Chapter XXII. Young Houghton is Discussed
 

Sleep and buoyancy of temperament enabled Ella to see everything in a very different light the following morning. "The idea of my taking what happened last night so seriously!" she said aloud while making her toilet. "As Mrs. Robertson said, 'no harm has been done.' Of course I shall tell papa and Cousin Sophy that I met and talked to Mr. Houghton. What if I did? He was introduced to me just as the others were, and what do I care for him? He was a very agreeable Vandal, and I'm glad to have had a chance to see what Vandals are like. As with other bugaboos they lose their terrors under close inspection."

At breakfast, therefore, she was merrier than usual, and gave a graphic and humorous account of the company, expatiating on the beauty and mystery of Miss Ainsley, her preference for Clancy, and his apparent devotion to her.

"By the way," she said at last, "who do you think was there? You can't guess, so I will tell you--young Mr. Houghton."

"What! the son of that old-beg pardon, Cousin Hugh," and Mrs. Bodine laughingly added, "It nearly slipped out that time."

"I hope he was not presented to you, Ella," said her father gravely.

"Well, he was, and by Mrs. Willoughby. I didn't talk with him very much, but of course I had to be polite. When I first heard his name I felt that I should be polite for your sake; and I was rather sorry for him, too, because so many evidently frowned on his presence."

"You need not be polite to him again for my sake," said her father decidedly. "I am under no obligations to him or his father, and this is a case into which policy cannot enter. I do not blame you, however," he added, more kindly, "for you acted from good impulses. Of course, as you say, you must be polite to every one, but you have a perfect right to be cold toward those who are unfriendly to us, and with whom we can never have any part or lot. I have been in Mr. Houghton's employ long enough to be convinced more fully, if possible, that, while he is an honest man, he has not a particle of sympathy with or for our people. I told him from the start that there could be no social relations between us. You must learn to avoid and shake off people who are objectionable."

"Well," said Ella, laughing, "I won't have to shake off people while under Mrs. Robertson's wing. She bore down upon us, as Cousin Sophy would say, like a seventy-four of the line. Dear papa, you know that Mr. Houghton is nothing to me, but it scarcely seems fair that he should be punished for the sins of his father."

"You need not punish him, my dear. Simply have nothing to do with him. He is the last person in the world to be regarded as an object of sympathy," and her father spoke a little irritably.

Ella thought it wise to make no further reference to him. "After all," she thought, "what does it matter? I'm glad he had a chance to explain that disagreeable episode in the street, and now I am practically done with him. I can at least be civil, should we ever meet again, and there it will end."

"Mrs. Willoughby is going too far," said Mrs. Bodine, musingly. "If she continues to invite such people she may find that other invitations will be declined without regrets. We haven't much left to us, but we can at least choose our associates."

"Don't be alarmed," said Ella lightly. "I did not invite him to spend this evening with us," and kissing her father and cousin good-by, she started for Mara's home.

Her thoughts were busy on the way, and they were chiefly of a self-gratulatory character. The whole episode now amused her greatly, for she could not help agreeing with her father that the great, strapping fellow was not an object of sympathy. "He probably has a score of flames at the North," she thought, "and wouldn't mind adding a little Southern girl to the number, especially as she is a sort of forbidden fruit to him. Well, he's not a bad fellow, if he is that old blank's son, as Cousin Sophy always suggests. Nevertheless, I don't think he's treated fairly, and I can't keep up these old bitter feelings. What had he or I to do with the war, I'd like to know? Well, well, I suppose it's natural for those who went through it to feel as they do, but I wish Mara wasn't so bound up in the past. It isn't fair to him," she broke out again. "He said I wouldn't be ostracized at the North. Bother! it don't matter what he said. As to our getting acquainted--" And she almost laughed outright at the preposterous idea.

She and Mara were soon busy as usual, and as opportunity offered, she told her fellow-worker of the events of the evening. Mara, with a languid interest, inquired about those whom she knew, and how they appeared, and she sometimes laughed aloud at Ella's droll descriptions. She was even more emphatic in her disapproval of young Houghton's presence than the captain or Mrs. Bodine had been. "I shall never accept any invitation from Mrs. Willoughby after this," she said firmly.

"Well now, Mara," replied Ella, with a little toss of her head, "I can't share in that spirit. Mr. Houghton is a gentleman, and I could meet him in society, chat with him, and let it end there. We can't keep this thing up forever, that is, we of the younger generations. Why should I hate that big, good-natured fellow? The very idea seems ridiculous. I could laugh at him, and tease and satirize him a little, but I could no more feel as you do toward him, than I could cherish an enmity toward a sunflower. Still, since father feels as he does, I shall have to cut him as far as possible, should I ever meet him again, which is not probable. I reckon that Mrs. Willoughby will be so crushed that even she won't invite him any more."

"I should hope not, truly."

"Well, she has a Northern girl visiting her, and a very remarkable looking girl she is."

"That is a different affair, although I do not approve of it. Miss Ainsley is the daughter of a rich man who is doing much for the South, and who feels kindly toward us, while old Mr. Houghton detests us as heartily as we do him. He is absorbing our business and taking it away from Southern men, and he exults over the fact. Miss Ainsley is certainly a very beautiful girl, for I've seen her. I suppose she received much attention." Mara purposely turned her back on Ella, and busied herself in the further part of the kitchen. She had heard rumors of Clancy's attention to the fair Northerner, and she both dreaded and hoped to have them verified. "Anything," she sighed, "oh, anything which will break his hold upon my heart!"

Unconsciously, Ella gave her more information than she could well endure. "I reckon she did receive attention, very concentrated attention, and that was all she cared for evidently. She was rather languid until Mr. Clancy appeared, and then she welcomed him with all her brilliant eyes. He looked as if he understood her perfectly, and they spent most of the evening on the shadowy balcony together. It is another case of the North conquering the South; but if I were a man, I'd think twice before surrendering to that girl. I had an instinctive distrust of her."

Mara felt that she was growing pale, and she immediately busied herself about the stove until her face flamed with the heat.

"You don't seem to take much interest in the affair," Ella remarked, as Mara continued silent.

"I never expect to make Miss Ainsley's acquaintance," was the quiet reply, "and Mr. Clancy in my view has almost ceased to be a Southerner."

"Well, I never met him before, and have only heard a little about him from cousin Sophy, and that not in his favor. He has a strong, intelligent face though, and a very resolute look in his eyes."

"Yes," admitted Mara coldly, "I reckon he's one who would have his own way without much regard for others."

"He may slip up for once. Miss Ainsley struck me as a girl who would have her way, no matter how many hearts she fractured."

Aun' Sheba and Vilet now entered, diverting Ella's thoughts. The old woman sat down rather wearily, a look of deep dejection on her face.

"Look here, Aun' Sheba," said the lively girl, "you're not well, or else something is troubling you. You looked down-hearted yesterday, and you look funereal now."

"We'se been sot on," said Aun' Sheba solemnly.

"'Sot on!' good gracious! Aun' Sheba, what do you mean?"

"Well, dey sot on my ole man, an' husband an' wife am me. Hit didn't turn out bad as I s'posed it would, bress tat ar son-in-law ob mine, but I keeps a tinkin' it all ober, an' I'se 'jected, I is; an' dar's no use ob shoutin' glory wen you doan feel glory." Then she told the whole story, which kept Ella on pins and needles, for, while she felt an honest sympathy for the poor soul, she had an almost uncontrollable desire to laugh.

"Yes, Missy Mara," concluded Aun' Sheba pathetically, "I'se s'pended, I s'pended myself, an' I'se gwine to stay s'pended till I feels mo' shuah."

"Suspended, Aun' Sheba!" said Mara, starting, suddenly becoming conscious of present surroundings.

Aun' Sheba looked at her wonderingly, but voluble Ella made it all right by saying, "No wonder Mara exclaimed. The idea! I wish I was half as good as you are."

"Oh, yes," cried Mara, striving to conceal her deep preoccupation, "that's the way with Aun' Sheba; the better she is, the worse she thinks she is. Do you mean to say that your church people have suspended you?"

"No. I'se s'pended myself. Didn't I tole you?"

"There, there, Aunty, I didn't understand. I believe in you and always will."

"Well, honey, I reckon you'se ole nuss'll alers be do same ter you wheder she'se 'ligious or no."

Both the girls now stood beside her, with a hand on either shoulder, and Ella said heartily, "Now, Aun' Sheba, it is just as you said, you're 'jected; you've got the blues, and everything looks blue and out of shape to you. You can't see the truth any more than if you were cross-eyed. I can prove to you whether you're 'ligious or not. Vilet, ain't your grandma a good Christian woman?"

"'Deed an' she is troo an' troo," said the child, who had been a silent, yet deeply sympathetic listener. "Many's de time she's sent me wid good tings to po' sick folks."

"There now," cried Ella. "Aun' Sheba, you've got to believe the Bible. 'Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings,' it says. You can't deceive a child. Vilet knows better than you do."

"Shuah now, does you tink it's dataway?" and Aun' Sheba looked up with hope in her eyes.

"Of course we think it's that way," said Ella. "Aun' Sheba, you know a heap, as you say, about many things, but you don't half know how good you are."

"I know how bad I is anyhow. I tells you I was in a dozin' sleep."

"Well, I've been in a dozin' sleep many a time," said Ella, "and I'm not going to be suspended by any one, not even myself."

"Aun' Sheba," said Mara gently but firmly, "you know I'm in earnest, and how much I love you for all your goodness ever since I was a helpless baby. You wouldn't say hard, untrue things against any one else. You have no more right to be unjust to yourself. As Ella says, I wish I was as good a Christian as you are."

"Now, Missy Mara, no mo' ob dat ar talk. I knows my inard feelin's bes' ob any one. What Vilet say chirk me up po'fully, kase she see me ebery day. I tell you what I'se gwine ter do; I'se gwine ter put myself on 'bation, and den see wot come ob it. Now, honeys, I'se 'feered long nuff wid business. You'se dun me good, honey lam's, an' de Lawd bress you bofe. I'se tote de basket a heap pearter fer dis yere talk. I feels a monst'us sight betteh. Wish I could see you, honey, lookin' as plump as Missy Ella. Dat do me mos' as much good as feelin' 'ligious."

Mara worried Mrs. Hunter over her pretence of making a dinner, and then gladly sought the solitude of her own room. At last she said with a bitter smile, "He has broken the last shred that bound me." But as the hours passed in tumultuous thoughts, her heart told her how vain were such words.