Chapter XXV. Feminine Friends
 

Mrs. Willoughby was a woman of the world, yet in no bad sense. Indeed, beneath the veneer of fashionable life she possessed much kindliness of nature. She was capable of a good deal of cynicism toward those who she said "ought to be able to take care of themselves," and in this category she placed Clancy and Miss Ainsley. "I shall leave both to paddle their own canoes," she had said to herself.

Looking kindly at Houghton, who seemed to have lost his volubility, and waited for her to speak again, she thought: "If this young fellow was infatuated with Caroline I'd warn him quick enough." With the astuteness of a matron she merely remarked: "You seem greatly pleased with my little friend, Miss Bodine. You must not trifle with her, if she is poor, for she comes of one of the best families in the State."

"Trifle with Miss Bodine! What do you take me for, Mrs. Willoughby?" and he rose indignantly.

"There, now, sit down, my friend. I only said that so you might reveal how sincere you are, and I won't use any more diplomacy with you."

"I hope not," he replied laughing grimly. "You ought to know, what I am fast finding out, that a young fellow, like me, can no more understand a woman, unless she is frank, than he can Choctaw."

Mrs. Willoughby laughed heartily, and said: "I'll be frank with you, if you will be so with me."

"Then tell me why I am treated by so many in your set as if I had overrun the South with fire and sword?"

His first question proved that she could not be frank, for in order to give an adequate explanation she would have to reveal to him his father's animus and the hostility it evoked. She temporized by saying: "I do not so treat you, and surely Miss Bodine seemed to enjoy your conversation."

"I'm not so sure of that. At any rate she said she would have to ostracize me like the rest."

"She was kind in telling you that she would have to do so. She certainly bears you no ill-will."

"She probably does not care enough about me yet to do that. The worst of it is that I shall have no chance. Her father objects to her having anything to do with me, and that blocks everything. Even if I were capable of seeking a clandestine acquaintance, she is not. She is a thoroughly good girl; she doesn't know how to be deceitful."

"I'm glad you appreciate her so truly."

"I'd be a donkey if I didn't."

"Well, don't be unwise in your future action."

"What action can I take?" and he looked at her almost imploringly. A young man of his age is usually very ready to make a confidante of a married woman older than himself, yet young enough to sympathize with him in affairs of the heart. Houghton instinctively felt that the case might not be utterly hopeless if he could secure an ally in Mrs. Willoughby, for he recognized her tact, and believed that she was friendly. He promptly determined therefore to seek and to take her advice.

She looked at him searchingly as she said: "Perhaps it would be best not to take any action at all. If Miss Bodine has made only a passing and pleasant impression, and you merely desire to secure another agreeable acquaintance you had better stop where you are. It will save you much annoyance, and, what is of far more consequence, may keep her from real trouble. As you suggest, you cannot do anything in an underhand way. If you attempted it, you would lose her respect instantly, your own also. She idolizes her father, and will not act contrary to his wishes. Why not let the matter drop where it is?"

"Can't take any such advice as that," he replied, shaking his head resolutely.

"Why not?"

"Oh, confound it! Suppose some one, years ago, had advised Mr. Willoughby in such style."

"Is it as serious as that?"

He passed his hand in perplexity over his brow. "Mrs. Willoughby," he burst out, "I'm in deep water. 'I reckon,' as you say here, you understand me better than I do myself. I only know that I'd face all creation for the sake of that girl, yet what you say about making her trouble, staggers me. I'm in sore perplexity, and don't know what to do."

"Will you take my advice?"

"Yes, I will, as long as I believe you are my honest friend, as long as I can."

"Well, you won't try to see Ella before you have consulted me?"

"I promise that."

"Don't do anything at present Think the matter over quietly and conscientiously. I'm sorry I must make one other suggestion. I fear your father would be as much opposed to all this as Captain Bodine himself."

"I think not. My father is not so stern as he seems. At least he is not stern to me, and he has let me spend more money than my neck's worth. I fancy he is well disposed toward Captain Bodine, for he has given him employment. I asked the old gentleman about it one day, but he changed the subject. He wouldn't have employed the captain, however, unless he was interested in him some way."

"Why wouldn't he?"

"Oh, well, he naturally prefers to have Northerners about him."

"Will you permit me to be a little more frank than I have been?"

"I supposed you were going to be altogether frank."

"For fear of hurting your feelings I have not been. Your father is not friendly to us, and we reciprocate. This makes it harder for you."

Houghton thought in silence for a few moments, and then said: "You should make allowance for an old man, half heart-broken by the death of his oldest son, drowned in the bay there."

"I do; so would others, if he were not vindictive, if he did not use his great financial strength against us."

"I don't think he does this, certainly not to my knowledge. He only seeks to make all he can, like other business men."

"Mr. Houghton, you haven't been very much in Charleston. Even your vacations have been spent mainly elsewhere, I think, and your mind has been occupied with your studies and athletics. You are more familiar with Greek and Roman history than with ours, and you cannot understand the feelings of persons like Captain Bodine and his cousin, old Mrs. Bodine, who passed through the agony of the war, and lost nearly everything--kindred, property, and what they deem liberty. You cannot understand your own father, who lost his son. You think of the present and future."

Houghton again sighed deeply as he said: "I admit the force of all you say. I certainly cannot feel as they do, nor perhaps understand them." Then he added: "I wouldn't if I could. Why should I tie the millstone of the past about my neck?"

"You should not do so; but you must make allowance for those to whom that past is more than the present or future can be."

"Why can't they forgive and forget, as far as possible, as you do?"

"Because people are differently constituted. Besides, young man, I am not old enough to be your grandmother. I was very young at the time of the war, and have not suffered as have others."

"Grandmother, indeed! I should think that Mr. Willoughby would fall in love with you every day."

"The grand passion has a rather prominent place in your thoughts just now. Some day you will be like Mr. Willoughby, and cotton, stocks, or their equivalents, will take a very large share of your thoughts."

"Well, that day hasn't come yet. Even the wise man said there was a time for all things. How long must my probation last before I can come back for more advice?"

"A week, at least"

"Phew!"

"You must think it all over, as I said before, calmly and conscientiously. I have tried to enable you to see the subject on all its sides, and I tell you again that you may find just as much opposition from your father as from Captain Bodine. He may have very different plans for you. Ella Bodine has nothing but her own good heart to give you, supposing you were able to persuade her to give that much."

"That much would enrich me forever."

"Your father wouldn't see it in that light. He may call her that designing little baker."

"I hope he won't for God's sake. I never said a hot word to my father."

"Never do so, then. If you lose your temper, all is lost. But we are anticipating. Sober, second thoughts may lead you to save yourself and others a world of trouble."

"Oh! I've had second thoughts before. Good-by. At this hour, one week hence;" and he shook hands heartily.

A moment later, he came rushing back from the hall, exclaiming: "There! See, what a blunderbuss I am! I forgot to thank you, which I do, with all my heart."

"Ah!" sighed the mature woman, as her guest finally departed, "I'd take all his pains for the possibilities of his joys."

Ella had not been mistaken in thinking that she detected a trace of recklessness in Clancy's manner. He had been compelled to believe that Mara was in truth lost to him; that her will and pride would prove stronger than her heart. Indeed, he went so far as to believe that her heart, as far as he was concerned, was not giving her very much trouble.

"I fear she has become so morbid and warped by the malign influences that have surrounded her from infancy," he had thought, "that she cannot love as I love. My best hope now is, that when Bodine begins to show his game more clearly, she will remember my words. It's horrible to think that she may develop into a woman like Mrs. Hunter. Until this evening, I have always believed there was a sweet, womanly soul imprisoned in her bosom, but now I don't know what to think. I'll go off to the mountains on the pretence of a fishing excursion, and get my balance again."

The following morning had been spent in preparations, and the afternoon, as we have seen, found him at Mrs. Willoughby's. His sore heart and bitter mood were solaced by Miss Ainsley's unmistakable welcome. He knew he did not care for her in any deep and lasting sense, and he much doubted whether her interest in him was greater than that which she had bestowed upon others in the past. But she diverted his thoughts, flattered the self-love which Mara had wounded so ruthlessly, and above all fascinated him by her peculiar beauty and intellectual brilliancy.

"Why are you going away?" she asked reproachfully, when they were seated on the balcony.

"Oh, I've been working hard. I'm going off to the mountains to fish and rest."

"I hope you'll catch cold, and come back again soon."

"What a disinterested friend!"

"You are thinking only of yourself; why shouldn't I do likewise?"

"No, I'm thinking of you."

"Of course, at this minute. You'd be apt to think of a lamp-post if you were looking at it."

"Please don't put out the sunshine with your brilliancy."

"Ironical, too! What is the matter to-day?"

"What penetration! Reveal your intuitions. Have I failed in business, or been crossed in love?"

"The latter, I fancy."

"Well, then, how can I better recover peace of mind and serenity than by going a-fishing? You know what Izaak Walton says--"

"Oh, spare me, please, that ancient worthy! You are as cold-blooded as any fish that you'll catch. If I find it stupid in Charleston I'll go North."

"That threat shakes my very soul. I promise to come back in a week or ten days."

"Or a month or so," she added, looking hurt.

"Come, my good friend," he said, laughing. "We're too good fellows, as you wished we should be, to pretend to any forlornness over a parting of this kind. You will sleep as sweetly and dreamlessly as if you had never seen Owen Clancy, and I will write you a letter, such as a man would write to a man, telling you of my adventures. If I don't meet any I'll bring some about--get shot by the moonlighters, save a mountain maid from drowning in a trout pool, or fall into the embrace of a black bear."

"The mountain maid, you mean."

"Did I? Well, your penetration passes bounds."

"You may go, if you will write the letter. There must be no dime-novel stories in it, no drawing on your imagination. It shall be your task to make interesting just what you see and do."

"Please add the twelve labors of Hercules."

"No trifling. I'm in earnest, and put you on your mettle in regard to that letter. Unless you do your best, your friendship is all a pretence. And remember what you said about its being a letter to a man. If you begin in a conventional way, as if writing to a lady, I'll burn it without reading."

"Agreed. Good-by, old fellow--beg pardon, Miss Ainsley."

She laughed and said, "I like that; good-by." And she gave him a warm, soft hand, in a rather lingering clasp.

When he was gone she murmured softly, "Yes, he has a chance."