Chapter XI. Two Questions
 

In the division of labor between Mara and her aunt, the latter, with the assistance of their landlady's daughter, tried to leave the young girl few tasks beyond that of filling Aun' Sheba's basket.

Mrs. Hunter was also expected to be ready to receive callers, and excuse Mara during the morning hours. Under the new order of things, more people dropped in than in former times, for, as we have seen, it had become a kindly fashion to show good-will. The caller on a certain morning in April was not wholly actuated by sympathy, for she had news which she believed would be interesting if not altogether agreeable. Clancy's attentions had not been unknown, and he had at first suffered in the estimation of others as well as of Aun' Sheba, because of his apparent neglect. The impression, however, had been growing, that Mara had withdrawn her favor on account of his friendly relations with Northern people and his readiness to bury the past. The morning visitor had not only learned of a new proof of his objectionable tendencies, but also--so do stories grow as they travel--that he was paying attention to a New York belle and heiress. Mrs. Hunter was soon possessed of these momentous rumors, and when, at last, weary from her morning labors, Mara sat down to their simple dinner, she saw that her aunt was preternaturally solemn and dignified. The girl expressed no curiosity, for she knew that whatever burdened her aunt's mind would soon be revealed with endless detail and comment.

"Well," ejaculated Mrs. Hunter at last, "my impressions concerning people are usually correct, and it is well for you that they are. If it had not been for me you might have become entangled in association with a man false and disloyal in all respects. I say entangled in association, resulting from a moment of weakness, for assuredly the instant you gained self-possession and had time for thought, you would have repudiated everything. I saved you from the embarrassment of all this, and now you can realize how important was the service I rendered. I have heard of the performances of Mr. Clancy at the North."

The hot flush on Mara's cheeks followed by pallor proved that her indifference had been thoroughly banished, but she only looked at her aunt like one ready for a blow.

"Yes," resumed Mrs. Hunter, "the story has come very straight--straight from that young Mrs. Willoughby, who, with her husband, seems as ready to forget and condone all that the South has suffered as your devoted admirer himself. Devoted indeed! He is now paying his devotions at another shrine. A Northern girl with her Northern gold is the next and natural step in his career, and he said to her pointblank that if the South again sought to regain her liberty, he would not help. He wasn't a Samson, but he was not long in being shorn by a Northern Delilah of what little strength he had."

"How do you know that this is true?" asked Mara rigid, with suppressed feeling.

"Oh, Mrs. Willoughby must talk if the heavens fell. It seems that she met this Northern girl abroad, and that they have become great friends. She has received a letter, and it is quite probable that this girl will come here. It would be just like her to follow up her new admirer. Mrs. Willoughby is so hot in her advocacy of what she terms the 'New South,' that she must speak of everything which seems to favor her pestilential ideas. By birth she belongs to the Old South and the only true South, and she tries to keep in with it, but she is getting the cold shoulder from more than one."

Mara said nothing, but her brow contracted.

"You take it very quietly," remarked her aunt severely.

"Yes," said Mara.

"Well, if I were in your place I would be on fire with indignation."

"Perhaps I would be if I did not care very much," was the girl's constrained answer.

"I do not see how you can care except as I do."

"You are you, aunty, and I am myself. People are not all made exactly alike."

"But a girl should have some self-respect."

"Yes, aunty, and she should be respected. I am one to show my self-respect by deeds, not words. You must not lecture me any more now as if I were a child," and she rose and left her almost untasted dinner.

A little thought soon satisfied Mrs. Hunter that the iron had entered deep into the soul of her niece, and that her deeds would be satisfactory. She therefore finished her dinner complacently.

Mara felt that she had obtained a test which might justly compel the giving up of her dream of love forever. She was endowed with a simplicity and sincerity of mind which prompted to definite actions and conclusions, rather than to the tumultuous emotions of anger, jealousy and doubt. She would not doubt; she would know. Either Clancy had been misrepresented or he had not been, and he had seemed so true and frank in his words to her that she would not condemn him on the story of a gossip. From her point of view she concluded that if he had gone so far as to say to a Northern girl that he would not join the South in an effort to achieve independence, supposing such an attempt to be made, then he had passed beyond the pale of even her secret sympathy and regard, no matter what the girl might become to him. She scarcely even hoped that there would ever be a chance for him to make such a choice of sides as his reputed words indicated, but he could contemplate the possibility, and if he could even think, in such an imagined exigency, of remaining aloof from the cause for which his and her own father had died, then he would be dismissed from her thoughts as utterly unworthy.

So she believed during the unhappy hours of the afternoon which were robbed of all power to bring rest. She determined, if it were possible, to hear the truth from his own lips. She would subdue her heart by giving it proof positive that he had either drifted or had been lured far away. If this were true--and she would not be influenced by her aunt's bitter prejudice--then it was all over between them. If once so completely convinced that he did not love her sufficiently to give up his Northern affiliations for her sake, her very pride would cast out her own stubborn love.

The opportunity to accomplish all she desired soon occurred, for later she met him at a house where a few guests had been invited to spend the evening. Social life had ceased to divide sharply upon the opinions held by different persons, and the question as to what guests should be brought together had been decided by the hostess chiefly on the ground of birth and former associations. On this occasion when Clancy's eyes met those of Mara, he bowed, and was about to cross the room in the hope of receiving something like a welcome after his absence, but he was repelled at once and chilled by her cold, slight bow, and her prompt return of attention to the gentleman with whom she was conversing.

Clancy was so hurt and perturbed that he was capable of but indifferent success in his efforts to maintain conversation with others. When supper was served he strayed into the deserted library and made a pretence of looking at some engravings. A dear and familiar voice brought a sudden flush to his face, but the words, "Mr. Clancy, I wish to speak with you," were spoken so coldly that he only turned and bowed deferentially and then offered Mara a chair.

She paid no attention to this act, and hesitated a moment in visible embarrassment before proceeding.

"Miss Wallingford," he began eagerly, "I have longed and hoped--"

She checked him by a gesture as she said, "Perhaps I would better speak first. I have a question to ask. You need not answer it of course if you do not wish to. I am not conventional in seeking this brief interview. Indeed," she added a little bitterly, "my life has ceased to be conventional in any sense, and I have chosen to conform to a few simple verities and necessities. As you once said to me, you and I have been friends, and, if I can trust your words, you have meant kindly by me--"

"Miss Wallingford, can you doubt my words," he began in low, passionate utterance, "can you doubt what I mean and have meant? You know I--"

Her brow had darkened with anger, and she interrupted him, saying, "You surely cannot think I have sought this interview in the expectation of listening to such words and tones. I have come because I wish to be just, because I will not think ill of you unless I must, because I wish you to know where I stand immovably. If my friendship is worth anything you will seek it by deeds, not words. I now only wish to ask if you said in effect, while North, that if the South should again engage in a struggle for freedom you would not help?"

Clancy was astounded, and exclaimed, "Miss Wallingford, can you even contemplate such a thing?"

Her face softened as she said, "I knew that you could never have said anything of the kind."

How tremendous was the temptation of that moment! He saw the whole truth instantaneously, that she was lost to him unless he came unreservedly to her position. In that brief moment her face had become an exquisite transparency illumined with an assurance of hope. He had an instinctive conviction that even if he admitted that he had spoken the words, yet would add, "Mara, I am won at last to accept your view of right and duty," all obstacles between them would speedily melt away.

The temptation grappled his heart with all the power of human love, and there was an instant of hesitation that was human also, and then conscience and manhood asserted themselves. With the dignity of conscious victory he said gravely, "Miss Wallingford, I have ever treated your convictions with respect even when I differed with you most. I have an equal right to my own convictions. I should be but the shadow of a man if I had no beliefs of my own. You misunderstand me. My first thought as you spoke was surprise that you could even contemplate such a thing as a renewed struggle between the North and the South."

"Certainly I could contemplate it, sir, though I can scarcely hope for it."

"I trust not; and even at the loss of what I value far more than you can ever know, I will not be false to myself nor to you. I did speak such words, and I must confirm them now." She bowed frigidly and was turning away when he said, "I, too, perhaps have the right to ask a question."

She paused with averted face. "Can you not at least respect a man who is as sincere as you are?"

Again the vigilant Mrs. Hunter, uneasy that Mara and Clancy were not within the range of her vision, appeared upon the scene. She glared a moment at the young man, and Mara left the room without answering him.