The Earth Trembled by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter XXXVII. Clouds Lifting
In Mrs. Bodine's humbler home there was another patient who also had found such respite as anodynes can bring. Ella's fair face had become like the purest marble in its whiteness, but the hot tears had ceased to flow, and the bosom which had heaved convulsively with anguish was now so still that the girl scarcely seemed to breathe at all. Captain Bodine, Mara, and old Hannah were the watchers. Mara now, for the first time, observed how white the veteran's iron-gray hair had become. He had grown old in a night, rather in an hour. The strong lines of his face were graven deep; his troubled eyes were sunken, giving a peculiarly haggard expression to his countenance.
Her heart was full of gentleness and sympathy toward him, and of this he was assured from time to time by her eloquent glances.
Mrs. Bodine was being cared for by Mrs. Hunter, for she was ill in the reaction from her strong excitement and unwonted exertion.
But few hours had passed when there was a ring at the door. All except Ella looked at each other with startled eyes. What did this late summons portend? Mara rose to go to the door, but with a silent gesture the captain restrained her and went down himself.
"Who is this from?" he asked, as he took the letter from Sam.
"Fum young Marse Houghton. He ain't drowned no mo'n I be."
"Thank God!" ejaculated Bodine, with such fervor that he was heard in the rooms above.
"Yes," said Sam, "I reckon He de one ter t'ank." Sam had imbibed the impression that Bodine had left his young master to drown.
"What is it?" whispered Mara over the banisters.
"Young Houghton escaped, after all.--Here, my man, is a dollar. Wait a few minutes, for I may wish to send an answer."
The gas was burning dimly in the parlor. Turning it up, he read the brief missive, and recognized from its tone that the young man still had in mind the veteran's former attitude toward him. He sat down and wrote rapidly:
"MR. GEORGE HOUGHTON,
"Honored Sir--At this late hour, and with your coachman waiting, I must be brief. My term, 'Honored Sir,' is no empty phrase, for from the depths of my heart I do honor your heroic, generous risk of life for me and mine; and my sentiments are shared by the ladies whom you rescued. I have been harsh and unjust to you, and I ask your forgiveness. You have conquered my prejudice utterly. Do not imagine that a Southern man and a Confederate soldier cannot appreciate such noble magnanimity.
"Yours in eternal respect and gratitude,
As he finished it Mara entered, and was astonished at his appearance. The haggard face, seamed with suffering, that she had looked upon but a few moments before, was transfigured. Anguish of soul was no longer expressed, but rather gladness, and the impress of those divine impulses which lead men to acknowledge their wrong and to make reparation. In the strong light his white hair was like a halo, and his luminous eyes revealed the good and the spiritual in the man, as they are manifested only in the best and supreme moments of life.
He handed Mara the letter. When she had read it she looked at him with tear-dimmed eyes, and said: "It is what I should have expected from you."
After dismissing Sam he returned to the parlor, and, taking the girl's hand again, began, "God bless you, Mara! You have stood by me, you have sustained me in the most terrible emergency of my life. There were features in this ordeal which it seemed impossible for me to endure, which I could not have endured but for your sympathy and the justice you have done me in your thoughts. Oh, Mara, do not let me err again. You know I love you fondly, but your happiness must be first, now and always. In my wish to make you my wife, let me be sure that I am securing your happiness even more than my own."
At that moment she was exalted by an enthusiasm felt to be divine. In her deep sympathy her heart was tender toward him. She had just seen him put his old proud self under his feet, as he acknowledged heroic action in one whom she had thought incapable of it. Could she fail this loved and honored friend, when a wronged Northern boy had counted his life as naught to save him?
Never had her spirit of self-sacrifice so asserted itself before. Indeed, it no longer seemed to be self-sacrifice, as she gave him her hand, and said, "Life offers me nothing better than to become your wife."
He drew her close to his breast, but at this touch of her sacred person, something deep in her woman's nature shrunk and protested. Even at that moment she was compelled to learn that the heart is more potent than the mind, even though it be kindled by the strongest and most unselfish enthusiasm. Only the deep and subtle principle of love could have given to that embrace unalloyed repose. Nevertheless she had said what she believed true, "Life had nothing better for her."
As Ella still slept quietly, Bodine insisted that Mara should retire, saying, "I and old Hannah can do all that is required."
"But you need rest more than I," Mara protested.
"No. Gladness has banished sleep from my eyes, and I must be at Ella's side when she wakes."
Mara was glad to obey, for no divine exhilaration had come to her. She was not strong, and a reaction approaching exhaustion was setting in.
In the dawn of the following day Ella began to stir uneasily in her sleep, to moan and sigh. Vaguely the unspent force of her grief was reasserting itself, as the benumbing effects of anodynes passed from her brain. Her father motioned Hannah to leave the apartment, and then took Ella's hand. At last she opened her eyes, and looked at him in a dazed, troubled way. "Oh!" she moaned, "I've had such dreadful dreams. Have I been ill?"
"Yes, Ella dear, very ill, but you are better now. The worst is well over."
"Dear papa, have you been watching all night?"
"That's a very little thing to do, Ella darling."
She lay silent for a few moments, and then began to sob, "Oh, I remember all now. He's dead, dead, dead."
"Ella," said her father gently, taking her hands from her face, "I do not believe he is dead. There is a report that he escaped--that he was picked up by a steamer."
She sat up instantly, as if all her strength had returned, and, with her blue eyes dilating through her tears, exclaimed, "Oh, papa, don't keep me on the rack of suspense! Give me life by telling me that he lives."
"Yes, Ella, he is alive. He has written to me, and I have answered in the way that you would wish."
She threw her arms about his neck in an embrace that was almost convulsive, and then sank back exhausted.
"Now, Ella darling, for all our sakes you must keep quiet and composed;" and he gave her a little of the strong nourishment which the physician had ordered.
For a long time she lay still with a smile upon her lips. In her feebleness one happy thought sufficed, "He is not dead!"
At last a faint color stole into her cheeks, and she asked: "What did you write, papa?"
He repeated his letter almost verbatim.
"That was enough, papa," she said, with a sigh of relief. "It was very noble in you to write in that way."
"No, Ella, it was simple justice."
She gave him a smile which warmed his heart. After a little while she again spoke. "Go and rest, papa. I feel that I can sleep again. Oh, thank God! thank God! His sun is rising on a new heaven and a new earth."
Kissing her fondly, her father halted away. Old Hannah resumed her watch, but was soon relieved by Mara.
When George read Captain Bodine's letter the night grew luminous about him. He had not expected any such acknowledgment. With characteristic modesty he had underrated his own action, and he had not given Bodine credit for the degree of manhood possessed by him. Indeed, he had almost feared that both father and daughter might be embarrassed and burdened by a sense of obligation, whose only effect would be to make them miserable. Generous himself, he was deeply touched by the proud man's absolute surrender, and he at once appreciated the fine nature which had been revealed by the letter.
"Now," he reasoned, "as far as her father is concerned, the way is open for me to seek Ella's love by patient and devoted attentions. I shall at last have the chance which was impossible when I could not approach her at all. After this experience I believe that my own dear father will be softened, and be led to see how much better are happiness and content than ambitious schemes."
But Mr. Houghton was destined to disappoint his son. He awoke very feeble in body, and not very clear in mind. His one growing desire was to get away from Charleston. "I don't ever wish to look on that accursed harbor again," he repeated over and over.
"We must humor him in every way possible," Dr. Devoe said to George, "and as soon as he is strong enough you must take him North."
George's heart sank at these words, and at others which his father constantly reiterated.
"I wish to get away from this city, George," he would say feebly. "I will go anywhere, only to be away from this town and its people. Oh, I've had such a warning! This is no place for you or me. Its people are aliens. They destroyed one of my boys, and they have nearly cost you your life, as well as your happiness and success in life. Oh, that terrible old woman, with her tongue of fire! She looked and talked like an accusing fiend. I want to go away from it all, and forget it all--that such a place and people exist. Help me get strong, doctor, and then George and I will go, as Lot fled from Sodom."
"Yes, Mr. Houghton," Dr. Devoe would answer, "all your wishes shall be carried out;" and this assurance would pacify the old man for a time.
When alone with George the physician would add: "You see how it is, my young friend. Your father is in such a feeble, wavering state of mind and body that we must make it all clear sailing for him. Even if he asks for what is impossible, we must appear to gratify him. Anything which disturbs his mind will be injurious to his physical health."
George could not but admit the truth of the doctor's words, and he manfully faced his duty, hoping that the future still had possibilities.
After getting some much-needed sleep the day following his escape, he wrote:
"MY DEAR CAPTAIN BODINE--If I had known you better your letter would not have been such an agreeable surprise. Please do me the favor not to over-estimate my effort for you and those with you--an effort which any man would have made. That it was successful, is as much a cause for gratitude in my own case as in yours. Please present my compliments to the ladies, and express my hope that they suffered no ill effects from their hasty exchange of boats. I trust that the stupid boatman, who was to blame for your disaster, will not attempt to navigate anything more complicated than a wheelbarrow hereafter. I regret to say that my father is still very ill, and that his physician enjoins the utmost care and quiet until he recovers from his nervous shock. With much respect, I am, Gratefully yours,
When Ella's physician came the following day, he found his patient so much better that he could not account for it until he had heard the glad news. The healthful, elastic nature of the girl rallied swiftly. George's second letter was handed her to read, and she kept it. Being clever with her pencil, she made a ludicrous caricature of the colored boatman caught in a gale with a wheelbarrow. Her smile was glad now, for hope grew stronger every moment. Her right to love was now unquestioned, and even her proud father and cousin had only words of respect and admiration for the lover who, in a few brief moments, had vindicated the manhood which she had recognized in the first moments of their chance encounter.
She could not believe that Mr. Houghton would remain obdurate when he recovered sufficiently to think the matter over calmly. "Our papas," she thought, with a little sigh and a smile, "have learned that burying their children is a rather serious matter after all."
When two or three days passed, however, and no further communication had been received from George, her father thought it wise to say a few words of caution. "Ella," he began, "you are now strong enough to look at this matter in all its bearings. Young Mr. Houghton probably finds that his father is as adverse to his thoughts of you as ever. He has himself also had time for many second thoughts, and--"
"Papa," said the girl, with a reproachful glance, "you have not yet learned to do George Houghton justice. At the same time I wish neither you nor any one else to give him the slightest hint of my feelings, nor to say anything to him of my illness and what occurred in the boat. He asked permission to pay his addresses, and he's got to pay them, principal and interest, if I wait till I am as gray as you are. Dear papa, how you must have suffered! To think that one's hair should turn white so soon! Haven't I got a little gray, too?"
She looked at herself in the mirror, but the late afternoon sun turned her light tresses, which she never could keep smooth, into an aureole of gold.
Mr. Houghton rallied slowly, but grew calmer and more rational with time. He wished to see his confidential clerk on business, but Dr. Devoe said gently but firmly, "Not yet." He began to permit, however, a daily written statement from the office that all was going well. During this convalescence George felt that he must take no middle course. He resolved to have no further communication with Captain Bodine, and not to do anything which, if it came to his father's knowledge, would retard his recovery. One thing, however, he was resolved upon. In carrying out his father's wishes he would draw the line at an ambitious alliance at the North. "Since I have conquered Captain Bodine," he muttered, with a little resolute nod of his head: "I will subdue my own paternal ancestor; then the way will be open for a siege of the fair citadel, the peerless little baker. No wonder her cakes seemed all sugar and spice." Thus George often mused, complacently regardless of the incongruous terms bestowed upon Ella in his thoughts.
Sometimes these reveries brought smiles to his face, and more than once he started and flushed as he observed his father looking at him searchingly yet wistfully.
Meanwhile he scarcely left the old man night or day. He slept on a cot by his side, and at the slightest movement was awake, and ready to anticipate wishes before they could be spoken. On the last day of August his father was well enough to be up and dressed most of the forenoon.
George began to read the beloved Boston papers, but Mr. Houghton soon said: "That will do, I'm in no mood for dog-day politics. Go off and amuse yourself, as long as you don't go near the harbor."
"I've no wish to go out, father. When the sun is low I'll take a tramp of a mile or two."
"In a week or so more I think I'll be able to travel, George."
"I hope so."
"I fear you don't wish to leave Charleston."
"I wish to do what is best for your health."
Then a long silence followed, each busy with his own thoughts.
At last Mr. Houghton said: "It's strange we've heard nothing from those Bodines. They appear to accept their lives from your hand as a matter of course;" and the old man watched the effect of these tentative words.
George flushed, but said gently: "Dear father, try to be just, even in your enmities. I have heard from Captain Bodine, and--"
"What! have you been corresponding with them, and all that?" interrupted Mr. Houghton irritably. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I merely replied to Mr. Bodine's note the day after the accident. Since then I have not heard from any of the rescued party, nor have I made the slightest effort to do so. Dr. Devoe said you required quiet of body and mind, and I have not done anything which would interfere with this."
"Thank you, my boy, thank you heartily. I shall owe my life more to your faithful attendance than to Dr. Devoe."
"I am glad to hear you say that, whether it is true or not. I wish you to live many years, and to take the rest to which a long and laborious life entitles you. I will show you Captain Bodine's letter if you wish."
"Well, let me see what the rebel has to say for himself."
"Humph!" Mr. Houghton ejaculated, finishing the letter. "What did you say in reply?"
George repeated the substance of his note.
"And nothing has passed between him, his daughter, or you since?"
"I suppose by this time that little gust of passion, inspired by the daughter's pretty face, has passed?" and he looked at his son keenly.
"It would have passed, father, if it had been only a gust of passion, and inspired merely by a pretty face."
"Humph! Do you mean to say that you love her still?"
"I cannot control my heart, only my actions."
"You will give her up then, since it is my wish?"
"I cannot give up loving her, father. If I had drowned and gone to another world I feel that I would have carried my love with me."
There was another long silence, and then Mr. floughton said, "But you will control your action?"
"My action, father, shall be guided by most considerate loyalty to you."
"But you will not promise never to marry her?"
"It is true, indeed, that I may never marry her, for I have no reason whatever to think that she cares for me in any such way as I do for her. As long as her father felt as he did, I could not approach her. As long as you feel as you do, I cannot seek her, but to give her up deliberately would be doing violence to the best in my nature. I know my love is the same as that which you had for mother, and God would punish a man who tried to put his foot on such a love. I feel that it would keep me from the evil of the world."
"The first thing you know, George, you will be wishing that I am dead."
"No, father, no!" his son cried impulsively. "You would do me wicked wrong in thinking that. A foolish, guilty passion might probably lead to such thoughts, but not a pure, honest love, which prompts to duty in every relation in life. I can carry out your every plan for me without bolstering myself by marrying wealth and position. My self-respect revolts at the idea. A woman that I loved could aid me far more than the wealthiest and highest born in the land. I believe that in time you will see these things as I cannot help seeing them. Until then I can be patient. I certainly will not jeopardize your health by doing what is contrary to your wishes. Don't you think we had better drop the subject for the present?"
"Yes, I think we had," said Mr. Houghton sadly, but without any appearance of irritation.