Chapter XXXVI. A Father's Frenzy
 

Mr. Houghton knew that his son had gone out sailing in the harbor, and, when the gusts swept over the city, became very anxious about him. He was aware, however, of George's good seamanship, and tried to allay his fears by thoughts of this nature. As time lapsed, anxiety passed into alarm and dread foreboding. At last he summoned his coachman, and determined to go to the place where his son moored his boat. As he was about to prepare himself for the street, there were two hasty rings of the door-bell. He sank into a chair, overcome by the awful fear which, for a moment, robbed him of strength.

Now it had so happened that one of his younger clerks had been on the Battery when the rescued party reached it, and he had gathered little more from the colored boatman than that young Houghton had been drowned in saving Bodine and the ladies with him. His first impulse was to go to tell his employer, and he started to carry out this purpose. On his way he remembered that, in horror over the event, he had not stopped to ask fuller particulars, and he turned back to question the negro more fully. When he reached George's boat he found that the man had gone, and that the small crowd which had gathered had dispersed. With a heavy heart he again started for Mr. Houghton's residence, regretting sadly that it was his duty to communicate the terrible news. His feelings increased to a nervous dread by the time he reached Mr. Houghton's door. He feared the stern old man, and believed that he would always be associated with the tragedy, and so become abhorrent in the eyes of his employer. But, as the thing must be done, the sooner it was over the better.

The colored waiter admitted the trembling form, and exclaimed, "O Lawd! what happen?"

"I wish to see Mr. Houghton."

"Bring him up," shouted the old man hoarsely. "Well," he gasped as the clerk entered.

"Mr. Houghton, I'm very sorry--"

"For God's sake, out with it!"

"Well, sir, I fear Mr. George--"

"Drowned!" shrieked the father.

The young clerk was silent and appalled.

"Oh, curse that harbor! Curse that harbor!" the old man groaned.

"Perhaps, sir," faltered the clerk, "Mr. Bodine can--"

"Bodine! Bodine! what in hell had he to do with it?"

"I could not learn the particulars beyond that Mr. George was--was--in saving Mr. Bodine, his daughter, and two other ladies--"

"Now may all the infernal powers blast that rebel!" and the old man rushed down the stairway.

The frightened clerk and waiter followed hastily, and restrained him as he was opening the front door.

"Sir, dear sir, be patient--"

"Now, Marse Houghton, wot you gwine ter do?" cried the negro.

"I'm going straight to that damned Bodine."

"Den, Marse Houghton, you mus ride. Sam's puttin' de bosses to de kerrige dis minit."

Houghton instantly darted through the house and out to the stable. "Haste!" he thundered, "haste, you snail!"

The waiter helped Sam, and in a moment or two the carriage rumbled away, the waiter on the box with the coachman, and the clerk inside with the frenzied father.

It was his steps which had startled Bodine and the physician, and they opened the door facing the landing as the old man came rushing up, crying hoarsely, "Where's my boy?"

"Where I wish I was," replied Bodine gravely.

The doctor was a strong and decided man. A glance showed him that Mr. Houghton was excited almost to the point of insanity. Seizing his hand the doctor drew the old man into the room, and with gentle force placed him in a chair. Never for a moment, however, did Mr. Houghton take his fiery eyes from Bodine, who, now that he was in the stress of the emergency, maintained his sad composure perfectly. Only a soldier whose nerves had been steeled in battle could have looked upon the half-demented man so quietly, for he presented a terrible spectacle. His white hair was dishevelled, and his eyes had the ferocity of a lioness robbed of her young. Foam gathered at his lips as he began again:

"Curse your ill-omened face! Such men as you are worse than a pestilence. As a rebel was there not enough blood on your hands? He saved you, why couldn't you do something to save him?"

"Mr. Houghton, I did try. I would have perilled even the lives of women."

"You have virtually murdered him, sir. Did you not say that if he had the trace of a gentleman in his anatomy he would leave you and yours alone? He would rather drown than go ashore with you."

Ella could not help hearing his loud, harsh words, and her long, wailing cry was their echo.

At this instant Mrs. Bodine burst into the room, and her slender form seemed to dilate until a consciousness of her presence filled the apartment. Her face was more than stern. It wore the commanding expression of a high-born woman roused to the full extent of an unusually strong nature. Her dark eyes had an overmastering fire, and her withered cheeks were red with blood direct from her heart.

"Listen to me, sir," she said imperiously, "and stop your raving. Do not forget for another instant that you are a man, and that there are women in this house whom you are wounding by your brutal words. You, yourself, in very truth will commit murder, if you do not become sane. Did you not hear that cry? fit response to language that is like a bludgeon. How are you worse off than I, who have lost husband, sons, all? Have you not said to your boy as cruel things as Captain Bodine has said? This son of yours was too noble, too generous, too lofty for either you or us to understand in our damnable prejudices and blind hate. Come with me," and, seizing his hand, she dragged him to where Ella lay, white as death. "There," she resumed in the same impetuous yet clear-cut tones, "is as pure and good a girl as ever God created. Was loving her a crime? Go home, and ask God to forgive you, to take you where your son is in His good time. That poor child is the real victim. Unless you are mad indeed you will ask her forgiveness, and go quietly away."

The old man trembled like a leaf, swayed to and fro between his fierce conflicting emotions, and then left the house as hastily as he had entered. As he did so, Ella called after him feebly, but her voice was unheard.

The clerk and the colored waiter stood at the open door, and received Mr. Houghton's tottering form. "Home," he gasped.

In renewed dread they bore him to his carriage, which Sam drove rapidly away. By the time he reached his residence he was in almost a fainting condition, and was carried to his bed. The waiter, who also acted in the capacity of valet at times, gave the old man stimulants, as he said to the clerk, "Go for Dr. Devoe: Sam dribe you. Bring 'im wid you quick."

The old man at last lay still, breathing heavily, and half-consciously making an instinctive struggle for existence. The shock of his passion and the weight of an immeasurable loss had been almost beyond endurance to a man of his age and of his volcanic nature. His physician was soon at his side, and, with some degree of success, put forth all his skill to rally his exhausted patient. He at last succeeded in producing a certain degree of lethargy, which, in benumbing the brain, brought respite from mental agony.

The impression of Bodine and all the others with him that young Houghton had been drowned was natural and almost inevitable. They had seen him disappear beneath the water, and that was the last that was seen or heard. The boatman's explanation that the young man had become entangled in the rigging of the sunken vessel seemed the only way of accounting for the fact that he did not rise again and strike out for his own boat. The words of Mr. Houghton, recalling that final sentence of Bodine's, which had destroyed George's hope and made him feel that he could not approach Ella again, had greatly augmented the veteran's distress. The thought, once lodged, could not be banished that the youth, in his wounded pride, might have silently chosen to brave every danger in order to prove that he was a "gentleman," and that he would "leave them alone," even at the cost of his life. This result of his harsh words was crushing to Bodine, and to escape from its intolerable weight he tried to entertain the hope that George had found some way of attaining safety as yet unknown.

The young man had not been drowned, although he had had an exceedingly narrow escape. It was not the rigging which so endangered his life. As he rose toward the surface his head struck the pole with which the negro was accustomed to push his boat around in the shallow water, and the blow was so stunning that he did no more than instinctively cling to the object which had injured him. It sustained his weight, but, in the wind-lashed waves and darkness, he and his support were unseen. The tide was running out swiftly, and he and the pole had been swept well astern, while Bodine looked at the spot where they thought he had sunk-a point from which the negro's frantic oar-strokes were rapidly taking them.

Gradually George's clouded senses cleared, and at last he recalled all that had occurred; far too late, however, for his voice to be heard. He shouted two or three time but soon recognized that his cries were lost in the dashing waves and howling wind. So far from giving way to panic, he encouraged himself with the hope that his effort to rescue Ella and those with her had not been in vain. Pointing the pole toward the city lights, he tried to make progress by striking out with his feet, but was soon convinced that he was exhausting himself to little purpose, for both wind and tide were against him. He therefore let himself float, hoping to be picked up by some vessel, or, at the worst, to land at Fort Sumter, which he deemed to be the nearest point of safety. Before very long he heard the throbbing of a steamer's engine, and soon her lights pierced the gloom. To get near enough to make his condition known without being run down was now his aim. She seemed to be coming directly toward him, and he thanked Heaven that the wind was dying out so that his voice might be heard.

As soon as he thought the steamer was within hailing distance he began to shout, "Ship ahoy!" No heed was given until the boat seemed to be almost upon him, and he swam, with his pole, desperately to the left to avoid her. Then inflating his lungs he shouted, "Help, if you are men and not devils!"

"Hallo there! Man overboard?"

"I should say so," thundered Houghton. "Slow up, and throw me a rope."

The wheels were reversed at once. A man near the bow seized a coil of rope and yelled, "Where are you?"

"Here!" cried Houghton, splashing the water with his hands.

The rope flew with a boatman's aim; George grasped it, and, with sailor-like dexterity, fastened the end around his body under his arms. Then laying hold of it also with his hands, he cried from the water almost under the wheel, "Pull."

In a moment or two he was on deck and besieged with questions. "Boat swamped in the squall," he replied briefly. "I kept afloat on a pole till you picked me up. There was another boat that I am anxious about. I'll go up in the pilot-house and keep a weather-eye open."

"Well, you're a cool one," said the captain.

"I've been in the water long enough to get cool. Would you mind lending me an overcoat or some wrap?" And he escaped from the gathering crowd to the pilot-house.

The vessel proved to be a little steamer which plied between the islands down the harbor and the city. "That was young Houghton," said one of the passengers.

"--him!" said another. "It's a pity he and his old money-griper of a dad are not both at the bottom."

Wrapped in the captain's greatcoat, George was as comfortable as his anxieties would permit. No sign of life was upon the dark waters. When the boat made her landing, he slipped out of his coat, leaped ashore, and, walking and running alternately, soon reached his father's house.

Opening the door with his latch-key, he stumbled on Jube, the waiter, who backed away from him with something like a yell of fear, believing that his young master had come back in ghostly guise.

"Shut up, you fool!" said George sternly. "Don't you know me?"

"O Lawd, Lawd! you ain't a spook, Marse George?"

"I'll box your ears in a way that will convince you--"

At this moment Dr. Devoe came hastily from the sickroom, and met George on the stairs. "Thank God!" exclaimed the physician, "you have escaped. Caution, now, caution. You must not show yourself to your father till I give permission."

"Has he heard? Is he very ill?" George asked, in deep anxiety.

"Yes, but he'll come through all right, now that you are alive, I've had to stupefy him partially. He was told that you had been drowned. Go change your clothes, and be ready when I want you. How did you escape?"

"Picked up by the steamer 'Firefly.' Did they escape?--I mean Mr. Bodine and his party."

"Yes; and, as far as I can make out, left you to drown."

When the physician returned Mr. Houghton roused a little, and asked, "What is the matter? Is George ill?"

"No, he's better."

The old man closed his eyes, and at last said dreamily, "Yes, he's better, better off in heaven."

"Mr. Houghton," said the doctor, kindly, "I've just heard that a man was picked up by the steamer running between the city and the islands. I don't give up hope yet."

"Hope! hope! Do you mean to say there is hope?"

"I do. If you will be patient we will soon know. I have taken steps to find out speedily."

"O God, be merciful! I don't see how I can long survive if he is dead."

Jube, satisfied that George was in the flesh, followed him to his room, and aided him in exchanging his wet clothes for dry ones, meanwhile answering the young man's rapid questions.

Touched to the very soul by the account of his father's frantic grief, George's thoughts centred on him, but he asked, "What happened at Mr. Bodine's?"

"Dunno, Marse George. Marse Houghton run up de stairs, an' dey took 'im in a room. Den I heerd loud talkin', an' soon he come runnin' out all kin ob gone like, and he gasp, 'Home.' We lif him in de kerrige, an Sam dribe as if de debil was arter 'im. Den we gits de doctor sudden."

Having dressed, George opened his desk and wrote:

"CAPTAIN BODINE,

"Sir--It may relieve you of some natural anxiety to learn that I escaped, and that I am well and at home. My father is very ill, and absolute quiet of mind and body is essential. GEORGE HOUGHTON."

Then he addressed a line to the editor of the daily paper:

"Rumors of an accident in the harbor and of my being drowned may reach you. This note is evidence that I am safe and well. I will esteem it a favor if no mention is made of the affair."

Despatching Sam with these two missives, he held himself in readiness for the summons to his father's bedside.

Dr. Devoe, in his efforts to save his patient from any more nervous shocks, administered another sedative, and then talked quietly of the probability of George's escape.

The old man's mind was far from clear, and in his half dreamy state was inclined to believe what was said to him. Then the physician pretended to hear the return of his messenger, and went out for a few moments. When he came back he saw Mr. Houghton's eyes dilating with fear and hope.

"Take courage, my friend," he said. "Great joys are dangerous as well as great sorrows. You must be calm for your son's sake as well as for your own. He has escaped, as I told you he might, and will see you when you feel strong enough."

"Now, now!"

A moment later the father's arms were about his boy. With gentle, soothing words and endearing terms George calmed the sobs of the aged man, whose stern eyes had been so unaccustomed to tears. At last he slept, holding his son's hand.

The clerk was dismissed with cordial thanks; George and the physician watched unweariedly, for the latter said that everything depended on the patient's condition when he awoke.