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The Kentons - Chapter 9 Post by :gerry Category :Long Stories Author :William Dean Howells Date :May 2012 Read :1166

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The Kentons - Chapter 9


Ellen did not move or manifest any consciousness when the steamer left her dock and moved out into the stream, or take any note of the tumult that always attends a great liner's departure. At breakfast-time her mother came to her from one of the brief absences she made, in the hope that at each turn she should find her in a different mood, and asked if she would not have something to eat.

"I'm not hungry," she answered. "When will it sail?"

"Why, Ellen! We sailed two hours ago, and the pilot has just left us."

Ellen lifted herself on her elbow and stared at her. "And you let me!" she said, cruelly.

"Ellen! I will not have this!" cried her mother, frantic at the reproach. "What do you mean by my letting you? You knew that we were going to sail, didn't you? What else did you suppose we had come to the steamer for?"

"I supposed you would let me stay, if I wanted to: But go away, momma, go away! You're all against me--you, and poppa, and Lottie, and Boyne. Oh, dear! oh, dear!" She threw herself down in her berth and covered her face with the sheet, sobbing, while her mother stood by in an anguish of pity and anger. She wanted to beat the girl, she wanted to throw herself upon her, and weep with her in the misery which she shared with her.

Lottie came to the door of the state-room with an arm-load of long-stemmed roses, the gift of the young Mr. Plumpton, who had not had so much to be entreated to come down to the steamer and see her off as Boyne had pretended. "Momma," she said, "I have got to leave these roses in here, whether Ellen likes it or not. Boyne won't have them in his room, because he says the man that's with him would have a right to object; and this is half my room, anyway."

Mrs. Kenton frowned and shook her head, but Ellen answered from under the sheet, "I don't mind the roses, Lottie. I wish you'd stay with me a little while."

Lottie hesitated, having in mind the breakfast for which the horn had just sounded. But apparently she felt that one good turn deserved another, and she answered: "All right; I will, Nell. Momma, you tell Boyne to hurry, and come to Ellen as soon as he's done, and then I will go. Don't let anybody take my place."

"I wish," said Ellen, still from under the sheet, "that momma would have your breakfast sent here. I don't want Boyne."

Women apparently do not require any explanation of these swift vicissitudes in one another, each knowing probably in herself the nerves from which they proceed. Mrs. Kenton promptly assented, in spite of the sulky reluctance which Lottie's blue eyes looked at her; she motioned her violently to silence, and said: "Yes, I will, Ellen. I will send breakfast for both of you."

When she was gone, Ellen uncovered her face and asked Lottie to dip a towel in water and give it to her. As she bathed her eyes she said, "You don't care, do you, Lottie?"

"Not very much," said Lottie, unsparingly. "I can go to lunch, I suppose."

"Maybe I'll go to lunch with you," Ellen suggested, as if she were speaking of some one else.

Lottie wasted neither sympathy nor surprise on the question. "Well, maybe that would be the best thing. Why don't you come to breakfast?"

"No, I won't go to breakfast. But you go."

When Lottie joined her family in the dining-saloon she carelessly explained that Ellen had said she wanted to be alone. Before the young man, who was the only other person besides the Kentons at their table, her mother could not question her with any hope that the bad would not be made worse, and so she remained silent. Judge Kenton sat with his eyes fixed on his plate, where as yet the steward had put no breakfast for him; Boyne was supporting the dignity of the family in one of those moments of majesty from which he was so apt to lapse into childish dependence. Lottie offered him another alternative by absently laying hold of his napkin on the table.

"That's mine," he said, with husky gloom.

She tossed it back to him with prompt disdain and a deeply eye-lashed glance at a napkin on her right. The young man who sat next it said, with a smile, "Perhaps that's yours-unless I've taken my neighbor's."

Lottie gave him a stare, and when she had sufficiently punished him for his temerity said, rather sweetly, "Oh, thank you," and took the napkin.

"I hope we shall all have use for them before long," the young man ventured again.

"Well, I should think as much," returned the girl, and this was the beginning of a conversation which the young man shared successively with the judge and Mrs. Kenton as opportunity offered. He gave the judge his card across the table, and when the judge had read on it, "Rev. Hugh Breckon," he said that his name was Kenton, and he introduced the young man formally to his family. Mr. Breckon had a clean-shaven face, with an habitual smile curving into the cheeks from under a long, straight nose; his chin had a slight whopper-jaw twist that was charming; his gay eyes were blue, and a full vein came down his forehead between them from his smooth hair. When he laughed, which was often, his color brightened.

Boyne was named last, and then Mr. Breckon said, with a smile that showed all his white teeth, "Oh yes, Mr. Boyne and I are friends already--ever since we found ourselves room-mates," and but for us, as Lottie afterwards noted, they might never have known Boyne was rooming with him, and could easily have made all sorts of insulting remarks about Mr. Breckon in their ignorance.

The possibility seemed to delight Mr. Breckon; he invited her to make all the insulting remarks she could think of, any way, and professed himself a loser, so far as her real opinion was withheld from him by reason of his rashness in giving the facts away. In the electrical progress of their acquaintance she had begun walking up and down the promenade with him after they came up from breakfast; her mother had gone to Ellen; the judge had been made comfortable in his steamer-chair, and Boyne had been sent about his business.

"I will try to think some up," she promised him, "as soon as I HAVE any real opinion of you," and he asked her if he might consider that a beginning.

She looked at him out of her indomitable blue eyes, and said, "If it hadn't been for your card, and the Reverend on it, I should have said you were an actor."

"Well, well," said Mr. Breckon, with a laugh, "perhaps I am, in a way. I oughtn't to be, of course, but if a minister ever forces himself, I suppose he's acting."

"I don't see," said Lottie, instantly availing herself of the opening, "how you can get up and pray, Sunday after Sunday, whether you feel like it or not."

The young man said, with another laugh, but not so gay, "Well, the case has its difficulties."

"Or perhaps you just read prayers," Lottie sharply conjectured.

"No," he returned, "I haven't that advantage--if you think it one. I'm a sort of a Unitarian. Very advanced, too, I'm afraid."

"Is that a kind of Universalist?"

"Not--not exactly. There's an old joke--I'm not sure it's very good--which distinguishes between the sects. It's said that the Universalists think God is too good to damn them, and the Unitarians think they are too good to be damned." Lottie shrank a little from him. "Ah!" he cried, "you think it sounds wicked. Well, I'm sorry. I'm not clerical enough to joke about serious things."

He looked into her face with a pretended anxiety. "Oh, I don't know," she said, with a little scorn. "I guess if you can stand it, I can."

"I'm not sure that I can. I'm afraid it's more in keeping with an actor's profession than my own. Why," he added, as if to make a diversion, "should you have thought I was an actor?"

"I suppose because you were clean-shaved; and your pronunciation. So Englishy."

"Is it? Perhaps I ought to be proud. But I'm not an Englishman. I am a plain republican American. May I ask if you are English?"

"Oh!" said Lottie. "As if you thought such a thing. We're from Ohio."

Mr. Breckon said, "Ah!" Lottie could not make out in just what sense.

By this time they were leaning on the rail of the promenade, looking over at what little was left of Long Island, and she said, abruptly: "I think I will go and see how my father is getting along."

"Oh, do take me with you, Miss Kenton!" Mr. Breckon entreated. "I am feeling very badly about that poor old joke. I know you don't think well of me for it, and I wish to report what I've been saying to your father, and let him judge me. I've heard that it's hard to live up to Ohio people when you're at your best, and I do hope you'll believe I have not been quite at my best. Will you let me come with you?"

Lottie did not know whether he was making fun of her or not, but she said, "Oh, it's a free country," and allowed him to go with her.

His preface made the judge look rather grave; but when he came to the joke, Kenton laughed and said it was not bad.

"Oh, but that isn't quite the point," said Mr. Breckon. "The question is whether I am good in repeating it to a young lady who was seeking serious instruction on a point of theology."

"I don't know what she would have done with the instruction if she had got it," said the judge, dryly, and the young man ventured in her behalf:

"It would be difficult for any one to manage, perhaps."

"Perhaps," Kenton assented, and Lottie could see that he was thinking Ellen would know what to do with it.

She resented that, and she was in the offence that girls feel when their elders make them the subject of comment with their contemporaries. "Well, I'll leave you to discuss it alone. I'm going to Ellen," she said, the young man vainly following her a few paces, with apologetic gurgles of laughter.

"That's right," her father consented, and then he seized the opening to speak about Ellen. "My eldest daughter is something of an invalid, but I hope we shall have her on deck before the voyage is over. She is more interested in those matters than her sister."

"Oh!" Mr. Breckon interpolated, in a note of sympathetic interest. He could not well do more.

It was enough for Judge Kenton, who launched himself upon the celebration of Ellen's gifts and qualities with a simple-hearted eagerness which he afterwards denied when his wife accused him of it, but justified as wholly safe in view of Mr. Breckon's calling and his obvious delicacy of mind. It was something that such a person would understand, and Kenton was sure that he had not unduly praised the girl. A less besotted parent might have suspected that he had not deeply interested his listener, who seemed glad of the diversion operated by Boyne's coming to growl upon his father, "Mother's bringing Ellen up."

"Oh, then, I mustn't keep your chair," said the minister, and he rose promptly from the place he had taken beside the judge, and got himself away to the other side of the ship before the judge could frame a fitting request for him to stay.

"If you had," Mrs. Kenton declared, when he regretted this to her, "I don't know what I would have done. It's bad enough for him to hear you bragging about the child without being kept to help take care of her, or keep her amused, as you call it. I will see that Ellen is kept amused without calling upon strangers." She intimated that if Kenton did not act with more self-restraint she should do little less than take Ellen ashore, and abandon him to the voyage alone. Under the intimidation he promised not to speak of Ellen again.

At luncheon, where Mr. Breckon again devoted himself to Lottie, he and Ellen vied in ignoring each other after their introduction, as far as words went. The girl smiled once or twice at what he was saying to her sister, and his glance kindled when it detected her smile. He might be supposed to spare her his conversation in her own interest, she looked so little able to cope with the exigencies of the talk he kept going.

When he addressed her she answered as if she had not been listening, and he turned back to Lottie. After luncheon he walked with her, and their acquaintance made such a swift advance that she was able to ask him if he laughed that way with everybody.

He laughed, and then he begged her pardon if he had been rude.

"Well, I don't see what there is to laugh at so much. When you ask me a thing I tell you just what I think, and it seems to set you off in a perfect gale. Don't you expect people to say what they think?"

"I think it's beautiful," said the young man, going into the gale, "and I've got to expecting it of you, at any rate. But--but it's always so surprising! It isn't what you expect of people generally, is it?"

"I don't expect it of you," said Lottie.

"No?" asked Mr. Breckon, in another gale. "Am I so uncandid?"

"I don't know about uncandid. But I should say you were slippery."

At this extraordinary criticism the young man looked graver than he had yet been able to do since the beginning of their acquaintance. He said, presently, "I wish you would explain what you mean by slippery."

"You're as close as a trap!"


"It makes me tired."

"If you're not too tired now I wish you would say how."

"Oh, you understand well enough. You've got me to say what I think about all sorts of things, and you haven't expressed your opinion on a single, solitary point?"

Lottie looked fiercely out to sea, turning her face so as to keep him from peering around into it in the way he had. For that reason, perhaps, he did not try to do so. He answered, seriously: "I believe you are partly right. I'm afraid I haven't seemed quite fair. Couldn't you attribute my closeness to something besides my slipperiness?" He began to laugh again. "Can't you imagine my being interested in your opinions so much more than my own that I didn't care to express mine?"

Lottie said, impatiently, "Oh, pshaw!" She had hesitated whether to say, "Rats!"

"But now," he pursued, "if you will suggest some point on which I can give you an opinion, I promise solemnly to do so," but he was not very solemn as he spoke.

"Well, then, I will," she said. "Don't you think it's very strange, to say the least, for a minister to be always laughing so much?"

Mr. Breckon gave a peal of delight, and answered, "Yes, I certainly do." He controlled himself so far as to say: "Now I think I've been pretty open with you, and I wish you'd answer me a question. Will you?"

"Well, I will--one," said Lottie.

"It may be two or three; but I'll begin with one. Why do you think a minister ought to be more serious than other men?"

"Why? Well, I should think you'd know. You wouldn't laugh at a funeral, would you?"

"I've been at some funerals where it would have been a relief to laugh, and I've wanted to cry at some weddings. But you think it wouldn't do?"

"Of course it wouldn't. I should think you'd know as much as that," said Lottie, out of patience with him.

"But a minister isn't always marrying or burying people; and in the intervals, why shouldn't he be setting them an example of harmless cheerfulness?"

"He ought to be thinking more about the other world, I should say."

"Well, if he believes there is another world--"

"Why! Don't you?" she broke out on him.

Mr. Breckon ruled himself and continued--"as strenuously and unquestionably as he ought, he has greater reason than other men for gayety through his faith in a happier state of being than this. That's one of the reasons I use against myself when I think of leaving off laughing. Now, Miss Kenton," he concluded, "for such a close and slippery nature, I think I've been pretty frank," and he looked round and down into her face with a burst of laughter that could be heard an the other side of the ship. He refused to take up any serious topic after that, and he returned to his former amusement of making her give herself away.

That night Lottie came to her room with an expression so decisive in her face that Ellen, following it with vague, dark eyes as it showed itself in the glass at which her sister stood taking out the first dismantling hairpins before going to bed, could not fail of something portentous in it.

"Well," said Lottie, with severe finality, "I haven't got any use for THAT young man from this time out. Of all the tiresome people, he certainly takes the cake. You can have him, Ellen, if you want him."

"What's the matter with him?" asked Ellen, with a voice in sympathy with the slow movement of her large eyes as she lay in her berth, staring at Lottie.

"There's everything the matter, that oughtn't to be. He's too trivial for anything: I like a man that's serious about one thing in the universe, at least, and that's just what Mr. Breckon isn't." She went at such length into his disabilities that by the time she returned to the climax with which she started she was ready to clamber into the upper berth; and as she snapped the electric button at its head she repeated, "He's trivial."

"Isn't it getting rough?" asked Ellen. "The ship seems to be tipping."

"Yes, it is," said Lottie, crossly. "Good-night."

If the Rev. Mr. Breckon was making an early breakfast in the hope of sooner meeting Lottie, who had dismissed him the night before without encouraging him to believe that she wished ever to see him again, he was destined to disappointment. The deputation sent to breakfast by the paradoxical family whose acquaintance he had made on terms of each forbidding intimacy, did not include the girl who had frankly provoked his confidence and severely snubbed it. He had left her brother very sea-sick in their state-room, and her mother was reported by her father to be feeling the motion too much to venture out. The judge was, in fact, the only person at table when Breckon sat down; but when he had accounted for his wife's absence, and confessed that he did not believe either of his daughters was coming, Ellen gainsaid him by appearing and advancing quite steadily along the saloon to the place beside him. It had not gone so far as this in the judge's experience of a neurotic invalid without his learning to ask her no questions about herself. He had always a hard task in refraining, but he had grown able to refrain, and now he merely looked unobtrusively glad to see her, and asked her where Lottie was.

"Oh, she doesn't want any breakfast, she says. Is momma sick, too? Where's Boyne?"

The judge reported as to her mother, and Mr. Breckon, after the exchange of a silent salutation with the girl, had a gleeful moment in describing Boyne's revolt at the steward's notion of gruel. "I'm glad to see you so well, Miss Kenton," he concluded.

"I suppose I will be sick, too, if it gets rougher," she said, and she turned from him to give a rather compendious order to the table steward.

"Well, you've got an appetite, Ellen," her father ventured.

"I don't believe I will eat anything," she checked him, with a falling face.

Breckon came to the aid of the judge. "If you're not sick now, I prophesy you won't be, Miss Kenton. It can't get much rougher, without doing something uncommon."

"Is it a storm?" she asked, indifferently.

"It's what they call half a gale, I believe. I don't know how they measure it."

She smiled warily in response to his laugh, and said to her father, "Are you going up after breakfast, poppa?"

"Why, if you want to go, Ellen--"

"Oh, I wasn't asking for that; I am going back to Lottie. But I should think you would like the air. Won't it do you good?"

"I'm all right," said the judge, cheered by her show of concern for some one else. "I suppose it's rather wet on deck?" he referred himself to Breckon.

"Well, not very, if you keep to the leeward. She doesn't seem a very wet boat."

"What is a wet boat" Ellen asked, without lifting her sad eyes.

"Well, really, I'm afraid it's largely a superstition. Passengers like to believe that some boats are less liable to ship seas--to run into waves--than others; but I fancy that's to give themselves the air of old travellers."

She let the matter lapse so entirely that he supposed she had forgotten it in all its bearings, when she asked, "Have you been across many times?"

"Not many-four or five."

"This is our first time," she volunteered.

"I hope it won't be your last. I know you will enjoy it." She fell listless again, and Breckon imagined he had made a break. "Not," he added, with an endeavor for lightness, "that I suppose you're going for pleasure altogether. Women, nowadays, are above that, I understand. They go abroad for art's sake, and to study political economy, and history, and literature--"

"My daughter," the judge interposed, "will not do much in that way, I hope."

The girl bent her head over her plate and frowned.

"Oh, then," said Breckon, "I will believe that she's going for purely selfish enjoyment. I should like to be justified in making that my object by a good example."

Ellen looked up and gave him a look that cut him short in his glad note. The lifting of her eyelids was like the rise of the curtain upon some scene of tragedy which was all the more impressive because it seemed somehow mixed with shame. This poor girl, whom he had pitied as an invalid, was a sufferer from some spiritual blight more pathetic than broken health. He pulled his mind away from the conjecture that tempted it and went on: "One of the advantages of going over the fourth or fifth time is that you're relieved from a discoverer's duties to Europe. I've got absolutely nothing before me now, but at first I had to examine every object of interest on the Continent, and form an opinion about thousands of objects that had no interest for me. I hope Miss Kenton will take warning from me."

He had not addressed Ellen directly, and her father answered: "We have no definite plans as yet, but we don't mean to overwork ourselves even if we've come for a rest. I don't know," he added, "but we had better spend our summer in England. It's easier getting about where you know the language."

The judge seemed to refer his ideas to Breckon for criticism, and the young man felt authorized to say, "Oh, so many of them know the language everywhere now, that it's easy getting about in any country."

"Yes, I suppose so," the judge vaguely deferred.

"Which," Ellen demanded of the young man with a nervous suddenness, "do you think is the most interesting country?"

He found himself answering with equal promptness, "Oh, Italy, of course."

"Can we go to Italy, poppa?" asked the girl.

"I shouldn't advise you to go there at once" Breckon intervened, smiling. "You'd find it Pretty hot there now. Florence, or Rome, or Naples--you can't think of them."

"We have it pretty hot in Central Ohio," said the judge, with latent pride in his home climate, "What sort of place is Holland?"

"Oh, delightful! And the boat goes right on to Rotterdam, you know."

"Yes. We had arranged to leave it at Boulogne," but we could change. "Do you think your mother would like Holland?" The judge turned to his daughter.

"I think she would like Italy better. She's read more about it," said the girl.

"Rise of the Dutch Republic," her father suggested.

"Yes, I know. But she's read more about Italy!"

"Oh, well," Breckon yielded, "the Italian lakes wouldn't be impossible. And you might find Venice fairly comfortable."

"We could go to Italy, then," said the judge to his daughter, "if your mother prefers."

Breckon found the simplicity of this charming, and he tasted a yet finer pleasure in the duplicity; for he divined that the father was seeking only to let his daughter have her way in pretending to yield to her mother's preference.

It was plain that the family's life centred, as it ought, about this sad, sick girl, the heart of whose mystery he perceived, on reflection, he had not the wish to pluck out. He might come to know it, but he would not try to know it; if it offered itself he might even try not to know it. He had sometimes found it more helpful with trouble to be ignorant of its cause.

In the mean time he had seen that these Kentons were sweet, good people, as he phrased their quality to himself. He had come to terms of impersonal confidence the night before with Boyne, who had consulted him upon many more problems and predicaments of life than could have yet beset any boy's experience, probably with the wish to make provision for any possible contingency of the future. The admirable principles which Boyne evolved for his guidance from their conversation were formulated with a gravity which Breckon could outwardly respect only by stifling his laughter in his pillow. He rather liked the way Lottie had tried to weigh him in her balance and found him, as it were, of an imponderable levity. With his sense of being really very light at most times, and with most people, he was aware of having been particularly light with Lottie, of having been slippery, of having, so far as responding to her frankness was concerned, been close. He relished the unsparing honesty with which she had denounced him, and though he did not yet know his outcast condition with relation to her, he could not think of her without a smile of wholly disinterested liking. He did not know, as a man of earlier date would have known, all that the little button in the judge's lapel meant; but he knew that it meant service in the civil war, a struggle which he vaguely and impersonally revered, though its details were of much the same dimness for him as those of the Revolution and the War of 1812. The modest distrust which had grown upon the bold self-confidence of Kenton's earlier manhood could not have been more tenderly and reverently imagined; and Breckon's conjecture of things suffered for love's sake against sense and conviction in him were his further tribute to a character which existed, of course, mainly in this conjecture. It appeared to him that Kenton was held not only in the subjection to his wife's, judgment, which befalls, and doubtless becomes, a man after many years of marriage, but that he was in the actual performance of more than common renunciation of his judgment in deference to the good woman. She in turn, to be sure, offered herself a sacrifice to the whims of the sick girl, whose worst whim was having no wish that could be ascertained, and who now, after two days of her mother's devotion, was cast upon her own resources by the inconstant barometer. It had become apparent that Miss Kenton was her father's favorite in a special sense, and that his partial affection for her was of much older date than her mother's. Not less charming than her fondness for her father was the openness with which she disabled his wisdom because of his partiality to her.

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The Kentons - Chapter 10 The Kentons - Chapter 10

The Kentons - Chapter 10
CHAPTER XWhen they left the breakfast table the first morning of the rough weather, Breckon offered to go on deck with Miss Kenton, and put her where she could see the waves. That had been her shapeless ambition, dreamily expressed with reference to some time, as they rose. Breckon asked, "Why not now?" and he promised to place her chair on deck where she could enjoy the spectacle safe from any seas the boat might ship. Then she recoiled, and she recoiled the further upon her father's urgence. At the foot of the gangway she looked wistfully up the reeling stairs,

The Kentons - Chapter 8 The Kentons - Chapter 8

The Kentons - Chapter 8
CHAPTER VIIIThe 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