Chapter XVII. Fireside Dramas
 

Ella was so overjoyed at her prospects when all had been explained to her, that she insisted on Mara's spending the evening at the Bodines' so that her father might understand the whole arrangement.

When she returned early in the afternoon, she found him, as Mara had before, reading quietly at one of the parlor windows. He looked up with not only glad welcome in his eyes, but also with much genuine interest, for he was anxious to learn what further impression Mara had made upon his daughter. The man who had accepted patient endurance as his lot, could scarcely comprehend the profound impression made upon him by the child of his old friend. He had made no effort to analyze his feelings, not dreaming that there was any reason why he should do this. To his mind circumstances and the girl herself were sufficient to account for the deepest sympathy. Then that look with which she had regarded him on the previous evening--he could never forget that while he lived. He therefore regarded Ella's flushed, happy face, and said, "You seem to hesitate in letting your experiences be known, but I reckon, from the sparkle of your eyes, that you have had a good time."

"Oh, papa, I have had a good time, so much more than a good time. I hesitate because I don't know just how or where to begin--how to tell you all the good news. Dear papa, you have had so many more troubles than I have, and some perhaps which you think I do not share in very deeply. It was best for us both that I did not--too deeply. But you have a trouble now in which I do share more than you know, more than I wanted you to know. We were here dependent on our dear old cousin who is so unselfish that she would almost open her poor old veins for us. This was too hard for either of us to endure very long, and I had made up my mind that I would do something to relieve you--that if Mara could earn money I could."

"My dear child, I appreciate your feelings, and you have understood mine, but let me hasten to assure you that I have found a way by which I can support you and myself also."

"You have? So soon? Oh, that is glorious. Tell me all about it."

"No, indeed. Not till I have your wonderful news, and learn how you enjoyed your visit."

"No more visiting for me, or rather perpetual visiting. Oh, papa, think what bliss! I'm to help Mara, work with Mara every day, and have a share in the profits."

The captain's face grew sad and almost stern. Ella understood him instantly, and put her hand over his mouth as he was about to speak. "Now, papa, don't you perform the same little tragedy that I did. I know just how you feel and what you are going to say. Mara had it in her mind the moment she heard I was in town and--"

"Ella," interrupted her father, firmly, "I do not often cross you, but you must let me decide this question. Mara is capable of any degree of self-sacrifice, of even something like a noble deception in this case. No, this cannot be. I would protect that girl even as I would you, and you both need protection against your own generous impulses more than all else."

In vain she tried to explain, and recounted minutely all that had happened. The captain was so deeply touched that his eyes grew dim with moisture. Again he exclaimed, "Would to God Sidney Wallingford had lived, even though poor and crippled as I am, that he might have worshipped this noble-hearted, generous girl. She has indeed a rare nature. She carried out her self-sacrificing purpose well, but I understand her better than you do, my dear. With all a woman's wit, tact, and heart she deceived you and would deceive us all. She would smile in triumph as she denied herself for our sakes what she most needed. But, Ella, you know we cannot let her do this."

The girl was staggered and in sore perplexity. Her father's view was not pleasing to her ingenuous nature; there had been a sincerity in Mara's words and manner which had been confirmed not only by circumstances, but also by Aun' Sheba's hearty approval. "I shall be sorry if what you think is true," she said, sadly. "I don't wish to be deceived, not even from such motives as you attribute to Mara, and, of course, she could have no others if you are right. But how can you be right? There was such a verity about it all. Why, papa, when at first I imagined that Mara might have thought I had been hinting in my very foolish talk that I wished what afterward took place, I was so overwhelmed with shame that I could hardly speak. If you had seen how she reassured me, and heard her earnest words, declaring she needed me--oh, if that was all deception, even from the kindest and noblest motive, I should be wounded to the heart, I could never be sure of Mara again and scarcely of any one else. I can't think as you do. Let us ask Cousin and see what she thinks."

The captain was now in perplexity himself, yet he held to his first impression. "I admit," he said, hesitatingly, "that it was not the wisest course on Mara's part, yet often the best people, especially when young, ardent, and a little morbid, are led by the noblest motives to do what is unwise and scarcely right. Mara is not an ordinary girl, and cannot be judged by common standards. Be assured, she would die rather than deceive you to your harm, but a purpose to do you good might confuse both her judgment and conscience, especially if it involved self-sacrifice on her part. You must not blame me if I wish to be more thoroughly convinced. Yes, you can ask Cousin Sophy's opinion if you wish."

"Then come with me, papa, and state your case as strongly as you can. I'd rather go hungry than go forward another step if you are right."

The wise old lady, who could talk by the hour on most occasions, listened to both sides of the question and then remarked with sphinx-like ambiguity. "Your father, Ella, has obtained a remarkably correct idea of Mara's character. You know I told her in your hearing that she had a passion for self-sacrifice, and was prone to take a morbid sense of duty. At the same time, I do not by any means say he is right in this particular instance. Mara is coming this evening--let her satisfy you both in her own way. I have my opinion, but would rather she would make the matter plain to you."

The shrewd old lady, to whom the wheels of time often seemed to move slowly, was bent on a bit of drama at her own fireside, at the same time believing that a word, a tone, or even a glance from the young girl herself would have more power to banish the captain's doubts than anything she could say. "And yet," thought Mrs. Bodine, "Mara is capable of just this very kind of dissimulation."

Evening in the South differs slightly from our late afternoon, and the sun was scarcely below the horizon when Mara arrived under the escort of Mrs. Hunter, who had also been invited. Therefore Ella in her feverish impatience had not long to wait.

Mrs. Bodine's simple meal was over, and after having had a fire lighted on the parlor hearth, she had ensconced herself in a low rocking-chair in readiness to receive her guests. There was a sort of stately cordiality in the meeting between her and Mrs. Hunter, quiet courtesy on the part of Captain Bodine toward all, while honest Ella could not banish a slight constraint from her manner. Mara gradually became conscious of this and wondered at it. She also soon observed that no reference was made to the compact of the morning, and this perplexed her still more.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Bodine, having all the dramatis personae about her, was complacency embodied, and not averse to taking a part in the little play herself. She managed at first that the conversation should be general. She serenely indulged in reminiscences which waked others from Mrs. Hunter, and even the captain was beguiled into half-humorous old-time anecdotes about some one they all knew.

"Well," ejaculated Mrs. Bodine, sighing, "that--oh, good gracious! what was I going to say? Cousin Hugh, you can remember that my most excellent husband accustomed me to rather strong adjectives. Well, that hardhearted old wretch, Mr. Houghton, eventually got all the property of the poor man we were talking about."

"Did he?" said the captain, quietly. "Well, I reckon I'll get some of it back again."

"You? I'd like to know how. He'd take your head off at one bite if he could."

"I reckon he would; he looked so inclined this morning. I spent half an hour alone with him this morning, and am going to work for him to-morrow."

The general exclamations amounted to a chorus, and Mrs. Hunter, bridling, began formally and almost severely, "Pardon me, Captain Bodine, I do not wish to be presuming or officious, but I fear you have been absent from the city so long that you are not aware of the general estimation in which this Northern carpet-bagger is held."

"I certainly have had a chance to form my own opinion of him, Mrs. Hunter, and I reckon that he and I will not be any better friends than he and you would be."

"Friends," ejaculated the old lady, "I could annihilate him. Oh, Captain Bodine, believe me, you have made a mistake. What will be left of our past if the best and bravest of our number strike hands with these vampires of the North?"

"I have not struck hands with him, nor do I ever expect to."

"Hugh, Cousin Hugh," protested Mrs. Bodine, "I don't understand this move at all."

"Papa," cried Ella, with her arms about his neck, "you have done this for my sake, so do please give it up for my sake. Some other way will be provided for us."

"Mara, are you, too, down on me?"

"No, sir, never; but I'll share my last crust with you if you will have nothing to do with that man."

"I thought so, you brave, generous girl. That was like your father, and reminds me of a bit of experience. We were on a forced march, and the provision train had not kept up. It was night, and we were too weary to hunt around for a morsel. Wallingford (he was major then) came to me and said, 'Bodine, I've a hard tack and one cup of coffee. We'll go halves,' and so we did. He was so impolite as to take his half first. Do you know why?"

"I can guess," she replied with downcast brimming eyes.

"I reckon you can--you of all others; but he didn't succeed. I turned on him in mock severity and remarked, 'Major Wallingford, I never thought you would try to overreach an old friend. See, you have scarcely taken over a third of the coffee and hard tack.' He slapped me on the back and declared he would have me arrested for insubordinate and disrespectful language. Considering what sleepy, jaded men we were, we had a lot of fun over that meagre banquet, but he had to yield even if he were my superior. I fear you are inclined to go halves just like your father."

"Well, Hugh," cried Mrs. Bodine impatiently, "even that is better than your taking whatever this--this--I want an adjective that is not too wicked."

"No matter, Cousin Sophy, we'll each supply one according to our own degree of wickedness. A Yankee would say 'darned' though, confound the fellows, they seem to learn to fight and swear in equal degrees."

"I won't say 'darned,'" said the old lady, almost trembling in her irritation and excitement, for she was being treated to more of a drama than she had bargained for. "It is a word I never heard my husband use. Bah! all words are inadequate. I say anything is better than that you should go to this old Houghton for what little he may choose to give you."

"Now, I appeal to you, Mara--is this fair, four against one?"

"But, dear Captain Bodine, you don't know how deeply we feel about this."

"Ah, that is the charge our enemies bring against us. We feel, but don't reason, they say. We have much reason to retort, 'You reason, but have no feeling and little comprehension for those that have.' Come, I will be serious now," and his expression became grave and firm. "Cousin Sophy, Mr. Houghton will never give me a penny, nor would I take a gift from him even if starving, yet I have a genuine respect for the man. Let me, as a soldier, illustrate my course, and then I will explain more fully. Suppose I was on a march and was hungry. On one hand were ample provisions in the camp of the enemy; on the other a small farmhouse occupied by friends who had already been robbed of nearly all they had. If I went to these friends they would, as Mara has said, share their last crust. Do you not think it would be more in accordance with the feelings of a man to make a dash at the enemy's overflowing larder, and not only get what I needed but also bring away something for my impoverished friends? I reckon it would. I much prefer spoiling the Egyptians, cost me what it may. My dear child," turning to Mara, "do you think I would take half your crust when I know you need the whole of it? No, indeed. Then you must remember that we got in the habit of living off the enemy during the war. To drop all this figurative talk, let me put the matter in plain English, as I did to Mr. Houghton this morning. We had a pretty hot action, I can tell you. There was no compromise in word or manner on either side, but he listened to reason, and so will you. Pick out your most blue-blooded, stanchest South Carolinians, in the city, and they deal with Mr. Houghton. They sell to him; they buy of him, and there it all ends. I have no cotton to sell, but I told him to regard my labor as a bale of cotton and to buy it, if he so wished, at what it was worth. I also told him that apart from our business relations we would be strangers, so you see I am neither better nor worse, practically, no different from other Charlestonians."

Mrs. Bodine leaned back in her chair, and laughed till the tears came into her eyes. "I do declare," she gasped: "God made men different from women, and I reckon He knew what He was about. I surrender, Cousin Hugh. Your argument has blown me out of the water. Spoil this old Egyptian to your heart's content, only remember when there are no Egyptians to spoil, if you don't come to your friends you will have one savage old woman to deal with."

Mrs. Hunter shook her head dubiously. "I don't know what to think of all this," she said. "It appears to me that it tends to break down the partition wall between us and those from whom we have received wrongs which should never be forgiven."

"My dear Mrs. Hunter," replied the captain, urbanely, "the more the partition wall is broken down in one sense, the better. Isn't it wiser for me to get money out of Mr. Houghton than to sulk and starve? I had to break through the wall to get bread. Of course," he added quietly, "we all understand one another. My military figures of speech must not be pressed too far. I do not propose to knock Mr. Houghton on the head, or even take the smallest possible advantage of him. On the contrary, because we are hostile, I shall be over-scrupulous, if possible, to do his work well. From him, as I told him, I expect not the slightest allowance, consideration, or kindness."

"Oh," thought Mara, "how clearly he has put my own thought and wish. Why could not Owen Clancy have earned his own bread and mine by taking the course of this brave Southern man? I have been shown to-night how noble, how dignified and how easy it was. Why should he talk of love when he will not see what is so reasonable in the action of another?"

"Cousin Hugh, you said one thing which needs explanation. You said you had a respect for this man floughton, who we all know has not a particle of good-will toward us."

"Chiefly because he is such an honest enemy," Bodine replied. "He makes hard bargains with our people when he can, but have you ever heard of his cheating or doing anything underhand? I learned a good deal about his business character while in Georgia, and his course to-day corresponded with what I had been told. Moreover, his feelings got the better of him, and he revealed in one passionate sentence that his eldest son was killed, and, as he says, lies at the bottom of our harbor here. This fact enabled me to stand better what I had to take from him," and in answer to his cousin's questions he revealed the substance of the interview. "I do this," he concluded, "that you and other friends may better understand my course. To-morrow Mr. Houghton becomes my employer, and I shall owe a certain kind of loyalty. The more seldom we mention his name thereafter, the better; and I shall never speak of him except in terms of cold respect."

"Since you have told me about his son," said Mrs. Bodine, "I won't avail myself of the privilege of freeing my mind to-night, even if it will be my last chance, that is when you are present. After all, why should I berate him? In one aspect he is to me a sort of ogre representing all that is harsh, intolerant and cruel, rejoicing in his power to drain the life-blood of a conquered and impoverished people; yet he rose before me as you spoke as a heartbroken father, warped and made unnatural by pain, haunted by the ghost of his son whom his arms cannot embrace. Sometimes when thinking alone, the people of the world seem like a lot of squabbling children, with only degrees of badness and goodness between them. Children make no allowances for each other. It is like or dislike, quick and manifested. It is well there is a Heavenly Father over all who may lead one and all of us 'to make up' some day. I tell you what it is, Hugh, we may all have to shake hands in Heaven."

"Like enough, Cousin Sophy. In matters pertaining to Heaven you are a better authority than I am."

"For very good reason. Heaven is nearest those who feel its need most. You may think I am a queer Christian, and I sometimes think so myself--hating some people as near as I dare, and calling old Houghton a wretch. Don't I know about his heartache? Who better than I? God knows I would give his son back to him if I could. God knows I can almost swear at him; He knows also that if he were brought into this house wounded I'd nurse him with my feeble hand as I would you, Cousin Hugh, but I would be apt to say when he got well (and here came in her little chirping laugh), 'Good sir, I have not the slightest objection to your going back to Massachusetts, bag and baggage.' By the way, he has another son who has not been much in Charleston--being educated at the North, they say. He must be a grown man now. I was told that when here last he resented the fact bitterly that there was some society in town which he could not enter."

"I reckon not," remarked Mrs. Hunter, grimly, and then followed some desultory conversation between the two elder ladies.

As was frequently his custom--in common with men whose past is more than their future promises to be--the captain had lapsed into a train of thought which took him far away from present surroundings. He was roused by Mrs. Hunter's preparations for departure, and looking suddenly at Mara, saw that her eyes were filled with tears. He was at her side instantly, and, taking her hand, asked gently, "What troubles you, my child?"

With bowed head she replied: "I understand you, Captain Bodine; your words have made everything clear to me."

He still held her hand and thought a moment. "About Ella's coming to you?" he asked.

"Yes, I'm not one of the Egyptians, but I'd so set my heart on it."

"Because of your need, not Ella's?" again the captain queried, while his grasp on her hand tightened.

"Oh, Captain Bodine, do you think I could deceive you or a girl like Ella under any circumstances? If she did not come after to-day I feel that I should give up in despair very soon. I do need help, and just such help to body and mind as she can give me."

"Forgive me, Mara. The little story I told about your father explains why I feared. But we will say no more about it. I would rather have Ella with you than with any one else in the world."

"There," cried that buoyant young woman, "I knew I was right. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings you old people are destined to learn wisdom."

"Well," said Mrs. Bodine, "I've had more drama tonight than I reckoned on, and I haven't been leading lady either. Will the chief baker escort me to the dining-room?"

After cake and cream, the captain escorted Mrs. Hunter and Mara home. He detained the latter at the door a moment, and said gently, "Mara, shun the chief danger of your life. Never be unfair to yourself."