Chapter XL. "God"
 

Had Mara's heart been hers to keep or to give when she met Bodine, she could easily have learned to love him for his own sake. Mrs. Bodine's impression was well founded, that Mara, unlike most girls, was suited to such an alliance. The trouble was, that, before Bodine became friend, then lover, she had given to Clancy what she could not recall, although she strove to do so with a will singularly resolute, and from the strongest convictions of hopeless discord between him and herself. With the purpose to make her father's friend happy was also blended the powerful motive to extricate herself. She had felt that she must tear up by the roots the affection which had been growing for years before she had recognized it, and at times, as we have seen, thought it was yielding to the unrelenting grasp of her will. Again, discouraged and appalled by its hold upon every fibre of her being, she would recognize how futile had been her efforts. She could not, like many others, divert her thoughts and preoccupy her mind by various considerations apart from the truth that she had promised to marry a man whom she did not love. Although so warped, her nature was too simple, too concentrated, to permit any weak drifting toward events. She believed that her life had narrowed down to Bodine, and she had decided to become his devoted wife at every cost to herself, flow great that cost would be she was learning sadly, day by day and hour by hour. As we know, she had permitted Bodine to learn her purpose at a time of excitement and enthusiasm--at a time when his profound distress touched her deepest sympathies. She had also hoped, that, when the irrevocable words had been spoken on each side, the calm of fixed purpose and certainty would fall upon her spirit.

She had been disappointed. She trembled with a strange dread whenever she recalled the moment when Bodine drew her to himself, conscious now of a truth, before unknown, that there was something in her nature not amenable to enthusiasm, spiritual exaltation, or her passion for self-sacrifice--something that would not shrink from death for his sake yet which did shrink from his kisses upon her lips.

Never had she suffered as during the last few days, for she was being taught by the inexorable logic of facts and events. In Ella's crystal nature she saw what her own love should be, and might have been. She had witnessed the girl's wild impulse to follow her lover to the depths of the harbor, and her own heart gave swift interpretation. She was alive because a Northern boy, deemed incapable of anything better than selfish, reckless love-making, had unhesitatingly risked his life to save one who had spurned him. Even Mrs. Hunter's prejudice had been compelled to yield, and she to admit the young fellow's nobility, of which she was a living proof. The wretched thought haunted Mara that Owen Clancy, unblinded, had discovered for himself, what had been forced upon her, that there were Northern people with whom he could gladly affiliate. The shadow of death had not been so dark and baleful as the shadow of the past in which she so long had dwelt, for in the former there had been light enough to reveal the folly and injustice of indiscriminating prejudice and enmity. Worse than all these thoughts, piercing like shafts of light the darkness which had obscured her judgment, was the truth, upon which she could not reason, that she shrunk with an ever-increasing dread from words and acts of love unprompted by her heart.

Like a rock, however, amid all this chaos--this breaking up of the old which left nothing stable in its place--remained her purpose to go forward. On this evening which was to witness a wilder chaos than that of her long-repressed yet passionate heart, she had said sternly, "My word has been passed, my honor is involved, and he shall never learn that I have trembled and faltered."

Mrs. Hunter had retired, overcome by the heat, and, believing that she could endure the sultriness better in the little parlor, Mara had turned down the gas, and was sitting by an open window. The city seemed singularly quiet. The street on which she dwelt contained a large population, yet the steps on the pavement were comparatively few. Her own languor was general, and people sought refuge in the seclusion and the undress permitted in their own homes.

In a vague, half-conscious way she wondered that a large city could be so still at that hour. "Like myself," she murmured, "it is half shrouded in gloom and gives but slight hint of much that is hidden, that ever must be hidden.--I wonder where he is to-night. Oh, I've no right to think of him at all. Why can't I say, 'Stop,' and end it?--this miserable stealing away of my thoughts until will, like a jailer, pursues and drags them back. Why should a presentiment of danger to him weigh down my spirit to-night? What other peril can he be exposed to except that of marrying a beauty and an heiress? Ah! peril enough, if his heart shrinks like mine. Here, now, quit," and the word came sharply and angrily in her self-condemnation.

Then in the silence began that distant groan of nature. It was so distinct, so unlike anything she had ever heard in its horrible suggestion of all physical evil that she shrank from the window overwhelmed by a nameless dread. Instinctively she turned up the gas, that she might not face the terror in darkness. As she did so she thought of the rush and roar of the last year's cyclone, but in the next breath learned that this was something infinitely worse--what, she was too confused and terrified to imagine. Then she was thrown to the floor. Raising herself partially on a chair she witnessed an event which paralyzed her with horror. The wall toward the street, with its mirror, pictures, windows, and all pertaining to it fell outward with a crash.

For a second all was still, as she looked into the darkness which had swallowed up the front and sheltering side of her home. Then immediately about her began a wail of human anguish which grew in agonized intensity, gathering volume far and near until it became like the death-cry of a city. Unconsciously she was joining in it--that involuntary "oh-h," that crescendo tidal wave of sound sweeping upward from despairing humanity. Then this mighty and bitter cry seemed to become articulate in the word "God." With an instinct swift, inevitable, and irresistible as the power that had shaken the city, the thought of God as the only other power able to cope with the mysterious destroyer, entered into all hearts and found expression.

Clouds of stifling, whitish-looking dust now came pouring into the unprotected apartment, obscuring the street and rendering dim even the familiar objects near the terrified girl. For a few moments the nervous shock was so great that Mara felt as if paralyzed. She remained lying on the floor, half supporting herself by the chair, waiting in breathless expectation for she knew not what. The malign power had been so vast, and its work so swift, that even her fearless spirit was overwhelmed.

The shrieks, groans, and prayers, the hurrying steps in the dust-clouded street at last forced upon her attention the fact that all were seeking to escape from the buildings. With difficulty she regained her feet and tottered to Mrs. Hunter's room, but found, to her dismay, that she could not open the door. She called and even shrieked, but there was no answer. A sense of utter desolation and helplessness overpowered her. Who could come to her aid? Bodine could not. At such a time he would be almost helpless himself, and there were women in his charge. With a bitterness also akin to the death, which she momentarily expected, she knew that her thoughts had flown to Clancy and to no other human being at that hour. She was learning what all others discovered in the stress of the earthquake, that everything not absolutely essential to life and soul was swept away and almost forgotten.

To go into the street and get help seemed her only resource, and she made her way down the stairs to where had been the doorway. In vain she appealed to the flying forms. Her cries were unheard in the awful din of shrieks, prayers, groans, and calls of the separated to their friends. The impression made was of a wild panic in which the frenzied thought of flight, escape, predominated.

She was about to return in something like despair, feeling that she could not leave her aunt, when she saw a tall form rushing toward her. A second later she recognized Owen Clancy leaping over the ruins of her home. With a cry, she fell into his outstretched arms, faint, trembling, yet with a sense of refuge, a thrill of exquisite joy before unknown in all her life.

"Mara, dear Mara, you are not hurt?" he asked breathlessly.

"No, oh, thank God, you have come!"

Again there was the same ominous growl, deep in the earth, which once heard could never be mistaken, never forgotten. Lifting her up Clancy carried her swiftly from beneath the shattered buildings to the middle of the street. She clung to him almost convulsively as the earth again swayed and trembled beneath them, and the awful moan of nature swelled, then died away in the distance. There was an instant of agonized, breathless suspense, then the wail of the stricken city rose again with a deeper accent of terror, a more passionate appeal to heaven, and the effort to escape to the wider spaces was renewed in a more headlong flight.

"Mara," said Clancy, "at this hour, when everything may be swept away in a moment, there is nothing left for me but you and God. Will you trust me, and let me do my very best to save you?"

"Oh, Owen, Owen, God forgive me!" She uttered the words like a despairing cry, then buried her face upon his breast.

With a dread greater than that inspired by the earthquake he thought: "Is it too late? Can she have married Bodine?" The anguish in her tone combined with her action had revealed both her love and its hopelessness. He said gently, yet firmly: "We must act now and quickly. Where is Mrs. Hunter?"

Mara had apparently become speechless from grief. Without a word she turned swiftly, and taking his hand led him toward the ruined building.

"No, stay here. It will not be safe for you to enter," and pushing her gently back he ran up the exposed stairway, into the parlor, noticing with dismay the general wreck and the danger Mara had run.

He found that Mara had followed him. "Oh, why will you come?" he exclaimed in deep anxiety. "Where is she? We must get away from all this."

The sobbing girl could only point to Mrs. Hunter's door. Clancy tried it, but found it jammed, as were so many others that night, adding to the terror of imprisoned inmates. With strength doubled by excitement he put his shoulder against the barrier and burst it open. A ghastly spectacle met their eyes. Mrs. Hunter lay senseless on her bed in her night-robe, which was stained with blood. She had evidently risen to a sitting posture on the first alarm, and then had been stunned and cut by the hurling of some heavy object against her head and neck, the shattered mantel clock on the bed beside her showing how the injury had been done.

Mara's overwhelming distress ceased its expression at this new horror as she gasped, "Can she be dead?"

"This is no place to discover," Clancy replied, rolling the poor woman's form in a blanket. "Mara, dear, we must get away from this house. It may come down any moment. Snatch up wraps, clothing, all you can lay your hands upon, and come."

Already he was staggering away with Mrs. Hunter in his arms. In a moment Mara did his bidding and followed. Slowly and with difficulty he made his way down the tottering, broken stairway, then across the prostrate wall to the centre of the street, now almost deserted. He looked anxiously around, calculating that no building, if it fell, could reach them at that point, then laid his heavy burden down, and stood panting and recovering from his exertion.

"I think we shall be as safe here as anywhere until we can reach one of the squares. Put your hand, Mara, over Mrs. Hunter's heart, and see if it is beating."

"Yes, faintly."

"Have you stimulants in the house? Can you tell me where to find them?"

"You shall not go back there: I will go." And, as if endowed with sudden access of strength, she sprang away. Putting his coat under Mrs. Hunter's head for a pillow he followed instantly. "Now why do you come?" she protested.

"Because I would rather die with you, Mara, than live safely without you."

"Oh, for God's sake don't speak that way!" she replied with a sob. "Here, I have it. Come away, quick."

As she hastily sought to cross the ruins in the street she missed her footing, and would have fallen had not his ready arm encircled her and borne her to Mrs. Hunter's side.

"Would to God I had heeded your warning, Owen," she moaned, as she sought to give her aunt some of the brandy, while he chafed the poor woman's wrists.

"You are not married to Bodine?" he asked, springing to his feet.

"No, but I am pledged to him. I cannot break faith and live. You must be my protector in a double sense, protecting me against myself. As you are a Southern gentleman, help and shield me."

"You ask what is next to impossible, Mara. I can only do my best for you."

"Oh, how I have wronged you!"

"Not so greatly as I have wronged myself. I will tell you all some other time."

"No, Owen, no. We must keep apart. We must, we must indeed. Oh, oh, it would have been better that I had died! You must harden your face and heart against me--that is the only way to help me now."

"Never shall I harden my heart against you. Whatever comes I shall be your loyal friend."

"Oh, the cruelty of my fate--to wrong two such men!"

"Bress de Lawd! I'se fown you;" and Aun' Sheba stood before them, panting and abounding in grateful ejaculations.

"Aun' Sheba!" cried Mara, throwing herself into the arms of her old nurse. "To think that you should come to me through all these dangers!"

"Wot else I do, honey lam? You tink you kin be in trouble an' I ain't dar? Marse Clancy, my 'specs. Once I tinks you a far-wedder frien', but I takes it back. Lawd, Lawd! is de ole missus dun gone?"

"No, Aun' Sheba," said Clancy. "Help us revive her, and then help me carry her to a place of greater safety. You come like an angel of light."

"I'se rudder hebby an' brack fer'n angel, but, like de angels, we'se all got ter do a heap ob totin' ter-night."