Chapter XXXI. "I Absolve You"
 

When George reached the counting-rooms, he saw that Bodine was not in his accustomed place. Surmising the truth at once, he hastened to his father's room, and asked almost sternly:

"Where is Captain Bodine?"

"I neither know nor care," was the cool reply. "He is dismissed from my service."

"You have acted unjustly, sir," his son began hotly, "you have punished him for my--"

"George," interrupted his father gravely, "remember what you said about angry words between us."

The young man paced the office excitedly for a few moments in silence and then sat down.

"That's right," resumed his father quietly. "I am glad you are able to attain self-control, for you now require the full possession of all your faculties. Fortunately for both of us, this man, Bodine, has said more than enough to end this folly forever," and he began to repeat the conversation which had taken place.

At a certain point George started, and, looking at his father with a shocked expression, asked, "Did you mean, sir, that you also would rather see me buried than married to a good woman whom I love?"

"That is your way of putting it," replied Mr. Houghton, somewhat disconcerted, for his son's tone and look smote him sorely. "You will understand my feelings better when you have heard that rebel's final words;" and he repeated them, ending with the sentences, "'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.' In this final remark I certainly do agree with him most emphatically," concluded the old man sternly. "Any human being, possessing a particle of self-respect, would prefer death to the humiliation and dishonor of seeking to force himself on such people."

"I suppose you are right, sir, but I cannot help having my own thoughts."

"Well, what are they?"

"That the girl has met in her home the same harsh, terrible opposition that I have found in mine."

"Undoubtedly, thank heaven! Whether she needed it or not she has evidently had the sense to take the wholesome medicine. The probabilities are, however, that she has laughed at the idea of receiving attentions so repugnant to her father and to me."

"No doubt," said George wearily. "Very well, there is a trace of a gentleman in my anatomy. I would like to leave town for a while."

"A very sensible wish, George," said his father kindly. "Go where you please, and take all the money you need. When you have come to see this affair in its true light come back to me. I will try to arrange my business so that we can make a visit North together in the early autumn."

"Very well, sir," and there was apathy in his tones. After a moment he added, "Please give me some work this morning."

"No, my boy. Go and make your preparations at once. Divert your thoughts into new channels. Be a resolute man for a few days, and then your own manhood will right you as a boat is righted when keeled over by a sudden gust."

George was not long in forming the same plan which Clancy had adopted. He would go to the mountains in the interior, fish, hunt and tramp till the fever in his blood subsided. He told his father of his purpose.

"All right, George. I only wish I were young and strong enough to go with you. It will not be long before you will see that I have had at heart only what was best for you."

"I hope so, father; I truly do, for I have had a new, strange experience. Even yet I can scarcely comprehend that you and Mr. Bodine could speak to your children, and dictate to them in matters relating to their happiness as you both have done. It savors more of feudal times than of this free age."

"In all times, George, the hasty passions and inconsiderate desires of the young, when permitted gratification, have led to a lifetime of wretchedness. But we need not refer to this matter again. Bodine's final words have settled it for all time."

"It would certainly seem so," said young Houghton. "Well, I will make my preparations to start to-morrow."

His first step was to go direct to Mrs. Willoughby, and his dejected expression revealed to the lady that her anticipations of strong opposition were correct.

"I won't annoy you," she said, as George sat down and looked at her with troubled eyes, "by that saying of complacently sagacious people, 'I told you so.' You may tell me all if you wish."

"I do so wish, for I fear my way is blocked." And he related all that had occurred. When he ended with Bodine's final words she said thoughtfully, "Such language as that, combined with Ella's message, does seem to end the affair."

"Well, I know this much," he replied ruefully, "I am a gentleman. No matter what it costs me I must continue to be one."

"Yes, Mr. Houghton, you have acted like a gentleman, and, as you say, you must continue to do so. Let me congratulate and thank you for keeping your temper."

"I nearly lost it when I learned that my father had discharged Mr. Bodine."

"I understand how you felt then. You were sorely tried as I feared. Have you any reason to think that Ella feels in any such way as you do?"

"None at all. My best hope was, that with time and opportunity I could awaken like regard. While not at all sanguine, I would have made every effort in my power to win her respect and love. But now what can I do? If I take another step I must forfeit my father's love and confidence, which is far more to me than his money. I have at least brain and muscle enough to earn a living for us both. I fear, however, that such a course would kill the old gentleman. I could meet this problem by simply waiting if Ella cared for me, but she and her father have made it impossible to approach her again. She has said she would have nothing to do with me without her father's consent, and he has said that he would rather bury her than permit my attentions."

"Well, my friend, I see how it is, and I absolve you utterly. You can't go forward under the circumstances."

"No, for she would now probably meet any effort on my part with contempt, and agree with her father that a Northern man couldn't even appreciate words that were like a kick."

"Well, then, go to the mountains and forget all about it. If Ella had set her heart upon you as you have on her, and you both could be patiently constant, the future might have possibilities; but if I were a man I would make no further effort under the circumstances."

George went home with a heavy heart, and grimly entered upon the first hard battle of his life.

Ella tried to be her old mirthful self when she came down to breakfast that morning, and succeeded fairly well. In spite of her father's bitter words and opposition he had told her a truth that was like the sun in the sky. George Houghton loved her, and he had revealed his love in no underhand way. She was proud of him; she exulted over him, and, in the delicious pain of her own awakening heart, she forgot nearly everything except the fact that he loved her.

Bodine was perplexed by her manner and not wholly reassured. When she had kissed him good-by for the day, he said, "Cousin Sophy, perhaps our fears last night had little foundation. Ella does not seem cast down this morning."

The old lady shook her head and only remarked, "I hope it is not as serious as I feared."

"Why do you fear so greatly?"

"Suppose Ella does care for him more than we could wish, the fact you told her last night that this young fellow loves her, or thinks he does, would be very exhilarating. Oh, I know a woman's heart. We're all alike."

"Curse him!" muttered the captain.

"No, no, no, pray for your enemies. That's commanded, but not that we should marry our daughters to them. Dear Cousin Hugh, we must keep our comon-sense in this matter. This is probably Ella's first little love affair, and girls as well as boys often have two or three before they settle down. Ella will soon get over it, if we ignore the whole affair as far as possible. You have much to be thankful for, since neither of the young people is sly and underhanded. Never fear. That old Houghton will set his boy down more decidedly than you have Ella, and also send him out of town probably. This cloud will sink below the horizon before we are many months older. Perhaps Ella will mope a little for a time, but we must not notice it, and must make it as cheerful for her as possible. Charleston men are beginning to call on her, and she'll soon discover that there are others in the world besides George Houghton."

But the veteran halted to his work sore-hearted and angry. Strong-willed and decided as Mr. Houghton himself, he could not endure the truth that his daughter had looked with favor on one so intensely disagreeable to him. He, too, felt that such an alliance would stultify his life and all his past, that it would bring him into contempt with those whose respect he most valued. Young Houghton's coolness and resolute purpose to ignore his opposition, together with the fact that Ella was not indifferent, troubled him, and led to the determination to take the strongest measures within his power to prevent further complications. This resolve accounted for his visit to Mr. Houghton's office and the words he uttered there. His employer, however, had aroused his anger to the last degree, and he returned home in a rage.

Mrs. Bodine listened quietly to his recital of what had occurred, and then said, with her irrepressible little laugh, "Well, it was Greek meeting Greek. You both fired regular broadsiders. Cool off, Cousin Hugh. Don't you see that all things are working for the best? Your rupture with old Houghton will only secure you greater favor with our people, and Ella be cured all the sooner of any weakness toward that old curmudgeon's son."

"I should hope so," said her father most emphatically.

"Don't you be harsh to Ella. We can laugh her out of this fancy much better than scold or threaten her out of it."

"I shall not do either," said Bodine gravely. "I shall tell her the facts and then trust to her love, loyalty and good sense. It has been no laughing matter to me."

Ella's cheerfulness and happiness grew apace all the morning. "To think that I should have brought that great Vandal to my feet so soon!" she thought, smiling to herself. "Dear me! Why can't people let bygones be bygones? Now if I could see him, naturally what a chase I could lead him! If he thinks I'll put my two hands together and say, 'Please, sir, don't exert yourself. The weather is too warm for that. Behold thine handmaid,' he will be so mistaken that he will make some poor dinners. I'd be bound to keep him sighing like a furnace for a time. Well, well, I fear we both will have to do a lot of sighing, but time and patience see many changes. As Aun' Sheba says, he's on ''bation,' and, if he holds out, our stern fathers may eventually see that the best way to be happy themselves is to make us happy. He thinks I'm a very frigid representative of the Southern people. Wouldn't he dance a jig if he knew? Well, speed thee on, old Father Time, and touch softly obdurate hearts." Thus with the hopefulness of youth she looked forward.

Mara regarded her with misgivings, but asked no questions. She also was sadly preoccupied with her own thoughts.

"Aun' Sheba," Ella said, as the old woman entered, "I rather like this ''bation' scheme of yours. I think of putting myself on ''bation.'"

"Oh, you go long, honey. Doan you make light ob serus tings."

"I'm doing nothing of the kind, Aun' Sheba. I've too much respect for you."

"Oh, well, honey, sich as you gits 'ligion jes as you did de measles. It's kin ob bawn an' baptize inter yez wen you doan know it. But I'se got to hab a po'ful conwiction ob sin fust, an' dats de trouble wid me. I says to myself, 'Aun' Sheba, you'se a wile sinner. Why doan you cry an' groan, an' hab a big conwiction? Den you feel mo' shuah;' but de conwiction won' come no how. Sted ob groanin' I gits sleepy."

"Well, I think I've got a conviction, Aun' Sheba, and I'm not a bit sleepy."

"I don't know what you dribin at. Bettah be keerful how you talk, honey."

"I think so too, Ella."

"Oh, Mara! you take such 'lugubrious' views, as I heard some one say. There, Aun' Sheba! I'll sober down some day."