Chapter XXXII. False Self-Sacrifice
 

Ella was very much surprised to find her father reading in the parlor when she returned home. "Why papa!" she cried, with misgivings of trouble, "are you not well?"

"I cannot say that I am, Ella, but my pain is mental rather than physical. Mr. Houghton dismissed me with insults from his service this morning."

Ella flushed scarlet. "Where was young Mr. Houghton?" she asked indignantly.

"Sent to Coventry, probably. He evidently did not dare put in an appearance."

She sat down and drew a long breath.

"Ella," said her father very gravely, "I shall not treat you as a child. You have compelled me to recognize that you are no longer the little girl that had grown so gradually and lovingly at my side."

"Papa," cried Ella, "I am not less lovingly at your side to-day."

"I hope so. I shall believe it if, with the spirit which becomes your birth, you do take your place at my side in unrelenting hostility to these Houghtons who have heaped insult upon us, the son by rash, headlong action which he would soon regret, and the father by insufferable insolence. But you shall judge for yourself." And he began, as Mr. Houghton had done, to repeat what had passed between them.

At the same terrible words which had smitten George, she also cried, "Papa, did you say you would rather bury me?"

"Yes," said the veteran sternly, "and I would rather be buried myself. You must remember that I am at heart a soldier and not a trader. I could not survive dishonor to you or myself; and any relation except that of enmity to these Houghtons would humiliate me into the very mire. What's more, Mr. Houghton feels in the same way about his son. I am not one whit more averse than he is. He virtually said that he would disinherit and cast out his son should he continue to offend by seeking your hand. I, in return, told him that if the sentimental boy had even the trace of a gentleman in his anatomy he would leave us alone. Now you can measure the gravity of the situation. The name of our ancestors, the sacred cause for which I and so many that I loved perilled and lost life, forbid that I should take any other course. Turn from this folly and all will be serene and happy soon. I can obtain a position elsewhere. Surely, Ella, you are too true a Southern girl to have given your heart unsought, unasked to your knowledge till last night. Your very pride should rescue you from such a slough as this."

The girl had turned pale and red as he spoke. Now she rose and said falteringly: "Papa, I'm no hypocrite. As I told you last night, I will do nothing whatever without your consent."

"You will never have my consent even to speak to that fellow."

"Very well then," she said quietly, "that ends it."

So apparently it did. Ella went to her room and for a few moments indulged in a passion of grief. "Oh, to think," she moaned, "that fathers can say to their children that they would rather bury them than give up the bitterness of an old and useless enmity! It is indeed all ended, for he would never look at me again after papa's words." In a few moments she added, "Mine also, mine also, for I said, 'Tell him I will do nothing without papa's consent.' Well, I only hope he can get over it easier than I can."

She soon washed the traces of tears from her eyes and muttered: "I won't show the white feather anyhow, even if I haven't Aun's Sheba's comfort of being on ''bation.'" And she marched down to dinner with the feeling of a soldier who has a campaign rather than a single battle before him.

There was a little stiffness at first; but Mrs. Bodine, with her fine tact, soon began to banish this, and the old lady was pleased that Ella seconded her efforts so readily. Bodine was a man and a straightforward soldier, honest in his views and actions, however mistaken they might be. He had not feminine quickness in outward self-recovery, and the waves of his strong feeling could only subside gradually. He soon began to congratulate himself, however, that his strong measures had led to a most fortunate escape, and he admitted the truth of his cousin's words that young girls were subject to sudden attacks of romantic sentiment before they were fairly launched into society.

As the days passed these impressions were strengthened, for Ella appeared merrier than ever before. Mrs. Bodine kept pace with her nonsense which at times even verged on audacity, and the veteran began to laugh as he had done before the "Houghton episode," as he now characterized it in his mind. Mrs. Bodine, however, began to observe little things in Ella which troubled her.

On the morning following that of Bodine's dismissal, Mara saw at once from Ella's expression that something unpleasant had occurred.

"What has happened?" she asked anxiously.

"Oh, we've had an earthquake at our house," was the somewhat bitter reply. Fondly as she loved Mara, Ella stood in no awe of her whatever, and her heart was almost bursting from the strong repression into which she knew she must school herself for the sake of her father.

"Please, Ella, don't talk riddles."

"Well, papa and old Houghton have had a regular pitched battle; papa has been discharged, and is now a gentleman of leisure."

"Shameful! What earthly reason could that old wretch--"

"I'm the earthly reason."

"Ella, don't tantalize me."

"Well, that misguided little boy, who must stand six feet in his stockings, had the preposterous presumption--there's alliteration for you, but nothing else is equal to the case--to ask papa if he might pay his addresses to me. Isn't that the conventional phrase? At the bare thought both of our papas went off like heavy columbiads, and we poor little children have been blown into space."

"Oh, Ella I how can you speak so!" cried Mara indignantly. "The idea of associating your father with that man Houghton in your thoughts! It does indeed seem that no one can have anything to do with such Yankees as come to this city--"

"There now, Mara," said Ella a little irritably, "I haven't Aun' Sheba's grace of self-depreciation. I haven't been conjured into a monster by Northern associations, and I haven't lost my common-sense. I don't associate papa with old Houghton, as no one should know better than you. No daughter ever loved father more than I love papa. What's more, I've given him a proof of it, which few daughters are called upon to give. But I'm not a fool. The same faculties which enable me to know that you are Mara Wallingford reveal to me with equal clearness that papa and Mr. Houghton have acted in much the same way."

"Could you imagine for a moment that your father would permit the attentions of that young Houghton?"

"Certainly I could imagine it. If papa had come to me and said, 'Ella, I have learned beyond doubt that Mr. Houghton is sly, mean, unscrupulous, or dissipated,' I should have dropped him as I would a hot poker. Instead of all this the Vandal goes to papa like a gentleman, tells him the truth, intrusts him with the message of his regard for me, and promises that if papa will tell me he will not--also promises that he will not make the slightest effort to win my favor without papa's knowledge. Then he told his own father about his designs upon the little baker. Then both of our loving papas said in chorus of us silly children, 'We'll see 'em buried first.'"

"I don't wonder your father said so," Mara remarked sternly.

"Well, I wonder, and I can't understand it," cried Ella, bursting into a passion of tears.

"There now, Ella," Mara began soothingly, "you will see all in the true light when you have had time to think it over. Remember how old Houghton is looked upon in this city. Consider his intense hostility to us."

"I've nothing to say for him," sobbed Ella.

"Well, it would be said that your father had permitted you to marry the son of this rich old extortioner for the sake of his money. Your action would throw discredit on all your father's life and devotion to a cause--"

"Which is dead as Julius Caesar," Ella interrupted.

"But which is as sacred to us," continued Mara very gravely, "as the memory of our loved and honored dead."

"I don't believe our loved and honored dead would wish useless unhappiness to continue indefinitely. What earthly good can ever result from this cherished bitterness and enmity? Oh, mamma, mamma! I wish you had lived, for you would have understood the love which forgives and heals the wounds of the past."

"Ella, can you have given your love to this alien and almost stranger?"

"I have at least given him my respect and admiration," she replied, rising and wiping her eyes before resuming her work. Suddenly she paused, and in a serio-comic attitude she pointed with the roller as she said, "Mara, suppose you insisted that that kitchen table was a cathedral, would it be a cathedral to me? No more so than that your indiscriminate prejudices against Northern people are grand, heroic, or based on truth. So there, now. I've got to unburden my feelings somewhere; although I expect sympathy from no one, I believe in the angels' song of 'Peace on earth and good will toward men.'"

"I fear your good will toward one man," said Mara, very sadly, "is taking you out of sympathy with those who love you, and who have the best and most natural right to your love."

"See how mistaken you are! I shall never be out of sympathy with you, papa, or Cousin Sophy. But how can I sympathize with some of your views when God has given me a nature that revolts at them? If you ever love a good man, God and your own heart will teach you what a sacred thing it is. What if I am poor, and lacking in graces and accomplishments, I know I have an honest, loving nature. Think of that old man Houghton condemning and threatening his son, as if he had committed a vile crime in his most honorable intentions toward me! Well, well, it's all over. I've given my word to papa that I'll do nothing without his consent, and he'll see me buried before he'll give it. Don't you worry, I'm not going to pine and live on moonshine. I'll prove that I'm a Bodine in my own way."

"Yes, Ella, you will, and eventually it will be in the right way."

"Mara, what I have said is in confidence, and since I've had my say I'd rather not talk about it any more."

Mara was glad enough to drop the subject, for Ella had been saying things to which her own heart echoed most uncomfortably. She and Mrs. Hunter accepted Mrs. Bodine's invitation to dine that evening, and, in her sympathy for Bodine, was kinder to him than ever, thus reviving his hopes and deepening his feelings.

Time passed, bringing changes scarcely perceptible on the surface, yet indicating to observant eyes concealed and silent forces at work. And these were observant eyes; Mrs. Bodine saw that Ella was masking feelings and memories to which no reference was made. Ella began to observe that her father's demeanor toward Mara was not the same as that by which he manifested his affection for her. While she was glad for his sake, and hoped that Mara would respond favorably, she had an increased sense of injustice that he should seek happiness in a way forbidden to her. The thought would arise, "I am not so much to him after all."

One day, near the end of July, Ella, her father, Mrs. Hunter and Mara, were on the Battery, sitting beneath the shade of a live oak. The raised promenade, overlooking the water, was not far away, and among the passers-by Mara saw Clancy and Miss Ainsley approaching. Apparently they were absorbed in each other, but, when opposite, Clancy turned and looked her full in the face. She gave no sign of recognition nor did he. That mutual and unobserved encounter of their eyes set its seal on their last interview. They were strangers.

"There goes a pair, billing and cooing," said Ella with a laugh.

"Mara, don't you feel well?" asked the captain anxiously. "You look very pale."

"I felt the heat very much to-day," she replied evasively. "I am longing for August and rest."

"Oh, Mara! let us shut up shop at once," cried Ella. "Papa is at leisure now and we can make little expeditions down the bay, out to Summerville and elsewhere."

"No," Mara replied, "I would rather do just what we agreed upon. It's only a few days now."

"You are as sot as the everlasting hills."

Mara was silent, and glad indeed that her quiet face gave no hint of the tumult in her heart.

Mrs. Hunter's eyes were angrily following Clancy and Miss Ainsley. "Well," she said, with a scornful laugh, "that renegade Southerner has found his proper match in that Yankee coquette. I doubt whether he gets her though, if a man ever does get a born flirt. When she's through with Charleston she'll be through with him, if all I hear of her is true."

"Oh, you're mistaken, Mrs. Hunter," Ella answered. "She fairly dotes on him, and if he don't marry her he's a worse flirt than she is. Think of Mr. Clancy's blue blood. She undoubtedly appreciates that."

"I'm inclined to think that he was a changeling, and that old Colonel Clancy's child was spirited away."

"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Hunter, but I differ with you. While I cannot share in many of Mr. Clancy's views and affiliations, he has the reputation of being sincere and straightforward. Even his enemies must admit that he seeks to make his friendliness to the North conducive to Southern interests."

Mara's heart smote her that even Captain Bodine had been fairer to Clancy than she had been.

Words rose to Ella's lips, but she repressed them, and soon afterward they returned to their respective homes.

Mara early retired to the solitude of her own room, for that cold mutual glance on the Battery had suggested a new thought not yet entertained. In her mental excitement it promised to banish the dreary stagnation of her life. She must have a motive, and if it involved the very self-sacrifice that she had been warned against, so much the better.

"It would teach Owen Clancy how futile were his words," she said to herself. "It would bring happiness to my father's friend; it would become a powerful incentive in my own life, and, above all, would compel me to banish the thought of one to whom I have said I will never speak again."

The more she dwelt upon this course, the more clear it became in her warped judgment the one path of escape from an aimless, hopeless existence fast becoming unendurable. She was not by any means wholly selfish in reaching her decision, for thoughts of her own need did not predominate. "If I cannot be happy myself," she reasoned, "I can make Captain Bodine happy, for there could not be a more devoted wife than I will become, if he puts into words the language of his eyes. Ella has already ceased to be in true sympathy with him in matters that have made so much of the warp and woof of his life. We two are one in these respects. I can and will cast out all else if my motive is strong enough."