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Chapter 5

The father of the unhappy girl was of the same mixed mind as he rode sleeplessly back to New York in his berth, and heard the noises of slumber all round him. From time to time he groaned softly, and turned from one cheek to the other. Every half-hour or so he let his window-curtain fly up, and lay watching the landscape fleeting past; and then he pulled the curtain down again and tried to sleep. After passing Albany he dozed, but at Poughkeepsie a zealous porter called him by mistake, and the rest of the way to New York he sat up in the smoking-room. It seemed a long while since he had drowsed; the thin nap had not rested him, and the old face that showed itself in the glass, with the frost of a two days' beard on it, was dry-eyed and limply squared by the fall of the muscles at the corners of the chin.

He wondered how he should justify to his wife the thing which he felt as accountable for having happened to him as if he could have prevented it. It would not have happened, of course, if he had not gone to Tuskingum, and she could say that to him; now it seemed to him that his going, which had been so imperative before he went, was altogether needless. Nothing but harm had come of it, and it had been a selfish indulgence of a culpable weakness.

It was a little better for Kenton when he found himself with his family, and they went down together to the breakfast which the mother had engaged the younger children to make as pleasant as they could for their father, and not worry him with talk about Tuskingum. They had, in fact, got over their first season of homesickness, and were postponing their longing for Tuskingum till their return from Europe, when they would all go straight out there. Kenton ran the gauntlet of welcome from the black elevator-boys and bell-boys and the head-waiter, who went before him to pull out the judge's chair, with commanding frowns to his underlings to do the like for the rest of the family; and as his own clumsy Irish waiter stood behind his chair, breathing heavily upon the judge's head, he gave his order for breakfast, with a curious sense of having got home again from some strange place. He satisfied Boyne that his pigeons and poultry had been well cared for through the winter, and he told Lottie that he had not met much of anybody except Dick's family, before he recollected seeing half a dozen of her young men at differed times. She was not very exacting about them and her mind seemed set upon Europe, or at least she talked of nothing else. Ellen was quiet as she always was, but she smiled gently on her father, and Mrs. Kenton told him of the girl's preparations for going, and congratulated herself on their wisdom in having postponed their sailing, in view of all they had to do; and she made Kenton feel that everything was in the best possible shape. As soon as she got him alone in their own room, she said, "Well, what is it, poppa?"

Then he had to tell her, and she listened with ominous gravity. She did not say that now he could see how much better it would have been if he had not gone, but she made him say it for her; and she would not let him take comfort in the notion of keeping the fact of his interview with Bittridge from Ellen. "It would be worse than useless. He will write to her about it, and then she will know that we have been, concealing it."

Kenton was astonished at himself for not having thought of that. "And what are you going to do, Sarah?"

"I am going to tell her," said Mrs. Kenton.

"Why didn't poppa tell me before?" the girl perversely demanded, as soon as her another had done so.

"Ellen, you are a naughty child! I have a great mind not to have a word more to say to you. Your father hasn't been in the house an hour. Did you want him to speak before Lottie and Boyne!"

"I don't see why he didn't tell me himself. I know there is something you are keeping back. I know there is some word—"

"Oh, you poor girl!" said her mother, melting into pity against all sense of duty. "Have we ever tried to deceive you?"

"No," Ellen sobbed, with her face in her hands. "Now I will tell you every word that passed," said Mrs. Kenton, and she told, as well as she could remember, all that the judge had repeated from Bittridge. "I don't say he isn't ashamed of himself," she commented at the end. "He ought to be, and, of course, he would be glad to be in with us again when we go back; but that doesn't alter his character, Ellen. Still, if you can't see that yourself, I don't want to make you, and if you would rather go home to Tuskingum, we will give up the trip to Europe."

"It's too late to do that now," said the girl, in cruel reproach.

Her mother closed her lips resolutely till she could say, "Or you can write to him if you want to."

"I don't want to," said Ellen, and she dragged herself up out of her chair, and trailed slowly out of the room without looking at her mother.

"Well?" the judge asked, impatiently, when he came in as soon after this as he decently could. They observed forms with regard to talking about Ellen which, after all, were rather for themselves than for her; Mrs. Kenton, at least, knew that the girl knew when they were talking about her.

"She took it as well as I expected."

"What is she going to do?"

"She didn't say. But I don't believe she will do anything."

"I wish I had taken our tickets for next Saturday," said Kenton.

"Well, we must wait now," said his wife. "If he doesn't write to her, she won't write to him."

"Has she ever answered that letter of his?"

"No, and I don't believe she will now."

That night Ellen came to her mother and said she need not be afraid of her writing to Bittridge. "He hasn't changed, if he was wrong, by coming and saying those things to poppa, and nothing has changed."

"That is the way I hoped you would see it; Ellen." Her mother looked wistfully at her, but the girl left her without letting her satisfy the longing in the mother's heart to put her arms round her child, and pull her head down upon her breast for a cry.

Kenton slept better that night than his wife, who was kept awake by a formless foreboding. For the week that followed she had the sense of literally pushing the hours away, so that at times she found herself breathless, as if from some heavy physical exertion. At such times she was frantic with the wish to have the days gone, and the day of their sailing come, but she kept her impatience from her husband and children, and especially from Ellen. The girl was passive enough; she was almost willing, and in the preparation for their voyage she did her share of the shopping, and discussed the difficult points of this business with her mother and sister as if she had really been thinking about it all. But her mother doubted if she had, and made more of Ellen's sunken eyes and thin face than of her intelligent and attentive words. It was these that she reported to her husband, whom she kept from talking with Ellen, and otherwise quelled.

"Let her alone," she insisted, one morning of the last week. "What can you do by speaking to her about it? Don't you see that she is making the best fight she can? You will weaken her if you interfere. It's less than a week now, and if you can only hold out, I know she can."

Kenton groaned. "Well, I suppose you're right, Sarah. But I don't like the idea of forcing her to go, unless—"

"Then you had better write to that fellow, and ask him to come and get her."

This shut Kenton's mouth, and he kept on with his shaving. When he had finished he felt fresher, if not stronger, and he went down to breakfast, which he had alone, not only with reference to his own family, but all the other guests of the hotel. He was always so early that sometimes the dining-room was not open; when this happened, he used to go and buy a newspaper at the clerk's desk, for it was too early then for the news-stand to be open. It happened so that morning, and he got his paper without noticing the young man who was writing his name in the hotel register, but who looked briskly up when the clerk bade Kenton good-morning by name.

"Why, judge!" he said, and he put out a hand which Kenton took with trembling reluctance and a dazed stare. "I thought you sailed last Saturday!"

"We sail next Saturday," said Kenton.

"Well, well! Then I misunderstood," said Bittridge, and he added: "Why, this is money found in the road! How are all the family? I've got my mother here with me; brought her on for a kind of a little outing. She'll be the most surprised woman in New York when I tell her you're here yet. We came to this hotel because we knew you had been here, but we didn't suppose you were here! Well! This is too good! I saw Dick, Friday, but he didn't say anything about your sailing; I suppose he thought I knew. Didn't you tell me you were going in a week, that day in your house?"

"Perhaps I did," Kenton faltered out, his eyes fixed on Bittridge's with a helpless fascination.

"Well, it don't matter so long as you're here. Mother's in the parlor waiting for me; I won't risk taking you to her now, judge—right off the train, you know. But I want to bring her to call on Mrs. Kenton as soon after breakfast as you'll let me. She just idolizes Mrs. Kenton, from what I've told her about her. Our rooms ready?" He turned to the clerk, and the clerk called "Front!" to a bellboy, who ran up and took Bittridge's hand-baggage, and stood waiting to follow him into the parlor. "Well, you must excuse me now, judge. So long!" he said, gayly, and Kenton crept feebly away to the dining-room.

He must have eaten breakfast, but he was not aware of doing so; and the events of his leaving the table and going up in the elevator and finding himself in his wife's presence did not present themselves consecutively, though they must all have successively occurred. It did not seem to him that he could tell what he knew, but he found himself doing it, and her hearing it with strange quiet.

"Very well," she said. "I must tell Ellen, and, if she wishes, we must stay in and wait for their call."

"Yes," the judge mechanically consented.

It was painful for Mrs. Kenton to see how the girl flushed when she announced the fact of Bittridge's presence, for she knew what a strife of hope and shame and pride there was in Ellen's heart. At first she said that she did not wish to see him, and then when Mrs. Kenton would not say whether she had better see him or not, she added, vaguely, "If he has brought his mother—"

"I think we must see them, Ellen. You wouldn't wish to think you had been unkind; and he might be hurt on his mother's account. He seems really fond of her, and perhaps—"

"No, there isn't any perhaps, momma," said the girl, gratefully. "But I think we had better see them, too. I think we had better ALL see them."

"Just as you please, Ellen. If you prefer to meet them alone—"

"I don't prefer that. I want poppa to be there, and Lottie and Boyne even."

Boyne objected when he was told that his presence was requested at this family rite, and he would have excused himself if the invitation had been of the form that one might decline. "What do I want to see him for?" he puffed. "He never cared anything about me in Tuskingum. What's he want here, anyway?"

"I wish you to come in, my son," said his mother, and that ended it.

Lottie was not so tractable. "Very well, momma," she said. "But don't expect me to speak to him. I have some little self-respect, if the rest of you haven't. Am I going to shake hands with him! I never took the least notice of him at home, and I'm not going to here."

Bittridge decided the question of hand-shaking for her when they met. He greeted her glooming brother with a jolly "Hello, Boyne!" and without waiting for the boy's tardy response he said "Hello, Lottie!" to the girl, and took her hand and kept it in his while he made an elaborate compliment to her good looks and her gain in weight. She had come tardily as a proof that she would not have come in at all if she had not chosen to do so, and Mrs. Bittridge was already seated beside Ellen on the sofa, holding her hand, and trying to keep her mobile, inattentive eyes upon Ellen's face. She was a little woman, youthfully dressed, but not dressed youthfully enough for the dry, yellow hair which curled tightly in small rings on her skull, like the wig of a rag-doll. Her restless eyes were round and deep-set, with the lids flung up out of sight; she had a lax, formless mouth, and an anxious smile, with which she constantly watched her son for his initiative, while she recollected herself from time to time, long enough to smooth Ellen's hand between her own, and say, "Oh, I just think the world of Clarence; and I guess he thinks his mother is about right, too," and then did not heed what Ellen answered.

The girl said very little, and it was Bittridge who talked for all, dominating the room with a large, satisfied presence, in which the judge sat withdrawn, his forehead supported on his hand, and his elbow on the table. Mrs. Kenton held herself upright, with her hands crossed before her, stealing a look now and then at her daughter's averted face, but keeping her eyes from Mrs. Bittridge, who, whenever she caught Mrs. Kenton's glance, said something to her about her Clarence, and how he used to write home to her at Ballardsville about the Kentons, so that she felt acquainted with all of them. Her reminiscences were perfunctory; Mrs. Bittridge had voluntarily but one topic, and that was herself, either as she was included in the interest her son must inspire, or as she included him in the interest she must inspire. She said that, now they had met at last, she was not going to rest till the Kentons had been over to Ballardsville, and made her a good, long visit; her son had some difficulty in making her realize that the Kentons were going to Europe. Then she laughed, and said she kept forgetting; and she did wish they were all coming back to Tuskingum.

If it is a merit to treat a fatuous mother with deference, Bittridge had that merit. His deference was of the caressing and laughing sort, which took the spectator into the joke of her peculiarities as something they would appreciate and enjoy with him. She had been a kittenish and petted person in her youth, perhaps, and now she petted herself, after she had long ceased to be a kitten. What was respectable and what was pathetic in her was her wish to promote her son's fortunes with the Kentons, but she tried to do this from not a very clear understanding of her part, apparently, and little sense of the means. For Ellen's sake, rather than hers, the father and mother received her overtures to their liking kindly; they answered her patiently, and Mrs. Kenton even tried to lead the way for her to show herself at her best, by talking of her journey on to New York, and of the city, and what she would see there to interest her. Lottie and Boyne, sternly aloof together in one of their momentary alliances, listened to her replies with a silent contempt that almost included their mother; Kenton bore with the woman humbly and sadly.

He was, in fact, rather bewildered with the situation, for which he felt himself remotely if not immediately responsible. Bittridge was there among them not only on good terms, but apparently in the character of a more than tolerated pretendant to Ellen's favor. There were passages of time is which the father was not sure that the fellow was not engaged to his daughter, though when these instants were gone he was aware that there had been no overt love-making between them and Bittridge had never offered himself. What was he doing there, then? The judge asked himself that, without being able to answer himself. So far as he could make out, his wife and he were letting him see Ellen, and show her off to his mother, mainly to disgust her with them both, and because they were afraid that if they denied her to him, it would be the worse for them through her suffering. The judge was not accustomed to apply the tests by which people are found vulgar or not; these were not of his simple world; all that he felt about Mrs. Bittridge was that she was a very foolish, false person, who was true in nothing but her admiration of her rascal of a son; he did not think of Bittridge as a rascal violently, but helplessly, and with a heart that melted in pity for Ellen.

He longed to have these people gone, not so much because he was so unhappy in their presence as because he wished to learn Ellen's feeling about them from his wife. She would know, whether Allen said anything to her or not. But perhaps if Mrs. Kenton had been asked to deliver her mind on this point at once she would have been a little puled. All that she could see, and she saw it with a sinking of the heart, was that Ellen looked more at peace than she had been since Bittridge was last in their house at Tuskingum. Her eyes covertly followed him as he sat talking, or went about the room, making himself at home among them, as if he were welcome with every one. He joked her more than the rest, and accused her of having become a regular New-Yorker; he said he supposed that when she came back from Europe she would not know anybody in Tuskingum; and his mother, playing with Ellen's fingers, as if they had been the fringe of a tassel, declared that she must not mind him, for he carried on just so with everybody; at the same time she ordered him to stop, or she would go right out of the room.

She gave no other sign of going, and it was her son who had to make the movement for her at last; she apparently did not know that it was her part to make it. She said that now the Kentons must come and return her call, and be real neighborly, just the same as if they were all at home together. When her son shook hands with every one she did so too, and she said to each, "Well, I wish you good-morning," and let him push her before him, in high delight with the joke, out of the room.

When they were gone the Kentons sat silent, Ellen with a rapt smile on her thin, flushed face, till Lottie said, "You forgot to ask him if we might BREATHE, poppa," and paced out of the room in stately scorn, followed by Boyne, who had apparently no words at the command of his dumb rage. Kenton wished to remain, and he looked at his wife for instruction. She frowned, and he took this for a sign that he had better go, and he went with a light sigh.

He did not know what else to do with himself, and he went down to the reading-room. He found Bittridge there, smoking a cigar, and the young man companionably offered to bestow one upon him; but the judge stiffly refused, saying he did not wish to smoke just then. He noted that Bittridge was still in his character of family favorite, and his hand trembled as he passed it over the smooth knob of his stick, while he sat waiting for the fellow to take himself away. But Bittridge had apparently no thought of going. He was looking at the amusements for the evening in a paper he had bought, and he wished to consult the judge as to which was the best theatre to go to that night; he said he wanted to take his mother. Kenton professed not to know much about the New York theatres, and then Bittridge guessed he must get the clerk to tell him. But still he did not part with the judge. He sat down beside him, and told him how glad he was to see his family looking so well, especially Miss Ellen; he could not remember ever seeing her so strong-looking. He said that girl had captured his mother, who was in love with pretty much the whole Kenton family, though.

"And by-the-way," he added, "I want to thank you and Mrs. Kenton, judge, for the way you received my mother. You made her feel that she was among friends. She can't talk about anything else, and I guess I sha'n't have much trouble in making her stay in New York as long as you're here. She was inclined to be homesick. The fact is, though I don't care to have it talked about yet, and I wish you wouldn't say anything to Dick about it when you write home, I think of settling in New York. I've been offered a show in the advertising department of one of the big dailies—I'm not at liberty to say which—and it's a toss-up whether I stay here or go to Washington; I've got a chance there, too, but it's on the staff of a new enterprise, and I'm not sure about it. I've brought my mother along to let her have a look at both places, though she doesn't know it, and I'd rather you wouldn't speak of it before her; I'm going to take her on to Washington before we go back. I want to have my mother with me, judge. It's better for a fellow to have that home-feeling in a large place from the start; it keeps him out of a lot of things, and I don't pretend to be better than other people, or not more superhuman. If I've been able to keep out of scrapes, it's more because I've had my mother near me, and I don't intend ever to be separated from her, after this, till I have a home of my own. She's been the guiding-star of my life."

Kenton was unable to make any formal response, and, in fact, he was so preoccupied with the question whether the fellow was more a fool or a fraud that he made no answer at all, beyond a few inarticulate grumblings of assent. These sufficed for Bittridge, apparently, for he went on contentedly: "Whenever I've been tempted to go a little wild, the thought of how mother would feel has kept me on the track like nothing else would. No, judge, there isn't anything in this world like a good mother, except the right kind of a wife."

Kenton rose, and said he believed he must go upstairs. Bittridge said, "All right; I'll see you later, judge," and swung easily off to advise with the clerk as to the best theatre.

William Dean Howells

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