Chapter XXXV. Noble Revenge
 

George Houghton took to the mountain solitudes a better and purer spirit than Clancy, who was so ready to be consoled by ambition and the fascinations of a woman incapable of evoking the best in his nature. The young fellow did fish and hunt with tireless energy, and many a humble cabin was stocked with provisions by his exertions. Believing that not only Bodine, but also that Ella herself, would have nothing to do with him, his affectionate nature turned to his father. With a large charity he tried to forget the stern words which had sorely wounded him, and only to remember the influences on his father's life which had led to their utterance. He recalled the abundant proofs of his kindness and liberality; and, now that his young dream was over, he purposed to carry out the old man's schemes as best he could.

He tired himself out through the long hot days, and slept at night from exhaustion. The time thus passed until he felt that he had the strength to return to the city, and act as if Ella did not dwell there. He also thought of his father's need of help, and regretted that he had remained away so long.

The old man looked at him keenly when he returned, seeing that the young face had grown older by years, and that steadiness of purpose and resolution were in its every bronzed line.

"It's all right, father," George replied to the questioning glance. "I've come back to carry out your wishes."

"Ah, my boy! now I know that you are made of the same stuff as your brother. Well, you won't be sorry."

"I wish to leave this town, and I wish you would too. I don't think it's good for you to be here."

"I'll think of it, George. I have thought of it. I shouldn't be mulish since you are not."

"I'm glad you feel so about leaving, father. Go back with me to your old congenial friends and surroundings. I, for one, don't wish to stay where I am ostracized."

"Oh, curse the rebels! I've punished them! I've punished them well!"

"I don't wish to punish them; but, since they will have nothing to do with me, a decent self-respect leads me to go where I can be treated according to my behavior."

"I know you can't feel as I do. All I ask is that you have nothing to do with them."

For the next few days, regardless of the heat, George toiled early and late in his father's office, incited by the hope of soon taking the old man away on a visit to the more bracing climate of the North. In the evenings he refreshed himself by a long swim in the harbor, and by sailing his boat over its waters.

One evening, while enjoying the latter favorite pastime in the early twilight, it so happened that he caught sight, in a passing boat, of a group which made his heart throb quickly. In the stern sat Captain Bodine steering the vessel toward the city. Ella was near him, and two ladies whom he did not know. As a hunter his eyes were keen, and he was satisfied that he had not been recognized. He could not resist the temptation to get a better view of Ella, and, drawing his hat over his eyes, he began to manoeuvre his boat so as to accomplish his purpose.

His little craft skimmed here and there so swiftly, as he tacked, that Ella at last began to watch it with a pleased yet languid interest, remarking, "That boat yonder tacks about and sails as if it were alive."

"Yah, yah, so 'tis alibe," said the negro owner of the craft which Bodine had hired for their excursion. "Young Marse Houghton sail dat boat, an' he beats any duck dat eber swum."

Ella's breath came quick, and she turned pale and red in her conflicting feelings, for it was evident that Houghton was purposely keeping near to them. She saw the frown on her father's face, and that Mara's expression was grave. Mrs. Hunter indignantly said, "He had better go on and mind his own business. Why should old Houghton's son be hovering around us like a hawk, I'd like to know?"

"The harbor is as free to him as to us," Ella answered, hotly.

Mrs. Hunter pursed her lips and looked unutterable things at the girl, but she regarded neither the matron's sour expression nor her father's stern glance, for her eyes were fascinated and held by the vessel which sped along the water like a white-winged gull. No one except Ella and the colored man continued the observance of Houghton. The girl was in a perverse mood, and watched until her father rebukingly spoke her name; then she turned away.

Meanwhile George gazed wistfully at one whom he believed that he might never see again; for he and his father were almost ready for their visit North, where the young man was to remain. Then he saw her steady gaze in his direction. Could she have recognized him? Did she continue to watch him because of some faint interest? His pulses quickened at the thought. After a few moments he said bitterly: "Yes, she knows me at last, and turns away. Very well, away go I, then."

At this moment he caught a glimpse of the western sky, and his sailor instincts were alarmed. There was a single dark cloud rising rapidly, portending not a storm, but sudden, violent gusts. In the gathering gloom all thought of vanishing was abandoned. No matter how Ella regarded him, he would not be far away while there was a shadow of danger to her. Examining his sail carefully he knew he could drop it to the point of safety at a moment's notice.

The wind on which he had been sailing died out. Then came little puffs from the west. To catch these the colored skipper of the captain's boat took the helm and tacked, presenting a broad surface of sail to their force. Houghton tacked also in the same direction, but with his eye on the westward water, and his hand on the rope which would bring down his sail with a run. He speedily had need of this caution. There was a distant roar, the water shoreward darkened, and then, as his sail came down and the prow of his boat went round to the gust, he was enveloped in a cloud of spray. At the same instant shrill screams of women and the hoarse cries of men came from Bodine's vessel.

The fury of the first gust passed quickly. When the atmosphere cleared a little, Houghton saw that the mast of the other craft had broken, and, with the sail, lay over on the leeward side. He instantly knew that the occupants were in imminent danger. Raising his sail as high as he dared, he tacked toward them with such nice judgment that if he kept on he would pass a little abaft of the disabled vessel.

"Oh, Marse Houghton! come quick," yelled the negro. "She'm won' float anoder minit!"

"Bail, you lubber!"

"Don got notin to bail wid!"

"As usual," growled Houghton.

All the rest were now silent. In his agonized apprehension for Mara and Ella, Bodine felt his heart beat as it had never done in the bloodiest battle. His careless boatman had not recognized the danger since the cloud was so comparatively small, and when he sought to lower the sail something was out of gear and it stuck. The gust struck it fairly, and would have capsized the boat had not the mast broken. As it was, the vessel so careened as to ship a dangerous quantity of water, which was rapidly increased by every wave that broke over the sides.

Mara and Mrs. Hunter were pallid indeed, but calm in woman's patient fortitude, remembering, too, even in that awful moment, that if they escaped they would owe their lives to one whom they regarded with scorn and hostility. Ella's hope buoyed her spirit, although she felt herself sinking deeper every moment in the cold waters. With love's confidence she believed that Houghton would be equal to the emergency, and his swiftly coming sail was like the white wings of an angel. Then for an instant she was perplexed and troubled, for he seemed to be steering as if to pass them, near, yet much too far.

"She'm sinkin', she'm goin' un'er," the negro yelled.

"Be ready, every one, to jump the moment I lay alongside," Houghton shouted. Then he luffed sharply to the wind, dropped his sail; his light craft lost headway, and glided alongside of the sinking boat.

"Now jump, all," he cried.

The women and negro did so and were safe, but the crippled veteran failed, fell backward, and would have dragged Ella, who held his hand, with him, had not Houghton broken her grasp. As quick as light he sprang into the vessel, now down to the water's edge, and fairly flung the captain into his own boat. As he did so the water-logged craft went down, and he with it. Ella shrieked and called his name imploringly. In the wild anguish of the moment she would have jumped overboard after him had she not been restrained.

"Patience," cried her father, "he will rise in a moment."

Houghton's little boat, now so heavily freighted, had almost gone under in the suction. The negro, rendered half wild with terror, was bent only on saving his own life. He was scarcely in the boat before he had the oars in the rowlocks, and began to pull for the shore. In their eager scanning of the dark water, Bodine and the others did not notice this at first, and when they did the negro was deaf to their expostulations and threats. The captain tried to reach him as he heaped maledictions on his head, but at that instant another squall swooped down, enshrouding them in spray, and nearly swamping their frail vessel. They sat silent and trembling, expecting Houghton's fate, but the gust passed finally, and the lights of the city gleamed out.

"Now put about, you--coward," thundered Bodine.

"No, sah, neber," replied the negro; "de boat swamp in two mi nit if I put 'bout in dis sea."

The veteran began to crawl toward him to compel obedience. The man shouted: "Stop dat ar. Ef you comes nigher I hit you wid'n oar. Bettah one drown dan we all drown."

Ella gave a despairing cry, and found oblivion in a deathlike swoon.

"Truly, Captain Bodine," said Mrs. Hunter sternly, "you must keep your senses. If the man is right, and we have every reason to believe he is, you must not throw away all our lives for the chance of saving one."

Then she, with Mara, gave all her attention to Ella.

The captain groaned aloud, "Would to God it had been me instead of him!" Between his harrowing solicitude for Ella, and the awful belief that Houghton had given his life for him, he passed moments which whitened his hair.

As they neared the landing the water grew stiller, and their progress more rapid. Assured of safety, the negro began to reason and apologize. "Mus' be reas'n'ble, boss," he said. "I dun declar ter you dat we'd all be at de bottom, feedin' fishes, if I'd dun wot you ax. Been no use nohow. Young Marse Houghton mus' got cotched in de riggin' or he'd come up an' holler. I couldn't dibe a'ter 'im in de dark, and in dat swashin' sea."

"Stop your cursed croaking. If you had known how to manage your boat it wouldn't have happened."

"I dun my bes', boss. S'pose I want ter lose my boat an' my life? I'se jis' busted, an' I kin neber go out on de harbor agin widout fearin' I see young Marse Houghton's spook. I'se wus off dan you is, but I'se he'p you wen we gits asho', if you ain't 'tankerous."

"Certainly you must help us," said Mrs. Hunter, decidedly. "You must get men and a carriage. Captain Bodine has lost his crutches, and his daughter is in a swoon. If you help us I will testify that you did the best you could under the circumstances."

"All right, missus. I kin swar dat it ud been death to hab dun any oder ting."

The carriage was brought, and men lifted into it the unconscious girl and the almost equally helpless veteran. Then one mounted the box with the driver and another ran for a physician, who was directed to go to Mrs. Bodine's residence. The negro carefully moored Houghton's boat, feeling that there might be something propitiatory to the dreaded ghost in this act. He then hastened to his humble cabin, and filled the cars of his family and neighbors with lamentations over the lost boat and lost man, and also with self-gratulations that he was alive to tell the story.

On the way home, Mara took the stricken veteran's hand and said: "Captain, you must bear up under this. In no respect have you been to blame."

"Nevertheless," he replied, and there was almost desperation in his tone: "I feel that it will prove the most terrible misfortune of my life. Ella may never be herself again, and I have wronged one to whom I can never make reparation--a noble, generous boy who has taken a revenge like himself, but which is scorching my very soul."

"You are noble yourself, captain, or you wouldn't feel it so keenly," was the gentle reply.

Mrs. Bodine, without waiting for explanations, peremptorily ordered that Ella should be carried to her room. The veteran, using a second pair of crutches which he kept in reserve, went to the adjoining apartment, buried his face in his hands, and groaned audibly. He knew not how to perform one imperative and pressing duty, that of relating to Mr. Houghton what had happened.

Aware of what was on his mind, Mara came to him and said, "I will go and tell his father."

"God bless you, Mara, for the offer. I would rather face death than that old man, but it is my duty and I alone must do it. Hard as it is, it is not so terrible as the thought that the poor boy died for me and mine, and that I can never make the acknowledgment which his heroic self-sacrifice deserves. It would have been heroic in any man, but in him whom I had treated with such bitter scorn and enmity--How can I meet Ella's eyes again! Oh, I fear, I fear all this will destroy her!"

"Courage, my friend," said Mara, putting her hand on his shoulder. "Ella will live to comfort you."

"Mara, you will not fail me?"

"No, I will not fail you."

He pressed her hand to his lips, and then she returned to Ella.

Mrs. Hunter and old Hannah removed the poor girl's wet garments and applied restoratives. The invalid, whose strength and spirit rose with the emergency, directed their efforts, meantime listening to the fragmentary explanations which were possible at such a time.

"Oh, just God!" she exclaimed, "we are punished, terribly punished for our thoughts and actions toward that poor boy. Ella, dear child, was right after all, and we all wrong. She might well love such a hero."

At last Ella gave signs of returning consciousness. Mrs. Bodine hastened to the captain, and said: "Cousin Hugh, Ella is reviving. You must control yourself. Everything depends on how we tide her over the next few hours."

The length of the swoon revealed the force of the blow which the loving girl had received. Perhaps the long oblivion was nature's kindly effort to ward off the crushing weight. Mrs. Bodine hung over her when she opened her eyes with a dazed expression. "There, Ella dear," she said, "don't worry. You'll soon be better. Take this," and she gave the girl a little brandy and water.

The powerful stimulant acted speedily on an unvitiated system, and with returning strength memory recalled what had befallen the one she loved. From tears she passed to passionate sobs, writhing and moaning, as if the agony of her spirit had communicated itself to every fibre of her body.

"Oh, Ella, darling, don't," cried her father. "I cannot endure this. He has conquered me utterly; my prejudice is turned into homage. We will all love and revere his memory. Would to God it had been I instead of him!"

"There, Hugh, thank God," said Mrs. Bodine, "that Ella can weep. Such tears keep the heart from breaking."

The old lady was right. Expression of her anguish brought alleviation, and there was also consolation in her father's words. The physician came, and his remedies also had their effect.

There was nothing morbid or unhealthful in Ella's nature. With returning reason came also the influence of conscience and the sustaining power of a brave, unselfish spirit. Her father had put himself in accord with her feelings, and her heart began to go out toward him in tenderness and consideration, and she said brokenly: "Papa, I will rally. I will live for your sake, since you will let me love his memory."

"You cannot love it or honor it more than I shall," he replied, in a voice choked with emotion. Then he took the physician into the adjoining room, to consult how best they might break the dreadful news to Mr. Houghton.

At this moment the front door burst open, and hasty, uncertain steps were heard.