Chapter XLIII. "The Terror by Night"
 

When Aun' Sheba saw that Mara, Mrs. Hunter, and Clancy were among friends, with a physician in attendance, she sat down by her daughter Sissy, and took little Vilet in her lap.

"I kin'er feel," she said, "dat ef de yearth is gwine ter swaller us, I'se like ter go down wid dis chile. Vilet shuah to go up ag'in, an' p'raps de Lawd ud say, 'You kin come too, Aun' Sheba.'"

The sound of her voice so far restored Uncle Sheba to his normal condition that he was able to creep on his hands and knees to a position just behind his wife, where he crouched as if she were a sort of general protection.

Vilet, roused at her grandmother's voice, looked around, and then asked in her plaintive voice, "Whar's daddy?"

"He's hep'n' put'n' out de fiahs, deah chile."

"My bref gittin' bery sho't, granny. I can't stay dis side ob de riber much longer; I wants ter see daddy 'fore I go."

"Po' chile and po' Kern," groaned Aun' Sheba. "We doesn't know whar he be, an' I'se 'feerd he couldn't lebe off puttin' out de fiahs."

From time to time Vilet wailed, "Daddy, come, come quick. I'se gwine fas, an' I wants to see you onst mo'."

Captain Bodine heard the cry, and, having rested himself a little, came to Aun' Sheba and asked, "Do you know where Kern is?"

"I doan, Marse Cap'n, but he mought be at dis nighest fiah."

"I'll see," said the veteran, halting away with the feeling that he must do something to divert his torturing thoughts.

Watson was soon pointed out to him, where with stern and quiet face he was carrying out his orders. When told that Vilet was near and calling for him, the veins came out on his forehead, and for a moment he was irresolute. Then he cried, "No, sah, I can't go. Fo' de Lawd, ef she die an' we all die I won't lebe my duty."

"You're a man," said Bodine, clapping him on the shoulder, "I will arrange this."

He went direct to Kern's superior officer and briefly told him the circumstances, then added, "I know these people. Watson deserves consideration. I will take his place. I can hold the hose as well as he, and will stand as near the fire as he does if you will order him to go to his dying child for a few minutes."

"In that case I can comply," said the officer. "Watson has behaved splendidly, and he'll come back soon."

The first thing Kern knew, the hose was taken from his hand, and he ordered to go and return within ten minutes. He hesitated. "Obey orders," was the stern command. Then he rushed away.

The plaintive cry, "Daddy, daddy," guided him, and Vilet was in his arms.

"Chile, deah chile!" was all he could say as he kissed the thin face again and again.

"Now my min's at res'," said the little girl, with a sigh of ineffable content. "You 'member, daddy--you says--'Yes, Vilet.'--I'se a-goin', daddy. De angels--is all ready--to tote me to Heben. I kin jes' heah dere wings--rustlin' roun' me. I was jes' waitin'--an' hol'n back--ter see you onst mo'. Good-by, moder--granny."

Then she feebly wound her little arms about Kern's neck and whispered, "Good-by, daddy, fer jes' a lil while. I'se wait neah de gate fer you shuah."

It would seem that she put all her remaining strength into this effort, for her head fell over on his shoulder; she quivered a moment, then was still. Kern could not repress one deep groan. He looked for a moment of agony into his child's face, kissed it, then placing her in Ann' Sheba's lap, departed as swiftly as he came. Sissy was so overcome as to be helpless.

"Your time wasn't up," said the veteran.

"Her time was up, Cap'n Bodine," Kern managed to reply, his face rigid with repressed emotion. "She die in my arms. God bless yo' fer you'se feelins fer a po' man."

"Watson, I do feel for you and with you. Our hearts are all breaking to-night. Take care of yourself. You have a wife and children still to live for." And Bodine halted back and seated himself by his cousin.

Alas! for thousands the words of Bodine were only too true. As they contemplated what had happened and what might occur at any moment, they felt that heavy, crushing pain, unlike all others, which gathers at the heart, overwhelming the spirit and threatening physical dissolution at one and the same time.

Yet such is the power of human affection and Christian faith, that they won many triumphs, even during that night of horrors. In Ella and the dying woman, whose head she pillowed on her breast, were examples of both. The girl's heart was indeed pitiful and sympathetic, and the poor creature knew that it was, for in broken, gasping words she told her brief, pathetic story, so like that of many other women in the South. Once she was a happy girl at home on a small plantation, but father, brothers, and lover had all perished in the war. Home and mother had since been lost and she was fighting out life's long, weary battle when this final disaster brought the end. "Yes, kind lady, I reckon I'm dying: I hope so. I couldn't take care of myself any longer, and I'd rather join those who have gone on before me than trust to the charity of this world. I am very weary, very heavy laden, and I'd rather go to Him who said, 'Come to Me.' If you can stay with me a little longer--I don't fear, but it's very sweet to have human kindness and company down into the dark valley."

Her words proved true. She evidently perished from internal injuries, for she soon ceased to gasp, and her head lay still against the bosom of the sobbing girl.

Dr. Devoe was present during the last moments, then gently relieved Ella from her lifeless burden, and supported her to her father on whose shoulder she shed those natural tears which soon bring relief to the hearts of the young. George Houghton and Jube carried the body to the place set apart for the dead. Then George returned to his father's side, but looked wistfully at Ella with an unspeakable longing to comfort her.

"I don't wonder, my boy," said Mr. Houghton, interpreting his thoughts. "Go and speak to her."

George approached timidly, and said, "Miss Bodine."

She started, raised her head, and began to wipe her eyes.

"I--I--Well, I don't know what to say to make you understand how my father and I have sympathized with your brave--Well, you were so kind and patient with that poor woman. I wish I could do something for you, and I will," and he hastened away.

She called, "I don't need anything, Mr. Houghton. Indeed I do not. It would only distress me--" But he was out of hearing. "Oh," she moaned again on her father's shoulder, "why will he take risks?"

It was evident that Mr. Houghton shared her anxiety, for he divined his son's purpose, and looked with troubled face for his return. He soon came back carrying another mattress, pillows and blankets. Sam, compelled to leave the horses, followed with a basket of provisions. Ella was clothed in little besides a light wrapper, and had shivered more than once in the night air. George tried to induce her and Mrs. Bodine to accept of the mattress, but they asked as a favor that it might be placed under Mrs. Hunter. He readily complied, saying he would get another for them.

At this moment came the ominous groan of the severe shock which occurred at about half-past two o'clock Wednesday morning. To the terrified people it was like the growl of some ravening beast rushing upon them, and a long wailing cry blended with the horrible roar as it swept under and over them, then died away in the northwest.

"Oh, Mr. Houghton," sobbed Ella, when her voice could be heard, "please don't go away--please don't go near a building again."

"George," added his father, almost sternly, "not with my consent will you leave me again till we learn more definitely what our fate is to be. If you were in the house when this shock occurred, you might have perished. It is no longer a question of more or less comfort."

"I reckon not," said Mrs. Bodine. "It's a question of ever seeing the sun rise again. We may as well speak out what is in our minds, and get ready for a city not made with hands."

"I wish we were all as ready to go as you are, Cousin Sophy," Ella whispered.

"Well, my dear, I've more property in that city than in this wrecked town, and 'where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.'" Then she added, "You'll be spared, dear child. You and your knight will see many happy years. God bless you both."

"Oh, cousin! it is such a comfort, even at this awful time, to see him, to know he is near, to think he came for--for us!"

"For you, dear little goose. He'd face earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, cyclones, and even his father before this well-deserved shaking converted him, for your sake."

"Cousin," whispered the girl, "I'm so glad. Is it wrong to be glad at such a time?"

"Wrong to be glad when God loves you and a good man loves you? I reckon not. All the quakes that ever shook this crazy old earth are bagatelles compared with such facts."

"Oh, cousin, you are such a tower of strength and comfort!"

"I'm a leaning tower," replied the old lady, whose vein of humor ran through all her thoughts, "but I'm leaning on what won't fail me. Nestle down by my side, dear child. You are shivering, and this extra blanket will do us both good. Now be comfortable, and believe with me that nothing in the universe can or will harm you."

"Poor Mara!" Ella sighed.

"Yes, I've been watching and grieving over her. I never saw any face more expressive of suffering than hers. I don't understand her unless--unless--well, time will show, that is, if there is much more time for me."

"Oh, cousin, we never could spare you!"

"That is what I used to think about my husband, but he always went when sailing orders came, and I survived. I feel to-night as if be and the boys were just waiting off shore, if this tossing and pitching earth can be called shore, for me to join them."

Captain Bodine sat through the shock without moving a muscle. His eyes rested wistfully on Mara. With an indescribable pang he saw that in the supreme moment of general terror her eyes turned not to him but to Clancy, and that she made a half involuntary movement as if to go to him. The glance, the act, combined with what had gone before, were too significant, and Bodine buried his face in his hands that she might not see his trouble. She knew it all the more surely, yet felt how powerless she was to console him.

"Oh, my blind, blind folly!" she groaned inwardly. "If I had been true to my heart, I might be caring for Owen instead of that woman who left him to die, and my father's friend acting like a father toward us both. I wanted to be so heroic and self-sacrificing, and I've only sacrificed those I love most."

Mrs. Hunter was so fully under the influence of anodynes as not to be cognizant of what was taking place, and Bodine, soldier-like, was not long in reaching his decision. Rising, he went aside with Dr. Devoe, and said, "Miss Wallingford is keeping up from the sheer force of will. Nothing but your command can induce her to yield and take such rest as can be obtained here. I do not think you can interpose too soon. I will watch Mrs. Hunter."

Mara had indeed reached the limit of endurance, and the physician quickly detected the fact. He took her by the hand and arm, and gently raised her to her feet as he said, "I am autocrat here. Even kings and generals must obey their doctor. So I shall ask no permission to place you beside Mrs. Bodine. She and rest can do you more good than I can. Captain Bodine and I will look after Mrs. Hunter."

Mara gave the veteran a grateful glance and yielded. Then she buried her face in Mrs. Bodine's neck, and was silent until she slept from physical exhaustion.

Miss Ainsley, with multitudes of others, yielded to her terror at the passing of the midnight earthquake. She shrieked and half rose in her wild impulse to fly. Then apparently forgetting Clancy she piteously begged Dr. Devoe to give her something that would certainly bring oblivion for a few hours at least. He good-naturedly complied. When the opiate began to take effect she was placed on the mattress beside Mrs. Hunter, and was soon in stupor. Clancy had so far recovered that he was able to sit up, and he felt that he should watch beside the girl who he believed had been so devoted to him in his unconsciousness.

Dr. Devoe in excuse for Miss Ainsley said, "We can't make too much allowance to-night for every one. Many strong men are utterly overcome and nauseated by these, shocks. No wonder women cannot face them."

"I think Miss Ainsley has borne up wonderfully," Clancy replied.

"Oh, yes, as well as the average. It's a question of nerves with the majority."

Clancy sat down and looked with pity at the beautiful face and dishevelled hair. "Poor girl!" he thought, "she did her best by me. Indeed, I had scarcely thought her capable of such devotion. By all that's honorable I'm bound to her now. Well, eventually I can give her a truer affection, for she has ceased to be merely a part of my ambitious scheme. By our own acts Mara and I are separated, and, however deep our grief may be, it must be hidden from all."

Thus he and Captain Bodine sat on either side of the pallet, each immersed in painful thought, oblivious of the strange scenes enacted all around them. They did not feel then that they could speak to each other.

The veteran was perplexed, and his proud spirit also labored under a deep sense of wrong. It was evident that he had been deceived by Mara, and that all along she had loved the man so near to him, loved him better than her own life. Why had she concealed the fact? Why had she been so cold and harsh toward Clancy himself until the awful events of the night and peril to life had overpowered her reserve and revealed her heart? He could think of no other explanation than that afforded by the unconscious girl over whom Clancy watched. He had heard of the young man's devotion to Miss Ainsley, and, from what he had seen, believed that they were affianced. He was too just and large in his judgment to think Mara's course toward him was due to pique and wounded pride, and he was not long in arriving at a very fair explanation of her motives and action. Keenly intelligent and mature in years he was beyond the period of passionate and inconsiderate resentment. Moreover his love for the orphan girl was so true, and the memory of her father and mother so dear to him, that he was able to rise nobly above mere self, and resolve to become the most loyal of friends, a protector against her very self. "Now I think of it," he mused, "she has never said she loved me, although she permitted me to think she did. Even when I declared my love she only said, 'Life offers me nothing better than to be your wife.' That no doubt was true as she meant it, for she then thought this man here was lost to her. She did not welcome my love when she first recognized it, but soon her spirit of self-sacrifice came in, and she reasoned that since she could not be happy in herself, she would make me happy. From the very first I believed that this spirit could lead her to deception for the sake of others, and I have not been sufficiently on my guard against it. Yet how could I suspect this Clancy, whom she so repelled and contemned, and who was devoting himself to another woman? Perhaps she partially deceived herself as well as me. The affection probably struck root years since when she and Clancy were friends. He outgrew it; she has not, as she has learned to night, if not before. He went to her aid because he was friendly in spite of her apparent bitterness toward him, which perhaps he understood better than I. Possibly Mrs. Hunter may have broken their relations, for there is no doubt about her feelings. Well, time must unravel the snarl. It would now seem that he is devoted to this girl here, and she to him as far as she can be to any one. What he will think when he learns that she ran shrieking away and left him, while Mara, reckless of life itself, stood by him to the last, I cannot know. If he loves her he will forgive her, for no man can blame a woman for succumbing to the terror of this night. Possibly at some distant day Mara may still think that life offers her nothing better than to be my wife; but she shall be free, free as air, and know, too, that I know all."

Thus Bodine communed with himself after a habit learned long ago in the presence of danger.

Clancy also was confronted by possible results of his action, the fear of which enabled his cool, resolute nature to rise above all other fear. He resolved to go at once to Aun' Sheba, and caution her against speaking of the scenes in which she, with Mara, and himself had taken part.