Chapter XXIII. The Warning
 

Captain Bodine was halting serenely down into that new vista in his life of which we have already spoken. Every day both promise and fulfilment seemed richer than he had ever imagined any future experience could be. He was domiciled in a home exactly to his taste; his cousin's brave, cheerful spirit was infectious; the worry of financial straits was over, and Ella was blooming and happy. These favorable changes in themselves would have done much toward banishing gloom and despondency; but another element had entered into his existence which was as unexpected as it was sweet. A deep, subtile exhilaration was growing out of his companionship with Mara. Every long, quiet talk that he enjoyed with her left a longing for another. She was learning to regard him almost as a father, but he did not think of her as he did of Ella. He loved Ella as his child, but her buoyant spirit, her intense enjoyment of the present, and her eager, hopeful eyes, fixed upon the future, separated her from him. He did not wish it otherwise in her case, for he hoped that there was a happy future for her, and he rejoiced daily over the gladness in her face. Mara, although so young, seemed of his own generation. He often repeated to himself his cousin's words, "She is as old as you are." She appeared to live in the past as truly as himself. There was scarcely a subject on which they were not in sympathy.

He believed that Mrs. Bodine was right, and that Mara was essentially different from others of her age. Indeed the impression grew upon him that the mysterious principle of heredity had prepared her for the companionship which apparently was valued as much by her as by himself. During the many hours in which he was alone, he thought the subject over in all its aspects, as he supposed, and a hope, exquisitely alluring, began to take form in his heart.

No man is without a certain amount of egotism and self-love, and, although these were not characteristics of Bodine, he could not help dwelling upon the truth that the remainder of his life would be very different from what he had expected could Mara be near to him.

Her eloquent look of sympathy so soon after they met began to take the form of prophecy. At first it led him to believe that she would receive a paternal, loving regard, much the same as he gave to Ella; but, as time passed, he began to dwell upon the possibility of a closer tie. She appeared to have no especial friends among young men, nor indeed to care for any. Might not a strong, quiet affection grow in each heart until they could become one in the closest sense, even as they were now one in so many of their thoughts and views?

It was natural that his deepening regard should tinge his manner, yet Mara dreamed of nothing beyond the affection which she was glad to receive from him. Vigilant eyes, however, were following Captain Bodine, and Clancy, with a lover's jealous intuition, was guessing his rival's thoughts and intentions more clearly every day. He did not adopt any system of espionage, nor did he ask questions of any one, but merely took occasion to walk on the Battery at an hour when it was most frequented. Here he often saw Mara and the veteran enjoying the cool sunset hour, and sometimes he observed that Mara saw him. So far from shunning such observation, he not infrequently compelled her recognition, which was always coldly bestowed upon her part.

"It would seem that Mr. Clancy is more inclined to be friendly than you are," Bodine remarked one evening.

"Before Mr. Clancy valued Northern friends more than Southern ones we were friendly," was Mara's quiet reply. She had schooled herself now into outward self-control, but she chafed at his presence, and thought he happened to be near her too frequently. Still it was ever will versus heart, for the latter always acknowledged him as master.

He was satisfied that his impressions in regard to Bodine were correct, and was impelled by his love to make an effort to save her from drifting into relations which he believed must inevitably destroy her chance for happiness. His strong, keen mind had analyzed her every word, tone, and varying expression, and he had become quite sure that her bearing toward him was not the result of indifference, but was rather due to pride, and a resolute purpose not to yield to him unless he adopted her views. He also understood her sufficiently well to dread lest a morbid sense of loyalty to her father's memory might lead her to accept his friend and old companion in arms.

"Her immediate associates would encourage the idea," he thought, "and there are none to advise or warn her except myself. She is morbid and unbalanced enough to commit just such a fatal error. Her bringing up, and all the influence of that warped Mrs. Hunter, would lead her to sacrifice herself to the manes of her ancestors. Yet how can I warn her--how can I reach her except I write? I wish to look into her eyes when I speak. I wish to plead with her with all the power that I possibly possess. Great Heaven! if this that I fear should happen, what an awakening she might have when it was too late!"

At last he resolved on the simplest and most straightforward course, and wrote--

"MARA--Will you grant me one more interview--the last, unless you freely concede others. I have something important to say to you, something that relates far more to your happiness than to my own. In excuse for my request, I have nothing better to plead than my love which you have rejected, and yet which entitles me to some consideration. I think my motive is unselfish--as unselfish as can be possible under the circumstances. You may treat me as you please, but your welfare will always be dear to me. I shall not seek to change your convictions, nor shall I plead for myself, for I know that all this would be useless; but I wish to see you face to face once more alone in your own home. I must also request that Mrs. Hunter will not interfere with our interview. You are not a child, and you know that I am a gentleman, and that I am incapable of saying a word at variance with my profound respect for you. OWEN CLANCY."

Mara was deeply agitated by this missive. Her first emotion was that of anger, as much at herself as at him--a confused resentment that his words, his very handwriting, should so move her, and that he should venture to write at all. Had she not made it sufficiently plain that he had no right to take, or, at least, to manifest any such interest in her affairs? Were all her efforts futile to hide her love? In spite of her habit of reserve and repression she had a passionate heart, and this fact had been forced upon her by vain and continuous struggles. Had he the penetration to learn the truth? She could not tell, and this uncertainty touched her pride to the very quick. After hours of wavering purpose, impulses to ignore him and his request, moments of tenderness in which will, pride, and every consideration were almost overwhelmed, she at last arrived at a fixed resolution. "I will see him," she murmured. "He has virtually told me that he will not give up what he terms his principles for love. I shall not acknowledge my secret, but if he has discovered it, he shall learn that I also will not give up my principles for love."

The next morning she quietly handed Clancy's note to Mrs. Hunter.

"Shameful!" ejaculated the lady. "Of course you will pay no attention to him, or else write a curt refusal. I insist on one course or the other."

Mara looked steadfastly at her aunt until the worthy lady was somewhat disconcerted, and asked fretfully, "What do you mean by that look, Mara?"

"Aunty, can't you realize that I am no longer a child, as he says?"

"Well, but in a case like this--"

"In a case like this which concerns me so personally, I must act according to my own judgment. You can be in the adjoining room. Indeed I have no objection to your hearing what is said, but I would rather you should not. You have no occasion to fear. Mr. Clancy has alienated me forever. I have no doubt that before the summer is over he will be engaged to Miss Ainsley, if he is not already engaged virtually. I have reasons for granting this final interview which are personal--which my self-respect requires, and, since they are personal, I need not mention them. There shall be no want of respect and affection for you, aunty, but you must realize that I have become an independent woman, and I have the entire right to decide certain questions for myself."

"Well, I wash my hands of it all," said Mrs. Hunter, coldly, "and since my strong convictions have no weight with you, and you intend to act independently of me, of course I shall not permit myself to hear a word of your conversation."

"That will be the more delicate and honorable course, aunty."

"Well, Mara, I only wish I need not be in the house at the time."

"Aunty, that is the same as saying that your enmity toward Mr. Clancy is greater than your love for me."

"But I don't see the use of this intensely disagreeable interview. This is the only home I have."

"And the only home I have also, aunty."

"Oh, well, if you will, you will, I reckon."

"Yes, if I will, I will, and Mr. Clancy shall learn that I have a will."

As Aun' Sheba was departing that morning, Mara followed her into the hallway, and, placing a note in her hand, said, "Give that to Mr. Clancy and to no other. Say nothing to him or to any one else. Do you understand, Aun' Sheba?"

"I does, honey. Wen you talk dataway you'se heah an eyster shoutin' 'fore Aun' Sheba speak."

Clancy only said, "Thank you," as he thrust a half-dollar into the old woman's hand.

Aun' Sheba laid it on the desk, and remarked with great dignity, "I does some tings widout money."

He paid no heed to her, but read eagerly, "Mr. Clancy--Come this evening. Mara Wallingford."

With a long breath he thought, "It will be my last chance. I fear it will be useless, but at no future day shall she think in bitterness of heart, 'He might have done more to save me.'"

There was no sudden, involuntary illumination of her face on this occasion when he entered her little parlor, and she could not help noticing that his face was pale. She also saw from his expression that his spirit was as high as hers; that there was not a trace of the lover, eager to plead his cause. "He has pleaded successfully elsewhere," she thought, and, in spite of all other conflicting feelings, she was curious to know what his motive could be in seeking the interview.

"Good-evening, Mr. Clancy. Will you sit down?" she said, coldly.

"Yes, Mara. Pardon me for calling you Mara. I am beyond any affectation of formality with you, and you know there is no lack of respect on my part."

She merely bowed and waited in silence.

"When you learn my motive for making my request, for coming here to-night, you will probably resent it, but you have taught me to expect little else except resentment from you."

"Mr. Clancy, there is no cause for such language. Certainly I was quietly pursuing the even tenor of my way."

"Do you understand fully whither that way is leading?"

"Truly, Mr. Clancy, that is a singular question for you to ask."

"I understand you, Mara. You mean that it is no affair of mine."

He knew that her silence gave assent to this view, and he answered as if she had spoken.

"Nevertheless you are mistaken. It is an affair of mine. There could be no peace for me in the future if I failed you now, for it seems to me I am the only true friend you have in the world."

"Mr. Clancy," she said hotly, "we have differed so greatly before that I might have been saved the pain of this interview, but we never differed as we do at this moment. I cannot listen to you any longer. It would be disloyalty to those who are true friends--friends that I love and honor."

"Do you love Captain Bodine?"

"Certainly I do. He was my father's friend; he is my honored friend."

"Do you love Captain Bodine?"

"What do you mean?" she asked angrily, flushing to her very brow.

"Mara, be calm. Listen to me as you value your life, as you value your own soul. Do you think I would come here for slight cause at such cost to us both?"

"I think you are strangely mistaken in coming here, and using language which makes me doubt your sanity."

"Please do me the justice to note that there is nothing wild in my manner, nor any excitement in my words."

"Noting this, I find it more difficult to explain your course, or to pardon it."

"It is not necessary at present, that you should do either. Please be patient a few minutes longer and my mission is ended. I am not pleading for myself, but for you. Please listen, or a time may come when in a bitterness beyond words you may regret that you did not hear me. Thank Heaven! it is clear that I have not come too late. Captain Bodine is more than your friend in his feelings; he is your lover, and you are so morbid, unfriended, unguided, that you are capable of sacrificing yourself--"

"Hush! you are wronging a man whom you are unworthy to name. He has never dreamed of such love as you suggest."

"I am right. Oh, I have learned too deeply in the school of experience not to know. My warning may be of no avail, but you shall not drift unawares into this thing, you shall not enter into it, nor be persuaded into it from a false spirit of self-sacrifice--"

"Mr. Clancy, I will not listen a moment longer to such preposterous language. You are passing far beyond the limits of my forbearance. If your conscience is burdened on my account because I am so 'unfriended,' I absolve you fully. You will and do know how to console yourself. Our interview must end here and now. It were disloyalty for me to listen a moment longer. We are strangers from this day forth, Mr. Clancy." And she rose flushed and trembling.

He also rose, and with an intent look which held her gaze, said gently: "There is that which will speak although I am banished."

"What?"

"Your heart."

"If it broke a thousand times I will not speak to you again," she cried passionately. "Even if you were right it would be ignoble to suggest such a thing. Truly your associations have led you far from the promise of your youth."

"I have not said that your heart would plead for me," he replied sternly. "But it will plead against all that is unnatural, contrary to your young girlhood, contrary to the true, right instincts which God has created. You may seek to stifle its voice, but you cannot. When you are alone it will tell you, like the still small voice of God, that your obdurate will is wrong, that your narrow prejudices and morbid memories are all wrong and vain;--it will tell you that you cannot become the wife of this man, who would sacrifice you as a solace to his remaining years, without wrecking your happiness for life. Farewell, Mara Wallingford. There is one thing you can never forget--that I warned you."

He bowed low and departed immediately.