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Chapter 7

When Mrs. Kenton came from quieting the hysterical girl in her room she had the task, almost as delicate and difficult, of quieting her husband. She had kept him, by the most solemn and exhaustive entreaty, from following Bittridge downstairs and beating him with his stick, and now she was answerable to him for his forbearance. "If you don't behave yourself, Rufus," she had to say, "you will have some sort of stroke. After all, there's no harm done."

"No harm! Do you call it no harm for that hound to kiss Ellen?"

"He wouldn't have attempted it unless something had led up to it, I suppose."

"Sarah! How can you speak so of that angel?"

"Oh, that angel is a girl like the rest. You kissed me before we were engaged."

"That was very different."

"I don't see how. If your daughter is so sacred, why wasn't her mother? You men don't think your wives are sacred. That's it!"

"No, no, Sarah! It's because I don't think of you as apart from myself, that I can't think of you as I do of Ellen. I beg your pardon if I seemed to set her above you. But when I kissed you we were very young, and we lived in a simple day, when such things meant no harm; and I was very fond of you, and you were the holiest thing in the world to me. Is Ellen holy to that fellow?"

"I know," Mrs. Kenton relented. "I'm not comparing him to you. And there is a difference with Ellen. She isn't like other girls. If it had been Lottie—"

"I shouldn't have liked it with Lottie, either," said the major, stiffly. "But if it had been Lottie she would have boxed his ears for him, instead of running to you. Lottie can take care of herself. And I will take care of Ellen. When I see that scoundrel in the morning—"

"What will you do, an old man like you! I can tell you, it's something you've just got to bear it if you don't want the scandal to fill the whole hotel. It's a very fortunate thing, after all. It'll put an end to the whole affair."

"Do you think so, Sarah? If I believed that. What does Ellen say?"

"Nothing; she won't say anything—just cries and hides her face. I believe she is ashamed of having made a scene before us. But I know that she's so disgusted with him that she will never look at him again, and if it's brought her to that I should think his kissing her the greatest blessing in the world to us all. Yes, Ellen!"

Mrs. Kenton hurried off at a faint call from the girl's room, and when she came again she sat down to a long discussion of the situation with her husband, while she slowly took down her hair and prepared it for the night. Her conclusion, which she made her husband's, was that it was most fortunate they should be sailing so soon, and that it was the greatest pity they were not sailing in the morning. She wished him to sleep, whether she slept herself or not, and she put the most hopeful face possible upon the matter. "One thing you can rest assured of, Rufus, and that is that it's all over with Ellen. She may never speak to you about him, and you mustn't ever mention him, but she feels just as you could wish. Does that satisfy you? Some time I will tell you all she says."

"I don't care to hear," said Kenton. "All I want is for him to keep away from me. I think if he spoke to me I should kill him."

"Rufus!"

"I can't help it, Sarah. I feel outraged to the bottom of my soul. I could kill him."

Mrs. Kenton turned her head and looked steadfastly at him over her shoulder. "If you strike him, if you touch him, Mr. Kenton, you will undo everything that the abominable wretch has done for Ellen, and you will close my mouth and tie my hands. Will you promise that under no provocation whatever will you do him the least harm? I know Ellen better than you do, and I know that you will make her hate you unless—"

"Oh, I will promise. You needn't be afraid. Lord help me!" Kenton groaned. "I won't touch him. But don't expect me to speak to him."

"No, I don't expect that. He won't offer to speak to you."

They slept, and in the morning she stayed to breakfast with Ellen in their apartment, and let her husband go down with their younger children. She could trust him now, whatever form his further trial should take, and he felt that he was pledging himself to her anew, when Bittridge came hilariously to meet him in the reading-room, where he went for a paper after breakfast.

"Ah, judge!" said the young man, gayly. "Hello, Boyne!" he added to the boy, who had come with his father; Lottie had gone directly up-stairs from the breakfast-room. "I hope you're all well this morning? Play not too much for Miss Ellen?"

Kenton looked him in the face without answering, and then tried to get away from him, but Bittridge followed him up, talking, and ignoring his silence.

"It was a splendid piece, judge. You must take Mrs. Kenton. I know you'll both like it. I haven't ever seen Miss Ellen so interested. I hope the walk home didn't fatigue her. I wanted to get a cab, but she would walk." The judge kept moving on, with his head down. He did not speak, and Bittridge was forced to notice his silence. "Nothing the matter, I hope, with Miss Ellen, judge?"

"Go away," said the judge, in a low voice, fumbling the head of his stick.

"Why, what's up?" asked Bittridge, and he managed to get in front of Kenton and stay him at a point where Kenton could not escape. It was a corner of the room to which the old man had aimlessly tended, with no purpose but to avoid him:

"I wish you to let me alone, sir," said Kenton at last. "I can't speak to you."

"I understand what you mean, judge," said Bittridge, with a grin, all the more maddening because it seemed involuntary. "But I can explain everything. I just want a few words with you. It's very important; it's life or death with me, sir," he said, trying to look grave. "Will you let me go to your rooms with you?"

Kenton made no reply.

Bittridge began to laugh. "Then let's sit down here, or in the ladies' parlor. It won't take me two minutes to make everything right. If you don't believe I'm in earnest I know you don't think I am, but I can assure you—Will you let me speak with you about Miss Ellen?"

Still Kenton did not answer, shutting his lips tight, and remembering his promise to his wife.

Bittridge laughed, as if in amusement at what he had done. "Judge, let me say two words to you in private! If you can't now, tell me when you can. We're going back this evening, mother and I are; she isn't well, and I'm not going to take her to Washington. I don't want to go leaving you with the idea that I wanted to insult Miss Ellen. I care too much for her. I want to see you and Mrs. Kenton about it. I do, indeed. And won't you let me see you, somewhere?"

Kenton looked away, first to one side and then to another, and seemed stifling.

"Won't you speak to me! Won't you answer me? See here! I'd get down on my knees to you if it would do you any good. Where will you talk with me?"

"Nowhere!" shouted Kenton. "Will you go away, or shall I strike you with my stick?"

"Oh, I don't think," said Bittridge, and suddenly, in the wantonness of his baffled effrontery, he raised his hand and rubbed the back of it in the old man's face.

Boyne Kenton struck wildly at him, and Bittridge caught the boy by the arm and flung him to his knees on the marble floor. The men reading in the arm-chairs about started to their feet; a porter came running, and took hold of Bittridge. "Do you want an officer, Judge Kenton?" he panted.

"No, no!" Kenton answered, choking and trembling. "Don't arrest him. I wish to go to my rooms, that's all. Let him go. Don't do anything about it."

"I'll help you, judge," said the porter. "Take hold of this fellow," he said to two other porters who came up. "Take him to the desk, and tell the clerk he struck Judge Kenton, but the judge don't want him arrested."

Before Kenton reached the elevator with Boyne, who was rubbing his knees and fighting back the tears, he heard the clerk's voice saying, formally, to the porters, "Baggage out of 35 and 37" and adding, as mechanically, to Bittridge: "Your rooms are wanted. Get out of them at once!"

It seemed the gathering of neighborhood about Kenton, where he had felt himself so unfriended, against the outrage done him, and he felt the sweetness of being personally championed in a place where he had thought himself valued merely for the profit that was in him; his eyes filled, and his voice failed him in thanking the elevator-boy for running before him to ring the bell of his apartment.

William Dean Howells

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