Chapter XVIII. A Fair Duellist
 

The great hand of time which turns the kaleidoscope of human affairs appeared to move slowly for a few weeks, as far as the characters of my story are concerned. The two little bakers worked together daily, one abounding in mirth and drollery, and the other cheered, or rather beguiled from melancholy in spite of herself. Business grew apace, not only because two girls who evoked general sympathy were the principals of the firm, but also for the reason that they put something of their own dainty natures into their wares. Aun' Sheba trudged and perspired in moderation, for the fleet-footed Vilet seemed to outrun Mercury. Moreover, the "head-pahners," as Aun' Sheba called them, insisted that their commercial travellers should take the street-cars when long distances were involved.

Captain Bodine and Mr. Houghton maintained their business relation in the characteristic manner indicated by their first interview. The ex-Confederate was given some routine work which kept him at a remote desk a certain number of hours a day, and employer and employee rarely met, and scarcely ever spoke to each other. The captain, however, had no reason to complain of his salary, which was paid weekly, and sufficed for his modest needs. So far from being dependent on his large-hearted cousin, he and Ella were enabled to contribute much to her material comfort, and immeasurably to her daily enjoyment. She and Ella were in the sunshine again, and it was hard to say which of the two talked the most genial nonsense. The old lady had what is termed "a sweet tooth," and loved dainties. The two girls, therefore, vied with each other in evolving rare and harmless delicacies.

"Two Ariels are ministering to me," she said, "and sometimes I feel so jolly that I would like to share with that old--I mean Mr. Houghton."

The girls never forgot, however, the depths beneath the ripple and sparkle of the old lady's manner.

As spring verged into summer, Uncle Sheba yielded more and more to the lassitude of the season. His "bobscure 'fliction" seemed to grow upon him, if it were possible to note degrees in his malady, but Aun' Sheba said, "'Long as he is roun' like a log an' don' bodder me I is use' ter it." He even began to neglect the "prar-meetin'," and old Tobe told him to his face, "You'se back-slidin' fur as you kin slide, inch or so." His son-in-law, Kern Watson, had won such a good reputation for steadiness that he was taken into the fire department. When off duty he was always with "Sissy an' de chilen."

Outwardly there was but slight change in Owen Clancy. He had never been inclined to make many intimate acquaintances, and those who knew him best only noted that he seemed more reserved about himself if possible, and that he was unusually devoted to business. Yet he was much spoken of in business circles, for it was known that he was the chief correspondent of the wealthy Mr. Ainsley of New York, who was making large investments in the South. Among the progressive men of the city, no matter what might be their political faith and association, the young man was winning golden opinions, for it was clearly recognized that he ever had the interest of his section at heart, that in a straightforward, honorable manner he was making every effort to enlist Northern capital in Southern enterprises. He had withdrawn almost wholly from social life, and ladies saw him but seldom in their drawing-rooms. When among men, however, he talked earnestly and sagaciously on the business topics of the hour. The evening usually found him with book in hand in his bachelor apartment.

Beneath all this ordinary ebb and flow of daily life, changes were taking place, old forces working silently, and new ones entering in to complicate the problems of the future. As unobtrusively as possible, Clancy kept himself informed about Mara and all that related to her welfare. By some malign fate, as she deemed it, she would unexpectedly hear of him, encounter him on the street, also, yet rarely now, meet him at some small evening company. He would permit no open estrangement, and always compelled her to recognize him. One evening, to her astonishment and momentary confusion he quietly took a seat by her side and entered into conversation, as he might have done with other ladies present. By neither tone nor glance did he recognize any cause for estrangement between them, and he talked so intelligently and agreeably as to compel her admiration. His mask was perfect, and after an instant hers was equally so, yet all the time she was as conscious of his love as of her own.

He recognized the new element which the Bodines had brought into her life, and with a lover's keen instinct began to surmise what the captain might become to her. He was not long in discovering the former relations of the veteran to Colonel Wallingford, and he justly believed that, as yet, Mara's regard was largely the result of that old friendship and an entire accordance in views. But he was not so sure about Bodine, whom he knew but slightly and with whom he had no sympathy. He had learned substantially the ground on which the captain had taken employment from Mr. Houghton, and as we know, he was bitterly hostile to that whole line of policy. "It would eventually turn every Southern man into a clerk," he muttered, "when it is our patriotic duty to lead in business as in everything else that pertains to our section." Yet he knew, or at least believed, that if he had taken the same course Mara might now be his wife.

Sometimes, when reading, apparently, he would throw down his book and say aloud in his solitude, "Bah, I'm more loyal to the South than this sombre-faced veteran. He would keep his State forever in his own crippled condition. No crutches for the South, I say; no general clerkship to the North, but an equal onward march, side by side, to one national destiny. He thinks he is a martyr and may very complacently let Mara think so too. Who has given up the more? He a leg, and I my heart's love!"

It has already been shown that Clancy touched the extremes of political and social life in the city. Some, of whom Mrs. Hunter was an exasperated exponent, could be cold toward him, but they could neither ignore nor despise him. Those beginning to cast off the fetters of enmity and prejudice, secretly admired him and were friendly. While cordial in his relations, therefore, with Northern people and Northern enterprises of the right stamp, he had not so lost his hold on Mara's exclusive circle as to remain in ignorance of what was transpiring within it, and he secretly resolved that if Bodine sought to take the girl of his heart from him, and, as he truly believed, from all chance of true happiness herself, he would give as earnest a warning as ever one soul gave to another.

In June he received a strong diversion to his thoughts. Mr. Ainsley wrote him from New York, in effect, that he with his daughter would soon be in Charleston--that his interests in the South had become so large as to require personal attention; also that he had new enterprises in view. The young man's interest and ambition were naturally kindled. As Mara had taken the Bodines and their affairs as an antidote for her trouble, he sought relief in the preoccupation which the Ainsleys might bring to his mind. Accordingly he met father and daughter at the station and escorted them to the hotel with some degree of pleasurable excitement.

Miss Ainsley made the same impression of remarkable beauty and cosmopolitan culture as at first. There was a refined, easy poise in her bearing. Indeed he almost fancied that, to her mind, coming to Charleston was a sort of condescension, she had visited so many famous cities in the world. She greeted him cordially, and to a vain man her brilliant eyes would have expressed more than the mere pleasure of seeing an old acquaintance again.

But few days elapsed before Mr. Ainsley was on the wing, here and there where his interests called him, meantime making the Charleston hotel his headquarters. Miss Ainsley's friend, Mrs. Willoughby, carried off the daughter to her pretty home on the Battery, where sea-breezes tempered the Southern sun. Clancy aided the father satisfactorily in business ways, and the daughter found him so agreeable socially as to manifest a wish to see him often. She interested him as a "rara avis" which he felt that he would like to understand better, and he would have been less than a man if not fascinated by her beauty, accomplishments and intelligence. Miss Ainsley could not fail to charm the eyes of sense as well, and she was not chary of the secret that she had been fashioned in one of Nature's finest molds. The soft, warm languor of the summer evenings was, to her, ample excuse for revealing the glowing marble of her neck and bosom to dark Southern eyes, and admirers began to gather like bees to honey ready made.

Clancy had wished to see her deportment toward other young men, and now had the opportunity. The result flattered him in spite of himself. To others she was courteous, affable and sublimely indifferent. When he approached it seemed almost as if a film passed from her eyes, that she awakened into a fuller life and became an enchantress in her versatile powers. He responded with as fine a courtesy as her own, although quite different, but there was a cool, steady self-restraint in eyes and manner which piqued and charmed her.

Clancy would be long in learning to understand Miss Ainsley. He might never reach the secret of her life, and certainly would not unless he bluntly asked her to marry him--asked her so bluntly and persistently that all the wiles of which woman is capable opened no avenue of escape. She was an epicure of the finest type. If she had been asked to a banquet on Mount Olympus, she would have preferred to dine from the one delicious dish of ambrosia most to her taste and to sip only the choicest brand of nectar. Profusion, even at a feast of the gods, would have no charms for her. She had begun to see the world so early and had seen so much of it that she had learned the art of elimination to perfection. Sensuous to the last degree, but not sensual, she had a cool self-control and a fineness of taste which led her to choose but a few refined pleasures at a time and then to enjoy them deliberately and until satiety pointed to a new choice. Keen of intellect, she had studied society and with almost the skill of a naturalist had recognized the various types of men and women. This cool observation had taught her much worldly wisdom. She saw all about her, mere girls jaded with life already, faded young women keeping up with the fashionable procession as fagged out soldiers drag themselves along in the rear of a column. She had seen fresh young debutantes rush into the giddy whirl to become pallid from the excess of one season. At one time, she and other friends of hers had been exultant, excited and distracted by their many admirers and suitors. She soon wearied, however, of this indiscriminate slaughter, and the devoted eager attentions, the manifest desires and hopes of commonplace men, so far from kindling a sense of triumph and power, almost made her ill. She became like a knight of the olden time who had hewn down inferiors until he was sick of gore.

And so she gradually withdrew from the fashionable rout, took time for reading and study and the perfection of her accomplishments. She accepted merely such invitations as were agreeable to her, smiling contemptuously at the idea that in order to maintain position in society one must wear herself out by rushing around to everything; and society respected her all the more. It became a triumph to secure her presence; but she only went where everything would accord with her taste and inclination. This was true of her life abroad as well as at home. Conscious of her father's wealth, and that, apart from an unexacting companionship to him, she could do as she pleased, she proposed to make the most of life as she estimated it. She would have all the variety she wished, but she would take it leisurely. She would not perpetrate the folly of gulping pleasures, still less would she permit herself to fall tumultuously in love with some ordinary man only to waken from a romantic dream to discover how ordinary he was.

She was also too shrewd, indeed one may almost say too wise, to think of an ambitious marriage. The man of millions or the man of rank or fame could never buy her unless personally agreeable to her. Yet she was rarely without a suitor, whom to a certain point she encouraged. Unless a man possessed some real or fancied superiority which pleased or interested her, she was practically inaccessible to him. She would be courtesy itself, yet by her strong will and tact would speedily make a gentleman understand, "You have no claim upon me; your wishes are nothing to me." If he interested her, however, if she admired him even slightly, she would give him what she might term a chance. Then to her mind their relations became much like a duel; she at least would conquer him; he might subdue her if he could; she would give him the opportunity, and if he could find a weak place in her polished armor and pierce her heart she would yield. The question was whether she had a heart, and she was not altogether sure of this herself. On one thing, however, she was resolved--she would not give up her liberty, ease and epicurean life for the duties, obligations and probable sorrows of wifehood, unless she met a man who had the power to make this course preferable.

During Clancy's visit to New York in the winter, Mr. Ainsley had spoken of him to his daughter in terms that interested her before she even saw the young man, and the moment the experienced woman of the world (for she was a woman of the world, though but little past her majority) looked upon him she was still more interested, recognizing at a glance the truth that whatever Clancy might be, he was not commonplace. This explains why he was perplexed by the intentness and soft fire of her eyes. If the way opened, she was inclined to give him "a chance." It might cost him dear, as it had others, but that was his affair. She felt that he was highly honored and distinguished in being given what she contemptuously denied to the great majority. The way had opened. She was in Charleston, and now, this particular and lovely June evening found her on a balcony overlooking the shining ripples of the bay, reclining in a cane chair with her head leaning against a pillar and her eyes fixed on him with all the dangerous fascination they possessed. Some soft, white clinging material draped her form that was rendered more graceful than usual by her well-chosen attitude. A spray from an ivy vine hung above her, and its slightly moving shadow flickered on her throat and bosom. She knew she was entrancingly beautiful; so did he. He felt that if he were an artist nothing was left to be desired. As a man he was flattered with her preference and charmed with her beauty. He did not and could not believe that he had more than a passing interest in her mind as yet, and he felt that she would never be more to him than a gifted lovely friend, who could at one and the same time gratify his taste and bestow fine intellectual companionship. They talked freely with lapses of silence between them. These she would occasionally break with little snatches of song from some opera. Her familiarity with life abroad enabled her to say much which supplemented his reading and which interested him. So he was not averse to these interviews and was conscious of no danger.

To her they had an increasing pleasure. She was delighted that Clancy thawed so deliberately, that instead of speedily verging toward sentiment he found more pleasure in her intellectuality than in her outward beauty. So many others to whom she had given a chance had quickly lost both their heads and hearts, and she was beginning to rejoice in the belief that it might require a summer's tactics to beguile him of either. His gray eyes, which appeared dark in the moonlight, were clearly regarding her with quiet admiration, but instead of paying a compliment he would broach some topic so interesting in itself that before she knew it she was talking well and even brilliantly.

This present evening he did pay her a compliment, however, which delighted her. She had stated her view of a subject, and he had replied, "I must differ with you most decidedly, Miss Amsley." Then he added with a little apologetic laugh, "I could have made such a remark to very few ladies. I would have said, 'I beg your pardon, do not think I am contradicting you, but possibly on further reflection--' In brief, I would have gone through the whole conventional circumlocution. You are a woman of mind, and you put your views so strongly and clearly that I forget everything except your thought. Good reason why, your thought is so interesting, all the more so because it is your view, not mine, and because I do not agree with you. Have I made sufficient apology?"

"You have done much more, Mr. Clancy, you have paid me the only kind of a compliment that I enjoy. I am sick of conventionalities, and as for ordinary compliments, I am as satiated as one would be if the entire contents of Huyler's candy-shop had been sent to him."

"Oh, I knew that much before I had seen you five minutes. The only question in my mind was whether you had not been made ill mentally by them as one would be physically by the candy."

"In other words, whether I was a fool or not."

"Precisely."

"Well?"

"No need of that rising inflection. If you were a fool I would not be here."

"I reckon not, as you say in the South."

"Yet you value your beauty, Miss Ainsley."

"Indeed I do, very highly."

"And you know equally well that I admire it greatly, but I value your power of companionship more. Why should not a man and woman entertain each other without compliments, conventionalities and sentimentalities?"

"No reason in the world if they are capable of such companionship. The trouble with so many is that they tumble into these things, especially the last, as if they were blind ditches in their path."

"That is excellent. Do you regard love as a blind ditch?"

"The deepest and worst of them all, judging from the experiences of very many."

"I am inclined to agree with you," he answered very quietly.

A few moments later he rose to take his leave. She gave him her hand without rising, and said, "Good-night. I'm not going to leave this lovely scene till I am sleepy. Come again when you want companionship. Drop conventionality I would like a friend who would talk to me as men of brains talk to men of brains, without circumlocution."

"Very well, then, I shall begin at once. You have a head that ought to inspire an artist, but I like its furniture. I am going to read up on our point of disagreement. If I actually prove you are wrong you must yield like a man."

"I will."

The smile on her lips still lingered as she looked out upon the moonlit waters, and she passed into a delicious revery. At last she murmured, "Yes, he has a chance. I don't know how it will end. I may yield to his argument, but as to yielding to him, that is another affair. The best part of it all is that he is so slow in yielding to me. Here, in this out-of-the-way corner of the world, is a cup that I can at least drain slowly."

Clancy sauntered up Meeting Street, his thoughts preoccupied with the interview. Then half a block in advance two persons entered the thoroughfare, and he recognized Captain Bodine and Mara. He crossed the street so as not to meet them, and they passed in low, earnest conversation. If Miss Ainsley had been in the furthest star, he would not have cared. Every drop of his Southern blood was fired, and, with clinched hands, he strode homeward, and passed a sleepless night.