Chapter XXIV. "The Idea!"
 

Mara was not the kind of girl that faints or goes into hysterics. The spirit of her father was aroused to the last degree. She felt that she had been arraigned and condemned by one who had no right to do either; that all the cherished traditions of her life had been trampled upon; that her father's loved companion-in-arms, and her dear friend, had been insulted. Even wise, saintly Mrs. Bodine, her genial counsellor, had been ignored. "Was there ever such monstrous assumption!" she cried, as she paced back and forth with clinched hands.

She soon heard the step of Mrs. Hunter, and became outwardly calm.

"Well?" said her aunt.

"He won't come again, nor shall I speak to him again. Let these facts content you, aunty."

"That much at least is satisfactory," said Mrs. Hunter, "but I think it was a wretched mistake to see him at all."

"It was not a mistake, for he has revealed the depths into which a man can sink who adopts his course. I have some respect for an out-and-out Northerner, brought up as such; but it does seem that when a man turns traitor, as it were, he goes to greater lengths than those whose camp he joins. He suspects those who are too noble for him to understand."

"Whom does Mr. Clancy suspect?"

"Oh, all of us. He came to advise me as an unprotected, unfriended, unguided girl."

"Was there ever such impudence on the face of the earth!"

Mara sank exhausted into a chair in the inevitable reaction from her strong excitement.

"Aunty, it is all over, and we shall not meet again except as strangers. Never say a word of his coming, of this interview, to any one. It is my affair, and I wish to forget it as far as possible."

"You know I'm not a gossip, Mara, about family matters, especially disagreeable matters. Well, perhaps it will turn out for the best, since you have broken with him entirely. It always made me angry that he should continue to speak to you, and even sit down and talk to you at an evening company, when you could not repulse him without arresting the attention of every one."

"Good-night, aunty. All that is over."

"Mara, you must take an opiate to-night."

"Yes; give me something to make me sleep, that will bring oblivion for at least to-night. I must be ready for my work in the morning. It won't take me long now to attain self-control."

"Mara," cried Ella the next day, "you look positively ill. I wish you could take a rest. Suppose we shut up shop for a while, and hang out a sign, 'closed for repairs.'"

"No, Ella. I can stand it, if you can, till August, and then we will take a month's rest. I wasn't very well last night, but I have found a remedy which is going to help me, and I shall be better."

Ella took the surface meaning of these words, and, being preoccupied with her own thoughts, remained, as well as Mara, rather silent that morning. Although she assured herself more than once that George Houghton was "nothing to her," she found herself thinking a great deal about him, and what she termed "their droll experiences." Prone to take a mirthful view of everything, she often laughed over the whole affair, and it grew rather than lost in interest with time. It was the first real adventure of her girlhood, and he was the first man who had retained more than a transient place in her thoughts. Feeling that their acquaintance had come about through no fault of hers, she was disposed to get all the fun possible out of what had occurred.

The morning was warm, and she was working in charming dishabille. Dressed in light summer costume, thrown open at her throat, and with sleeves rolled to her shoulders, she appeared a veritable Hebe. Her bright, golden, fluffy hair was gathered carelessly into a Grecian knot, and her flushed face received more than one flour-mark as she impatiently brushed away the flies. Seeing her smiling to herself so often, Mara envied her, but made no comment. At last the girl broke into a ringing laugh.

"What is amusing you so greatly?" Mara asked.

"I can't get over that party at Mrs. Willoughby's. It was all so irresistibly comical. Cousin Sophy thinks she has a genius for choosing chaperons, and so she has, but fate is too strong for men and gods, not to mention saintly and secluded old ladies. I had scarcely more than entered the drawing-room, and taken my bearings, as cousin would say, when the worst Vandal of the lot is marched up to me, and I--green little girl--thought I must be polite to him and every one else. When I think of it all, I see that my chaperon was like a distressed hen with a duckling that would go into the water. Without any effort of mine, that great Goth, Mr. Houghton, submitted himself to my inspection, and instead of being horrified, I have been laughing at him ever since. He struck me as an exceedingly harmless creature, with large capabilities for blundering. He would not step on a fly maliciously, yet poor Mrs. Robertson acted as if I were near an ogre who might devour me at a mouthful. How she did manoeuvre to keep that big fellow away! and what a homily she gave me on our way home! It all seems so absurd. I wish papa would not take such things so seriously, for I can't see any harm in making sport of the Philistines."

"Making sport for the Philistines--that is what your father and what we all object to. This young Houghton would very gladly amuse himself at your expense."

"I'd like to see him try it," said Ella defiantly. "I'd turn the tables on him so quickly as to take away his breath."

"Oh, Ella! why do you think about such people at all?"

"Because they amuse me. What's the harm in thinking about him in my jolly way? There's nothing bad about him. His worst crimes are, that he is comical and the son of his father."

"How do you know there's nothing bad about him?"

"For the same reason that I distrust Miss Ainsley. Each makes an impression which I believe is correct."

"Well, well, Ella," said Mara, a little impatiently, "laugh it out and have done with him. For all our sakes, please have nothing more to do with such people."

"I haven't sought 'such people,'" replied Ella, with a shrug; "but I tell you, Mara, I'm not going through life with my eyes shut, nor am I going to look through a pair of blue spectacles. See here, sweetheart, what did God give me eyes for? What did he give me a brain for? To see through some one else's eyes? to think with the brain of another? No, indeed; that's contrary to such reason and common-sense as I possess."

"You certainly will be guided by your father?"

"Yes, yes, indeed, in all that pertains to his welfare and happiness. I could die for him this minute, and would if it were required. But there are things which I cannot do for him or any one. I cannot ignore my own conscience and sense of right. I cannot think his thoughts any more than he can think mine. You dear, melancholy little goose, don't you know that God never rolls two people into one, even after they are married? They are, or should be, one in a vital sense, yet they are different, independent beings, and were made so. I'd like to know of any one in this town more bent upon having her own way than you."

Mara was silent, for Ella had a way of putting things which disturbed her.

"Cousin Sophy," said Ella in the afternoon, "hasn't the proper time come for me to make my party call on Mrs. Willoughby? You are my Mentor in all that relates to etiquette, and that giddy fraction of the world termed society."

"Well, yes," said the old lady, "I suppose it is time. In the case of Mrs. Willoughby it will be little more than a formality, for she is an acquaintance you will not care to cultivate. You may be lucky enough to find her out, and then your card will answer all the purposes of a call."

"Oh, I know that much, cousin, if I am from the wilds of the interior; but if she is in, I suppose I should sit down and talk about the weather a little while."

"Go along, you saucy puss. Tell her how shocked you were to see old Houghton's son in her parlors."

"Well, I was at first. Bah! cousin, he's a great big boy, and doesn't know any more than I do about some things."

"Well added. Tell her, then, we have enough Southern gentlemen remaining, and there is no necessity of inviting big Northern hobble-de-hoys."

"Oh! I didn't mean that, cousin. Be fair now. He was gentlemanly enough, as much so as the rest of them, but he was young and giddy, like myself, just as you used to be and are now sometimes;" and she stopped the old lady's mouth with kisses, then ran to dress for the street.

The kitchen Hebe of the morning was soon metamorphosed into a very charmingly costumed young woman.

Even Miss Ainsley was compelled to recognize the lovely and harmonious effect, although it did not bear the latest brand of fashion, or represent costly expenditure.

Both she and Mrs. Willoughby were pleased as Ella stepped lightly into the back parlor, and the young girl congratulated herself that she had come so opportunely, for they were evidently expecting visits like her own.

One and another dropped in until Mrs. Willoughby was entertaining three or four in the front parlor. Miss Ainsley remained chatting with Ella, who felt that the Northern girl's remarks were largely tentative, evincing a wish to draw her out. Shrewd Ella soon began to generalize to such a degree that Miss Ainsley thought, "You are no fool," and had a growing respect for the "little baker," as she had termed the young girl.

Then Clancy appeared, and Ella was forgotten, but she saw the same unmistakable welcome which from some women would mean all that a lover could desire. Ella thought that a slight expression of vexation crossed his brow as he recognized in her Mara's partner and friend, but he spoke to her politely and even cordially. Indeed, no one could do otherwise, for her face would propitiate an ogre. She thought there was a spice of recklessness in Clancy's manner, and she heard him remark to Miss Ainsley that he had come to say good-by for a short time. That young woman led the way to the balcony and began to expostulate; and then Ella's attention was riveted on a tall young fellow, who was shaking hands with Mrs. Willoughby.

"Good gracious!" she thought, "what can I do if he sees me? How can I 'shake off and avoid' in this back parlor? I can't make a bolt for the front door or sneak out of the back door; I can't sit here like a graven image if he comes--"

"Miss Bodine! Well, I'm lucky for once in my ill-fated life."

"Oh! I beg your pardon," remarked Ella, turning from the window, out of which she had apparently been gazing with intense preoccupation. "Good-afternoon, Mr. Houghton." But he held out his hand with such imperative cordiality that she had to take it. Then he drew up a chair to the corner of the sofa on which she sat and placed it in a way that barred approach or egress. "Oh, shade of Mrs. Hunter!" she groaned inwardly, "what can I do? I'm fairly surrounded--all avenues of retreat cut off. I must face the enemy and fight."

"I knew the chance would come for us to get acquainted," said Houghton, settling himself complacently in the great armchair, "but I had scarcely hoped for such a happy opportunity as this so soon."

"I must go in a few minutes," she remarked demurely. "I have been here some time."

"Miss Bodine, you are not capable of such cruelty. You know it is very early yet."

"I thought you came to call on Mrs. Willoughby?"

"So I did, and I have called on her. See her talking ancient history to those dowagers yonder. What a figure I'd cut in that group."

She laughed outright, as much from nervous trepidation as at the comical idea suggested, and was in an inward rage that she did so, for she had intended to be so dignified and cool as to depress and discourage the "objectionable person" who hedged her in.

"What a jolly, infectious laugh you have!" he resumed. "To be able to laugh well is a rare accomplishment. Some snicker, others giggle, chuckle, cackle, make all sorts of disagreeable noises, but a natural, merry, musical laugh-Miss Bodine, I congratulate you, and myself also, that I happened in this blessed afternoon to hear it. And that terrible chaperon of yours isn't here either. How she frowned on me the other evening as if I were a wolf in the fold," and the young man broke into a clear ringing laugh at the recollection.

Ella was laughing with him in spite of herself. Indeed the more she tried to be grave and severe the more impossible it became.

"Mr. Houghton," she managed to say at last, "will you do me a favor?"

"Scores of them."

"Then stop making me laugh. I don't wish to laugh."

His face instantly assumed such portentous and awful gravity that he set her off again to such a degree that the dowagers in the other room looked at her rebukingly. It was bad enough, they thought, that she should talk to old Houghton's son at all, but to show such unbecoming levity-well, it was not what they would "expect of a Bodine." Ella saw their disapproval, and felt she was losing her self-control. The warnings she had received against her companion embarrassed her, and banished the power to be her natural self.

"Please don't," she gasped, "or I shall go at once. I asked a favor."

"Pardon me, Miss Bodine," he now said in a tone and manner which quieted her nerves at once. "I have blundered again, but I was so happy to think that I had met you here. I am not wholly a rattle-brain. What would you like to talk about?" and he looked so kindly and eager to please her that she cast down her eyes and contracted her brow in deepest perplexity.

"Truly, Mr. Houghton, I should be on my way homeward, and you have so hedged me in that I cannot escape."

"Is running away from me escaping?"

"I don't like that phrase 'running away.'"

"Yet that is what you propose to do."

"Oh, no, I shall take my departure in a very composed and dignified manner."

His face had the expression of almost boyish distress. "You find on further thought that you cannot forgive me?" he asked sadly.

"Did I not say that was all explained and settled? Southern girls are not fickle or false to their word." And she managed to assume an aspect of great dignity. "If I do not shake him off in the next few minutes I'm lost," she thought.

"I've offended you again," he said anxiously.

She took refuge in silence.

"Miss Bodine, I ask your pardon. You know I can't do more than that, or if I can, tell me what. I wish to please you very much."

The girl was at her wit's end, for his ingenuous expression emphasized the truth of his words. "There is no reason why you should please me," she began coolly, and then knew not how to proceed.

"Let us be frank with each other," he resumed earnestly. "We are too young yet to indulge in society lies. When a man apologizes at the North he is forgiven. I have been told that Southerners are a generous, warm-hearted people. In their cool treatment of me they counteract the climate. Are you, too, going to ostracize me?"

"I fear I shall have to," she replied faintly.

"Of your own free will?"

"No, indeed."

His heart gave a great throb of joy, but he had the sense to conceal his gladness. He only said quietly, "Well, I'm glad that you at least do not detest me."

"Why should I detest you, Mr. Houghton?"

"I'm sure I don't know why any one should. I have never harmed any one in this town that I know of."

She knew not how to answer, for she could not reflect upon his father.

"I don't care about others, but your case."

"Truly, Mr. Houghton," she began hastily, "this is a large city. A few impoverished Southern people are nothing to you."

"I was not thinking of Southern people," he replied gravely. "You said a moment since you saw no reason why I should try to please you. Am I to blame if you have inspired many reasons? I know you better than any girl in the world. You revealed your very self in a moment of danger to me as you thought. I saw that you were good and brave--that you possess just the qualities that I most respect and admire in a woman. Every moment I am with you confirms this belief. Why should I not wish to please you, to become your friend? I know I should be the better in every respect if you were my friend."

She shook her head, but did not venture to look at him.

"You believe I am sincere, Miss Bodine. You cannot think I am sentimental or flirtatious. I would no more do you wrong, even in my thoughts, than I would think evil of my dead mother. You are mirthful in your nature; so am I, but I do not think that either of us is shallow or silly. If I am personally disagreeable, that ends everything, but how can a man secure the esteem and friendly regard of a woman, when he covets these supremely, unless he speaks and reveals his feelings?"

"You are talking wildly, Mr. Houghton," said Ella, with averted face. "We have scarcely more than met."

"You would lead me to think that you Southern people are tenfold colder and more deliberate than we of the North. You may not have thought of me since we met, but I have thought of you constantly. I could not help it."

Ella felt that she must escape now as if for her life, and, summoning all her faculties and resolution, she said, looking him in the eyes, "I've no doubt, Mr. Houghton, you think you are sincere in your words at this moment, but you may soon wonder that you spoke such hasty words."

"In proving you mistaken, time will be my ally."

"You have asked me to be frank," she resumed. "In justice to you and myself I feel that I must be so. I do not share in the prejudices, if you prefer that word, of my father, but I must be governed by his wishes. I trust that you will not ask me to say more. Won't you please let me go now? See, the last guests are leaving."

"Tell me one thing," he pleaded eagerly as he rose. "I am not personally disagreeable to you?"

"The idea of my telling you anything of the kind!" and there was a flash of mirthfulness in her face which left him in a most tormenting state of uncertainty. A moment later she had shaken hands with Mrs. Willoughby, and was gone.

He stood looking after her, half-dazed by his conflicting feelings. Turning, Mrs. Willoughby saw and understood him at once. She came to his side and said kindly, "Sit down, Mr. Houghton, I've not had a chance to talk with you yet."

With an involuntary sigh he complied.