Chapter XXVII. Recognized as Lover
 

It was inevitable that Mara should pay the penalty of being at variance with nature and her own heart. The impulses of youth had been checked and restrained. Instead of looking forward, like Ella, she was turning ever backward, and drawing her inspiration from the past, and a dead, hopeless past, at that. It fell upon her like a shadow. All its incentive tended toward negation, prompting her to frown on changes, progress, and the hopefulness springing up in many hearts. The old can hug their gloom in a sort of complacent misanthropy; the young cannot. If they are unhappy they chafe, and feel in their deepest consciousness that something is wrong. Mara laid the blame chiefly upon Clancy, believing that, if he had taken the course adopted by Captain Bodine, she could have been happy with him in an attic. His words, at their interview, were not the only causes of her intense indignation and passion. Although she was incensed to the last degree, that he should charge Captain Bodine with such "preposterous" motives and intentions, she was also aware that her fierce struggles with her own heart, at the time, distracted and confused her. She could not maintain the icy demeanor she had resolved upon.

Left to herself, the long afternoon and evening of the following day, she had time for many second thoughts. She was compelled to face in solitude the hard problems of her life. Anger died out, and its support was lost. She had driven away the only man she loved, or could ever love, and she had used language which he could never forget, or be expected to forgive. The more she thought of his motive in seeking the interview, the more perplexed and troubled she became. As now in calmer mood she recalled his words and manner, she could not delude herself with the belief that he came only in his own behalf, or that he was prompted by jealousy. She remembered the grim frankness with which he said virtually that he had nothing to hope from her, not even tolerance. She almost writhed under the fact that he had again compelled her to believe that, however mistaken, he was sincere and straightforward, that he truly thought that Bodine was lover rather than friend.

She would not, could not, imagine that this was true, and yet she groaned aloud, "He has destroyed my chief solace. I was almost happy with my father's friend, and was coming to think of him almost as a second father. Now, when with him I shall have a miserable self-consciousness, and a disposition to interpret his words and manner in a way that will do him hateful wrong. Oh, what is there for me to look forward to? What is the use of living?"

These final words indicated one of Mara's chief needs. She craved some motive, some powerful incentive, which could both sustain and inspire. Mere existence, with its ordinary pleasures and interests, did not satisfy her at all. Clancy's former question in regard to her devotion to the past and the dead, "What goodwill it do?" haunted her like a spectre. He had again made the dreary truth more clear, that there was nothing in the future to which she could give the strong allegiance of her soul. She would work for nothing, suffer for nothing, hope for nothing, except her daily bread. As she said, the friendship of Bodine was but a solace, great indeed, but inadequate to the deep requirements of a nature like hers. She knew she was leading a dual life--cold, reserved, sternly self-restrained outwardly, yet longing with passionate desire for the love she had rejected, and, since that was impossible, for something else, to which she could consecrate her life, with the feeling that it was worth the sacrifice. If she had been brought up in the Roman Catholic religion, she might have been led to the austere life of a nun. But, in her morbid condition, she was incapable of understanding the wholesome faith, the large, sweet liberty of those who remain closely allied to humanity in the world, yet purifying and saving it, by the sympathetic tenderness of Him who had "compassion on the multitude." She had still much to learn in the hard school of experience.

The next day, Ella was nothing like so voluble as usual. Little frowns and moments of deep abstraction took the place of the mirthful smiles of the day before. Nevertheless, her strong love for Mara led her to speak quite freely of her experience during her call at Mrs. Willoughby's. As Mara's closest friend, she felt that reticence was a kind of disloyalty. It was also true that out of the abundance of her heart she was prone to speak. At the same time, the belief grew stronger hourly that she had a secret which she had not revealed, and could not reveal to any one. The more she thought over Houghton's words and manner, the more sure she became that his interest in her was not merely a passing fancy. Maidenly reserve, however, forbade even a hint of what might seem to others a conceited and indelicate surmise. She therefore gave only the humorous side of her meeting with Houghton again, and laughed at Mara's vexation. So far from being afraid of her friend, she rather enjoyed shocking her. At last she said, "There, Mara, don't take it so to heart. Papa says I must ostracize him, and so Goth and Vandal he becomes--the absurd idea!"

"Your father would not require you to do anything absurd."

"No, not what was absurd to him; but he does not know Mr. Houghton any more than you do. It's not only absurd, but it's wrong, from my point of view."

"Oh, Ella, I'm sorry you feel so different from the rest of us."

"Why do you feel different from so many others, Mara? It isn't to please this or that one, or because you have been told to think or to feel thus and so. You have your views and convictions because you are Mara Wallingford, and not someone else. Am I made of putty any more than you are, sweetheart?"

Her words were like a stab to Mara, for the thought flashed into her mind, "I have required that Clancy should be putty under my will." Ella, in her simple common-sense, often made remarks which disturbed Mara's cherished belief that she was right and Clancy all wrong.

As a very secondary matter of interest to her, Ella at last began to speak of Clancy and Miss Ainsley. "If ever a girl courted a man with her eyes that feminine riddle courts Mr. Clancy. I don't think I ever could be so far gone as to look at a man as she does at him, unless I was engaged."

"How does he look at her?" Mara asked with simulated indifference.

"Oh, there's some freemasonry between them, probably an engagement or an understanding! She expostulated against his going away as if she had the right. I don't think he cares for her as I would wish a man to care for me, for there was a humorous, half-reckless gleam in his eyes. It may be all natural enough though," she added musingly. "I don't believe Miss Ainsley could inspire an earnest, reverent love. A man wouldn't associate her in his thoughts with his dead mother."

"What a strange expression! What put it into your mind?"

"Oh," replied Ella hastily, and flushing a little, "I've been told that Mr. Clancy's parents are dead! A plague on them both, and all people that I can't understand--I don't mean the dead Clancys, but these two who are fooling like enough. You should be able to interpret Clancy better than I, for Cousin Sophy says you were once very good friends."

"I cannot remain the friend of any one who is utterly out of sympathy with all that I believe is right and dignified."

"Well, Mara, forgive me for saying it, but Mr. Clancy may have had convictions also."

"Undoubtedly," replied Mara coldly, "but there can be no agreeable companionship between clashing minds."

"No, I suppose not," said Ella, laughing; "not if each insists that both shall think exactly alike. It would be like two engines meeting on the same track. They must both back out, and go different ways."

"Well, I've back out," Mara remarked almost sternly.

"That's like you, Mara dear. Well, well, I hope the war will be over some day. By the way, papa told me to tell you that he was busy last evening, but that he would call this afternoon for a breathing with you on the Battery."

At the usual hour the veteran appeared. Mara's greeting was outwardly the same; nevertheless, Clancy's words haunted her, and her old serene unconsciousness was gone. Now that her faculties were on the alert, she soon began to recognize subtle, unpremeditated indications of the light in which Bodine had begun to regard her, and a sudden fear and repugnance chilled her heart. "Was Clancy right after all?" she began to ask herself in a sort of dread and presentiment of trouble. Instinctively, and almost involuntarily, she grew slightly reserved and distant in manner, ceasing to meet his gaze in her former frank, affectionate way. With quick discernment he appreciated the change, and thought, "She is not ready yet, and, indeed, may never be ready." His manner, too, began to change, as a cloud gradually loses something of its warmth of color. Mara was grateful, and in her thoughts paid homage to his tact and delicacy.

"Mara," he said, "has Ella told you of her experiences at Mrs. Willoughby's?"

"Yes, quite fully. I should think, however, from her words that you were more truly her confidant."

"Yes, she has acted very honorably, just as I should expect she would, and yet I am anxious about her. I wish she sympathized with us more fully in our desire to live apart from those who are inseparable in our thoughts from the memory of 'all our woes,' as Milton writes."

"I have often expressed just this regret to Ella; but she loves us all, and especially you, so dearly that I have no anxiety about her action."

"No, Mara, not her action; I can control that: but I should be sorry indeed if she became interested in this young man. There is often a perversity about the heart not wholly amenable to reason."

Poor Mara thought she knew the truth of this remark if any one did, nor could she help fancying that her companion had himself in mind when he spoke.

"Young Houghton," he resumed, "is beginning to make some rather shy, awkward advances, as if to secure my favor--a very futile endeavor as you can imagine. My views are changing in respect to remaining in his father's employ. The grasping old man would monopolize everything. I believe he would impoverish the entire South if he could, and I don't feel like remaining a part of his infernal business-machine."

"I don't wonder you feel so!" exclaimed Mara warmly. "I don't like to think of your being there at all."

"That settles it then," said Bodine quietly. "It would not be wise or honorable for me to act hastily. I must give Mr. Houghton proper notification, but I shall at once begin to seek other employment."

Mara was embarrassed and pained by such large deference to her views, and her spirits grew more and more depressed with the conviction that Clancy was right. But she had been given time to think, and soon believed that her best, her only course, was to ignore that phase of the captain's regard, and to teach him, with a delicacy equal to his own, that it could never be accepted.

"Moreover," resumed Bodine, "apart from my duty to Mr. Houghton--and I must be more scrupulous toward him than if he were my best friend--I owe it to Ella and my cousin not to give up the means of support, if I can honorably help it, until I secure something else. Houghton has held to our agreement both in spirit and letter, and I cannot complain of him as far as I am concerned."

"I have confidence in your judgment, Captain, and I know you will always be guided by the most delicate sense of honor."

"I hope so, Mara; I shall try to be, but with the best endeavor we often make mistakes. To tell the truth I am more anxious about Ella than myself. This young Houghton is, I fear, a rather hair-brained fellow. I've no doubt that he is sincere and well-meaning enough as rich and indulged young men of his class go, but he appears to me to be impetuous, and inclined to be reckless in carrying out his own wishes. Ella, in her inexperience, has formed far too good an opinion of him."

"Well, Captain, I wouldn't worry about it. Ella is honest as the sunshine. They have scarcely more than met, and she will be guided by you. This episode will soon be forgotten."

"Yes, I hope so; I think so. I shall count on your influence, for she loves you dearly."

"I know," was the rather sad reply, "but Ella does not think and feel as I do. I wish she could become interested in some genuine Southern man."

"That will come in time, all too soon for me, I fear," he said, with a sigh, "but I must accept the fact that my little bird is fledged, and may soon take flight. It will be a lonely life when she is gone."

"She may not go far," Mara answered gently, "and she may enrich you with a son, instead of depriving you of a daughter."

He shook his head despondently, and soon afterward accompanied her to her home. She knew there was something like an appeal to her in his eyes as he pressed her hand warmly in parting. By simply disturbing the blind confidence in which she had accepted and loved her father's friend, Clancy had given her sight. She saw the veteran in a new character, and she was distressed and perplexed beyond measure. Scarcely able, yet compelled to believe the truth, she asked herself all the long night, "How can I bear this new trouble?"