Chapter XXVIII. "Heaven Speed You Then"

Aun' Sheba and Vilet entered at the usual hour the following day. The girls smiled and nodded in an absent sort of way, and then the old woman thought they seemed to forget all about her. She also observed that they were not so forward with the work as customary, and she watched them wonderingly yet shrewdly. Suddenly she sprang up, exclaiming, "Lor bress you, Missy Ella, dat de secon' time you put aw-spice in dat ar dough."

Both the girls started nervously, and Ella began to laugh.

"Missy Mara, you fergits some cake in de oben from de way it smell," and Aun' Sheba drew out cookies as black as herself instead of a delicate brown.

Mara looked at them ruefully, and then said, "I must make some more, that's all." "Wot's de matter wid you bofe, honeys?" the old woman asked kindly.

"Politics," Ella blurted out.

"Polytics! No won'er you'se bofe off de handle. Dere's been only two times wen I couldn't stan' Unc. nohow. De fust an' wust was wen he get polytics on de brain, an' belebed dat ole guv'ner Moses was gwine ter lead de culud people to a promis' lan'. I alus tole him dat his Moses 'ud lead him into a ditch, an' so he did. De secon' time was wen he got sot on, but you knows all 'bout dat. You'se bofe too deep fer me. How you git into polytics I doan see nohow."

"There, Aun' Sheba, don't you mind Ella's nonsense. We're no more into politics than you are."

"You'se inter sump'in den."

"Yes," said Ella, "we're still carrying on the war."

"Please don't talk so, Ella."

"Oh, Mara! I must have my nonsense. You've got the 'storied past'--that's how it's phrased, isn't it?--to sustain you, and I've only my nonsense."

"Well, puttin' in aw-spice double is nonsense, shuah nuff," said Aun' Sheba, looking at the girl keenly. "Wot you want spicin' so fer all't once, Missy Ella? You peart, an' saucy as eber. I ony wish I could see Missy Mara lookin' like you."

"You are getting old and blind, Aun' Sheba. I have a secret sorrow gnawing at my 'inards,' as you term those organs which keep people awake o' nights, gazing at the moon."

"Yes, honey, Aun' Sheba gittin' bery ole an' bery blin', but she see dat dere's sump'in out ob kilter wid de inards ob you bofe. Well, well, I s'pose it's none ob de ole woman's business."

"Ann' Sheba," cried Ella, with an exaggerated sigh, "if you could mend matters I'd come to you quicker than to any one else, you dear old soul! Well now, to tell you the honest truth, there isn't very much the matter with me, and there's a certain doctor that's going to cure me just as sure as this batter (holding up a spoonful) is going to be cake in ten minutes."

"Who dat?"

"Doctor Time--oh, get out!" At this instant an irate bumble-bee darted in, and Ella, in a spasmodic effort of self-defence, threw the spoon at it, and both went flying out of the window. The girl sat down half-crying, half-laughing in her vexation, while Aun' Sheba shook with mirth in all her ample proportions.

"Dat ar cake's gwine to be dough for eber mo', Missy Ella," she said. "I'se feerd you'se case am bery serus. Yit I worries mo' 'bout Missy Mara. Heah now, honey, you jes dun beat out. You sit down an' Missy Ella an' me'll finish up in a jiffy. I reckon Missy Ella ony got a leetle tantrum dis mawnin, but you'se been a wuckin' an' tinkin' too hard dis long time."

"Yes, Aun' Sheba," cried Ella, "that's the trouble. Let's you and I take the business out of her hands for a time, and make her a silent partner."

"She too silent now. Bofe oh you gittin' ter be silent par'ners. In de good ole times I'd heah you chatterin' as I come up de stars, an' to-day you was bofe right smart ways off from dis kitchen in you mins. Mum, mum, tinkin' deep, bofe ob you. Eysters ud make a racket long ob you uns dis mawnin'."

"There, Aun' Sheba," said Mara, kindly, "don't you worry about us. This is July, and in August we'll take a rest. You deserve and need it as much as either of us. I'll get well and strong then, and you know it makes people worse to tell them they don't look well and all that."

Aun' Sheba gave a sort of dissatisfied grunt, but she helped the girls through with their tasks in her own deft way, and departed with Vilet, who was always very quiet and shy except when at home.

"Well," said Ella, giving herself a little shake, when they were alone, "I'm going to get over my nonsense at once."

"What's troubling you, Ella?"

"Oh, I hardly know myself. What's troubling you? We both seem out of sorts. Do let us be sensible and jolly. Now if we both had a raging toothache we'd have some excuse for melancholy. Good-by, dear, I'll be up with the lark to-morrow, and we'll make a lark of our work;" and she started homeward, with her cherry lips sternly compressed in her resolution to be her old mirthful self. In the energy of her purpose she began to walk faster and faster. "There now, Ella Bodine," she muttered, "since it's your duty to ostracize and bake, ostracize and bake, and be done with your ridiculous fancies." And she swiftly turned the corner of a street, as if, under the inspiration of a great purpose, she was entering upon a new and wiser course. The result was, she nearly ran over George Houghton. Looking up, she saw him standing, hat in hand, with a broad, glad smile on his face.

"You almost equal that express-wagon," he said. "Are you going for the doctor?"

Her mouth twitched nervously, but she managed to say, "Good-morning, Mr. Houghton, I'm in haste," and on she went. He saw her head go down. Was she laughing or crying? The latter possibility brought him to her side instantly.

"Are you in trouble?" he asked very kindly. "Isn't there something--oh, I see you are laughing at me," and his tones proved that his feelings were deeply hurt.

Her mirth ceased at once. "No, Mr. Houghton," she replied, looking up at him with frank directness, "I was not laughing at you, but I could not help laughing at what you said. I'm in no trouble, nor shall I be if--if--well, you know what I told you. We must be strangers, you know," and she went on again as if her feet were winged.

"I don't know anything of the kind," he muttered, as he turned on his heel and slowly pursued his way to his father's counting-rooms. Entering he paused an instant and looked grimly at Bodine, whose head was bent over his writing. "I'll tackle you next, old gentleman," was his thought.

Punctually to a minute he called on Mrs. Willoughby when the week had expired. She looked into his resolute face and surmised before he spoke that time and reflection had not inclined him to a prudent withdrawal from a very doubtful suit. Nevertheless she said: "Well, you've had a little time to think, and you probably see now that your wisest course will be to give up this little affair utterly."

"Pardon me, Mrs. Willoughby, I've had an age in which to think, and it's not a little affair to me. I did not quite understand myself when I last saw you--it was all so new, strange, and heavenly. But I understand myself now. Ella Bodine shall be my wife unless she finally rejects me, unless she herself makes me sure that it's of no use to try. What's more, it will take years to prove this. As long as she does not belong to another I'll never give up."

"She belongs to her father."

"No, not in this sense. She has the right of every American girl to choose her husband."

"Do you mean to defy her father?"

"No, I mean to go to him like a gentleman, and ask permission to pay my addresses to his daughter. I mean to do this before I say one word of love to her."

"Since you are so resolved upon your course you do not need any more advice from me."

"I don't mean that at all. Isn't this the right, honorable course?"

"Oh, your royalty wishes me to applaud your decrees and decisions," she said laughing.

"Now please don't be hard on me, Mrs. Willoughby. I've followed your advice with all my might for a week."

"Done nothing with all your might?"

"Yes, and you couldn't have given me a harder task."

"Are you of age?"

"Yes, I am. I'm twenty-two, however immature I may seem to you."

"Miss Bodine is not of age."

"Well, I'll wait till she is."

"Wouldn't that be better? Wait till she is of age, and more capable of judging and acting for herself. Time may soften her father's feelings, and your father's also, for, believe me, you are going to have as much trouble at home as with Captain Bodine, that is, supposing that Ella would listen to your suit."

"And while I'm idly biting my nails through the creeping years some level-headed Southerner will quietly woo and win her. I would deserve to lose her, should I take such a course."

"You certainly would have to take that risk; but perhaps you will incur greater risks by too hasty action."

"Be sincere with me now, Mrs. Willoughby. I don't believe you women like timid, pusillanimous men. How could I appear otherwise to Miss Bodine if I should withdraw, like a growling bear into winter quarters, there to hibernate indefinitely? The period wouldn't be life to me, scarcely tolerable existence. What could she know about my motives and feelings? I tell you my love is as sacred as my faith in God. I'm proud of it, rather than ashamed. I wish her to know it, no matter what the result may be, and I don't care if all the world knows it, too."

"You mean to tell your father then?"

"Certainly, at the proper time."

"Suppose you find him utterly opposed to it all?"

"I do not think I shall; not when he sees my happiness is at stake. He may fume over it for a time, but when he comes to know Ella she'll disarm him. Why, it's just as clear to me as that I see you, that she could make the old gentleman happier than he has been for over a quarter of a century."

"My poor young friend! I wish I could share in your sanguine feelings."

"Oh, I'm not so very sanguine about her. What she will do worries me far more than what the old people will do."

"Well, you are right there. The old people are the outworks, she the citadel, which you can never capture unless she chooses to surrender."

"That's true, but I don't believe she ever would surrender to a man who was afraid to approach even the outworks."

Mrs. Willoughby laughed softly as she admitted, "Perhaps you are right."

"If I'm not, my whole manhood is at fault," he replied earnestly. "Please tell me, haven't I decided on the right, honorable course--on what would seem honorable to Captain Bodine and to Ella also?"

"Yes, if you will act now you can take no other."

"Well, won't you please approve of it?"

"Mr. Houghton, I'm not going to be timid and pusillanimous either. Since you are of age, and will take a perfectly honorable course, I will stand by you as a friend. I will still counsel you, if you so wish, for I fear that your troubles have only begun."

"I thank you from my heart," he said, seizing her hand and pressing it warmly. "I do need and wish your counsel, for I have very little tact. I can sail a boat better than I can manage an affair like this."

"Will you make me one solemn promise?"

"Yes, if I can."

"Then pledge me your word that you will not lose your temper with either Captain Bodine or your father."

"Oh, I think I can easily do that," he said good-humoredly.

"You don't know, you can't imagine, how you may be tried."

"Well, it's a sensible thing you ask, and I've sense enough to know it. I pledge you my word. If I break it, it will be because I'm pushed beyond mortal endurance."

"Mr. Houghton," she said, almost sternly, "you must not break it, no matter what is said or what happens. You would jeopardize everything if you did. You might lose Ella's respect."

He drew a long breath. "You make me feel as if I were going into a very doubtful battle," he said thoughtfully.

"It is a very doubtful battle. It certainly will be a hard, and probably a long one, and you will lose it if you don't keep cool."

"I can be very firm, I suppose."

"Yes, as firm and decided as you please, as long as you are quiet and gentlemanly in your words. Let me say one thing more," she added, very gravely. "If you enter on this affair, and then, in any kind of weakness or fickleness, give it up, I shall despise you, and so will all in this city who know about it. Count the cost. I'm too true a Southerner to look at you again if you trifle with a Southern girl. Your father will offer you great inducements to abandon this folly, as he will term it."

He flushed deeply, but only said, in quiet emphasis, "If I ever give up, except for reasons satisfactory to you, I shall despise myself far more than you can despise me."

"And you give me your word that you will keep your temper to the very end?"

"Yes, Heaven helping me, I will."

"Heaven speed you then, my friend."