Chapter XXIX. Consternation
 

Young Houghton was like a high-mettled steed, from which the curb had been removed. His temperament, even more than the impatience of youth, led him to chafe at delay, and Ella appeared so lovely, so exactly to his mind, that he had a nervous dread lest others should equally appreciate her, and forestall his effort to secure her affection. He resolved, therefore, that not an hour should be lost, and so went directly back to his father's counting-rooms.

Bodine was writing as usual at his desk, and Houghton looked at him with an apprehension thus far unknown in his experience. But he did not hesitate. "Captain Bodine," he said, with a little nervous tremor in his voice, "will you be so kind as to grant me a private interview this evening?"

The veteran looked at him coldly as he asked, "May I inquire, sir, your object in seeking this interview?"

"I will explain fully when we are alone. I cannot here, but will merely say that my motives are honorable, as you yourself will admit."

Bodine contracted his brows in painful thought for a moment. "I may as well have it out with him at once," was his conclusion. "Very well, sir, I will remain after the office is closed," he said frigidly, then turned to his writing.

George went to his desk in his father's private room, and there was a very grim, set look on his face also. "I understand you, my future father-in-law," he murmured softly. "You think you are going to end this affair in half an hour. We'll see."

The afternoon was very warm, and his father said kindly, "Come, George, knock off for to-day. I'm going home and shall try to get a nap before dinner."

"That's right, father; do so by all means. I have an engagement this evening, so please don't wait dinner for me." His thought was, "If I'm to keep my temper I can't tackle more than one the same day; yet I don't believe my father will be obdurate. If I succeed, the time will come when he'll thank me with all his heart."

Mr. Houghton had no disposition to control his son in small matters, and the young fellow came and went at his own will. Thus far his frankness and general good behavior had inspired confidence. His tastes had always inclined to athletic, manly sports, and these are usually at variance with dissipation of every kind.

The impatient youth had not long to wait. The clerks soon departed, and the colored janitor entered on his labors. Bodine remained writing quietly until George came and said, "Will you be so kind as to come to the private office?"

The veteran deliberately put his desk in order, and followed the young man without a word. There was still an abundance of light in which to see each other's faces, and George observed that Bodine's expression boded ill. He took a seat in silence, and looked at the flushed face of the youth coldly and impassively.

"Captain Bodine," George began hesitatingly, "you can make this interview very hard for me, and I fear you will do so. Yet you are a gentleman, and I wish to act and speak as becomes one also."

Bodine merely bowed slightly.

"I will use no circumlocution. You have been a soldier, and so will naturally prefer directness. I wish your permission to pay my addresses to your daughter."

"I cannot grant it."

"Please do not make so hasty a decision, sir. I fear that you are greatly prejudiced against me, but--"

"No, sir," interrupted Bodine, "I am not prejudiced against you at all. I have my own personal reasons for taking the ground I do, and it is not necessary to discuss them. I think our interview may as well end at once."

"Captain Bodine, you will admit that I have acted honorably in this matter. Since your daughter told me that you were averse to our acquaintance, I have made no effort to see her."

"Certainly, sir, that was right and honorable. Any other course would not have been so."

"It is my purpose to maintain a strictly honorable and straightforward course in this suit."

"Do you mean to say that you will pursue this suit contrary to my wishes?"

"Certainly. There is no law, human or divine, which forbids a man from loving a good woman, and Miss Bodine is good if any one is."

"How do you propose to carry on this suit?" the captain asked sternly.

"I scarcely know yet, but in no underhand way. I must ask you to inform Miss Bodine of this interview."

"Suppose I decline to do this?"

"Then I shall make it known to her myself."

"In other words, you defy me."

"Not at all, not in the sense in which you speak. I shall take no action whatever without your knowledge."

"You must remember that my daughter is not of age."

"I do not dispute your right in the least to control her action till she is, but I shall not take the risk of losing her by timidity and delay. Others will appreciate her worth as well as myself. I wish her to know that I love her, and would make her my wife."

"You appear to think that this is all that is essential so far as she is concerned," said Bodine, in bitter sarcasm.

"You do me wrong, sir," Houghton replied, flushing hotly. "Even if you should give your full consent, I, better than any one, know that my suit would be doubtful. But it would be hopeless did I not reveal to her my feelings and purposes."

"If she herself, then, informs you that it is hopeless, that would end the matter?"

"Certainly, after years of patient effort to induce her to think otherwise."

"I do not think you have shown any patience thus far, sir. You have scarcely more than met her before you enter, recklessly and selfishly, on a 'suit,' as you term it, which can only bring wretchedness to her and to those who have the natural right to her allegiance and love."

"You do me wrong again, Captain Bodine. I am no more reckless or selfish than any other man who would marry the girl he loves. By reason of circumstances over which I had no control I have met Miss Bodine, and she has inspired a sacred love, such as her mother inspired in you. You can find no serious fault with me personally, and I am not responsible for others. I have my own life to make or mar, and never to win Miss Bodine would mar it wofully. I am an educated man and her equal socially, although she is greatly my superior in other respects. I have the means with which to support her in affluence. I mean only good toward her and you. This is neither selfishness nor recklessness."

"Have you spoken to Mr. Houghton of your intentions?"

"Not yet, but I shall."

"You will find him as bitterly opposed to it all as I am."

"I think not. I shall be sorry beyond measure if you are right, but it can make no difference."

"You will defy him also, then?"

"I object to the use of that word, Captain Bodine. In availing myself of my inalienable rights I defy no one."

"Have I no rights in my own child? Your purpose is to rob me as ruthlessly as our homes were desolated years since."

"I am not responsible for the past, any more than I am for your prejudices against me. My purpose is simple and honorable, as much so as that of any other man who may ask you for your daughter's hand."

"Mr. Houghton," said Bodine, rising, "there is no use in prolonging this painful and intensely disagreeable interview. I said to your father in this office that our relations could be only those of business. Even these shall soon cease. I now understand you, sir. Of course the past is nothing to you, and you are bent on obtaining what you imagine you wish at the present moment, without any regard to others. Let me tell you once for all there can be no alliance between your house and mine. I would as soon bury my daughter as see her married to you. I do find fault with you personally. You are headlong and inconsiderate. You would lay your hands on the best you can find in the South just as your armies and politicians have done. But you proceed further at your peril--do you comprehend me?--at your peril," and the veteran's eyes gleamed fiercely.

"Captain Bodine," said George, also rising, "you cannot make me lose my temper. I shall give you no just reason for saying that I am headlong. I wish you could be more calm and fair yourself. Before we part one point must be settled. My request must be met in one way or the other. If you will give me your word that you will repeat the purport of what I have said to Miss Bodine, I will make no effort to do so myself. However hostile you may be to me, I know that you are a man of honor, and I will trust you. I merely wish Miss Bodine to know that I love her and am willing to wait for her till I am gray."

"You wish me to tell her that you will wait and pray for my death, and seek to lead her to do likewise," was the angry reply.

"It is useless for me to protest against your unjust and bitter words. The trust that I offer to repose in you entitles me to better courtesy."

By a great effort Bodine regained self-control, and balanced himself for a few moments on his crutches in deep thought. At last he said, "I accept the trust, and will be as fair to you as it is possible for an outraged father to be. I forbid that you should have any communication with my daughter whatever, and I shall forbid her to receive any from you. What is more, you must take her answer as final."

"I promise only this, Captain Bodine, that I shall take no action without your knowledge. I shall trust you implicitly in repeating the purport of this interview. The moment that I looked into your face I recognized that you were a gentleman, and I again apologize for my rude remark before I knew who you were. Good-evening, sir."

Bodine bowed stiffly, and departed with many conflicting emotions surging in his breast, none of them agreeable. He scarcely knew whether he had acted wisely or not. Indeed, the impression grew upon him that he had been worsted in the encounter, that George, in making him his messenger to Ella, had acted with singular astuteness. This was true, but the young man's action was not the result of the Yankee shrewdness with which the veteran was disposed to credit him. A simple, straightforward course is usually the wisest one, and George instinctively knew that Ella would appreciate such openness on his part. He was left in a very anxious and perturbed condition, it is true, but in his heart he again thanked Mrs. Willoughby for putting him so sacredly on his guard against his hasty temper.

Absorbed in thought, he sat till the gloom of night gathered in the office; then the shuffling feet of the impatient janitor aroused him.

Solacing the old man with a dollar, he went out hastily, and walked a mile or two to work off his nervous excitement, then sought a restaurant, muttering, "I haven't reached the point of losing my appetite yet."

By the time Bodine reached home he was much calmer, and disposed to take a much more hopeful view of the affair.

He again concluded that after all it was best that he should be the one to inform Ella, and thus keep the matter entirely within his own hands. Believing her to be as yet untouched by anything that Houghton might have said to her, he felt quite sure that he could readily induce her to take the same attitude toward the objectionable suitor which he proposed to maintain to the end.

He found her and his cousin very anxious about his late return--an anxiety not allayed by his grim, stern expression.

"I have been detained by an unpleasant interview," he said.

"With that old--"

"No, not with Mr. Houghton. I will explain after dinner."

With the swiftness of light, Ella surmised the truth, and made but a very indifferent repast. Her father noted this, and asked himself, "Could she have known of his purpose?" Then he reproached himself inwardly for entertaining the thought.

The meal was comparatively a silent one, and soon over; then they all went to Mrs. Bodine's room.

"I wish you to be present, Cousin Sophy," said the captain, "for I have a very disagreeable task to perform, and I can scarcely trust myself to do it fairly. You must prompt me if you think I do not. Ella, my dear and only child, I trust that you will receive the message, which, in a sense, I have been compelled to bring you, in the right spirit I feel sure that you will do so, and that your course now and hereafter will continue to give me that same deep, glad peace at heart which your fidelity to duty and your devotion to me have always inspired. You have my happiness now in your hands as never before; but I do not fear that you will fail me. The son of the man whom we all detest, and whose employ I shall leave presently, has asked permission to pay you his addresses."

She turned pale as he spoke so gravely, and trembled visibly.

"Why do you tell me this, papa?" she faltered. "I would rather not have known it."

"Because he requested me to tell you. Because he said he wished you to know that he loved you, and that if I did not tell you he would himself;" and he looked at her keenly.

"Then," cried Ella, impetuously, "although I may never speak to him again, I say he has acted honorably. I told you that he was incapable of anything clandestine."

"I trust that you never will speak to him again," said her father, almost sternly. "I have forbidden him to have any communication with you, and I certainly forbid your speaking with him again."

"Father," said Ella, gently, with tears in her eyes, "I do not deserve that you should speak to me in that tone. I've always tried to obey you."

"Forgive me, Ella, but I have been intensely annoyed by the interview inflicted upon me, and I cannot think of it, or of his preposterous course, with patience. Moreover, pardon me for saying it, you have shown a friendly interest in him which it has been very painful to note."

"I've only tried to be fair to him, papa."

"Please try merely to forget him, Ella--to think nothing about him whatever."

"I shall try to obey you, papa; but you are too old and wise to tell me not to think. As well tell me not to breathe."

"Ella," began her father sternly, "can you mean--"

"Now, Hugh," interrupted his cousin, "be careful you don't do more mischief than young Houghton can possibly accomplish. How men do bungle in these matters! Hough-ton hasn't bungled, though. His making you his messenger strikes me as the shrewdest Yankee trick I ever heard of."

"I had the same impression on my way home," admitted Bodine, irritably.

Ella felt that she owed no such deference to Mrs. Bodine as she did to her father, and, with an ominous flash in her eyes, said decidedly, "You are bungling, Cousin Sophy. George Houghton is incapable of what you term a Yankee trick. I will be pliant under all motives of love and duty to my father, but you must not outrage my sense of justice. You must remember that I have a conscience, as truly as you have."

"There, forgive me, Ella. You've seen the young fellow, and I haven't. Cousin Hugh, remember that Ella has your spirit, and the spirit of her ancestors. Show her what is right and best, and she will do it."

Bodine looked at his daughter in deep perturbation. Could that flushed, beautiful woman be his little Ella? With an indescribable pang he began to recognize that she was becoming a woman, with an independent life of her own. The greatness of the emergency calmed him, as all strong minds are quieted by great and impending danger. "Ella," he said, gently and sadly, "I do not wish to treat you as a little, foolish girl, but as becomes your years. I wish your conscience and reason to go with mine. You know that your happiness is the chief desire of my life. There could be no happiness for either of us in such a misalliance. The father of this hasty youth will be as bitterly opposed to it all as I am. We belong to different camps, and can never have anything in common. You know my motive in taking employment from him. I have thought better of it, and shall now leave his office as soon as I can honorably. I don't wish to outrage your sense of justice, Ella, and I will mention one other essential point in the interview. I told young Houghton that he must accept your answer as final, and that he would proceed further at his peril, and he said he would only take a final answer from you after years of patient waiting and wooing. How he proposes to do the latter I do not know, nor does he know himself. He did say, however, that he would take no action without my knowledge. You see that I am trying to be just to him."

"I would like to ask one question, papa. Did he use any angry, disrespectful language toward you?"

Bodine winced under this question, but said plainly, "No, he did not. He apologized for the third time for a hasty remark he once made before he knew who I was. He said that he recognized that I was a gentleman then, and that he would trust me as such to deliver his message."

The girl drew a long breath as if a deep cause for anxiety had been removed.

"Oh, come now, Cousin Hugh, you and Ella are taking this matter too much to heart. Why, Lor bless you! I had nearly a dozen offers by the time I was Ella's age. There is nothing tragic about this young fellow or his proceedings. Indeed, I think with Ella, that he has done remarkably well, wonderfully well, considering. Nine out of ten of his kind wouldn't be so scrupulous. He has done neither you nor Ella any wrong, only paid you the highest compliment in his power. Regard it as such, and let the matter end there. He can't marry Ella out of hand any more than he can me."

At this the girl, seeing inevitably the comic side of everything, burst into a laugh. "Cousin Sophy," she cried, "you surpass Solomon himself. Come, dear papa, let us try to be sensible. Of course Mr. Houghton can't marry me without your consent or mine."

"Then I may tell him that you will never give your consent--that what he terms his suit must end at once and forever?"

She again became very pale, and did not answer immediately.

"Ella, my only child, the hope and solace of my life, can you hesitate?"

With a rush of tears, she threw herself upon his neck, and sobbed, "Tell him that I will never do anything without your consent." Then she fled to her own room.

The captain and Mrs. Bodine sat looking at each other in consternation.