The Earth Trembled by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XXX. Tempests
On his return home George found his father reading such of the Boston papers as most nearly reflected his own views, and in which he had lost none of his early interest. He had always looked upon himself somewhat in the light of an exile, and it had been his purpose to return to his native State; but as time passed, a dread of its harsh climate had begun to reconcile him to the thought of ending his days in Charleston. All morbid tendencies strengthen, if indulged. The desire, therefore, to remain near the watery grave of his eldest son increased. Allied to this motive was the pleasure of accumulating money, the excitement of business, and exultation over the fact that he was taking tens of thousands from his enemies. As far as possible he invested his capital at the North. The people among whom he dwelt knew this, knew that, unlike Mr. Ainsley, he was doing as little as possible to build up the section from which he was drawing his wealth.
George, as yet, had not been inducted into the spirit or knowledge of his father's business methods, for the old man had believed that the time for this had not come. Moreover, as the merchant became better acquainted with the maturer character of his son, he became convinced that George would not, indeed could not, carry on the business as he had. There was a large, tolerant good-nature about the youth which would render it impossible for him to deal with any one in his father's spirit. He had not known his elder brother, and was merely proud of his record as that of a brave soldier who had died in the performance of duty. George was like many of the combatants, both Union and Confederate, capable of fighting each other to the death during the war, but ready to shake hands after the battle was over.
No one understood this disposition better than Mr. Houghton, and he felt that the South was no place for George. He wished his son to go back to Massachusetts, where wealth and influence would open the way for a brilliant career; and the old man already saw in imagination his name famous in the Old Commonwealth.
He had been thinking over this scheme on the present evening, and his mind was full of it when George entered. "Glad to see you so early," he said genially. "Had a good dinner? Yes; well, then, sit down a while, for I wish to talk to you. I've had a good nap, and so won't need to go to bed very early. Well, my boy, you've reached that age when you should take your bearings for your future career."
"Why, father, I've always expected to go into business with you, and gradually relieve you of its burdens and cares."
"No, George, that wouldn't be best; that wouldn't suit me at all. You are fitted for something better and larger. You wouldn't carry on the business as I do, and that would lead to differences between us. I couldn't stand that. The iron entered into my soul before you were born. Your brother had equal promise with yourself, and, to put it very mildly, I have no love for those who destroyed him. I do business with them, but in much the same spirit that Antonio dealt with the Jew on the Rialto. You would not do this, nor could I expect you to. The accursed crime of rebellion has not smitten your soul as with lightning, nor broken your heart. The young fall into the ways of those with whom they live, and I wish you to have as little to do with this Southern people as possible. There is no career for you in this city, but in your native State you can become almost what you please. If, for instance, with your splendid health you entered upon the study of law and mastered it, I have influence and wealth enough to advance you rapidly, until by your own grip you can climb to the top of the ladder. You can then eventually marry into one of the best families in the State, and thus at the same time secure happiness and double your chances of success."
George listened aghast as his father proceeded complacently, and with a touch of enthusiasm rarely indulged. He was sitting by an open window, at some distance from Mr. Houghton, the darkness concealing his face. He now began to realize the truth of Mrs. Willoughby's belief and Bodine's conviction, that he might find as much trouble at home as elsewhere. It quickly became clear to him that he must reveal the truth at once, but how to set about it he scarcely knew, and he hesitated like one on the brink of icy water. What he considered a bright thought struck him, and he said, "Speaking of marrying, you never told me how you came to marry mother."
"Oh!" replied the old man dreamily, "I was almost brought up to marry her. She was the daughter of a near neighbor and dear friend of my father's. Your mother and I played together as children. I scarcely think we knew when our mutual affection changed into love--it all came about so gradually and naturally--and the union gave the deepest satisfaction to both families. Ah! George, George, your brother's death shortened the life of your mother, and left me very sad and lonely. I can never forgive this people for the irreparable injuries they have done to me and mine. I know you cannot feel as I do; but love of country and your affection for me should lead you to stand aloof from those who are still animated by the old, diabolical spirit which caused the death of such brave fellows as your brother, and broke the hearts of such women as your mother."
His son's distress was so deep that he buried his face in his hands.
"I don't wonder that your feelings are touched by my reminiscences, George," and the old man wiped tears from his own eyes.
"Oh, father!" cried the son, springing up, and placing his hand on the old man's shoulder, "I'm going to test your love for me severely. You are right in saying I cannot feel as you do. I did not know that you felt so strongly. I've given my love to a Southern girl."
Moments of oppressive silence followed this announcement, and the old man's face grew stern and rigid.
"Father, listen patiently," George began. "She is not to blame for the past, nor am I. If you only knew how good and noble and lovely she is--"
"Who is she? What is her name?"
"What! A relative of that double-dyed rebel in my office?"
"George Houghton!" and his father sprang up, and confronted his son with a visage distorted by anger. Never had the youth called forth a look like that, and he trembled before the passion he had evoked.
"Father," he said entreatingly, "sit down. Do not look at me so, do not speak to me till you are calm. Remember I am your son."
The old man paced the room for a few moments in strong agitation, for he had been wounded at his most vulnerable point. The thought that his only son would ally himself with those whom he so detested, and whom for years he had sought to punish, almost maddened him. As we have seen before, there was a slumbering volcano in this old man's breast when adequate causes called it into action, and now the deepest and strongest forces of his nature were awakened.
At last he said in a constrained voice: "I hope you also will remember that I am your father. It would appear that you had forgotten the fact, when you made love to one whom I never can call daughter."
"I have not made love to her yet. You--"
"Has she been making love to you then?"
"Father, please don't speak in that way. There never were harsh words between us before, and there must not be now."
Again the dreadful silence fell between them, but it was evident that Mr. Houghton was making a great effort for self-control.
"You are right, George," he said at last. "I have never spoken to you before as I have to-night, and, I hope to God, I may never have cause to do so again. I have not been a harsh father, nor have I inflicted my unhappiness on you. I have given you large liberty, the best education that you would take, and ample means with which to enjoy yourself. I had expected that in return you would consult my wishes in some vital matters--as vital to your happiness as mine. I never dreamed that such incredible folly as you have mentioned was possible. Your very birthright precluded the idea. You said that you would have to test my love severely. I shall not only have to test your love, but also your reason, your common-sense, almost your sanity. What is thought of a man who throws away everything for a pretty face?"
"That I shall never do, father. The beauty in Ella Bodine's face is but the reflex of her character."
"That's what every enamored fool has said from the beginning of time," replied Mr. Houghton, in strong irritation. "What chance have you had to learn her character? I know more about the girl and her connections than you do. She works with that Wallingford girl, and that old fire-eater, Mrs. Hunter, in the baking trade. She lives with her cousin old Mrs. Bodine, who thinks of little else than what she is pleased to consider her blue blood, forgetting that it is not good, loyal, American blood. This little patch of a State is more to her than the Union bequeathed to us by our fathers. As to Bodine himself, if the South rose again, he'd march away on his crutches with the rebellious army. Can you soberly expect to live among such a set of people? Can you expect me to fraternize with them, to stultify all my life, to trample on my most sacred convictions, to be disloyal to the memory of wife and son, who virtually perished by the action of just such traitors?" and he laughed in harsh, bitter protest.
George sat down, again buried his face in his hands, and groaned aloud.
"You may well groan, young man, when you face the truth which you have so strangely forgotten. But come, I'm not one to yield weakly to any such monstrous absurdity. You are young and strong, and should have a spirit equal to your stature and muscle. You have not made love to this girl, you say. Never do it. Steer as wide of her as you would of a whirlpool, and all will soon be well. I won't believe that a son of mine can be so wretchedly, miserably, and contemptibly weak as to throw himself away in this fashion."
George was silent and overwhelmed. His father's words had opened an abyss at his feet. He loved the old man tenderly and gratefully, and, under his burning, scathing words, felt at the time that his course was black ingratitude. Even if he could face the awful estrangement which he saw must ensue, the thought of striking such a blow at his father's hopes, affection and confidence made him shudder in his very soul. It might be fatal even to a life already held in the feeble grasp of age. He could not speak.
At last Mr. Houghton resumed, very gravely, and yet not unkindly: "You are not the first one of your age who has been on the verge of an irreparable blunder. Thank God it is not too late for you to retreat! Do not let this word jar upon you, for it often requires much higher courage and manhood to retreat than to advance. To do the latter in this case would be as foolhardy as it would be wrong and disastrous to all concerned. It would be as fatal to me as to you, for I could not long survive if I learned that I had been leaning on such a broken reed. It would be fatal to you, for I would not leave my money so you could enrich these people. You would have nothing in the world but the pretty face for which you sold your birthright. I will say no more now, George. You will wake in the morning a sane man, and my son. Good-night."
"Good-night, father," George answered in a broken voice. Then, when alone, he added bitterly: "Wake! When shall I sleep again?"
The eastern horizon was tinged with light before, exhausted by his fierce mental conflict, he sank into a respite of oblivion. For a long time he wavered, love for his father tugging at his heart with a restraining power far beyond that of words which virtually were threats. "He could keep his money," the young fellow groaned, "if I could only keep his affection and confidence, if I could only be sure that I would not harm his life and health. I could be happy in working as a day-laborer for her."
At last he came to a decision. He had given both his love and his word to Ella. She only could reject the one, and absolve him from the other.
He was troubled to find that the forenoon had nearly passed when he awoke. Dressing hastily, he went down to make inquiries for his father.
"Marse Houghton went to de sto' at de us'l time," said the colored waiter. "He lef word not to 'sturb you, an' ter hab you'se breakfus' ready."
George merely swallowed a cup of coffee, and then hastened down town. Meanwhile, events had occurred at the office which require attention.
A very few moments after Mr. Houghton entered his private room he touched a bell. To the clerk who entered he said, "Take this letter to Mr. Bodine."
The veteran's face was as rigid and stern with his purpose as the employer was grim in his resolves; but when the captain read the curt note handed to him, his face grew dark with passion. It ran as follows:
"MR. BODINE--I have no further need of your services. Inclosed find check for your wages to the end of the month."
The captain sat still a few moments to regain self-control then quietly put his desk in order. He next halted to the private office, and the two men looked steadily and un-blenchingly into each other's eyes for a moment. Then the Southerner began sternly, "That hair-brained son of yours has told you of the interview he forced upon me last night."
"This is my private office, sir," replied Mr. Houghton, with equal sternness. "You have no right to enter it, or to use such language."
"Yes, sir, I have the right. Were it not for the folly and presumption of your headlong boy, I would have left your employ quietly in a few days, and had nothing more to do with you or yours. To save my daughter annoyance from his silly sentimentality I was compelled to come into this hated place wherein you concoct your schemes to suck dry our Southern blood. He asked for permission to pay his addresses to my daughter, and I forbade it. I told him that he could only do so at his peril."
"You are certainly right, sir. I also have told him that he would do so at his peril."
"I also told him that I would rather bury my daughter than see her married to him."
"Truly, sir, I never imagined we could agree so perfectly on any question," was Mr. Houghton's sarcastic reply. "Can we not now part with this clear understanding? I have much to attend to this morning."
"I have but one word more, and then trust I am through with his sentimentality and your insolence. Tell the boy that my daughter says she will have nothing to do with him without my consent. Now if there is even the trace of a gentleman in his anatomy he will leave us alone. Good-morning, sir." And tearing the check in two, he dropped it on the floor and halted away.
Mr. Houghton coolly and contemptuously turned to his writing till the door closed on Bodine, and then he smiled and rubbed his hands in self-felicitation. "This is better than I had hoped," he said. "I've often laughed at the idiotic pride of these black-blooded, rather than blue-blooded, fire-eaters, but I shall bless it hereafter."
"As you virtually say, you hardened old rebel, if George is worth the powder to blow him up, he'll drop you all now as if you had the plague. I've only to tell him what you and your doll-daughter have said."