The Earth Trembled by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XVI. Honest Foes
Captain Bodine's errand was characteristic of the man. He had accepted his cousin's hospitality and sympathy most gratefully, and his quick apprehension had gathered from some of her words that she was bent on moving her little segment of "heaven and earth," to secure him employment. While perfectly ready to receive any gracious benefactions from heaven, where he justly believed that the good old lady's power centred chiefly, he shrank from her terrestrial efforts in his behalf, knowing that they must be made with very few exceptions among those who were straitened and burdened already. He did not want a "place made" for him and to feel that other Southern men were practicing a severer self-denial in order to do so. With a grim, set look on his face as if he were going into battle, he halted downtown to the counting-room of one of the wealthiest merchants and shippers in the City. He knew this man only by reputation, and his friends would regard an application for employment to Mr. Houghton, as extraordinary as it certainly would be futile in their belief. Mr. Houghton was quite as bitter against the South in general and Charleston in particular as Mrs. Hunter in her enmity of all that savored of the North; and, as human nature goes, they both had much reason, or rather cause, for their sentiments. The experiences of many of that day were not conducive to calm historical estimates or to "the charity that suffereth long and is kind." Mr. Houghton was a New England man, and hated slavery almost as intensely as it deserved to be hated. The trouble with him had been that he did not separate the "peculiar institution" widely enough from the men who had been taught by their fathers, mothers and ministers to believe in it. He made no allowances for his Southern fellow-citizens, as many of them would make none for him. With him, it was "Slave-driver"; with them, "Abolitionist"; yet he revered and they revered the great-hearted planter of Mount Vernon.
When the war came at last to teach its terrible, yet essential lessons, Mr. Houghton's eldest son was among the first to exercise the courage of the convictions which had always been instilled into his mind. The grim New Englander saw him depart with eyes that, although tearless, were full of agony, also of hatred of all that threatened to cost him so much. His worst fears were fulfilled, for his son was drowned in a night attack on Fort Sumter, and, in his father's morbid fancy, still lay in the mud and ooze at the bottom of Charleston harbor.
The region gained a strange fascination for the stricken man, and he at last resolved to live near his son's watery grave and take from the very hands of those whom he regarded as his boy's murderers the business which they might regard as theirs naturally. So he removed to Charleston, and employed his capital almost as an instrument of revenge. He did not do this ostentatiously, or in any way that would thwart his purpose or his desire to accumulate money, but his aims had come to be very generally recognized, and he received as much hate as he entertained. Yet his wealth and business capacity made him a power in commercial circles, and Southern men, who would no more admit him to their homes than they would an ogre, dealt with him in a cool politeness that was but the counterpart of his grim civility.
Captain Bodine knew that Mr. Houghton employed much help in his business. He knew that the work of many of his employes must be largely mechanical, requiring little or no intercourse with the master, and the veteran reasoned, "I could give him honest work, and he in return, pay me my salary, we personally not being under the slightest social obligation to each other. I'd rather wring money from his hard fist than take it from the open hand of a too generous friend. I could then get bread for Ella and myself on the simple ground of services rendered."
He therefore entered the outer office and asked for Mr. Houghton. A clerk said, "He is very busy, sir. Cannot I attend to your matter?"
"I wish to see Mr. Houghton personally."
"Will you send in your card, sir?"
Captain Bodine took one from his pocket and wrote upon it, "I wish to see you briefly on a personal matter." A moment later he was ushered into Mr. Houghton's presence, who was writing rapidly at his desk. Bodine stood still, balancing himself on his crutches while the merchant finished the sentence. He looked at the hard wrinkled face and shock of white hair with the same steady composure that he had often faced a battery, as yet silent, but charged with fiery missiles.
At last Mr. Houghton looked up with an impatient word upon his lip, but checked it as he saw the striking figure before him. For an instant the two men looked steadily into each other's eyes. Ever since the war, Captain Bodine had dressed in gray, and Mr. Houghton knew instinctively that his visitor was a Confederate veteran. Then the captain's mutilation caught his attention, and his very manhood compelled him to rise and stiffly offer a chair.
"You wished to see me personally," he remarked, coldly. "I must request you to be brief, for I rarely allow myself to be disturbed at this hour."
"I will be brief. I merely come to ask if you have employment for a tolerably rapid, accurate penman?"
"Do you refer to yourself?" Mr. Houghton asked, his brow darkening.
"I do, sir."
"Do you think this a sufficient excuse for interrupting me at this hour?"
Again there was a fixed look in each other's eyes, and Mr. Houghton, with his large knowledge of men and affairs, became more distinctly aware that he was not dealing with an ordinary character. He put his thought in words, for at times he could be very blunt, and he was conscious of an incipient antagonism to Bodine.
"You think you are a Southern gentleman, my equal, or rather, my superior, and entitled to my respectful consideration at any hour of the day."
"I certainly think I am a Southern gentleman. I do not for a moment think I am entitled to anything from you."
"Yet you come and ask a favor with as much dignity as if you represented the whole State of South Carolina."
"No, sir, I represent only myself, and I have asked no favor. There are many in your employ. I supposed your relations with them were those of business, not of favor."
"Well, sir," replied Mr. Houghton, coldly, "there are plenty with whom I can enter into such relations without employing an enemy of my country."
"Mr. Houghton, I will bring this interview to a close at once, and then you can settle the matter in a word. Your country will never receive any harm from me. I am one of a conquered people, and I have now no ambition other than that of earning bread for my child and myself. You have dealings with Southern men and ex-Confederate soldiers. You buy from them and sell to them. I, as one of them, ask nothing more than that you should buy my labor for what it is worth to you in dollars and cents. Regard my labor as a bale of cotton, and the case is simple enough."
The lava-crust over the crater of the old man's heart was breaking up, for the interview was recalling all the associations which centred around the death of his son. Captain Bodine evoked a strange mixture of antipathy and interest. There was something in the man which compelled his respect, and yet he seemed the embodiment of the spirit which the New Englander could neither understand nor tolerate. His thought had travelled far beyond business, and he looked at his visitor with a certain wrathful curiosity. After a moment he said abruptly, "You fought through the war, I suppose?"
"I fought till I was disabled, sir, but I tried to do a soldier's duty to the close of the war."
"Duty!" ejaculated Mr. Houghton, with an accent of indescribable bitterness. "You would have killed my son if you had met him?"
"Certainly, if I met him in fair fight and he did not kill me first."
"There wasn't any fair fight at all," cried the old man passionately. "It was an atrocious, wicked, causeless rebellion."
The dark blood mounted to Captain Bodine's very brow, but he controlled himself by a strong effort, and only said calmly, "That is your opinion."
The veins fairly stood out on Mr. Houghton's flushed, usually pallid, face. "Do you know," he almost hissed, "that my boy lies at the bottom of your accursed harbor yonder?"
"I did not know it, sir. I do know that the sons of Southern fathers and the fathers themselves lie beside him."
"But what was the use of it all? Damn the whole horrible crime! What was the use of it all?"
A weaker, smaller-brained man than Bodine would have retorted vehemently in kind and left the place, but the captain was now on his mettle and metaphorically in the field again, with the foe before him. What is more, he respected his enemy. This Northern man did not belong to the ex-governor Moses type. He was outspoken and sincere to the heart's core in his convictions, and moreover that heart was bleeding in father-love, from a wound that could never be stanched. Bodine resolved to put all passion under his feet, to hold his ground with the coolness and tenacity of a general in a battle, and attain his purpose without the slightest personal compromise. His indomitable pride led him to feel that he would rather work for this honest, implacable foe than for any man in the city, because their relations would be so purely those of business, and to bring him to terms now would be a triumph over which he could inwardly rejoice.
"Mr. Houghton," he said, gravely, "we have wandered far from the topic which I at first introduced. Your reference to your son proves that you have a heart; your management of business certifies to a large brain. I think our conversation has made it clear that we are both men of decided convictions and are not afraid to express them. If you were a lesser man than you are, I would have shrugged my shoulders contemptuously and left your office long ago. Yet I am your equal, and you know it, although I have scarcely a penny in the world. I am also as honest as you are, and I would work for you all the more scrupulously because you detest me and all that I represent. I, on the other hand, would not expect a single grain of allowance or consideration, such as I might receive from a kindly disposed employer. We would not compromise each other in the slightest degree by entering into the relations of employer and employed. I would obey your orders as a soldier has learned to obey. Apart from business we should be strangers. I knew we were hostile in our feelings, but I had the impression--which I trust may be confirmed--that you were not a commonplace enemy. The only question between us is, 'Will you buy my labor as you would any other commodity in the Charleston market?'"
Captain Bodine's words proved his keen appreciation of character. The old man unconsciously possessed the spirit of a soldier, and it had been evoked by the honest, uncompromising attitude of the Southerner. His emotion passed away. His manner became as courteous as it was cold and impassive. "You are right, sir," he said, "we are hostile and will probably ever remain so, but you have put things in a light which enables me to comply with your wishes. I take you at your word, and will buy your labor as I would any other article of value. I know enough of life to be aware of the courtesy which occasionally exists between men whose feelings and beliefs strongly conflict, yet I agree with you that, apart from business, we can have little in common. When can you come?"
"Are you willing to leave the question of compensation open till I can learn what your services are actually worth?"
"I should prefer to have the question settled in that way."
Both men arose. "Good-morning, Captain Bodine," said the merchant, bowing slightly. "Good-morning, Mr. Houghton," and the captain halted quietly back to Mrs. Bodine's home of faded gentility.
Mr. Houghton sat down at his desk and leaned his head thoughtfully upon his hand. "I wouldn't have believed that I could have done this," he muttered. "If he had knuckled to me one iota I would have shown him the door; if he hadn't been so crippled--if he hadn't been so downright honest and brave--confound it! he almost made me feel both like killing him and taking him by the hand. Oh, Herbert, my poor, lost boy, I don't wonder that you and so many fine fellows had to die before such men were conquered."