Chapter XX. The Stranger Explains
 

There are those who touch our life closely, and become essentially a part of it; there are many more who are but casual and passing acquaintances, and yet these very people often unconsciously become the most important factors in our destiny. Ella Bodine was soon to prove this truth. It will of course be understood that her life was not so secluded and restricted that she practically had no acquaintances beyond the characters of our story. Sensible Mrs. Bodine had no intention that her pretty cousin should be hidden behind the prejudices so powerful in those with whom she was immediately associated.

"Cousin Hugh," she said, one day soon after Ella's encounter with Houghton, "how was it with you when you were a young fellow? how was it with me when I was a girl? Do you suppose your daughter is made of different flesh and blood? She is so unselfish in nature and sunny in temperament that you will never learn from her that she has longings for society of her own age. We have no right to keep her among our shadows. We belong to the past; she has a future, and should have the chance which is the right of every young girl. You must not judge her by Mara, who stands by herself, and is not a representative of any ordinary type. She is as old as you are, and a great deal older than I am. She has grown up among shadows and loves them. Ella loves the sunshine, and should have all of it that we can give her. Now, you must let her go out more. I will choose her chaperons, and I reckon I know whom to choose. If I do say it, I would like you to mention any one in Charleston more competent. I know about the fathers and mothers, the grandfathers and grandmothers, and the remote ancestors of every one in Charleston who is any one."

"Cousin Sophy, I believe you are right. I have permitted Ella to be too devoted to me, but we have lived such a precarious life of late--indeed it has been the vital question how we were to live at all. We are now very differently situated. Yes, you are right. Ella should see something of society, and enjoy some of its pleasures, and, as you say, should have her chance." At these final words he sighed deeply.

"I know what that sigh means," resumed the old lady. "You would wish to keep Ella to yourself always--the natural impulse of a father's heart. Yet if you allow this impulse to control you, it will become selfishness of the worst kind. I say again that every girl should have her chance to see and be seen, and to make the most and best of her life according to woman's natural destiny. You may trust me, as I have said, to choose those who shall have the care of Ella when she goes out. She has an invitation to a little company at Mrs. Willoughby's, and a most discreet friend has offered to chaperon her. We'll fix her out so that she will appear as well as any one, and you know our claims don't rest on expensiveness of dress. Mrs. Willoughby comes of one of the oldest and best families in the State. I know she is liberal, and affiliates with Northern people more than I could wish, but they are all said to be of the best class--and I suppose there is a best class among 'em. Good Lor', Hugh! we may feel and think as we please, and can never change, but we can't keep back the rising tide. If there are a few Northern people present Ella won't be contaminated any more than you are by working among Northern people. We have our strong prejudices--that's what they are called--but we must not let them make us ridiculous. Mrs. Willoughby says she's emancipated, and that she'd have whom she pleased in her parlors. She has been abroad so much, you know. Well, well, we'll consider it settled." And so it was.

When Ella was informed of her cousin's plan in her behalf she was half wild with delight. "I may consider myself a debutante," she said. "Oh, Cousin Sophy! how shall I behave?"

"Behave just as a bird flies," said the wise old lady. "If you put on any airs, if you are not your own natural self, I'll shake you when you come home."

The captain saw his child's pleasure, and felt anew the truth of his cousin's words. Ella should be immured no longer. Mara had been invited also, but declined, preferring to spend the evening with Mrs. Bodine.

Mrs. Willoughby's company was not large, and had been selected from various motives. We need mention but one that had influenced her. Miss Ainsley had requested that George Houghton should be invited. Her father and Mr. Houghton had large business interests in common, and at Mr. Ainsley's request the young man had called upon his daughter. She was pleased with him, although she felt herself to be immeasurably older than he. Mrs. Willoughby had also been favorably impressed by his fine appearance and slightly brusque manner.

"Yes," said the astute Miss Ainsley, as they were talking him over after his departure, "he's a big, handsome, finely educated boy, who would walk through your Southern conventionalities as if they were cobwebs, had he a chance."

"Delightful!" cried Mrs. Willoughby. "If I can keep my drawing-room free from insipidity, I am content. As to his walking through our conventionalities, as you term them, let him try it. If he doesn't butt his head against some rather solid walls, I'm mistaken. You don't half know what a bold thing I am doing when I invite old Houghton's son; but then it is just this kind of social temerity that enchants me, and he shall come. I only hope that some good people won't rise up and shake off the dust of their feet."

"Don't worry; you're a privileged character. Mr. Clancy has told me all about it. He admires you immensely because you are so untrammelled."

"He admires you a hundred-fold more. What are you going to do with him?"

"I don't know. I couldn't do anything with him yet. That's his charm. If I didn't know better, I should say he was the coldest--he is not cold at all. The woman who reaches his heart will find a lot of molten lava. I'm often inclined to think it has been reached by some one else, and that his remarkable poise results from a nature fore-armed, or else chilled by a former experience. At any rate, there is a fire smouldering in his nature, and when it breaks out it won't be of the smoky, lurid sort that has so often made me ill. There will be light and heat in plenty."

"Well, you're an odd girl, Caroline. You experiment with men's hearts like an old alchemist, who puts all sorts of substances into his crucible in the hope of finding something that will enrich him."

"And probably, like the old alchemist, I shall never find anything except what, to me, is dross."

Under Mrs. Robertson's wing Ella appeared, and met with a very kindly reception. She had not Miss Ainsley's admirable ease, but she possessed something far better. There was a sweet girlish bloom in addition to her innately refined manner and ingenuous loveliness of face, which made even the experienced belle sigh that she had passed by that phase forever. Yet shrewd Ella's eyes were as busy as they were intelligent. She wondered at Miss Ainsley with mingled admiration and distrust, but she had received a sufficient number of hints from Mrs. Bodine to understand her hostess quite well. She saw Clancy enter, and Miss Ainsley's welcome, and quickly observed that there was a sort of free-masonry between them. Then some one appeared who almost took away her breath. It was the stranger to whom she had spoken so unexpectedly, even to herself. She saw that Mr. Clancy, Miss Ainsley, and Mrs. Willoughby greeted him cordially, but that many others appeared surprised and displeased. Little time was given to note more, for the stranger's eyes fell upon her. He instantly turned to his hostess, and evidently asked for an introduction. With a slight sparkle of mischief in her eyes, Mrs. Willoughby complied, and Ella saw the stranger coming toward her as straight and prompt as if he meant to carry her off bodily. He seemed to ignore every one and everything else in the room, but she was too high-spirited to fall into a panic, or even to be confused. Indeed she found herself growing angry, and was resolving to give him a lesson, when his name was mentioned. Then she was startled, and for an instant confused. This was no other than the son of "that old--Mr. Houghton," as Mrs. Bodine always mentioned him, with a little cough of self-recovery as if she had been on the perilous edge of saying something very unconventional. His father was her father's employer, and the instinctive desire to save her father from trouble led to hesitation in her plan of rebuke and retaliation. Her petty resentment should not lead to any unpleasant complications, and she therefore merely bowed civilly.

Houghton repeated her name as if a victim of momentary surprise himself, and then said with his direct gaze, "I wish to ask ten thousand pardons."

"That is a great many. I shall have to think about granting one."

"If I were you I wouldn't do it," was his next rather brusque remark.

"That is your advice, then?"

"No, indeed. I'm not my own worst enemy. Miss Bodine, circumlocution is not my forte. I had not walked a block away from you the other day before I charged myself with being a fool and a brute. It took just that long for me to get it into my thick head what your manner and words meant, and I've been in a rage with myself ever since."

"Well," she asked, looking down demurely, "what did they mean?"

"They meant you were a brave girl--that from a chivalric impulse you had drawn near when even men stood a little aloof, as if fearing that if the affair came to blows, they might get a chance one themselves. Your face had the frank expression of a child--how often in fancy I've seen it since!--the words came from your lips almost as a child would speak them. Now that I see you again I know how true my second thoughts were of you and of myself. I deserve a whipping instead of your pardon."

There was a point yet to be cleared up in Ella's mind, and she remarked coldly, "I do not see how you could have had any other thoughts than what you term your second thoughts."

"Nor do I, now; and I suppose you can have no mercy on a poor fellow who is often hasty and wrong-headed. I will make a clean breast of it. I was charmed with your expression when first aware of your presence, but when you spoke you touched a sore spot. Miss Bodine, you would not be ostracized at the North. You would be treated with the courtesy and cordiality to which every one would see you to be entitled. Practically I am ostracized here by the class to which you belong. When you spoke I stalked away like a sulky boy, muttering, 'Why shouldn't I be a gentleman?' Even the girls in this town are taught to look upon Northerners as boors. I had only to pick up an old woman, and face a bully, when, as if in utter surprise that one of my ilk should be so grandly heroic, I heard the words, 'You are a gentleman.' You see it was my wretched egotism that got me into the scrape. When I thought of you, not myself, I saw the truth at once, and felt like going back to the expressman and meekly asking him to give me a drubbing."

All was clear to Ella now. Indeed there was a frankness and sincerity about Houghton which left no suspicion of dark corners and mental reservations. As his explanation proceeded she began to laugh. "Well," she remarked, "I had my first thoughts too. I said to myself, as I pursued my way homeward, with burning cheeks, that you or any one else might save all the old women in town, and fight all the bullies, and that I would pass on my way without looking to the right or left."

"Pardon me, Miss Bodine, you are mistaken. Your generous spirit would get the better of you again in two seconds. Heaven grant, however, that next time you may have a gentleman as your ally. For a few moments I ceased to be one, and became an egotistical fool."

"You are too hard upon yourself. Since you interpret me so kindly it would ill become me to--"

"Ella, my dear," said her chaperon, "let me present to you Mr. Vandeveer."

Houghton gave her a bright, grateful glance, rose instantly, and bowed himself away.

Mrs. Robertson had been on pins and needles over this prolonged conference. There was something so resolute about Houghton's manner, and he had placed his chair so adroitly to bar approach to Ella, that the good lady was in sore straits. Mrs. Willoughby saw her perplexity, and felt not a little mischievous pleasure over it. She disappeared that she might not be called upon to interfere. At last in desperation Mrs. Robertson laid hold on Mr. Vandeveer, and ended the ominous interview.

Ella gave rather lame attention to her new companion's commonplaces; then others were introduced, and the evening was drifting away in the ordinary fashion. She soon began to talk well in her own bright way, and had all the attention a young debutante could desire, but she was always conscious of Houghton's presence, and also aware that he was quietly observant of her. She saw that he met with very little cordiality, and that from but a few. Womanlike, she began to take his part in her thoughts, and to feel the injustice shown him. She had an innate sense of fair play, and she resented the manoeuvring of her chaperon to keep him away from her. Yet she soon found herself enjoying abundantly the conversation of such young men as met with Mrs. Robertson's approval. This truth was apparent to that lady's satisfaction, but the independent young woman was not long in resolving that if she went into society she would not go as a child in leading-strings, and she determined that she would speak to Houghton again before the evening was over, if the opportunity offered. He had at last disappeared, but she soon discovered that he was on the balcony with Clancy and Miss Ainsley. Strolling past them with her escort, she heard enough of their bright, merry talk to wish that she had a part in it. It was her nature, however, to avoid him until she could speak under the eye of her chaperon, and she again entered the lighted drawing-room.

Houghton, meanwhile, had been doing some thinking himself. The girl, whose blue eyes had looked at him so approvingly in the street, was taking a stronger hold on his fancy every moment. The relaxation of her cold aspect into mirthfulness, and an approach to kindness had enchanted him; while her ardent, honest, fearless nature appealed to him powerfully. "She strikes me as a woman who would stand by a fellow through thick and thin as long as he was right," he thought, "and if my judgment is correct the whole ex-Confederate army shan't keep me from getting acquainted with her. Ah! how I liked that severe look in her eyes till she knew what my first thoughts were! She has blue blood of the right sort, and I'm sorely mistaken if it doesn't feed a brain that can think for itself."

He also returned to the drawing-room, and was vigilant for an opportunity. It soon occurred. Ella and her attendant were chatting with Mrs. Willoughby a little apart from the others. Houghton joined them instantly, and was encouraged when both the ladies greeted him with a smile. The attendant gentleman soon withdrew, the hostess remained a few moments longer, and then Houghton and Ella were alone.

"You may have observed," he said, "the penalty I pay for being a Northerner."

"Yes," she replied, "and I don't think it's fair."

"Miss Bodine, do you dare think for yourself?"

"I scarcely know how I can help doing so."

"That is just what I was thinking out on the balcony."

"I thought you were charmed by that beautiful Miss Ainsley."

"She has no eyes except for Clancy, and a fine fellow he is too--too good for her, I imagine. I can't make her out."

"Neither can I."

"Oh, bother her! I don't like feminine riddles. Miss Bodine, there's a gentleman in my father's employ bearing your name. Is he a relative?"

"He is my father," she replied proudly.

"I should guess as much if your eyes were not so blue."

"I have my mother's eyes, I am told."

"Well, on that same day--you know--he told me that he was a gentleman: can you guess how?"

"I would rather you should tell me."

"I was sent to him by my father with a message, and I spoke rudely to him at first; not intentionally, but as a harum-scarum young fellow might speak to an elderly man under ordinary circumstances, I meaning nothing more than friendly familiarity. I fear you won't understand, but with you I can't help downright honesty."

"Yes, I understand. He was one of your father's clerks, and you cared little what you said to him."

"Scarcely right, Miss Bodine. With all my faults--and they are legion--I'm good-natured, and do not intentionally hurt people's feelings. What a fine proof of that I gave you in my insufferable stupidity!"

"That's been explained and is past. Please don't refer to it any more."

"Heaven knows I wish to forget it. Well, your father turned to me from his writing. One look was enough. I begged his pardon twice on the spot. That is the way he told me he was a gentleman. It had been so born and bred into him that, unless a fellow was an idiot, one glance told the story."

Her face softened wonderfully as he spoke, and her eyes grew lustrous with feeling, as she said:

"You are not an idiot, Mr. Houghton. I am glad you so quickly appreciated my father. He is more than a gentleman, he is a hero, and I idolize him."

"I should fancy it was a mutual idolatry," and his eyes expressed an admiration of which the dullest girl would have been conscious, and Ella was not dull at all. "I wish we could become acquainted," he added abruptly, and with such hearty emphasis that her color deepened.

Before she could reply, her chaperon managed to separate them again, and she saw him no more until, rather early in the evening, she was bidding her hostess goodnight. Then she encountered such an eager, questioning, friendly look, that she smiled involuntarily, and slightly bowed as she turned away. Mrs. Robertson was so preoccupied at the moment that she did not witness this brief, subtile exchange of--what? Ella did not know, herself, but her heart was wonderfully light, and there was a delicious sense of exhilaration in all her veins.

As they were driving home, Mrs. Robertson began sententiously, "Ella, in the main you behaved admirably. I don't suppose anything better could be expected of one so unversed in society, especially Charleston society. You were natural and refined in your deportment, and bore yourself as became your ancestry. You will soon learn to make discriminations. I had no idea that young Houghton would be present, or I would have told you about him and his father. Mrs. Willoughby is carrying things too far, even if many of our people have consented to wink at much that we disapprove of. Houghton represents the most detested Northern element among us. Of course you, in your inexperience, felt that you must be polite to every man introduced to you, and he talked with the volubility of which only a Yankee is capable. It is scarcely possible that you will meet him anywhere except at Mrs. Willoughby's, and if you go there any more you must learn the art of shaking off an objectionable person speedily. Your meeting Houghton to-night was purely accidental, and I reckon that after you have been out a few times you will learn to choose your associates from those only of whom your father and cousin would approve. Perhaps therefore you had better not say anything about your meeting Houghton, unless you feel that you ought. No harm has been done, and it would only displease your father, and render him adverse to your going out hereafter."

The good lady was a little worried by the fear that her reputation as a chaperon would be damaged, and, sincerely believing that "no harm had been done," and that her homily would remove all danger from the future, she counselled as she thought wisely. Her heart was full of goodwill toward the girl, and she was desirous that nothing should prevent her from enjoying society in her interpretation of the word.

Ella thanked her warmly for her kindness and advice, but she was in deep perplexity, for she had never concealed anything from her father before. Her lightness of heart was already gone, and there were tears in her eyes before she slept.