The next day, in Tuskingum, Richard, Kenton found among the letters of his last mail one which he easily knew to be from his sister Lottie, by the tightly curled-up handwriting, and by the unliterary look of the slanted and huddled address of the envelope: The only doubt he could have felt in opening it was from the unwonted length at which she had written him; Lottie usually practised a laconic brevity in her notes, which were suited to the poverty of her written vocabulary rather than the affluence of her spoken word.
"Dear Dick" [her letter ran, tripping and stumbling in its course], "I have got to tell you about something that has just happened here, and you needent laugh at the speling, or the way I tell it, but just pay attention to the thing itself, if you please. That disgusting Bittridge has been here with his horrid wiggy old mother, and momma let him take Ellen to the theatre. On the way home he tried to make her promise she would marry him and at the door he kissed her. They had an awful night with her hiseterics, and I heard momma going in and out, and trying to comfort her till daylight, nearly. In the morning I went down with poppy and Boyne to breakfast, and after I came up, father went to the reading-room to get a paper, and that Bittridge was there waiting for him, and wanted to speak with him about Ellen. Poppa wouldent say a word to him, and he kept following poppa up, to make him. Boyne says be wouldent take no for an ansir, and hung on and hungon, till poppa threatened to hitt him with his cane. Then he saw it was no use, and he took his hand and rubbed it in poppa's face, and Boyne believes he was trying to pull poppa's nose. Boyne acted like I would have done; he pounded Bittridge in the back; but of course Bittridge was too strong for him, and threw him on the floor, and Boyne scraped his knee so that it bledd. Then the porters came up, and caught Bittridge, and wanted to send for a policeman, but father wouldent let them, and the porters took Bittridge to the desk and the clerk told him to get out instantly and they left as soon as old Wiggy could get her things on. I don't know where they went, but he told poppa they were going home to-day any way. Now, Dick, I don't know what you will want to do, and I am not going to put you up to anything, but I know what I would do, pretty well, the first time Bittridge showed himself in Tuskingum. You can do just as you please, and I don't ask you to believe me if you're think I'm so exciteable that I cant tell the truth. I guess Boyne will say the same. Much love to Mary. Your affectionate sister, "Lottie. "P. S.—Every word Lottie says is true, but I am not sure he meant to pull his nose. The reason why he threw me down so easily is, I have grown about a foot, and I have not got up my strength. BOYNE. "This is strictly confidential. They don't know we are writing. LATTIE."
After reading this letter, Richard Kenton tore it into small pieces, so that there should not be even so much witness as it bore to facts that seemed to fill him with fury to the throat. His fury was, in agreement with his temperament, the white kind and cold kind. He was able to keep it to himself for that reason; at supper his wife knew merely that he had something on his mind that he did not wish to talk of; and experience had taught her that it would be useless to try making him speak.
He slept upon his wrath, and in the morning early, at an hour when he knew there would be no loafers in the place, he went to an out-dated saddler's shop, and asked the owner, a veteran of his father's regiment, "Welks, do you happen to have a cowhide among your antiquities?"
"Regular old style?" Welks returned. "Kind they make out of a cow's hide and use on a man's?"
"Something of that sort," said Richard, with a slight smile.
The saddler said nothing more, but rummaged among the riff-raff on an upper shelf. He got down with the tapering, translucent, wicked-looking thing in his hand. "I reckon that's what you're after, squire."
"Reckon it is, Welks," said Richard, drawing it through his tubed left hand. Then he buttoned it under his coat, and paid the quarter which Welks said had always been the price of a cowhide even since he could remember, and walked away towards the station.
"How's the old colonel" Welks called after him, having forgotten to ask before.
"The colonel's all right," Richard called back, without looking round.
He walked up and down in front of the station. A local train came in from Ballardsville at 8.15, and waited for the New York special, and then returned to Ballardsville. Richard had bought a ticket for that station, and was going to take the train back, but among the passengers who descended from it when it drew in was one who saved him the trouble of going.
Bittridge, with his overcoat hanging on his arm, advanced towards him with the rest, and continued to advance, in a sort of fascination, after his neighbors, with the instinct that something was about to happen, parted on either side of Richard, and left the two men confronted. Richard did not speak, but deliberately reached out his left hand, which he caught securely into Bittridge's collar; then he began to beat him with the cowhide wherever he could strike his writhing and twisting shape. Neither uttered a word, and except for the whir of the cowhide in the air, and the rasping sound of its arrest upon the body of Bittridge, the thing was done in perfect silence. The witnesses stood well back in a daze, from which they recovered when Richard released Bittridge with a twist of the hand that tore his collar loose and left his cravat dangling, and tossed the frayed cowhide away, and turned and walked homeward. Then one of them picked up Bittridge's hat and set it aslant on his head, and others helped pull his collar together and tie his cravat.
For the few moments that Richard Kenton remained in sight they scarcely found words coherent enough for question, and when they did, Bittridge had nothing but confused answers to give to the effect that he did not know what it meant, but he would find out. He got into a hack and had himself driven to his hotel, but he never made the inquiry which he threatened.
In his own house Richard Kenton lay down awhile, deadly sick, and his wife had to bring him brandy before he could control his nerves sufficiently to speak. Then he told her what he had done, and why, and Mary pulled off his shoes and put a hot-water bottle to his cold feet. It was not exactly the treatment for a champion, but Mary Kenton was not thinking of that, and when Richard said he still felt a little sick at the stomach she wanted him to try a drop of camphor in addition to the brandy. She said he must not talk, but she wished him so much to talk that she was glad when he began.
"It seemed to be something I had to do, Mary, but I would give anything if I had not been obliged to do it:
"Yes, I know just how you feel, Dick, and I think it's pretty hard this has come on you. I do think Ellen might—"
"It wasn't her fault, Mary. You mustn't blame her. She's had more to bear than all the rest of us." Mary looked stubbornly unconvinced, and she was not moved, apparently, by what he went on to say. "The thing now is to keep what I've done from making more mischief for her."
"What do you mean, Dick? You don't believe he'll do anything about it, do you?"
"No, I'm not afraid of that. His mouth is shut. But you can't tell how Ellen will take it. She may side with him now."
"Dick! If I thought Ellen Kenton could be such a fool as that!"
"If she's in love with him she'll take his part."
"But she can't be in love with him when she knows how he acted to your father!"
"We can't be sure of that. I know how he acted to father; but at this minute I pity him so that I could take his part against father. And I can understand how Ellen—Anyway, I must make a clean breast of it. What day is this Thursday? And they sail Saturday! I must write—"
He lifted himself on his elbow, and made as if to throw off the shawl she had spread upon him.
"No, no! I will write, Dick! I will write to your mother. What shall I say?" She whirled about, and got the paper and ink out of her writing-desk, and sat down near him to keep him from getting up, and wrote the date, and the address, "Dear Mother Kenton," which was the way she always began her letters to Mrs. Kenton, in order to distinguish her from her own mother. "Now what shall I say?"
"Simply this," answered Richard. "That I knew of what had happened in New York, and when I met him this morning I cowhided him. Ugh!"
"Well, that won't do, Dick. You've got to tell all about it. Your mother won't understand."
"Then you write what you please, and read it to me. It makes me sick to think of it." Richard closed his eyes, and Mary wrote:
"DEAR MOTHER KENTON,—I am sitting by Richard, writing at his request, about what he has done. He received a letter from New York telling him of the Bittridges' performances there, and how that wretch had insulted and abused you all. He bought a cowhide; meaning to go over to Ballardsville, and use it on him there, but B. came over on the Accommodation this morning, and Richard met him at the station. He did not attempt to resist, for Richard took him quite by surprise. Now, Mother Kenton, you know that Richard doesn't approve of violence, and the dear, sweet soul is perfectly broken-down by what he had to do. But he had to do it, and he wishes you to know at, once that he did it. He dreads the effect upon Ellen, and we must leave it to your judgment about telling her. Of course, sooner or later she must find it out. You need not be alarmed about Richard. He is just nauseated a little, and he will be all right as soon as his stomach is settled. He thinks you ought to have this letter before you sail, and with affectionate good-byes to all, in which Dick joins, "Your loving daughter,
"There! Will that do?"
"Yes, that is everything that can be said," answered Richard, and Mary kissed him gratefully before sealing her letter.
"I will put a special delivery on it," she said, and her precaution availed to have the letter delivered to Mrs. Kenton the evening the family left the hotel, when it was too late to make any change in their plans, but in time to give her a bad night on the steamer, in her doubt whether she ought to let the family go, with this trouble behind them.
But she would have had a bad night on the steamer in any case, with the heat, and noise, and smell of the docks; and the steamer sailed with her at six o'clock the next morning with the doubt still open in her mind. The judge had not been of the least use to her in helping solve it, and she had not been able to bring herself to attack Lottie for writing to Richard. She knew it was Lottie who had made the mischief, but she could not be sure that it was mischief till she knew its effect upon Ellen. The girl had been carried in the arms of one of the stewards from the carriage to her berth in Lottie's room, and there she had lain through the night, speechless and sleepless.