The Earth Trembled by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter IV. Mara
On the same evening which witnessed Uncle Sheba's false step and its temporarily disastrous results, Owen Clancy sat brooding over his fire in his bachelor apartment. If his sitting-room did not suggest wealth, it certainly indicated refined and intellectual tastes and a fair degree of prosperity. A few fine pictures were on the walls, an unusually well-selected library, although a small one, was in a bookcase, while upon the table lay several of the best magazines and reviews of the period. Above the mantel was suspended a cavalry sabre, its scabbard so dented as to suggest that it had seen much and severe service. Young Clancy's eyes were fixed upon it, and his revery was so deep that a book fell from his hand to the floor without his notice. His thoughts, however, were dwelling upon a young girl. Strange that a deadly weapon should be allied to her in association. Yet so it was. He never could look upon that sabre which his father had used effectively throughout the Civil War, without thinking of Mara Wallingford. Neither this object nor any other was required to produce thoughts of her, for he passed few waking hours in which she was not present to his fancy. He loved her sincerely, and felt that she knew it, and he also hoped that she concealed a deeper regard for him than she would admit even to herself. Indeed he almost believed that if he could share fully with her all the ideas and antipathies symbolized by the battered scabbard before him, his course of love would run smoothly. It was just at this point that the trouble between them arose. She was looking back; he, forward. He could not enter into her sad and bitter retrospection, feeling that this was morbid and worse than useless. Remembering how cruelly she and her kindred had suffered, he made great allowances for her, and had often tried to soften the bitterness in her heart by reminding her that he, too, had lost kindred and property. By delicate efforts he had sought to show the futility of clinging to a dead past, and a cause lost beyond hope, but Mara would only become grave and silent when such matters were touched upon.
Clancy had been North repeatedly on business, and had never discovered a particle of hostility toward him or his section in the men with whom he dealt and associated. They invited him to their homes; he met the women of their families, from whom he often received rather more than courtesy, for his fine appearance and a certain courtliness of manner, inherited from his aristocratic father, had won a thinly veiled admiration of which he had been agreeably conscious. Since these people had no controversy with him, how could he continue to cherish enmity and prejudice against them? His warm Southern nature revolted at receiving hearty good-will and not returning it in kind. There was nothing of a "we-forgive-you" in the bearing of his Northern acquaintances, nor was there any effusiveness in cordiality with an evident design of reassuring him. He was made to feel that he was guilty of an anachronism in brooding over the war, that it had been forgotten except as history, and that the present with its opportunities, and the future with its promise, were the themes of thought. The elements of life, energy, hopefulness with which he came in contact had appealed to him powerfully, for they were in harmony with his youth, ambition, yes, and his patriotism. "The South can never grow rich and strong by sulking," he had often assured himself, "and since the old dream is impossible, and we are to be one people, why shouldn't we accept the fact and unite in mutual helpfulness?"
Reason, ambition, and policy prompted him to the divergence of view and action which was alienating Mara. "Imitation of her example and spirit would be political and financial suicide on our part," he broke out. "I love her; and if she loved in the same degree, I would be more to her than bitter memories. She would help me achieve a happy future for us both. As it is, I am so pulled in different ways that I'm half insane," and with contracted brow he sprang up and paced the floor.
But he could not hold to this mood long, and soon his face softened into an expression of anxiety and commiseration. Resuming his chair his thoughts ran on, "She isn't happy either. For some cause I reckon she suffers more than I do. She looked pale to-day when I met her, and her face was full of anxiety until she saw me, and then it masked all feeling. She has worn that same cloak now for three winters. Great Heaven! if she should be in want, and I not know it! Yet what could I do if she were? Why will she be so proud and obdurate? I believe that gaunt, white-haired aunt has more to do with her course than her own heart. Well, I can't sit here and think about it any longer. If I see her something may become clearer, and I must see her before I go North again."
Mara Wallingford's troubles and anxieties had indeed been culminating of late. Almost her sole inheritance had been sadness, trouble and enmity. Not only had her unhappy mother's history been kept fresh in her memory by her great-aunt, Mrs. Hunter, but the very blood that coursed in her veins and the soul that looked out from her dark, melancholy eyes had received from that mother characteristics which it is of the province of this story to reveal. To poor Mary Wallingford, the death of her father and of her husband had been the unspeakable tragedy and wrong which had destroyed her life; and the long agony of the mother had deprived her offspring of the natural and joyous impulses of childhood and youth. If Mara had been left to the care of a judicious guardian--one who had sought by all wholesome means to counteract inherited tendencies, a most cheerful and hopeful life would have been developed, but in this respect the girl had been most unfortunate. The mind grows by what it feeds upon, and Mrs. Hunter's spirit had become so imbittered by dwelling upon her woes and losses that she was incapable of thinking or speaking of much else. She had never been a woman of warm, quick sympathies. She had seen little of the world, and, in a measure, was incapable of seeing it, whatever advantages she might have had. This would have been true of her, no matter where her lot had been cast, for she was a born conservative. What she had been brought up to believe would always be true; what she had been made familiar with by early custom would always be right, and anything different would be viewed with disapproval or intoleration. Too little allowance is often made for characters of this kind. We may regret rigidity and narrowness all we please, but there should be some respect for downright sincerity and the inability to see both sides of a question.
It often happens that if natures are narrow they are correspondingly intense; and this was true of Mrs. Hunter. She idolized her husband dead, more perhaps than if he had been living. Her brother and nephew were household martyrs, and little Mara had been taught to revere their memories as a devout Catholic pays homage to a patron saint. Between the widow and all that savored of the North, the author of her woes, there was a great gulf, and the changes wrought by the passing years had made no impression, for she would not change. She simply shut her eyes and closed her ears to whatever was not in accord with her own implacable spirit. She grew cold toward those who yielded to the kindly influences of peace and the healing balm of time; she had bitter scorn for such as were led by their interests to fraternize with the North and Northern people. In her indiscrimination and prejudice they were all typified by the unscrupulous adventurers who had made a farce of government and legally robbed the South when prostrate and bleeding after the War. She and her niece had been taxed out of their home to sustain a rule they loathed. Not a few women in Boston, in like circumstances, would be equally bitter and equally incapable of taking the broad views of an historian.
The influence of such a concentrated mind warped almost to the point of monomania, upon a child like Mara, predisposed from birth to share in a similar spirit, can be readily estimated. Peace and time, moreover, had not brought the ameliorating tendencies of prosperity, but rather a continuous and hopeless pressure of poverty.
Mrs. Hunter had been incapable of doing more than save what she could out of the wreck of their fortunes. There were no near relations, and those remaining, with most of their friends and acquaintances who had not been alienated, were struggling like themselves in straitened circumstances. Yet out of this poverty, many open, generous hands would have been stretched to the widow and her ward had they permitted their want to be known. But they felt that they would rather starve than do this, for they belonged to that class which suffers in proud silence. Although they had practiced an economy that was so severe as to be detrimental to both health and character, their principal had melted away, and their jewelry and plate, with the exception of heirlooms that could not be sold without a sense of sacrilege, had been quietly disposed of. The end of their resources was near, and they knew not what to do. Mara had tried to eke out their means by fancy-work, but she had no great aptitude for such tasks, and her education was too defective and old-fashioned for the equipment of a modern teacher. She was well read, especially in the classics, yet during the troubled years of her brief life she had not been given the opportunity to acquire the solid, practical knowledge which would enable her to instruct others. The exclusiveness and seclusion, so congenial to her aunt, had been against her, and now reticence and a disposition to shrink from the world had become a characteristic of her own.
She felt, however, that her heart, if not her will, was weak toward Owen Clancy. In him had once centred the hope of her life, and from him she now feared a wound that could never heal.
She underrated his affection as he did hers. He felt that she should throw off the incubus of the past for his sake; she believed that any depth of love on his part should render impossible all intercourse with the North beyond what was strictly necessary for the transaction of business. In order to soften her prejudices, he had told her of his social experiences in New York, and, as a result, had seen her face hardened against him.... She had no words of bitter scorn such as her aunt had indulged in when learning of the fact. She had only thought in sorrow that since he was "capable of accepting hospitality from the people who had murdered her kindred and blighted the South, there was an impassable gulf between them."
Now, however, the imperative questions of bread and shelter were uppermost. She believed that Clancy could and would solve these questions at once if permitted, and it was characteristic of her pride and what she regarded as her loyalty, that she never once allowed herself to think of this alternative. Yet what could she and her aunt do? They were in the pathetic position of gentlewomen compelled to face the world with unskilled hands. This is bad enough at best, but far worse when hands are half paralyzed by pride and timidity as well as ignorance. The desperate truth, however, stared them in the face. Do something they must, and that speedily.
They were contemplating the future in a hopeless sort of dread and perplexity on the evening when Aunt Sheba and young Clancy's thoughts were drawn toward them in such deep solicitude. This fact involves no mystery. The warm-hearted colored woman had seen and heard little things which suggested the truth, and the sympathetic lover had seen the face of the young girl when she was off her guard. Its expression had haunted him, and impelled him to see her at once, although she had chilled his hopes of late.
When compelled to leave the old home, Mrs. Hunter had taken the second floor of a small brick house located on a side street. In spite of herself Mara's heart fluttered wildly for a moment when the woman who occupied the first story brought up Clancy's card.
"You can't see him to-night," said her aunt, frowning.
Mara hesitated a moment, and then said firmly, "Yes, I will see him. Please ask him to come up." When they were alone, she added in a low voice, "I shall see him once more, probably for the last time socially. We cannot know what changes are in store for us."
"Well, I won't see him," said Mrs. Hunter, frigidly; and she left the room.