Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

The Kentons by William Dean Howells

Part 5 out of 5

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.5 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

it to me, and so I shall do it. I don't believe Mr. Breckon will think
it's queer or squeamish."

"I've no doubt he'll take it in the right way; you'll know how to--"
Kenton looked into his hat, which he had taken off and then put it on
again. His tone and his manner were sufficiently sneaking, and he could
not make them otherwise. It was for this reason, no doubt, that he would
not prolong the interview.

"Oh yes, go!" said Mrs. Kenton, as he found himself with his hand on the
door. "Leave it all to me, do!" and he was aware of skulking out of the
room. By the time that it would have taken him so long as to walk to the
top of the grand stairway he was back again. "He's coming!" he said,
breathlessly. "I saw him at the bottom of the stairs. Go into your room
and wash your eyes. I'LL tell him."

"No, no, Rufus! Let me! It will be much better. You'll be sure to
bungle it."

"We must risk that. You were quite right, Sarah. It would have been
cowardly in me to let you do it."

"Rufus! You know I didn't mean it! Surely you're not resenting that?"

"No. I'm glad you made me see it. You're all right, Sarah, and you'll
find that it will all come out all right. You needn't be afraid I'll
bungle it. I shall use discretion. Go--"

"I shall not stir a step from this parlor! You've got back all your
spirit, dear," said the old wife, with young pride in her husband.
"But I must say that Ellen is putting more upon you than she has any
right to. I think she might tell him herself."

"No, it's our business--my business. We allowed her to get in for it.
She's quite right about it. We must not let him commit himself to her
till he knows the thing that most puts her to shame. It isn't enough for
us to say that it was really no shame. She feels that it casts a sort of
stain--you know what I mean, Sarah, and I believe I can make this young
man know. If I can't, so much the worse for him. He shall never see
Ellen again."

"Oh, Rufus!"

"Do you think he would be worthy of her if he couldn't?"

"I think Ellen is perfectly ridiculous."

"Then that shows that I am right in deciding not to leave this thing to
you. I feel as she does about it, and I intend that he shall."

"Do you intend to let her run the chance of losing him?"

"That is what I intend to do."

"Well, then, I'll tell you what: I am going to stay right here. We will
both see him; it's right for us to do it." But at a rap on the parlor
door Mrs. Kenton flew to that of her own room, which she closed upon her
with a sort of Parthian whimper, "Oh, do be careful, Rufus!"

Whether Kenton was careful or not could never be known, from either
Kenton himself or from Breckon. The judge did tell him everything, and
the young man received the most damning details of Ellen's history with a
radiant absence which testified that they fell upon a surface sense of
Kenton, and did not penetrate to the all-pervading sense of Ellen herself
below. At the end Kenton was afraid he had not understood.

"You understand," he said, "that she could not consent to see you before
you knew just how weak she thought she had been." The judge stiffened to
defiance in making this humiliation. "I don't consider, myself, that she
was weak at all."

"Of course not!" Breckon beamed back at him.

"I consider that throughout she acted with the greatest--greatest--And
that in that affair, when he behaved with that--that outrageous
impudence, it was because she had misled the scoundrel by her kindness,
her forbearance, her wish not to do him the least shadow of injustice,
but to give him every chance of proving himself worthy of her tolerance;

The judge choked, and Breckon eagerly asked, "And shall I--may I see her

"Why--yes," the judge faltered. "If you're sure--"

"What about?" Breckon demanded.

"I don't know whether she will believe that I have told you."

"I will try to convince her. Where shall I see her?"

"I will go and tell her you are here. I will bring her--"

Kenton passed into the adjoining room, where his wife laid hold of him,
almost violently. "You did it beautifully, Rufus," she huskily
whispered, "and I was so afraid you would spoil everything. Oh, how
manly you were, and how perfect he was! But now it's my turn, and I will
go and bring Ellen--You will let me, won't you?"

"You may do anything you please, Sarah. I don't want to have any more of
this," said the judge from the chair he had dropped into.

"Well, then, I will bring her at once," said Mrs. Kenton, staying only in
her gladness to kiss him on his gray head; he received her embrace with a
superficial sultriness which did not deceive her.

Ellen came back without her mother, and as soon as she entered the room,
and Breckon realized that she had come alone, he ran towards her as if to
take her in his arms. But she put up her hand with extended fingers, and
held him lightly off.

"Did poppa tell you?" she asked, with a certain defiance. She held her
head up fiercely, and spoke steadily, but he could see the pulse beating
in her pretty neck.

"Yes, he told me--"


"Oh, I love you, Ellen--"

"That isn't it. Did you care?"

Breckon had an inspiration, an inspiration from the truth that dwelt at
the bottom of his soul and had never yet failed to save him. He let his
arms fall and answered, desperately: "Yes, I did. I wished it hadn't
happened." He saw the pulse in her neck cease to beat, and he swiftly
added, "But I know that it happened just because you were yourself, and
were so--"

"If you had said you didn't care," she breathlessly whispered, "I would
never have spoken to you. He felt a conditional tremor creeping into the
fingers which had been so rigid against his breast. "I don't see how I
lived through it! Do you think you can?"

"I think so," he returned, with a faint, far suggestion of levity that
brought from her an imperative, imploring--


Then he added, solemnly, "It had no more to do with you, Ellen, than an
offence from some hateful animal--"

"Oh, how good you are!" The fingers folded themselves, and her arms
weakened so that there was nothing to keep him from drawing her to him.
"What--what are you doing?" she asked, with her face smothered against

"Oh, Ell-en, Ellen, Ellen! Oh, my love, my dearest, my best!"

"But I have been such a fool!" she protested, imagining that she was
going to push him from her, but losing herself in him more and more.

"Yes, yes, darling! I know it. That's why I love you so!"


"There is just one thing," said the judge, as he wound up his watch that
night, "that makes me a little uneasy still."

Mrs. Kenton, already in her bed turned her face upon him with a
despairing "Tchk! Dear! What is it? I thought we had talked over

"We haven't got Lottie's consent yet."

"Well, I think I see myself asking Lottie!" Mrs. Kenton began, before
she realized her husband's irony. She added, "How could you give me such
a start?"

"Well, Lottie has bossed us so long that I couldn't help mentioning it,"
said the judge.

It was a lame excuse, and in its most potential implication his
suggestion proved without reason. If Lottie never gave her explicit
approval to Ellen's engagement, she never openly opposed it. She treated
it, rather, with something like silent contempt, as a childish weakness
on Ellen's part which was beneath her serious consideration. Towards
Breckon, her behavior hardly changed in the severity which she had
assumed from the moment she first ceased to have any use for him.
"I suppose I will have to kiss him," she said, gloomily, when her mother
told her that he was to be her brother, and she performed the rite with
as much coldness as was ever put in that form of affectionate welcome.
It is doubtful if Breckon perfectly realized its coldness; he never knew
how much he enraged her by acting as if she were a little girl, and
saying lightly, almost trivially, "I'm so glad you're going to be a
sister to me."

With Ellen, Lottie now considered herself quits, and from the first hour
of Ellen's happiness she threw off all the care with all the apparent
kindness which she had used towards her when she was a morbid invalid.
Here again, if Lottie had minded such a thing, she might have been as
much vexed by Ellen's attitude as by Breckon's. Ellen never once noticed
the withdrawal of her anxious oversight, or seemed in the least to miss
it. As much as her meek nature would allow, she arrogated to herself the
privileges and prerogatives of an elder sister, and if it had been
possible to make Lottie ever feel like a chit, there were moments when
Ellen's behavior would have made her feel like a chit. It was not till
after their return to Tuskingum that Lottie took her true place in
relation to the affair, and in the preparations for the wedding, which
she appointed to be in the First Universalist Church, overruling both her
mother's and sister's preferences for a home wedding, that Lottie rose in
due authority. Mrs. Kenton had not ceased to feel quelled whenever her
younger daughter called her mother instead of momma, and Ellen seemed not
really to care. She submitted the matter to Breckon, who said, "Oh yes,
if Lottie wishes," and he laughed when Ellen confessed, "Well, I said
we would."

With the lifting of his great anxiety, he had got back to that lightness
which was most like him, and he could not always conceal from Lottie
herself that he regarded her as a joke. She did not mind it, she said,
from such a mere sop as, in the vast content of his love, he was.

This was some months after Lottie had got at Scheveningen from Mr.
Plumpton that letter which decided her that she had no use for him.
There came the same day, and by the same post with it, a letter from one
of her young men in Tuskingum, who had faithfully written to her all the
winter before, and had not intermitted his letters after she went abroad.
To Kenton he had always seemed too wise if not too good for Lottie, but
Mrs. Kenton, who had her own doubts of Lottie, would not allow this when
it came to the question, and said, woundedly, that she did not see why
Lottie was not fully his equal in every way.

"Well," the judge suggested, "she isn't the first young lawyer at the
Tuskingum bar."

"Well, I wouldn't wish her to be," said Mrs. Kenton, who did not often
make jokes.

"Well, I don't know that I would," her husband assented, and he added,
"Pretty good, Sarah."

"Lottie," her mother summed up, "is practical, and she is very neat. She
won't let Mr. Elroy go around looking so slovenly. I hope she will make
him have his hair cut, and not look as if it were bitten off. And I
don't believe he's had his boots blacked since--"

"He was born," the judge proposed, and she assented.

"Yes. She is very saving, and he is wasteful. It will be a very good
match. You can let them build on the other corner of the lot, if Ellen
is going to be in New York. I would miss Lottie more than Ellen about
the housekeeping, though the dear knows I will miss them both badly

"Well, you can break off their engagements," said the judge.

As yet, and until Ellen was off her hands, Lottie would not allow Mr.
Elroy to consider himself engaged to her. His conditional devotion did
not debar him from a lover's rights, and, until Breckon came on from New
York to be married, there was much more courtship of Lottie than of Ellen
in the house. But Lottie saved herself in the form if not the fact, and
as far as verbal terms were concerned, she was justified by them in
declaring that she would not have another sop hanging round.

It was Boyne, and Boyne alone, who had any misgivings in regard to
Ellen's engagement, and these were of a nature so recondite that when he
came to impart them to his mother, before they left Scheveningen, and
while there was yet time for that conclusion which his father suggested
to Mrs. Kenton too late, Boyne had an almost hopeless difficulty in
stating them. His approaches, even, were so mystical that his mother was
forced to bring him to book sharply.

"Boyne, if you don't tell me right off just what you mean, I don't know
what I will do to you! What are you driving at, for pity's sake? Are
you saying that she oughtn't to be engaged to Mr. Breckon?"

"No, I'm not saying that, momma," said Boyne, in a distress that caused
his mother to take a reef in her impatience.

"Well, what are you saying, then?"

"Why, you know how Ellen is, momma. You know how conscientious and--and
--sensitive. Or, I don't mean sensitive, exactly."


"Well, I don't think she ought to be engaged to Mr. Breckon out of--


"Yes. I just know that she thinks--or it would be just like her--that he
saved me that day. But he only met me about a second before we came to
her and poppa, and the officers were taking me right along towards them."
Mrs. Kenton held herself stormily in, and he continued: "I know that he
translated for us before the magistrate, but the magistrate could speak a
little English, and when he saw poppa he saw that it was all right,
anyway. I don't want to say anything against Mr. Breckon, and I think he
behaved as well any one could; but if Ellen is going to marry him out of
gratitude for saving me--"

Mrs. Kenton could hold in no longer. "And is this what you've been
bothering the life half out of me for, for the last hour?"

"Well, I thought you ought to look at it in that light, momma."

"Well, Boyne," said his mother, "sometimes I think you're almost a fool!"
and she turned her back upon her son and left him.

Boyne's place in the Kenton family, for which he continued to have the
highest regard, became a little less difficult, a little less
incompatible with his self-respect as time went on. His spirit, which
had lagged a little after his body in stature, began, as his father said,
to catch up. He no longer nourished it so exclusively upon heroical
romance as he had during the past year, and after his return to Tuskingum
he went into his brother Richard's once, and manifested a certain
curiosity in the study of the law. He read Blackstone, and could give a
fair account of his impressions of English law to his father. He had
quite outlived the period of entomological research, and he presented his
collections of insects (somewhat moth-eaten) to his nephew, on whom he
also bestowed his postage-stamp album; Mary Kenton accepted them in
trust, the nephew being of yet too tender years for their care. In the
preoccupations of his immediate family with Ellen's engagement, Boyne
became rather close friends with his sister-in-law, and there were times
when he was tempted to submit to her judgment the question whether the
young Queen of Holland did not really beckon to him that day. But
pending the hour when he foresaw that Lottie should come out with the
whole story, in some instant of excitement, Boyne had not quite the heart
to speak of his experience. It assumed more and more respectability with
him, and lost that squalor which had once put him to shame while it was
yet new. He thought that Mary might be reasoned into regarding him as
the hero of an adventure, but he is still hesitating whether to confide
in her. In the meantime she knows all about it. Mary and Richard both
approved of Ellen's choice, though they are somewhat puzzled to make out
just what Mr. Breckon's religion is, and what his relations to his charge
in New York may be. These do not seem to them quite pastoral, and he
himself shares their uncertainty. But since his flock does not include
Mrs. Rasmith and her daughter, he is content to let the question remain
in abeyance. The Rasmiths are settled in Rome with an apparent
permanency which they have not known elsewhere for a long time, and they
have both joined in the friendliest kind of letter on his marriage to
their former pastor, if that was what Breckon was. They have professed
to know from the first that he was in love with Ellen, and that he is in
love with her now is the strong present belief of his flock, if they are
a flock, and if they may be said to have anything so positive as a belief
in regard to anything.

Judge Kenton has given the Elroys the other corner of the lot, and has
supplied them the means of building on it. Mary and Lottie run
diagonally into the home-house every day, and nothing keeps either from
coming into authority over the old people except the fear of each other
in which they stand. The Kentons no longer make any summer journeys,
but in the winter they take Boyne and go to see Ellen in New York. They
do not stay so long as Mrs. Kenton would like. As soon as they have
fairly seen the Breckons, and have settled comfortably down in their
pleasant house on West Seventy-fourth Street, she detects him in a secret
habit of sighing, which she recognizes as the worst symptom of
homesickness, and then she confides to Ellen that she supposes Mr. Kenton
will make her go home with him before long. Ellen knows it is useless to
interfere. She even encourages her father's longings, so far as
indulging his clandestine visits to the seedsman's, and she goes with him
to pick up second-hand books about Ohio in the War at the dealers', who
remember the judge very flatteringly.

As February draws on towards March it becomes impossible to detain
Kenton. His wife and son return with him to Tuskingum, where Lottie has
seen to the kindling of a good fire in the furnace against their arrival,
and has nearly come to blows with Mary about provisioning them for the
first dinner. Then Mrs. Kenton owns, with a comfort which she will not
let her husband see, that there is no place like home, and they take up
their life in the place where they have been so happy and so unhappy. He
reads to her a good deal at night, and they play a game of checkers
usually before they go to bed; she still cheats without scruple, for, as
she justly says, he knows very well that she cannot bear to be beaten.

The colonel, as he is still invariably known to his veterans, works
pretty faithfully at the regimental autobiography, and drives round the
country, picking up material among them, in a buggy plastered with mud.
He has imagined, since his last visit to Breckon, who dictates his
sermons, if they are sermons, taking a stenographer with him, and the
young lady, who is in deadly terror of the colonel's driving, is of the
greatest use to him, in the case of veterans who will not or cannot give
down (as they say in their dairy-country parlance), and has already
rescued many reminiscences from perishing in their faltering memories.
She writes them out in the judge's library when the colonel gets home,
and his wife sometimes surprises Mr. Kenton correcting them there at
night after she supposes he has gone to bed.

Since it has all turned out for the best concerning Bittridge, she no
longer has those pangs of self-reproach for Richard's treatment of him
which she suffered while afraid that if the fact came to Ellen's
knowledge it might make her refuse Breckon. She does not find her
daughter's behavior in the matter so anomalous as it appears to the

He is willing to account for it on the ground of that inconsistency which
he has observed in all human behavior, but Mrs. Kenton is not inclined to
admit that it is so very inconsistent. She contends that Ellen had
simply lived through that hateful episode of her psychological history,
as she was sure to do sooner or later and as she was destined to do as
soon as some other person arrived to take her fancy.

If this is the crude, common-sense view of the matter, Ellen herself is
able to offer no finer explanation, which shall at the same time be more
thorough. She and her husband have not failed to talk the affair over,
with that fulness of treatment which young married people give their past
when they have nothing to conceal from each other. She has attempted to
solve the mystery by blaming herself for a certain essential levity of
nature which, under all her appearance of gravity, sympathized with
levity in others, and, for what she knows to the contrary, with something
ignoble and unworthy in them. Breckon, of course, does not admit this,
but he has suggested that she was first attracted to him by a certain
unseriousness which reminded her of Bittridge, in enabling him to take
her seriousness lightly. This is the logical inference which he makes
from her theory of herself, but she insists that it does not follow; and
she contends that she was moved to love him by an instant sense of his
goodness, which she never lost, and in which she was trying to equal
herself with him by even the desperate measure of renouncing her
happiness, if that should ever seem her duty, to his perfection. He says
this is not very clear, though it is awfully gratifying, and he does not
quite understand why Mrs. Bittridge's letter should have liberated Ellen
from her fancied obligations to the past. Ellen can only say that it did
so by making her so ashamed ever to have had anything to do with such
people, and making her see how much she had tried her father and mother
by her folly. This again Breckon contends is not clear, but he says we
live in a universe of problems in which another, more or less, does not
much matter. He is always expecting that some chance shall confront him
with Bittridge, and that the man's presence will explain everything; for,
like so many Ohio people who leave their native State, the Bittridges
have come East instead of going West, in quitting the neighborhood of
Tuskingum. He is settled with his idolized mother in New York, where he
is obscurely attached to one of the newspapers. That he has as yet
failed to rise from the ranks in the great army of assignment men may be
because moral quality tells everywhere, and to be a clever blackguard is
not so well as to be simply clever. If ever Breckon has met his alter
ego, as he amuses himself in calling him, he has not known it, though
Bittridge may have been wiser in the case of a man of Breckon's
publicity, not to call it distinction. There was a time, immediately
after the Breckons heard from Tuskingum that the Bittridges were in New
York, when Ellen's husband consulted her as to what might be his duty
towards her late suitor in the event which has not taken place, and when
he suggested, not too seriously, that Richard's course might be the
solution. To his suggestion Ellen answered: "Oh no, dear! That was
wrong," and this remains also Richard's opinion.


A nature which all modesty and deference seemed left out of
All but took the adieus out of Richard's hands
Americans spoil their women! "Well, their women are worth it"
An inscrutable frown goes far in such exigencies
Another problem, more or less, does not much matter
Certain comfort in their mutual discouragement
Conscience to own the fact and the kindness to deny it
Fatuity of a man in such things
Fatuity of age regarding all the things of the past
Fertile in difficulties and so importunate for their solution
Girl is never so much in danger of having her heart broken
Good comrades, as elderly married people are apt to be
He was too little used to deference from ladies
Impart their sufferings as well as their pleasures to each other
Know more of their clothes than the people they buy them of
Learning to ask her no questions about herself
Left him alone to the first ecstasy of his homesickness
Living in the present
Melting into pity against all sense of duty
Misgiving of a blessed immortality
More faith in her wisdom than she had herself
More helpful with trouble to be ignorant of its cause
Not find more harm in them, if you did not bring it with you
Not what their mothers but what their environments made them
Pain of the preparations for a day's pleasure
Part of her pride not to ask
Performance of their common duty must fall wholly to her
Petted person in her youth, perhaps, and now she petted herself
Place where they have been so happy and so unhappy
Provoked that her mother would not provoke her further
Question whether the fellow was more a fool or a fraud
Relationship when one gives a reproof and the other accepts it
Relieved from a discoverer's duties to Europe
Renunciation of his judgment in deference to the good woman
Waiting with patience for the term of his exile
We have to make-believe before we can believe anything
When he got so far beyond his depth
Why, at his age, should he be going into exile
Wife was glad of the release from housekeeping
Worst whim was having no wish that could be ascertained

Book of the day: