Chapter XXVI. Ella's Crumb of Comfort

Ella walked up Meeting Street in a frame of mind differing widely from the complacent mood in which she sought Mrs. Willoughby's residence. The unexpected had again happened, and to her it seemed so strange, so very remarkable, that she should have met Mr. Houghton once more without the slightest intention, or even expectation, on her part, that she was perplexed and troubled. What did it mean?

In matters purely personal, and related closely to our own interests, we are prone to give almost a superstitious significance to events which come about naturally enough. It was not at all strange that Houghton should have been strongly and agreeably impressed by Ella from the first; and that he should happen to call at the same hour that she did, would have been regarded by her as a very ordinary coincidence, had not the case been her own. Since it was her own, she was almost awed by the portentous interview from which she had just escaped. The inexperienced girl found her cherished ideas in respect to young Houghton completely at fault. She had sighed that she could not meet him without restraint or embarrassment, for, as she had assured herself, "It would be such fun." She had supposed that she could laugh at him and with him indefinitely--that he would be a source of infinite jest and amusement. He had banished all these illusions in a few brief moments. How could she make sport of a man who had coupled her name with that of his dead mother? His every glance, word, and tone expressed sincere respect and admiration, and, she had to admit to herself, something more. She was so sincere herself, so unsullied, so lacking in the callousness often resulting from much contact with the world, that it seemed to her that it would be a profanation henceforth to regard him as the butt of even the innocent ridicule of which she was capable. Yet in all her perplexity and trouble there was a confused exhilaration and a glad sense of power.

"To think that I, little Ella Bodine, a baker by trade," she thought, "should have inspired that big fellow to talk as he did! He is apology embodied, and seems far more afraid of me than he was of that great bully on the street." And she bent her head to conceal a laugh of exultation.

Then she remembered her father, and her face grew troubled. "I shall have to tell him," she murmured, "and then the old scene will be enacted over again. A plague on that old shadow of the war! If I were a man I'd fight it out and then shake hands."

Soon after reaching home she heard her father's crutches on the sidewalk, and ran down to meet him. In accordance with her custom, she took away one crutch, and supported him to a chair in the parlor. He kissed her fondly, and remarked, "You look a little pale, Ella."

"I feel pale, papa. I've something to tell you, and you must listen patiently and sensibly. I've met Mr. Houghton again."

The veteran's face darkened instantly, but he waited till she explained further.

"Now see how you begin to look," she resumed. "You are judging me already. You can't be even fair to your own child."

"It would rather seem that you are judging me, Ella."

"Oh, bother it all!" she exclaimed. "I wish I could be simple and natural in this affair, for I was so embarrassed and constrained that I fear I acted like a fool. Well, I'll tell you how it happened. After lunch I asked Cousin Sophy if it was not time for me to make my party call on Mrs. Willoughby, and she said it was. I found that Mrs. Willoughby was expecting callers. We chatted a few minutes, and then others came, Mr. Houghton among them. I no more expected to meet him than I expected to meet you there. After shaking hands with Mrs. Willoughby he came to me in the back parlor instantly, and drew up a chair so that I could not escape unless I jumped over him. He began with such funny speeches that I got laughing, as much from nervousness as anything else, for I'd been so warned against him that I couldn't be myself."

"You shall not go to Mrs. Willoughby's again," said her father, decidedly.

"Now please listen till I'm all through. He soon saw that I did not want to laugh, and stopped his nonsense. He wanted to become acquainted, friendly, you know; and finally I had to tell him that it couldn't be--that I must be governed by your wishes."

"Ah, that was my dear, good, sensible girl!"

"No, papa, I don't feel sensible at all. On the contrary, I have a mean, absurd feeling--just as if I had gone to Mrs. Willoughby's and slapped a child because it was a Northern child."

He laughed at this remark, for she unconsciously gave the impression that she had been more repellant than had actually been true. He soon checked himself, however, and said gravely, "Ella, you take these things too seriously."

"No, papa, it seems to me that it is you and Cousin and Mara who take these things too seriously. What harm has that young fellow ever done any of us?"

"He could do me an immense deal of harm if you gave him your thoughts, and became even friendly. I should be exceedingly unhappy."

"Oh, well! that isn't possible--I mean, that we should become friendly. I certainly won't permit him to speak to me in the streets, although I spoke to him once in the street. Oh, I'm going to tell you everything now!" and she related the circumstances of her first meeting with Houghton.

"All this is very painful to me," her father said, with clouded brow. "But, as you say, it has come about without intention on your part. I am glad you have told me everything, for now I can better guard you from future mischances. My relations to this young man's father are such that it would make it very disagreeable, indeed, positively unendurable, if his son should seek your society. You should also remember that Mr. Houghton would be as bitterly hostile to any such course on his son's part as I am. Your pride, apart from my wishes, should lead you to repel the slightest advance."

"I reckon your wishes will have the most influence, papa. I have too strong a sense of justice to punish the son on account of his father."

"You cannot separate them, Ella. Think of our own relation. What touches one touches the other."

"Well, papa, it's all over, and I've told you everything. Since I'm not to go to Mrs. Willoughby's any more, there is little probability that I shall meet him again, except in the street. If he bows to me, I shall return the courtesy with quiet dignity, for he has acted like a gentleman toward me, and, for the sake of my own self-respect, I must act like a lady toward him. If he seeks to talk to me, I shall tell him it is forbidden, and that will end it, for he is too honorable to attempt anything clandestine."

"I'm not sure of that."

"I am, papa. He wouldn't be such an idiot, for he understands me well enough to know what would be the result of that kind of thing. But he isn't that kind of a man."

"How should you know what kind of a man he is?"

"Oh, Heaven has provided us poor women with intuitions!"

"True, to a certain extent, but the rule is proved by an awful lot of exceptions."

"Perhaps if they were studied out, inclinations rather than intuitions were followed."

"Well, my dear, we won't discuss these vague questions. Your duty is as simple and clear as mine is. Do as you have promised, and all will be well. I must now dress for dinner." And kissing her affectionately, he went up to his room.

She took his seat, and looked vacantly out of the window, with a vague dissatisfaction at heart. Unrecognized fully as yet, the great law of nature, which brings to each a distinct and separate existence, was beginning to operate. As she had said to Mara, vital interests were looming up, new experiences coming, of which she could no more think his thoughts than he hers.

Her face was a little clouded when she sat down to dinner, and she observed Mrs. Bodine looking at her keenly. Instinctively she sought to conceal her deeper feelings, and to become her mirthful self.

"You have not told me about your call yet," the old lady remarked.

"Well, I felt that papa should have the first recital. I met again the son of that old--ahem!--Mr. Houghton, and I have begun to ostracize him."

"Ella," said her father, almost sternly, "do not speak in that way. Our feelings are strong, sincere, and well-grounded."

"There, papa, I did not mean to reflect lightly upon them. Indeed, I was not thinking of them, but of Mr. Houghton."

"Oh, Cousin Hugh! let the child talk in her own natural way. She wouldn't scratch one of your crutches with a pin, much less hurt you."

"Forgive me, Ella," he said, "I misunderstood you."

"Yes, in the main, papa, but to be frank, I don't enjoy this ostracizing business, and I hope I won't have any more of it to do."

"There is no reason why you should. Cousin Sophy, there should be people enough in Charleston for Ella to visit without the chance of meeting Mr. Houghton, or any of his ilk."

"So there are. I'll manage that. Well, Ella, how did you set about ostracizing young Houghton?" And the old lady began to laugh.

"It's no laughing matter," said Ella, shaking her head ruefully. "He was frank and polite and respectful as any young gentleman would be under similar circumstances, and he wanted to become better acquainted, call on me, I suppose, and all that, but I had to tell him virtually that he was an objectionable person."

"I would rather this subject should not be discussed any further," said her father gravely.

"So would I," Ella added. "Papa and I have settled the matter, and Mr. Houghton is to recede below the horizon."

The old lady thought that when Ella was alone with her she would get all the details of the interview, but she was mistaken. The girl not only grew more and more averse to speaking of Houghton, but she also felt that what he had said so frankly and sincerely to her was not a proper theme for gossip, even with kindly old Mrs. Bodine, and that a certain degree of loyalty was due to him, as well as to her father and cousin.

The captain had some writing on hand that night, and Ella read aloud to her cousin till it was time to retire. Apparently the evening passed uneventfully away; yet few recognize the eventful hours of their lives. A subtle and mysterious change was taking place in the girl's nature which in time she would recognize. More than once she murmured, "How can I be hostile to him? He said he could no more do me wrong, even in his thoughts, than think evil of his dead mother. He said he would be better if I were his friend, and he is as good-hearted this minute as I am. Yet I must treat him as if he were not fit to be spoken to. Well, I reckon it will hurt me as much as it does him. There's some comfort in that."