Chapter XV. Two Little Bakers

Mara led Captain Bodine up to their little parlor and introduced him to Mrs. Hunter, who received him most cordially, feeling that in him she recognized a congenial spirit. He treated her with the respect and old-time courtesy which she said was "so truly Southern." Their feelings and beliefs touched closely at several points, yet they were very different in their essential characteristics. Poor Mrs. Hunter had been limited by nature and education. She could not help being narrow in all her views; she was scarcely less able to dismiss her intense, bitter prejudices. She was quite incapable of reasoning herself into her mental position; it was simply the inevitable result of her circumstances, her lot and her own temperament. Captain Bodine was a proud man, as proud toward himself as toward others. The cause for which he and his kindred had suffered and lost so much had been sacred, and therefore it ever would be sacred. To change his views, to begin revising his opinions, would be to stultify himself and to reflect dishonor on his comrades in arms who had perished. In the very depths of his young, ardent spirit he had once devoted himself to the South; he had listened reverently to prayers from the pulpit that God would bless the Southern armies; he had never entered into battle without petitions to Heaven, not that he might escape, but that the "Northern invader" might be overcome; his uniform had been stained with blood again and again as he held dying comrades in his arms and spoke words of cheer. In his more limited way, he had the spirit of "Stonewall" Jackson. It was impossible for a man with his nature and with his memories to argue the whole matter over coolly and recognize misleading errors. During his youth and early manhood his feelings had been so intense as to be volcanic, and that feeling, like lava, had cooled of into its present unchangeable forms and sombre hues. What was bitterness and almost spite in Mrs. Hunter was a deep, abiding sorrow in his heart, a great dream unfulfilled, a cause lofty because so idealized, in support of which he often saw in fancy, when alone, spectral thousands in gray, marching as he once had seen them in actual life. That all had been in vain, was to him one of those mysterious providences to which he could only bow his head in mournful resignation, in patient endurance. He had no hate for the North, for he was broad enough in mind to recognize that it saw the question from its own point of view, and, as a soldier, he knew that its men had fought gallantly. But the North's side of the question was not his side. He had been conquered in arms but not convinced in spirit. While he had respect and even admiration for many of his old foes, and malice toward none, he still felt that there was a bridgeless chasm between them, and, by the instincts of his nature, he kept himself aloof. If he could perform an act of kindness to a Northerner he would do so unhesitatingly; then he would turn away with the impulse of an alien. He had no ambitious schemes or hopes for the future; he had buried the "lost cause" as he had buried his wife, with a grief that was too deep for tears. He had come to value life only for Ella's sake, and he tried to do his best from a soldier-like and Christian sense of duty, until he too could join his old comrade in arms.

Mrs. Hunter could not comprehend such a man, and he gave to her but the casual, respectful sympathy which he thought due to a gentlewoman who had lost much like so many other thousands in the South. After a brief call he hobbled away on his crutches, forgetting Mrs. Hunter and, indeed, almost everything in the deep interest excited by Mara, the daughter of his old friend. "Would to God," he muttered, "that Sidney Wallingford could have lived and seen that girl look at him as she looked at me to-day."

Soon after Captain Bodine's departure, Mara pleaded fatigue and retired to her room, promising to answer her aunt's many questions on the morrow. She was very sad and discouraged with herself, and yet she had not the despairing sense of the utter futility of her life which had oppressed her when she started out in the early afternoon.

She had become so absorbed and interested by the incidents and experiences of her visit as to be almost happy. Just as she had attained a condition of mind which had not blessed her for months, she must meet Owen Clancy. With a sort of inward rage and wonder, she asked herself: "Why did my heart flutter so? Why did every nerve in my body tingle? He is nothing to me and never can be, yet, when he passed, a spirit from heaven could hardly have moved me more. What is his mysterious power which I cannot eradicate? Oh, oh, was not my life hard enough before? Must I go on, hiding this bitter secret? fighting this hopeless and seemingly endless fight? Well, well, thank God for this day, after all. In Ella Bodine and her father I have found friends who will occupy my thoughts and become incentives which I did not possess before. Dear father, my own dear, dead, soldier father, it would please you to have me do something for your old friend."

The next morning was bright and sunny, and, after an early breakfast, Mara was in the kitchen, with all the ingredients of the dainties she so skilfully produced, spread out upon the tables. Ella had been asked to come early; her father had escorted her to Mara's residence, and then gone away on an errand of his own.

The young girl was greeted with a warmth which made her at home at once, and proved the experiences of the previous afternoon were not the result of mood or passing sentiment. There was a depth in Mara's eyes and a firmness about her mouth and chin which did not indicate changing and unreasoning "moods and tenses." In the clearer, calmer thought of the morning all her kind purposes toward Captain Bodine and Ella had been strengthened, and she also believed more fully that by interesting herself in them she would find the best antidote for her own trouble.

Ella had been welcomed by Mrs. Hunter, and now, as she sat in the little sun-lighted kitchen, there was neither past nor future to her. The present scene, with its simple, homely details, was all absorbing.

It meant very much to the girl, for she saw how Mara was achieving independence, and by work, too, which housekeeping for her father enabled her to understand better than any other. Mara's pulses were also quickened, for she understood the eager, intelligent glances of her friend. For a few moments, Ella, as company, felt compelled to maintain the quiet position of spectator; then overborne, she sprang up exclaiming: "Oh, Mara, dear, do give me an apron and let me help you. I'd have such a jolly forenoon!"

"Why, certainly, Ella, if it would give you pleasure."

The article was produced, and, with a sigh of deep content, the girl tied it around a waist by no means waspish. Then off came the little cuffs, and up the sleeves were rolled to the shoulder.

"Ella, what lovely arms you have! If I were a man I should be distracted by such a pair of arms."

"Well," remarked the girl, looking at them complacently, "they'd be strong enough to help a man that I cared sufficiently for to marry, but I haven't seen that man yet, and I hope his lordship will keep his distance indefinitely--till I have more time to bother with him and his distractions."

"Is your time, then, so completely occupied?"

"It isn't occupied at all, and that's the plague of it. But I reckon it soon will be," she added with an emphatic little nod. "Papa shall learn that I can do something more for him than cook, and your example has fired my ambition. I'll ransack this town till I find something to do that will bring money. Dear old Mrs. Bodine! wasn't she perfectly enchanting yesterday? Do you think I can be content to live in idleness on her slender means? No, indeed. I'd buy a scrubbing-brush first. Oh, isn't this fun?" and the flour was already up to her elbows.

"Oh, Ella, dear, I'd feel just as you do if I had a father to work for."

"Now, Mara, don't talk so, or I'll put my floury arms right about your neck and spoil this dough with a flood of briny tears. See, the sun is shining and there is work to be done. Let's be jolly, and we'll have our little weep after sundown. Oh, Mara, dear, I wish I could make you as light-hearted as I am. I used to think it was almost wicked for me to be so light-hearted, but I don't think so any more, for I know I've kept papa from going down into horrid depths of gloom. And then this irrepressible spirit of fun helps me over ever so many hard places." She sprang back into the middle of the room, and, striking a serio-comic attitude, continued: "Here I am in no end of trouble--for me. There is a grief preying on my vitals that would make a poet's hair stand on end should he attempt to portray it. Were there a lover around the corner, sighing like a furnace, I would say to him 'Avaunt! My heart is broken, and do you think I can bother with you?' I am at odds with fate. I am in the most deplorable position into which any human being can sink. I have nothing to do. But here is a weapon by which one girl has conquered destiny," and she brandished the roller with which she had been pressing out the dough, "and I, too, shall find a sword which will cut all the pesky knots of this snarled-up old world. Then when I have achieved complete and lofty victory and independence, as you have, dear, I may say to the lover around the corner, 'Step this way, sir. I must consider first whether you would be agreeable to papa, and then whether you would be agreeable to me and then'--Oh, what a little fool I am, and so many cookies to make. Please don't send me home. I will work now like a beaver," and her round white arms grew tense as she rolled with a vigor that would almost flatten brickbats.

Mara stood at one side watching her with eyes that grew wonderfully lustrous as was ever the case when she was pleased or excited. Then she stole up behind Ella, and, putting her arm around her neck, looked into her eyes as she asked, "Wouldn't you like to help me?"

"Of course I like to help you," said Ella, turning with surprise upon her friend.

"Now, Ella, be frank with me. Say no if you feel no. Wouldn't you like to help me all the time and earn money in this way?"

A slow deep flush overspread Ella's face as she stood for a moment with downcast eyes as if oppressed with a sense of shame. Then she said humbly: "Forgive me, Mara. I've been very thoughtless. I didn't think you would take my ranting as an appeal to your generous heart. Believe me, Mara, I was not hinting to you that I might share in the little you are earning so bravely. As if you had not burdens enough already."

Mara never once removed her eyes from the girl's ingenuous face and permitted her to reveal the unselfishness and sacred pride of her nature; then she said gently and firmly: "No, Ella, I did not misunderstand you a moment, and I want you to understand me. In one sense we have been acquainted always, yet we have loved each other from personal knowledge but a few short hours. We Southern girls need no apologies for our swift intuitions, our quick, warm feelings. I had this on my mind as soon as Mrs. Bodine told me about your being here, and I had quite set my heart upon it as soon as I saw you. Ella, dear, I need help; I have more than I can do. There is business enough to support us both, and I had almost concluded to ask Aim' Sheba to get me a helper. But what a delight it would be to work with you!"

Ella's face had been brightening as if gathering all the sunshine in the spring sky, and she was about to speak eagerly when Mara stopped her by a gesture. "Wait," she said, "I did not say anything of this last evening because I was not sure you would like the work. If you do not like it, you must be frank to tell me so. If you do enter on it you must let me manage all in business-like ways, for I fear that you, like Aun' Sheba, will be inclined toward very loose accounts. You must be willing to take what I feel that you should have, and there must be no generous insubordination. Now you have the exact truth."

Ella's lip was quivering and her eyes were filling with gathering tears. With a little quaver in her voice she struggled hard to give a mirthful conclusion to the affair. "I accept the position, ma'am," she faltered, making a courtesy, then rushed into her friend's arms and sobbed: "Oh, Mara, Mara, you have lifted such a burden from my heart! I have had many troubles, but somehow it seemed that I couldn't bear this one, though I tried hard to keep the pain to myself--papa and I being dependent. And then to have the whole trouble banished by working with you in just the kind of work I like! Oh, Mara, darling, how can I ever thank you enough?"

"Good Lawd, honey, hab you heerd on any ob you'se folks dyin'?" and Aun' Sheba's awed face and ample form filled the doorway, with Vilet's wondering little visage peeping around behind her.

Ella sprang away, and, turning her back on the newcomers, mopped her face vigorously with her floury apron.

"No, Aun' Sheba," replied Mara, smiling through her tears, for Ella's strong emotion had unsealed the fountain of her eyes, "I've only followed your good advice and secured just the kind of help I need, the daughter of my father's dear old friend, Captain Bodine. I reckon you remember him."

"Well, now, de Lawd be bressed!" ejaculated Aun' Sheba, sitting down with her great basket at her feet. "'Member him? Reckon I does. I kin jes' see de han'-som boy as he march away wid you'se fader. An' his little Missy is you'se helper?" and she looked curiously at Ella, who was still seeking to gain self-control.

The girl wheeled around with a face wonderfully stained and streaked with flour and tears, and, ducking just such a courtesy as Vilet would have made, said to Aun' Sheba, "Yes'm. I'm the new hand. I'm a baker by trade."

Aun' Sheba's appreciation of humor was instantaneous, and she sat back in her chair, which shook and groaned under her merriment. "Can't fool dis culled pusson," she began at last. "You tink we doesn't keep up wid de times, but we does. I'se had a bery int'restin' season wid ole Hannah, who lib wid Mis' Bodine, bress her heart! She's quality yere on arth an' she gwine ter be quality in Hebin. I knows a heap 'bout you an' you'se pa. I knowd him 'fore you did. I'se seed him in de gran' ole house in Meetin' Street a dinin' agin an' agin wid Marse Wallingford an' my deah Misse Mary, den a bride, an' de gran' ole Major Buggone. Oh, Missy Mara, ef you could ony seen de ole major, you'd a seen a genywine So' Car'liny gen'l'man ob wat dey call de ole school. Reckon dey habn't any betteh schools now. An' young Marse Sidney, dat's you'se fader, Missy, and young Marse Hugh, dat's you'se fader, Missy Ella, dey was han'som as picters an' dey drink toasts ter Missy Mary an' compliment her an' she'd blush like a red rose; an' wen dey all 'bout ter march away Missy Mary kiss Marse Hugh jes as ef he her own broder. Lor, Lor, how it all come back ter me! Ef de Lawd don' bress de pa'na'ship twix' you two gyurls den I des dun beat."

Regardless of flour the two little bakers stood before Aun' Sheba with arms around each other while she indulged in reminiscences, then Ella, dashing away the tears that were gathering again, said brusquely, "The new hand will have to be boss if we go on this way. Aun' Sheba, we haven't got a blessed thing ready to put in your basket."

"Many han's make light wuck," said the old woman sententiously. "I come yere arly dis mawnin' to gib Missy Mara a lif' kase she's been lookin' po'ly an' I hab her on my min' anxious-like. But now, wid a larfin', sunshiny little ting like you aroun', Missy Ella, she'll soon be as peart as a cricket. Vilet, chile, jes wait on me an' han' me tings, an' dese two baskets'll be filled in de quickest jiffy you eber see."

And so it turned out. Aunt Sheba was a veteran in the field. Flour, sugar and spices seemed to recognize her power and to come together as if she conjured. The stove was fed like the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar, and the girls' faces suggested peonies as the cake grew light and brown.

Mrs. Hunter, having finished her morning duties, entered at last and looked with doubtful, troubled eyes upon the scene. Ella and Aun' Sheba's mirthful talk ceased, while little Vilet regarded the tall, gray-haired woman with awe.

"Well, times have changed," said the lady, with a sort of groan. "Our home has become little better than a bake-shop."

"Well, Missus," replied Aun' Sheba, with the graven-image expression that she often assumed before Mrs. Hunter, "I'se know'd of homes dat hab become wuss dan bake-shops. Neber in my bawn days hab I heerd on an active, prosp'rous baker starbin'. Jes' you try dis cooky right fum de stove an' see ef it doan melt in you'se mouf." And so Aun' Sheba stopped Mrs. Hunter's lamentations and clinched her argument.