holding the door ajar, as if impatiently waiting for him to be gone, he laughed and waved his hand to him. "All right, father? I'm going now." But though he treated the matter so lightly with his father, he said grimly to his wife, as he passed her on their own porch, on his way to his once, "I don't like to think of father being driven out of house and home this way."

"Neither do I, Dick. But it can't be helped, can it?"

"I think I could help it, if I got my hands on that fellow once."

"No, you couldn't, Dick. It's not he that's doing it. It's Ellen; you know that well enough; and you've just got to stand it."

"Yes, I suppose so," said Richard Kenton.

"Of course, my heart aches for your poor old father, but so it would if Ellen had some kind of awful sickness. It is a kind of sickness, and you can't fight it any more than if she really was sick."

"No," said the husband, dejectedly. "You just slip over there, after a while, Mary, if father's gone too long, will you? I don't like to have him there alone."

"'Deed and 'deed I won't, Dick. He wouldn't like it at all, my spying round. Nothing can happen to him, and I believe your mother's just made an excuse to send him after something, so that he can be in there alone, and realize that the house isn't home any more. It will be easier for him to go to Europe when he finds that out. I believe in my heart that was her idea in not wanting me to find the things for him, and I'm not going to meddle myself."

With the fatuity of a man in such things, and with the fatuity of age regarding all the things of the past, Kenton had thought in his homesickness of his house as he used to be in it, and had never been able to picture it without the family life. As he now walked through the empty rooms, and up and down the stairs, his pulse beat low as if in the presence of death. Everything was as they had left it, when they went out of the house, and it appeared to Kenton that nothing had been touched there since, though when he afterwards reported to his wife that there was not a speck of dust anywhere she knew that Mary had been going through the house, in their absence, not once only, but often, and she felt a pang of grateful jealousy. He got together the things that Mrs. Kenton had pretended to want, and after glancing in at the different rooms, which seemed to be lying stealthily in wait for him, with their emptiness and silence, he went down-stairs with the bundle he had made, and turned into his library. He had some thought of looking at the collections for his history, but, after pulling open one of the drawers in which they were stored, he pushed it to again, and sank listlessly into his leather-covered swivel-chair, which stood in its place before the wide writing-table, and seemed to have had him in it before he sat down. The table was bare, except for the books and documents which he had sent home from time to time during the winter, and which Richard or his wife had neatly arranged there without breaking their wraps. He let fall his bundle at his feet, and sat staring at the ranks of books against the wall, mechanically relating them to the different epochs of the past in which he or his wife or his children had been interested in them, and aching with tender pain. He had always supposed himself a happy and strong and successful man, but what a dreary ruin his life had fallen into! Was it to be finally so helpless and powerless (for with all the defences about him that a man can have, he felt himself fatally vulnerable) that he had fought so many years? Why, at his age, should he be going into exile, away from everything that could make his days bright and sweet? Why could not he come back there, where he was now more solitary than he could be anywhere else on earth, and reanimate the dead body of his home with his old life? He knew why, in an immediate sort, but his quest was for the cause behind the cause. What had he done, or left undone? He had tried to be a just man, and fulfil all his duties both to his family and to his neighbors; he had wished to be kind, and not to harm any one; he reflected how, as he had grown older, the dread of doing any unkindness had grown upon him, and how he had tried not to be proud, but to walk meekly and humbly. Why should he be punished as he was, stricken in a place so sacred that the effort to defend himself had seemed a kind of sacrilege? He could not make it out, and he was not aware of the tears of self-pity that stole slowly down his face, though from time to time he wiped them away.

He heard steps in the hall without, advancing and pausing, which must be those of his son coming back for him, and with these advances and pauses giving him notice of his approach; but he did not move, and at first he did not look up when the steps arrived at the threshold of the room where he sat. When he lifted his eyes at last he saw Bittridge lounging in the door-way, with one shoulder supported against the door-jamb, his hands in his pockets and his hat pushed well back on his forehead. In an instant all Kenton's humility and soft repining were gone. "Well, what is it?" he called.

"Oh," said Bittridge, coming forward. He laughed and explained, "Didn't know if you recognized me."

"I recognized you," said Kenton, fiercely. "What is it you want?"

"Well, I happened to be passing, and I saw the door open, and I thought maybe Dick was here."

It was on Kenton's tongue to say that it was a good thing for him Dick was not there. But partly the sense that this would be unbecoming bluster, and partly the suffocating resentment of the fellow's impudence, limited his response to a formless gasp, and Bittridge went on: "But I'm glad to find you here, judge. I didn't know that you were in town. Family all well in New York?" He was not quelled by the silence of the judge on this point, but, as if he had not expected any definite reply to what might well pass for formal civility, he now looked aslant into his breast-pocket from which he drew a folded paper. "I just got hold of a document this morning that I think will interest you. I was bringing it round to Dick's wife for you." The intolerable familiarity of all this was fast working Kenton to a violent explosion, but he contained himself, and Bittridge stepped forward to lay the paper on the table before him. "It's the original roster of Company C, in your regiment, and—"

"Take it away!" shouted Kenton, "and take yourself away with it!" and he grasped the stick that shook in his hand.

A wicked light came into Bittridge's eye as he drawled, in lazy scorn, "Oh, I don't know." Then his truculence broke in a malicious amusement. "Why, judge, what's the matter?" He put on a face of mock gravity, and Kenton knew with helpless fury that he was enjoying his vantage. He could fall upon him and beat him with his stick, leaving the situation otherwise undefined, but a moment's reflection convinced Kenton that this would not do. It made him sick to think of striking the fellow, as if in that act he should be striking Ellen, too. It did not occur to him that he could be physically worsted, or that his vehement age would be no match for the other's vigorous youth. All he thought was that it would not avail, except to make known to every one what none but her dearest could now conjecture. Bittridge could then publicly say, and doubtless would say, that he had never made love to Ellen; that if there had been any love-making it was all on her side; and that he had only paid her the attentions which any young man might blamelessly pay a pretty girl. This would be true to the facts in the case, though it was true also that he had used every tacit art to make her believe him in love with her. But how could this truth be urged, and to whom? So far the affair had been quite in the hands of Ellen's family, and they had all acted for the best, up to the present time. They had given Bittridge no grievance in making him feel that he was unwelcome in their house, and they were quite within their rights in going away, and making it impossible for him to see her again anywhere in Tuskingum. As for his seeing her in New York, Ellen had but to say that she did not wish it, and that would end it. Now, however, by treating him rudely, Kenton was aware that he had bound himself to render Bittridge some account of his behavior throughout, if the fellow insisted upon it.

"I want nothing to do with you, sir," he said, less violently, but, as he felt, not more effectually. "You are in my house without my invitation, and against my wish!"

"I didn't expect to find you here. I came in because I saw the door open, and I thought I might see Dick or his wife and give them, this paper for you. But I'm glad I found you, and if you won't give me any reason for not wanting me here, I can give it myself, and I think I can make out a very good case for you." Kenton quivered in anticipation of some mention of Ellen, and Bittridge smiled as if he understood. But he went on to say: "I know that there were things happened after you first gave me the run of your house that might make you want to put up the bars again—if they were true. But they were not true. And I can prove that by the best of all possible witnesses—by Uphill himself. He stands shoulder to shoulder with me, to make it hot for any one who couples his wife's name with mine."

"Humph!" Kenton could not help making this comment, and Bittridge, being what he was, could not help laughing.

"What's the use?" he asked, recovering himself. "I don't pretend that I did right, but you know there wasn't any harm in it. And if there had been I should have got the worst of it. Honestly, judge, I couldn't tell you how much I prized being admitted to your house on the terms I was. Don't you think I could appreciate the kindness you all showed me? Before you took me up, I was alone in Tuskingum, but you opened every door in the place for me. You made it home to me; and you won't believe it, of course, because you're prejudiced; but I felt like a son and brother to you all. I felt towards Mrs. Kenton just as I do towards my own mother. I lost the best friends I ever had when you turned against me. Don't you suppose I've seen the difference here in Tuskingum? Of course, the men pass the time of day with me when we meet, but they don't look me up, and there are more near-sighted girls in this town!" Kenton could not keep the remote dawn of a smile out of his eyes, and Bittridge caught the far-off gleam. "And everybody's been away the whole winter. Not a soul at home, anywhere, and I had to take my chance of surprising Mrs. Dick Kenton when I saw your door open here." He laughed forlornly, as the gleam faded out of Kenton's eye again. "And the worst of it is that my own mother isn't at home to me, figuratively speaking, when I go over to see her at Ballardsville. She got wind of my misfortune, somehow, and when I made a clean breast of it to her, she said she could never feel the same to me till I had made it all right with the Kentons. And when a man's own mother is down on him, judge!"

Bittridge left Kenton to imagine the desperate case, and in spite of his disbelief in the man and all he said, Kenton could not keep his hardness of heart towards him. "I don't know what you're after, young man," he began. "But if you expect me to receive you under my roof again—"

"Oh, I don't, judge, I don't!" Bittridge interposed. "All I want is to be able to tell my mother—I don't care for anybody else—that I saw you, and you allowed me to say that I was truly sorry for the pain—if it was pain; or annoyance, anyway—that I had caused you, and to go back to her with the hope of atoning for it sometime or somehow. That's all."

"Look here!" cried Renton. "What have you written to my daughter for?"

"Wasn't that natural? I prized her esteem more than I do yours even; but did I ask her anything more than I've asked you? I didn't expect her to answer me; all I wanted was to have her believe that I wasn't as black as I was painted—not inside, anyway. You know well enough—anybody knows—that I would rather have her think well of me than any one else in this world, except my mother. I haven't got the gift of showing out what's good in me, if there is any good, but I believe Miss Ellen would want to think well of me if I gave her a chance. If ever there was an angel on earth, she's one. I don't deny that I was hopeful of mercy from her, because she can't think evil, but I can lay my hand on my heart and say that I wasn't selfish in my hopes. It seemed to me that it was her due to understand that a man whom she had allowed to be her friend wasn't altogether unworthy. That's as near as I can come to putting into words the motive I had in writing to her. I can't even begin to put into words the feeling I have towards her. It's as if she was something sacred."

This was the feeling Renton himself had towards his daughter, and for the first time he found himself on common ground with the scapegrace who professed it, and whose light, mocking face so little enforced his profession. If Bittridge could have spoken in the dark, his words might have carried a conviction of his sincerity, but there, in plain day, confronting the father of Ellen, who had every wish to believe him true, the effect was different. Deep within his wish to think the man honest, Kenton recoiled from him. He vaguely perceived that it was because she could not think evil that this wretch had power upon her, and he was sensible, as he had not been before, that she had no safety from him except in absence. He did not know what to answer; he could not repel him in open terms, and still less could he meet him with any words that would allow him to resume his former relations with his family. He said, finally: "We will let matters stand. We are going to Europe in a week, and I shall not see you again. I will tell Mrs. Kenton what you say."

"Thank you, judge. And tell her that I appreciate your kindness more than I can say!" The judge rose from his chair and went towards the window, which he had thrown open. "Going to shut up? Let me help you with that window; it seems to stick. Everything fast up-stairs?"

"I—I think so," Kenton hesitated.

"I'll just run up and look," said Bittridge, and he took the stairs two at a time, before Kenton could protest, when they came out into the hall together. "It's all right," he reported on his quick return. "I'll just look round below here," and he explored the ground-floor rooms in turn. "No, you hadn't opened any other window," he said, glancing finally into the library. "Shall I leave this paper on your table?"

"Yes, leave it there," said Kenton, helplessly, and he let Bittridge close the front door after him, and lock it.

"I hope Miss Lottie is well," he suggested in handing the key to Kenton. "And Boyne" he added, with the cordiality of an old family friend. "I hope Boyne has got reconciled to New York a little. He was rather anxious about his pigeons when he left, I understand. But I guess Dick's man has looked after them. I'd have offered to take charge of the cocoons myself if I'd had a chance." He walked, gayly chatting, across the intervening lawn with Kenton to his son's door, where at sight of him bra. Richard Kenton evanesced into the interior so obviously that Bittridge could not offer to come in. "Well, I shall see you all when you come back in the fall, judge, and I hope you'll have a pleasant voyage and a good time in Europe."

"Thank you," said Kenton, briefly.

"Remember me to the ladies!" and Bittridge took off his hat with his left hand, while he offered the judge his right. "Well, good-bye!"

Kenton made what response he could, and escaped in-doors, where his daughter-in-law appeared from the obscurity into which she had retired from Bittridge. "Well, that follow does beat all! How, in the world did he find you, father?"

"He came into the house," said the judge, much abashed at his failure to deal adequately with Bittridge. He felt it the more in the presence of his son's wife. "I couldn't, seem to get rid of him in any way short of kicking him out."

"No, there's nothing equal to his impudence. I do believe he would have come in here, if he hadn't seen me first. Did you tell him when you were going back, father? Because he'd be at the train to see you off, just as sure!"

"No, I didn't tell him," said Kenton, feeling move shaken now from the interview with Bittridge than he had realized before. He was ashamed to let Mary know that he had listened to Bittridge's justification, which he now perceived was none, and he would have liked to pretend that he had not silently condoned his offences, but Mary did not drive him to these deceptions by any further allusions to Bittridge.

"Well, now, you must go into the sitting-room and lie down on the lounge; I promised Dick to make you. Or would you rather go up-stairs to your room?"

"I think I'll go to my room," said Kenton.

He was asleep there on the bed when Richard came home to dinner and looked softly in. He decided not to wake him, and Mary said the sleep would do him more good than the dinner. At table they talked him over, and she told her husband what she knew of the morning's adventure.

"That was pretty tough for father," said Richard. "I wouldn't go into the house with him, because I knew he wanted to have it to himself; and then to think of that dirty hound skulking in! Well, perhaps it's for the best. It will make it easier, for father to go and leave the place, and they've got to go. They've got to put the Atlantic Ocean between Ellen and that fellow."

"It does seem as if something might be done," his wife rebelled.

"They've done the best that could be done," said Richard. "And if that skunk hasn't got some sort of new hold upon father, I shall be satisfied. The worst of it is that it will be all over town in an hour that Bittridge has made up with us. I don't blame father; he couldn't help it; he never could be rude to anybody."

"I think I'll try if I can't be rude to Mr. Bittridge, if he ever undertakes to show in my pretence that he has made it up with us," said Mary.

Richard tenderly found out from his father's shamefaced reluctance, later, that no great mischief had been done. But no precaution on his part availed to keep Bittridge from demonstrating the good feeling between himself and the Kentons when the judge started for New York the next afternoon. He was there waiting to see him off, and he all but took the adieus out of Richard's hands. He got possession of the judge's valise, and pressed past the porter into the sleeping-car with it, and remained lounging on the arm of the judge's seat, making conversation with him and Richard till the train began to move. Then he ran outside, and waved his hand to the judge's window in farewell, before all that leisure of Tuskingum which haunted the arrival and departure of the trains.

Mary Kenton was furious when her husband came home and reported the fact to her.

"How in the world did he find out when father was going?"

"He must have come to all the through trains since he say him yesterday. But I think even you would have been suited, Mary, if you had seen his failure to walk off from the depot arm-in-arm with me:

"I wouldn't have been suited with anything short of your knocking, him down, Dick."

"Oh, that wouldn't have done," said Richard. After a while he added, patiently, "Ellen is making a good deal of trouble for us."

This was what Mary was thinking herself, and it was what she might have said, but since Dick had said it she was obliged to protest. "She isn't to blame for it."

"Oh, I know she isn't to blame."

William Dean Howells

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