Kenton was so unhappy that he could not wait for his wife to come to him in their own room; he broke in upon her and Ellen in the parlor, and at his coming the girl flitted out, in the noiseless fashion which of late had made her father feel something ghostlike in her. He was afraid she was growing to dislike him, and trying to avoid him, and now he presented himself quite humbly before his wife, as if he had done wrong in coming. He began with a sort of apology for interrupting, but his wife said it was all right, and she added, "We were not talking about anything in particular." She was silent, and then she added again: "Sometimes I think Ellen hasn't very fine perceptions, after all. She doesn't seem to feel about people as I supposed she would."
"You mean that she doesn't feel as you would suppose about those people?"
Mrs. Kenton answered, obliquely. "She thinks it's a beautiful thing in him to be so devoted to his mother."
"Humph! And what does she think of his mother?"
"She thinks she has very pretty hair."
Mrs. Kenton looked gravely down at the work she had in her hands, and Kenton did not know what to make of it all. He decided that his wife must feel, as he did, a doubt of the child's sincerity, with sense of her evasiveness more tolerant than his own. Yet he knew that if it came to a question of forcing Ellen to do what was best for her, or forbidding her to do what was worst, his wife would have all the strength for the work, and he none. He asked her, hopelessly enough, "Do you think she still cares for him?"
"I think she wishes to give him another trial; I hope she will." Kenton was daunted, and he showed it. "She has got to convince herself, and we have got to let her. She believes, of course, that he's here on her account, and that flatters her. Why should she be so different from other girls?" Mrs. Kenton demanded of the angry protest in her husband's eye.
His spirit fell, and he said, "I only wish she were more like them."
"Well, then, she is just as headstrong and as silly, when it comes to a thing like this. Our only hope is to let her have her own way."
"Do you suppose he cares for her, after all?"
Mrs. Kenton was silent, as if in exhaustive self-question. Then she answered: "No, I don't in that way. But he believes he can get her."
"Then, Sarah, I think we have a duty to the poor child. You must tell her what you have told me."
Mrs. Kenton smiled rather bitterly, in recognition of the fact that the performance of their common duty must fall wholly to her. But she merely said: "There is no need of my telling her. She knows it already."
"And she would take him in spite of knowing that he didn't really care for her?"
"I don't say that. She wouldn't own it to herself."
"And what are you going to do?"
"Nothing. We must let things take their course."
They had a great deal more talk that came to the same end. They played their sad comedy, he in the part of a father determined to save his child from herself, and she in hers of resisting and withholding him. It ended as it had so often ended before—he yielded, with more faith in her wisdom than she had herself.
At luncheon the Bittridges could not join the Kentons, or be asked to do so, because the table held only four, but they stopped on their way to their own table, the mother to bridle and toss in affected reluctance, while the son bragged how he had got the last two tickets to be had that night for the theatre where he was going to take his mother. He seemed to think that the fact had a special claim on the judge's interest, and she to wish to find out whether Mrs. Kenton approved of theatre-going. She said she would not think of going in Ballardsville, but she supposed it was more rulable in New York.
During the afternoon she called at the Kenton apartment to consult the ladies about what she ought to wear. She said she had nothing but a black 'barege' along, and would that do with the hat she had on? She had worn it to let them see, and now she turned her face from aide to side to give them the effect of the plumes, that fell like a dishevelled feather-duster round and over the crown. Mrs. Kenton could only say that it would do, but she believed that it was the custom now for ladies to take their hats off in the theatre.
Mrs. Bittridge gave a hoarse laugh. "Oh, dear! Then I'll have to fix my hair two ways? I don't know what Clarence WILL say."
The mention of her son's name opened the way for her to talk of him in relation to herself, and the rest of her stay passed in the celebration of his filial virtues, which had been manifest from the earliest period. She could not remember that she ever had to hit the child a lick, she said, or that he had ever made her shed a tear.
When she went, Boyne gloomily inquired, "What makes her hair so much darker at the roots than it is at the points?" and his mother snubbed him promptly.
"You had no business to be here, Boyne. I don't like boys hanging about where ladies are talking together, and listening."
This did not prevent Lottie from answering, directly for Boyne, and indirectly for Ellen, "It's because it's begun to grow since the last bleach."
It was easier to grapple with Boyne than with Lottie, and Mrs. Kenton was willing to allow her to leave the room with her brother unrebuked. She was even willing to have had the veil lifted from Mrs. Bittridge's hair with a rude hand, if it world help Ellen.
"I don't want you to think, momma," said the girl, "that I didn't know about her hair, or that I don't see how silly she is. But it's all the more to his credit if he can be so good to her, and admire her. Would you like him better if he despised her?"
Mrs. Kenton felt both the defiance and the secret shame from which it sprang in her daughter's words; and she waited for a moment before she answered, "I would like to be sure he didn't!"
"If he does, and if he hides it from her, it's the same as if he didn't; it's better. But you all wish to dislike him."
"We don't wish to dislike him, Ellen, goodness knows. But I don't think he would care much whether we disliked him or not. I am sure your poor father and I would be only too glad to like him."
"Lottie wouldn't," said Ellen, with a resentment her mother found pathetic, it was so feeble and aimless.
"Lottie doesn't matter," she said. She could not make out how nearly Ellen was to sharing the common dislike, or how far she would go in fortifying herself against it. She kept with difficulty to her negative frankness, and she let the girl leave the room with a fretful sigh, as if provoked that her mother would not provoke her further. There were moments when Mrs. Kenton believed that Ellen was sick of her love, and that she would pluck it out of her heart herself if she were left alone. She was then glad Bittridge had come, so that Ellen might compare with the reality the counterfeit presentment she had kept in her fancy; and she believed that if she could but leave him to do his worst, it would be the best for Ellen.
In the evening, directly after dinner, Bittridge sent up his name for Mrs. Kenton. The judge had remained to read his paper below, and Lottie and Boyne had gone to some friends in another apartment. It seemed to Mrs. Kenton a piece of luck that she should be able to see him alone, and she could not have said that she was unprepared for him to come in, holding his theatre-tickets explanatorily in his hand, or surprised when he began:
"Mrs. Kenton, my mother's got a bad headache, and I've come to ask a favor of you. She can't use her ticket for to-night, and I want you to let Miss Ellen come with me. Will you?"
Bittridge had constituted himself an old friend of the whole family from the renewal of their acquaintance, and Mrs. Kenton was now made aware of his being her peculiar favorite, in spite of the instant repulsion she felt, she was not averse to what he proposed. Her fear was that Ellen would be so, or that she could keep from influencing her to this test of her real feeling for Bittridge. "I will ask her, Mr. Bittridge," she said, with a severity which was a preliminary of the impartiality she meant to use with Ellen.
"Well, that's right," he answered, and while she went to the girl's room he remained examining the details of the drawing-room decorations in easy security, which Mrs. Kenton justified on her return.
"Ellen will be ready to go with you, Mr. Bittridge."
"Well, that's good," said the young man, and while he talked on she sat wondering at a nature which all modesty and deference seemed left out of, though he had sometimes given evidence of his intellectual appreciation of these things. He talked to Mrs. Kenton not only as if they were in every-wise equal, but as if they were of the same age, almost of the same sex.
Ellen came in, cloaked and hatted, with her delicate face excited in prospect of the adventure; and her mother saw Bittridge look at her with more tenderness than she had ever seen in him before. "I'll take good care of her, Mrs. Kenton," he said, and for the first time she felt herself relent a little towards him.
A minute after they were gone Lottie bounced into the room, followed by Boyne.
"Momma!" she shouted, "Ellen isn't going to the theatre with that fellow?"
"Yes, she is."
"And you let her, momma! Without a chaperon?"
Boyne's face had mirrored the indignation in his sister's, but at this unprecedented burst of conventionality he forgot their momentary alliance. "Well, you're a pretty one to talk about chaperons! Walking all over Tuskingum with fellows at night, and going buggy-riding with everybody, and out rowing, and here fairly begging Jim Plumpton to come down to the steamer and see you off again!"
"Shut up!" Lottie violently returned, "or I'll tell momma how you've been behaving with Rita Plumpton yourself."
"Well, tell!" Boyne defied her.
"Oh, it don't matter what a brat of a boy says or does, anyway," said Lottie. "But I think Ellen is disgracing the family. Everybody in the hotel is laughing at that wiggy old Mrs. Bittridge, with her wobbly eyes, and they can see that he's just as green! The Plumptons have been laughing so about them, and I told them that we had nothing to do with them at home, and had fairly turned Bittridge out of the house, but he had impudence enough for anything; and now to find Ellen going off to the theatre with him alone!"
Lottie began to cry with vexation as she whipped out of the room, and Boyne, who felt himself drawn to her side again, said, very seriously: "Well, it ain't the thing in New York, you know, momma; and anybody can see what a jay Bittridge is. I think it's too bad to let her."
"It isn't for you to criticise your mother, Boyne," said Mrs. Kenton, but she was more shaken than she would allow. Her own traditions were so simple that the point of etiquette which her children had urged had not occurred to her. The question whether Ellen should go with Bittridge at all being decided, she would, of course, go in New York as she would go in Tuskingum. Now Mrs. Kenton perceived that she must not, and she had her share of humiliation in the impression which his mother, as her friend, apparently, was making with her children's acquaintances in the hotel. If they would think everybody in Tuskingum was like her, it would certainly be very unpleasant, but she would not quite own this to herself, still less to a fourteen-year-old boy. "I think what your father and I decide to be right will be sufficient excuse for you with your friends."
"Does father know it?" Boyne asked, most unexpectedly.
Having no other answer ready, Mrs. Kenton said, "You had better go to bed, my son."
"Well," he grumbled, as he left the room, "I don't know where all the pride of the Kentons is gone to."
In his sense of fallen greatness he attempted to join Lottie in her room, but she said, "Go away, nasty thing!" and Boyne was obliged to seek his own room, where he occupied himself with a contrivance he was inventing to enable you to close your door and turn off your gas by a system of pulleys without leaving your bed, when you were tired of reading.
Mrs. Kenton waited for her husband in much less comfort, and when he came, and asked, restlessly, "Where are the children?" she first told him that Lottie and Boyne were in their rooms before she could bring herself to say that Ellen had gone to the theatre with Bittridge.
It was some relief to have him take it in the dull way he did, and to say nothing worse than, "Did you think it was well to have her!"
"You may be sure I didn't want her to. But what would she have said if I had refused to let her go? I can tell you it isn't an easy matter to manage her in this business, and it's very easy for you to criticise, without taking the responsibility."
"I'm not criticising," said Kenton. "I know you have acted for the best."
"The children," said Mrs. Kenton, wishing to be justified further, "think she ought to have had a chaperon. I didn't think of that; it isn't the custom at home; but Lottie was very saucy about it, and I had to send Boyne to bed. I don't think our children are very much comfort to us."
"They are good children," Kenton said, said—provisionally.
"Yes, that is the worst of it. If they were bad, we wouldn't expect any comfort from them. Ellen is about perfect. She's as near an angel as a child can be, but she could hardly have given us more anxiety if she had been the worst girl in the world."
"That's true," the father sadly assented.
"She didn't really want to go with him to-night, I'll say that for her, and if I had said a single word against it she wouldn't have gone. But all at once, while she sat there trying to think how I could excuse her, she began asking me what she should wear. There's something strange about it, Rufus. If I believed in hypnotism, I should say she had gone because he willed her to go."
"I guess she went because she wanted to go because she's in love with him," said Kenton, hopelessly.
"Yes," Mrs. Kenton agreed. "I don't see how she can endure the sight of him. He's handsome enough," she added, with a woman's subjective logic. "And there's something fascinating about him. He's very graceful, and he's got a good figure."
"He's a hound!" said Kenton, exhaustively.
"Oh yes, he's a hound," she sighed, as if there could be no doubt on that point. "It don't seem right for him to be in the same room with Ellen. But it's for her to say. I feel more and more that we can't interfere without doing harm. I suppose that if she were not so innocent herself she would realize what he was better. But I do think he appreciates her innocence. He shows more reverence for her than for any one else."
"How was it his mother didn't go?" asked Kenton.
"She had a headache, he said. But I don't believe that. He always intended to get Ellen to go. And that's another thing Lottie was vexed about; she says everybody is laughing at Mrs. Bittridge, and it's mortifying to have people take her for a friend of ours."
"If there were nothing worse than that," said Kenton, "I guess we could live through it. Well, I don't know how it's going to all end."
They sat talking sadly, but finding a certain comfort in their mutual discouragement, and in their knowledge that they were doing the best they could for their child, whose freedom they must not infringe so far as to do what was absolutely best; and the time passed not so heavily till her return. This was announced by the mounting of the elevator to their landing, and then by low, rapid pleading in a man's voice outside. Kenton was about to open the door, when there came the formless noise of what seemed a struggle, and Ellen's voice rose in a muffed cry: "Oh! Oh! Let me be! Go away! I hate you!" Kenton the door open, and Ellen burst in, running to hide her face in her mother's breast, where she sobbed out, "He—he kissed me!" like a terrified child more than an insulted woman. Through the open door came the clatter of Bittridge's feet as he ran down-stairs.