The Earth Trembled by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XIX. A Chivalrous Impulse
It must be admitted that Clancy had some cause for his perturbation. Captain Bodine was a middle-aged man, who had had deep, if not wide experiences. He had come to regard himself as saddened and way-worn, halting slowly down the westward slope of life, away from the exaltations of vanished joys, and the almost despairing grief of former sorrows.
Memory kept both in sharp outline; nevertheless they were receding, as do hills and mountains which the traveller leaves behind him. The veteran had believed that he had no future besides earning an honest living, and providing for his beloved child.
The traveller--to employ again the figure--often journeys forward in what promises to be a monotonous road. He is not expecting anything, nor is he looking forward to any material change. Unawares he surmounts a little eminence, and there opens a vista which kindles his dull eyes with its beauty, and stirs his heavy heart with the suggestion that he has not passed by and beyond all the best things of life.
Mara's glance of profound and intelligent sympathy had opened such a vista to Bodine's mental vision. It had been enough then; it had been enough since, in the main, that she was the daughter of his old and dearest friend, and that their thoughts, beliefs and sorrows were in such complete accord. Mara had become his daughter's closest friend, as well as co-laborer, and so he heard of her daily, and saw her very often. All that he saw and heard confirmed and deepened his first impressions. A companionship, wonderfully sweet and cheering, was growing between them. He had not yet begun to analyze this, or to recognize whither it was tending, while not a shadow of suspicion crossed her mind. She only felt that she had found a friend who diverted her thoughts, solaced all her trouble, and made the past, to which she believed she belonged, more real, more full of precious memories. The days in the main were passing quietly and evenly for both, full of work and deeply interesting thoughts, and the delightful reunions around the chair of the genial invalid, Mrs. Bodine, increased in number.
The old lady talked and acted as if she had emerged into the warmest sunshine of prosperity, and only Ella could surpass her in blitheness of spirit and comical speeches. They caricatured each other, every one, everything, yet without a particle of malice. Even poor old Mrs. Hunter sometimes had to relax her grim rigidity, and Bodine often laughed with the hearty ring of his old campaigning days. At times Mara was beguiled into the belief that she was happy, that her deep wound was healing. The illusion would last for days together; then something unexpected would occur, and the love of her heart would reveal itself in bitter out-cry against its wrong. If she could only see Clancy in some light which her veritable God-bestowed conscience could condemn, she believed that her struggle would be much easier; but he always confronted her with his earnest, steady eyes, which said, "I have as true a right to think as I do, as you have to think differently. Not even for your sake will I be false." Thus after days of comparative peace, the tempest would again rage in her soul.
Buoyant, happy Ella felt now as if she could trip on through life indefinitely; but one summer morning she tripped into a little adventure which brought unwonted expressions of perplexity into her fair face. She was returning along the shady side of the street from her duties, her face like a blush-rose from the heat, when she observed coming toward her a young man who, from his garb and bearing, caught her eyes. Pretty Ella knew she attracted a great deal of attention from the opposite sex when she appeared in the street, and she was not such a demure little saint as to let a fine, manly figure pass without her observation, but her observance was quick, furtive, like the motion of a bird's eye that looks you over before you are aware of the bird's presence. No staring fellow ever met her blue eyes in the street. On the present occasion the little maiden said to herself, "There's a style of a man I haven't seen, and he's evidently a Northerner, too. Well, he's not bad; indeed he is the best-looking Vandal, as Mrs. Hunter would say--Oh, merciful Heaven! that old woman will be run over."
Her commentary had been interrupted by an express wagon driven recklessly around the corner. Picking her way slowly across the street was a plain, respectable looking old woman, with a basket of parcels on her arm, and, at the moment of Ella's cry, she was almost under the horse's feet, paralyzed with terror. Her cry caught the young man's attention. With a single bound, he was in the street, his right hand and arm forcing the horse back on its haunches, while with his left he gathered up the old woman. Then by a powerful effort he threw the horse's head and forequarters away from him with such force that the shafts cracked. Bearing the woman to the sidewalk, he placed her upon her feet, then went back, picked up her parcels and placed them in her basket. Without waiting to hear her thanks, he lifted his hat and was turning away as if all had been a trifle, when he was confronted by the enraged expressman pouring forth volleys of vituperation. With a chivalric impulse the girl drew nearer the stranger, who looked the bully steadily in the eyes while he kept his hands in his pockets. The man made a gesture as if to strike. Instantly the young fellow's left arm was up in the most scientific attitude of self-defence. "Don't do that, you fool," he said. "Are you too drunk not to see that I'm strong? Clear out, or I'll have you arrested. If you touch me, I'll knock you under the feet of your horse."
There was something in the athlete's bearing, and the way he put up his left arm, which brought the expressman to his senses, and he drew off swearing about the blanked "Northerners, who acted as if they owned the city."
George Houghton--for we may as well give his name at once--regarded the fellow contemptuously an instant, and again turned to pursue his way regardless of the gathering crowd. But his attention was at once arrested by a pair of blue eyes which were so eloquent with admiration and approval, that he smiled and again lifted his hat.
"You are a gentleman," Ella breathed softly, the words coming with scarcely any volition on her part.
A frown instantly darkened Houghton's face, and, with a slight, stiff acknowledgment, he strode away. "Why the deuce shouldn't I be a gentleman!" he muttered. "The very young girls of this town are taught to look upon Northerners as boors. One has only to save an old woman from being run over, face a blackguard, and the wondering expression is wrung from one of the blue-blooded scions, 'You're a gentleman!' And she was blue-blooded. A fellow with half an eye and in half a minute could see that. And I suppose she thought that one of my ilk was no more capable of such a deed than Toots or Uriah Heep. Bah!"
Having thus relieved his mind, young Houghton's step soon grew slower and slower. It was evident that a new and different train of thought had begun in his mind. At last, with characteristic force, he communed with himself:
"Thin-skinned fool! why didn't I look at the girl instead of thinking of my blasted self and pride! Why, that girl's face will haunt me for many a day, whether I ever see her again or not. I'm as bad as these Bourbons themselves in my prejudice. Now I think of it she stood almost alone at my side when others were keeping at a safer distance, fearing a fight. Her look was one of simple, ingenuous approval--almost the expression of a child, and I acted like a brute. That's the Old Harry with me, I act first and think afterward."
A few minutes later he was at the office, and writing rapidly at his father's dictation. After a time Mr. Houghton said, "Take these two letters to Bodine's desk, and tell him to make copies. Then you can go, George. Your vacation is too new for me to take so much of your time."
"See here, father," replied the young man, putting his hand on the old gentleman's shoulder. "You've been here all these years working like thunder to make money, and I've been spending it like thunder. If you're going to keep on working, I'm going to work with you; if you'll knock off and go on a lark with me, I'll guarantee that you'll be ten years younger before fall."
The old man's face softened wonderfully. Indeed one could scarcely imagine it was capable of such an expression.
"Ah, George! you don't, you can't know," he said, "yet my heart is not so dead but that I feel and recognize the spirit in which you speak. My place is here, right here, and I should not be contented anywhere else. But you are just from your studies. You didn't dazzle the faculty by your performances. Perhaps they would say you were a little too much given to boating and that sort of thing. But I am satisfied that you have come home a man, and not a blue-spectacled milk-sop. Help me out a little, and then go off on your lark yourself and recuperate."
"Recuperate!" and the young fellow made the office ring with his laugh. "Feel of that muscle, old gentleman. All the recuperation I need I can get a few hours before and after sundown. I'll go now, however, for there's a spanking breeze on the bay, and I'd like to make a run around Fort Sumter."
"George, George, be prudent. You know that your brother lies at the bottom of that accursed bay."
"There, father, there, he died doing his duty like a man, and you mustn't grieve for him so. Good-by."
The old man looked wistfully after him a moment, then turned his mind, like a strong motor power, to the complicated machinery that was coining wealth.
George went to Bodine, whom he had never seen before, and of whom he knew nothing, and began in his half-boyish way: "Here, mine ancient, father wants--Beg your pardon. Didn't know that you had lost a leg."
"What is it that Mr. Houghton wishes?" said the captain coldly, and turning upon the young man a visage which impressed him instantly.
"I beg your pardon again," said George. "My father would like copies made of these letters;" and he touched his hat as he turned away.
"Thunder!" he muttered as he left the counting-house. "I was told that I was a gentleman for a little trumpery act in the street. That man tells you he is one by a single glance from his sad, stern eyes. He is another of the blue-bloods, Southerner to the backbone. How is it that he is in the old gentleman's employ, I wonder? I supposed father hated ex-Confederates as the Devil does holy water. Bodine, Bodine. I must find out who he is, for he evidently has a history."
He soon forgot all about Bodine in the pleasure of skilfully sailing his boat close to the wind.
Ella had pursued her way homeward with bowed head and a confused sense of shame and resentment. "Suppose I did speak to him, a stranger," she murmured, "was he so dull, or so cold and utterly conventional as to make no allowance for the circumstances? No matter, I've had a lesson that I shall never forget. Hereafter he and his kind may save all the old women in Charleston, and fight all the bullies, and I won't even look at them. If he had had the brains and blood of a frog even, he would have understood me. And he did seem to understand at first, for he smiled pleasantly and lifted his hat. Does he consider it an insult to be told he is a gentleman? Perhaps he thought this fact should be too apparent to be mentioned, or else he thought it bold and unmaidenly to open my lips at all. A plague on him for not being able to see the simple truth. No Southerner would have been so stupid, or ready to think evil."
Thus she communed with herself till she reached her own room. After a little thought, she decided not to speak of the adventure. She had an unusual share of common-sense, and knew that the affair would only give pain to her father and cousin, and that its relation would serve no earthly good to any one.