Chapter XIV. "All Girls Together"
 

"I'm not going to lose my visit altogether," said Mrs. Bodine, when Mara returned with an apology. "If the captain has only one leg, he can get out and around better than I can. Indeed it is wonderful how he does get around. He is the spryest man on crutches I ever saw, and you know, my dear, I've seen a good many. In that dreadful war we were only too glad to get our men back, what was left of them, and if an arm or a leg were missing we welcomed them all the more, but we couldn't give much more than a welcome. It was wreck and ruin on every side. If we had our own the captain would be well off, as you and I would be, but he is poor; poorer than most of us. In fact, he hasn't anything. He wasn't one of those supple jointed men who could conform to the times, and he wasn't brought up to make his living by thrifty ways. But he did his best, poor boy, he did his best. Would you like to hear more about him?"

"Yes, indeed," Mara replied, "you can't know how deeply I am interested in him and his daughter. He was my father's comrade in arms, his friend and follower. You must pardon me for staying away so long, but when he began talking of my father I felt as if I could listen forever, you know. I honor him all the more because he is poor."

"Yes, my dear, I know. Most of us are learning the hard lessons of poverty. I call him a boy because it seems only the other day he was a boy and a handsome one, too. He used to visit us here, and was so full of fun and frolic! But he has had enough to sober him, poor fellow. He was scarcely more than a boy when the war began, but he was among the first to enlist, and, like your father, he was a private soldier at first. He soon received a commission in the same regiment of which your father became colonel, and no doubt would have reached a much higher rank if he had not lost his leg. He met with this loss before your brave father was killed, but I suppose he told you."

"Yes," faltered Mara, "he told me why he was not with my father at the last."

"Yes, if he could he would have been with him and died with him, and sometimes I almost think he wishes that such had been his fate, he has suffered so much. During the remainder of the war he had command of inland positions which did not require marching, and he always made the record of a brave, high-minded officer. After the war he married a lovely girl, and tried to keep the old plantation: but his capital was gone, taxes were high, the negroes wouldn't work, and I suppose he and his wife didn't know how to practice close economy, and so the place had to be sold. It didn't bring enough to pay the mortgages. It cut him to the quick to part with the old plantation on which the family had lived for generations, but far worse was soon to follow, for his wife died, and that nearly broke his heart. Since that time he has lived in Georgia with his only child, Ella, getting such occupation as he could--office work of various kinds, but I suppose his reserved, gloomy ways rendered him unpopular; and even our own people, when it comes to business, prefer an active man who has a ready word for every one. I conjecture much of this, for he is not inclined to talk about himself. Poor as I am, I'm glad they accepted my invitation, and I mean to do all in my power to get him employment here. I have a little influence yet with some people, and perhaps a place can be found or made for him. He and his daughter don't require very much, and God knows I'd share my last crust with them, and," she concluded with a little apologetic laugh, "it is almost like sharing a crust."

"Oh, he will get employment," cried Mara, enthusiastically; "his disabled condition in itself will plead eloquently for him. How old is Ella?"

"She must be eighteen or thereabout."

"I wonder if she wouldn't like to help me?"

"Help you? She'd be delighted. But then, my dear, you must not be carried away by your generous feeling. We're all proud of you because you have struck out so bravely for yourself; but surely you have burdens enough already."

"Perhaps Ella can lighten my burden, and I hers; but it is very homely, humble work."

"You dear child!" exclaimed Mrs. Bodine, with her little chirruping laugh, "you are not a very homely, humble doer of the work. I reckon there's no prouder girl in town. But that's the way it is with the captain and all of us, in fact. The poorer we are, the prouder we are. Well, well, our pride is about all we can keep in these times. You need have no fear, however, that Ella will hesitate in helping you, except as she may very naturally think herself incompetent, or that you are wronging yourself in trying to help her."

"We'll see about it," Mara remarked thoughtfully; "I will invite her to spend a morning with me, and then she can obtain a practical idea of my work. She might not like it at all, or she might like to do something else much better, and so would be embarrassed if I asked her to help me, disliking to refuse, and yet wishing to do so."

"Ah, well," said Mrs. Bodine, smiling; "we have some right to think ourselves 'quality' still, as old Hannah calls us. We are just as considerate of one another's feelings as if we were all Royal Highnesses. Have it your own way, my dear, if you truly think Ella can be of service to you. I reckon you need help, for you don't look as well as when I saw you last."

"Yes," acquiesced Mara, "I think I do need help. Aun' Sheba's granddaughter is assisting her, and a good deal more could be sold if it were properly prepared. It would be a great happiness if my need opened the way for Ella, for I feel it would please my father as much as it would please me if I could be of service to his old friend and his daughter."

"I have heard, dear, that you are always trying to do what you thought your father and mother would like."

"God forbid I should do otherwise," said the girl solemnly.

"Well, perhaps they know all about it," said the old lady, wiping a tear from her eye. "How close our troubles bring us together. You are lonely for your parents, and I am lonely for my husband and children."

"And yet you are braver and more cheerful than I," responded Mara; "I was so sad and discouraged over the future this afternoon, that I came to you, thinking that you might unconsciously teach me patience and courage. Truly I was guided, for you face everything like a soldier. Then in meeting Captain Bodine, I seem to have been brought nearer my father than ever before. I can't hear about him without tears, yet I would turn from any pleasure in the world to hear about him. What happiness if he had lived and I could help him in some way!"

"Well, my dear, we all have our own way of bearing our burdens, and I often wonder whether I have done more laughing or crying in my life. It has been one or the other most of the time. I have always thanked the Lord that when the pain or the trouble was not too severe, I could laugh, and soon I know all tears will be wiped away. It's harder for you, my dear; it is harder for you than me. My voyage has been long and stormy; husband, sons, and the cause for which they died all lost; but I'm coming into the harbor. You've got your voyage before you. But take courage. Who knows but that your early days may be your darkest days? They can't always be dark when you are so ready to brighten the lives of others. There, I hear Ella's voice."

A moment later there was a knock at the door, and Ella Bodine entered. We have all seen bright-hued flowers growing in shaded places, and among cold, grim rocks. Such brightness had the young girl who now appears upon the scene of our story. One speedily felt that its cause was not in externals, but that it resulted from inherent qualities. As with Mara, there had been much in her young life sad and hard to endure. She had not surmounted her trouble by shallowness of soul or callousness, but rather by a spiritual buoyancy which kept her above the dark waves, and enabled her to enjoy all the sunshine vouchsafed. Yet, unlike her father and Mara, she lived keenly in the present. She sympathized truly and honestly with her father, and in a large measure intelligently recognized the nature of the deep shadows projected across his life from the past, but it was her disposition to keep as near to him as possible and yet remain just beyond the shadows. She possessed a wholesome common-sense which taught her that the shadows were not hers and that they were not good for her father; so she was ever making inroads upon them, beguiling him into a smile, surprising him into a laugh--in brief, preventing the shadows from deepening into that gloom which is dangerous to bodily and spiritual health. She made his small earnings go a great way, and banished from his life the sordidness of poverty. God outlines an angel in many a woman's heart, and often privations and sorrow, more surely than luxury, fill out the divine sketch. In the instance of Ella Bodine the angelic was so sweetly and inextricably interwoven with all that was human that to mortal comprehension she was better than a wilderness of conventional angels. She was depressed now under one of the few forms of adversity that could cast her down. Her father was out of employment, their slender income had ceased, and they were dependent. She felt this cruel position all the more because Mrs. Bodine out of her poverty gave her hospitality so unstintedly and ungrudgingly.

To the sensitive, fine-natured girl it was like feeding upon the life of another, and that other a generous friend.

During her walk a score of schemes to earn money had presented themselves to her inexperienced mind, but her hands had learned only how to eke out a small salary and to minister to her father. She had come home resolute to do something, but troubled because she knew not what to do.

She paused a moment on the threshold of Mrs. Bodine's apartment, and looked questioningly at Mara, at the same time half divining who she was.

"Come along, Ella," cried Mrs. Bodine, with a little joyous laugh of anticipation, "and kiss one of your best friends, although you never saw her before."

"Is it Mara?"

Mara's smile and swift approach answered her question. In an instant the two girls were in each other's arms, their warm Southern hearts touched by the electric fire of sympathy and mutual understanding. Mrs. Bodine clapped her little, thin hands and cried, "Oh, that's fine. Southern girls have not died out yet. Why, even my old withered heart had one of the most delicious thrills it ever experienced. Now, my dears, come and sit beside me and get acquainted."

"Oh, I know you already, Mara Wallingford," said Ella with sparkling eyes.

"And I am learning to know you, Ella. I know you already well enough to love you."

"Well," exclaimed Mrs. Bodine, raising her hands in a comic gesture, "I reckon the ice is broken between you."

They all laughed at this sally, and Mara was so cheered, her nerves all tingling with excitement, that she could scarcely believe herself to be the half-despairing girl of a few hours before. "Now come," resumed Mrs. Bodine, "let us all be girls together and have a good talk. At this rate I'll soon be younger than either of you. I haven't had my share yet. Do you believe it, Ella? Mara has been downstairs petting your father for an hour."

"I wonder where he is. He wasn't in the parlor when I came in."

"I reckon he followed your good example and went out for a walk. I heard the door shut. Well, you girls make a picture that it does my old eyes good to look at. Here's Mara with her creamy white skin and eyes as lustrous now as our Southern skies when full of stars, but sometimes, oh so sad and dark. Dear child, I wish I could take the gloom all out of them, for then I could think your heart was light. But I know how it is; I know. Your mother gave you her sad heart when she gave you life, but you have your father's strength and courage, my dear, and you will never give up. And here is Ella with complexion of roses and snow and eyes like violets with the morning dew still on them--forgive an old woman's flowery speech, for that's the way we used to talk when I was young--yes, here is Ella, a little peach blossom, yet brimming over with the wish to become a big, luscious peach. Lor, Lor--oh, fie! Am I saying naughty words? But then, my dears, you know my husband was a naval officer, and no man ever swore more piously than he. Bad words never sounded bad to me when he spoke them--he was such a good Christian! and he always treated me as he expected to be treated when he was on deck. I reckon that I and the Commodore are the only ones that ever ordered him around," and the old lady cried and laughed at the same time, while the faces of her young companions were like flowers brightened by the sun while still wet with dew.

"Let me see," continued the old lady, "where was I when I began to swear a little; just a little, you know. It is a sort of tribute to my husband, and so can't be very wicked. Oh, I remember, I was thinking what fun it would have been to chaperon you two girls at one of our grand balls in the good old times. I would sail around like a great ship of the line, convoying two of the trimmest little crafts that ever floated, and all the pirates, I mean gallant young men, my dears, would hover near, dying to cut you out right under my guns, or nose, as land-lubbers would say. Well, well, either of you could lead a score of them a chase before you signed articles of unconditional surrender," and Mrs. Bodine leaned back in her chair and laughed in her silvery little birdlike twitter. The girls laughed with her, pleased in spite of themselves with visions that, both in their nature and by tradition, accorded with the young romantic period of life. But memory speedily began to restore gravity to Mara's face. Mrs. Bodine recognized this, and her own face grew gentle and sorrowful. Laying a hand on each of the girls heads she resumed, "Do not think I am a frivolous old woman because I run on so. I do not forget the present any more than Mara, I see, cannot. Dear children, the circumstances of your lot render you as burdened and, in some ways, almost as old as I am. Ella can forget easier than you, Mara, but that is because God has put brightness into her heart. Let us all face the truth together. I am long past being an elegant matron. I am only a poor old childless widow with but a few more days of feebleness and suffering before me, yet I do not sigh in a bitter, murmuring spirit. Old as I am, I am still God's little child, and sometimes I think this truth makes me as mirthful as a child. When the pain is hardest to bear, when the past, oh, the past--with all its immeasurable losses, begins to crush my very soul, I turn my dim eyes upward and repeat to myself, 'There is a Heaven of eternal rest and joy,' and so I grow serene in my waiting. I have always loved the bright, pleasant things of this world--it was my nature to do so--but He who bears the burdens and heartbreak of the whole world has gently lifted my love up to Him. Didn't He have compassion on the widow of Nain, and say to her, 'Weep not'? My gallant husband, my brave boys and this poor little widow are all in His hands, and I try to obey His gentle command not to weep except sometimes when I can't help it and He knows I can't."

The two girls with their heads in her lap were crying softly from sympathy. With light, caressing touches to each the old lady continued, "Ella, my dear, you are like me in some respects. You, too, love the bright pleasant things of this world, and you are so divinely blessed with a buoyancy of heart that you will make what is hard and humdrum bright for yourself and others. You will embroider life with sunshine if there is any sunshine at all. Like myself, you will be able to smile and laugh whenever the pain is not too severe, yet I fear it will be very hard sometimes. Bat, as my husband would say, you are taut, trim and well ballasted, and good for a long, safe voyage. You have obeyed the Fifth Commandment, and its promise is yours.

"Mara, dear child my heart, for some reason, aches for you. I knew and loved your grandfather and your father and mother. You were born into a heritage of bitterness and sorrow, and I fear Mrs. Hunter, with all her good qualities, was not so constituted as to be able to counteract inherited tendencies. I wish I could have brought you up, for then we could have cried or laughed together over what happened.

"But you have learned to repress and to brood--two dangerous habits. You want to do some great thing, and alas! there is seldom a great thing which we poor women can do. You are not impelled by ambition or a desire for notoriety, but by a sort of passion for self-sacrifice.

"If you had lived twenty odd years ago no soldier of the South could have been braver or more devoted. You are not satisfied with mere living and making the best of life as it is. I don't know why, but I feel that there are depths in your heart which no one understands. Be careful, dear child, and be patient. Don't yield to some morbid idea of duty, or be involved in some chimerical plan of an achievement.

"Learn Ella's philosophy, and be as content with sunshine and daily duty as possible. Ella will do this unconsciously, my dear; you will have to do it consciously, just as a sick man seeks health. But you will both have to go forward and meet woman's lot. I was once a young girl, fancy free, like you. How much has happened since! I now feel like an old hen that would like to gather you both under her wing in shelter from all trouble," and again her little laugh chimed out while she wiped away the tears which sprang from her motherly heart.

The thump of Captain Bodine's crutches was heard on the stair. "Bring him in," said Mrs. Bodine, mopping her eyes vigorously.

Ella ran to the door and admitted him, and then, with a pretty custom she had, took away a crutch, and substituting one of her own round shoulders supported him to a large armchair. The low western sun flooded the room with light. He looked questioningly at the dewy eyes of the two girls and at the evidences of emotion which Mrs. Bodine had not been fully able to remove.

"Well," said he, "what part am I to have in this mournful occasion?"

Ella stood beside him with her arm about his neck, and was about to speak, when Mrs. Bodine said quickly in her piquant way, "You are to be chief mourner."

"A role for which I am peculiarly fitted," he replied sadly, not catching her humor.

"Oh, papa, you don't understand," cried Ella, "we have been having just a heavenly time."

He looked at Mara as she stood beside the old lady, and his very soul was touched by the sympathy expressed for him in her beautiful eyes. Standing there, enveloped in sunshine, it seemed to him that no angel of God could regard him more kindly. It was not pity, but rather honor, affection and that deep commiseration of which but few women are capable. He felt instinctively that she knew all and that her woman's heart was suffering vicariously with him and for him. The very air was electrical with deep human feeling, and he, yielding to a strong impulse scarcely understood, said earnestly, "God bless you, Mara Wallingford."

Sensible old Mrs. Bodine felt that it was time to come back to every-day life, so she said promptly, "Yes, and He is going to bless her, and bless us all. If there is any mourning to be done on this occasion you must do it. We three girls have been having a good talk, and are the better for it. That's the demmed total--oh, fie! there I am at it again. Well, Cousin Hugh, to take you into our entire confidence, we have been facing things and have arrived at several conclusions, one of which is--now, Ella, shut your ears--that you have one of the best daughters in the world, and that she and Mara have quite broken the ice between them and are going to be very good friends, and I was saying how I would like to convoy two such girls in one of our ballrooms in the good old times--oh, well, we have just been having a long lingo as girls will when they get together."

Captain Bodine was gifted with tact and a quick appreciation. He understood the old lady and her purpose.

"Cousin Sophy," he said, "you are just the same as when, a boy, I used to visit you--tears and smiles close together. Well, I believe that Heaven comes down very near when you three girls get together."

The old lady lay back in her chair and laughed heartily. "Oh, Ella, if you only knew what a mischievous boy your father was once! But, there, we have had enough of the past and the future for one day. Mara, my dear, you must stay and banquet with us. No, no, no, I won't hear any excuse. When I once get on quarter-deck every one must obey orders. Ella, direct Hannah to spread the festive board. You and Mara can lend a hand, and you can put on all we have in five minutes. To think that I should have eaten that delicious jelly you brought, greedy old cormorant that I am!"

A few moments later Mara supported the old lady down to the dining-room, and, though the viands were few and meagre, the banqueters, to say the least, were not commonplace. Mara said nothing of her plan, but Ella was invited to spend the following morning with her. In the late lingering twilight Captain Bodine escorted the young girl home. On the way thither they came plump upon Owen Clancy. He glanced keenly from one to the other as he lifted his hat. Mara's only response was a slight bow.