Chapter XLIV. Hope Turned Into Dread
 

Clancy was guided by the voice of Aun' Sheba, the wailing of Sissy, and the groans and unearthly sounds to which Uncle Sheba was giving utterance. The adjacent fire was so far subdued that only a red glow in the sky above marked the spot. The stars shone in calm, mocking serenity on the wide scene of human distress and fear. "Alas," he thought, "what atoms we are; and what an atom is this earth itself! It would seem that faith is the simplest, yet mightiest effort of the mind at such a time," and he paused till Aun' Sheba should be more free to listen to him.

Mr. Birdsall, with his youngest child in his arms, had been exhorting those of his people near him, but his words had been of little effect in quieting Sissy and Uncle Sheba. The latter had concluded that he would not wait till the coming winter before again "'speriencin 'ligion," and his uncouth appeals to Heaven were but the abject expression of animal fear. Aun' Sheba had lost her patience with both him and her daughter, and was expostulating vigorously. "I'se asham on you, Sissy," she said. "Wot good de 'ligion you 'fess do you, I'd like ter know? Ain't Vilet in Hebin? Ain't you got de bes husban bawn? Ain't de oder chil'n heah? Now ef you'se 'ligion any good 'tall, be quiet an tankful dat you bettah off dan hun'erds. Unc., you kin pray all you wants, but ef you specs de Lawd ter listen you'se got ter pray like a man an not like a hog dat wants his dinnah. You'se 'sturbin everybody wuss dan you did wen you got sot on. I won hab it said my folks made a rumpus in dis time ob trouble. You'se got ter min me, Mr. Buggone, or I'se hab you took out de squar."

Uncle Sheba was never so far gone in his fears but that he shrunk from facing anything worse, and so he subsided into low inarticulate groans. Sissy was not so tractable, for her weeping was largely nervous and hysterical. She had an affectionate emotional nature, but was far from being gifted with the strength of mind and character possessed by her mother and husband.

"Aun' Sheba," said Clancy kindly, "your daughter needs something to quiet her nerves. I will bring it to her." He soon returned with medicine from the doctor, and under its influence the bereaved mother became calmer and wept softly by her dead child.

Clancy drew Aun' Sheba a little apart so that others could not hear, even if any were disposed to listen at this time of intense preoccupation. "You have been a friend indeed to-night," he said. "I must ask another proof of your good-will. The earthquake has brought trouble enough, but I fear that Mara and I have brought greater trouble upon ourselves. Probably you've seen enough to explain what I mean."

"I'se seen a heap, Marse Clancy."

"Well, you are Mara's old nurse. She loves and trusts you. She is engaged to Captain Bodine."

"She ain't mar'ed to 'im."

"She feels herself bound, and has said that if I was a true Southern gentleman I would not interfere. This is bad enough, but there's worse still. I thought she was lost to me--you know about it, I reckon."

"Yes, I knows now. I was a blin ole fool an tink it was wuckin' so hard dat made her po'ly."

"Oh, we have both made such fatal mistakes! I, like a fool, when I believed she would never speak to me again, entangled myself also. Now, Aun' Sheba, what I wish is that you say nothing to any one of what you have seen and heard. We've got to do what's honorable at every cost to ourselves."

"Dus wot's hon'ble mean dat Missy Mara got ter mar'y Marse Bodine an you de limpsey-slimpsey one wot say you 'serted her?"

"Nothing else seems to be left for us."

"'Pears ter me, Marse Clancy, you an Missy Mara gittin orful muxed up in wot's hon'ble. I'se only got wot folks calls hoss-sense, but it's dead agin you bofe. Take you now. Fust you got ter tell de gal lies, den lies to her fader an de minister wot jines you, and de hull worl. Missy Mara ud hab ter lie like de debil, too, an you bofe go on lyin 'miscuously. Anyhow, you'se hab ter act out de lies ef you didn't say 'em. 'Ud dat be hon'ble wen all de time you'se yearnin fer each oder?"

"Oh, Aun' Sheba, it's hard enough without such words as yours!"

"Ob corse it's hard. It orter be, fer it's agin de Lawd an natur. Marse Clancy, took keer wot you do, an wot you let Missy Mara do. My 'sperience teach me a heap. S'pose I doan' know de dif'ence 'tween Unc. dar an a man like Kern? I was young an foolish once, an mar'ed Unc. kase he was good lookin den, an mo' kase he ax me. Well, I'se made de bes on it, an I'se gwine ter make de bes on it; but if de yearth crack right open heah, as like 'nuff 'twill 'fo' mawnin, I'd jump right down in de crack 'fo' I'd do it ober ag'in. You'se on de safe side ob de crack yit, so be keerful. I knows woman folks soon as I claps my eyes on dem. Miss Mara quar in her notions 'bout de Norf--she was brung up to 'em--but dere's nuff woman in my honey lam' to make a tousan ob dis yere limpsey-slimpsey one."

Clancy clinched his hands in mental distress as he listened to the hard sense and unerring judgment of the sagacious old woman.

"I'm in terrible perplexity," he said, "for there is so much truth in your words. How can I escape the consequences of my own acts? Think how Miss Ainsley stood by me in my unconsciousness! When I revived--"

"Dar now, Marse Clancy, you'se been fooled. She stood by hersef. De fac am, she didn't stan 'tall, but run like a deer, hollerin fer all she's wuth. Wen you swoonded, Missy Mara cotch you in her arms. I eben run away, an lef my honey lam' mysef, but I come back sudden, an dar she was a hol'n you head in her lap right uner a big bildin dat ud a squashed her. I drag you pass dat, an den Marse Bodine jes ordered me an Missy to go to de squar. He spoke stern an strong as if we his sogers. An Missy Mara look 'im in de eyes an say, you--dat's you, Marse Clancy--may be dead, or you may be dyin, an dat she can't leab you an she won leab you. She got de grit ob true lub, an dere'll neber be any runin away in her heart. Wot you an Marse Bodine gwine ter do 'bout sich lub as dat? 'Fo' de Lawd my honey lam' die ef you an Marse Bodine 'sist on bein so orful hon'ble. She ain't one dem kin' dat takes a husban like dey takes a breakfas kase its ready."

Clancy was so profoundly moved by what he heard that he turned away to hide his emotion. After a moment he said: "You have been true and faithful, Aun' Sheba. You won't be sorry. Please do as I have asked." And he hastened away.

"Reckon I put a spoke in dat hon'ble bizness," Aun' Sheba soliloquized. "Like 'nuff I put another in. Doan cotch me hep'n along any sich foolishness. I gibs no promise, an I'se gwine ter make my honey lam' happy spite hersef." Then she took one of her grandchildren, and soothed it to sleep.

The slow hours dragged wearily on; the majority of the white people quieted down to patient, yet fearful waiting; crying children, one after another, dropped off to sleep; parents and friends watched over them and one another, conversing in low tones or praying silently for the Divine mercy, never before felt to be so essential. The negroes were more demonstrative, and their loud prayers and singing of hymns continued without abatement or hindrance. The expressions of some were so extravagant and uncouth as to grate harshly on all natures possessing any refinement; but when such men as Mr. Birdsall exhorted or prayed, there were but few among the whites who did not listen reverently, and in their hearts acknowledge the substantial truth of the words spoken and their need of the petitions offered.

Clancy went back to his watch. Few men in the city were more troubled and perplexed than he, for he had not the calmness resulting from a definite purpose as was true of Bodine.

Unmovedly the two men remained at their posts of duty awaiting the day or what might happen before the dawn. George lay down beside his father, and soon slept from fatigue, while Mr. Houghton, now so softened and chastened, vowed to make him happy.

Ella watched her father in deep solicitude, feeling vaguely that his trouble was not caused wholly by the general reasons for distress. At last she stole to his side, and laid her head upon his shoulder. The act comforted and sustained him more than she knew at the time, for he was not a demonstrative man. He only kissed her tenderly and bade her return to her cousin, with whom she kept up a whispered and fragmentary conversation. Mrs. Willoughby sat beside her husband, her head pillowed against his breast as they waited for the day.

A breeze sprang up, and the freshness of the morning was in it. Would the sun ever rise again? Was not Nature so out of joint that nothing familiar could be looked for any more? The terrors of the long night inspired morbid thoughts, which come too readily in darkness.

At the appointed time, however, there was a glow in the east, which steadily deepened in color. Truly, to the weary, haggard, shivering, half-clad watchers, the sun was an angel of light that morning; and never did fire-worshippers greet his rise with a deeper feeling of gratitude and gladness.

There was a general stir in the strange bivouac, an increased murmur of voices. The hymns of the negroes gradually ceased; and people, singly or in groups, began to leave the square for their homes, in order to clothe themselves more fully, and to discover what was left to them in the general wreck.

There had been no shock since the convulsion at half-past two o'clock, the fact inspiring general confidence that the worst was over. Hope grew stronger with the blessed light, and fear vanished with the darkness.

Mr. Houghton touched his son, who immediately awoke, meditating deeds of hospitality. "Father," he said, "our house is near. Cannot I, with the aid of Jube and Sam, get our friends some breakfast?"

"Yes, George, and extend the invitation from me."

"Oh, father! I'm so grateful that you are giving me this chance to--to--"

"You shall have all the chance you wish. In fact, I'm rather inclined to see what I can do myself. I may need a good deal of nursing." And the old man's face was lighted up with a kindly smile, which made his son positively happy.

Approaching Bodine, he asked, "Do you think it will be safe for the invalids to leave the square?"

"I scarcely think so," was the reply. "At least, not until more time passes without disturbance. From what I've read of earthquakes, our houses may be unsafe for days to come."

"Well, the first thing to be done is to see that you all have some breakfast. Fortunately, our house is not far; and, although our women-servants have fled, I have two men who will stand by me. The fact is, my hunting expeditions have made me a fairly good cook myself. My father cordially extends the invitation that all my friends here breakfast with us."

"I will join in your labors, Houghton," said Clancy, promptly. "Having no home, I gratefully accept your father's invitation."

"We're all shipwrecked on a desert island," added Mrs. Bodine cheerily to George. "You appear to be one of the friendly natives, and I put myself under your protection."

"Our custom here is," replied the young fellow in like vein, "that, after we have taken salt together, we become fast friends."

"Bring on the salt, then," she answered laughing, while Ella's smile seemed to the young fellow more vivifying than the first level rays of the sun. Mara, Mrs. Hunter, and Miss Ainsley were still sleeping, as also was Dr. Devoe.

"Houghton," called Mr. Willoughby, "won't you enroll me as one of your cooks or waiters?"

"No," replied George, "I must leave you and Captain Bodine in charge of camp."

"Too many cooks spile de brof," said Aun' Sheba, rising from Mara's side where she had been watching for the last hour. "Marse Houghton, you bery fine cook fer de woods, I spec, but I reckon I kin gib a lil extra tech to de doin's."

"Ah, Aun' Sheba, if you'll come, you shall be chief cook, and I, for one, promise to obey. Mrs. Willoughby, I'm so very glad that I can now return a little of your kindness."

"I take back what I said about absolving you," she whispered.

"You'd better. If I don't make the most of my chance now my name is not George Houghton. Of course I shan't say anything while these troubles last. You understand, I don't wish anything to happen which would embarrass her, or make it hard to accept what I can do for her and hers; but when the right time comes," and he nodded significantly.

"You are on the right tack as you boatmen say," she whispered laughing.

"See here, Houghton," remarked jolly Mr. Willoughby, "earthquakes and secret conferences with my wife are more than a fellow can stand at one and the same time."

"You shall soon have consolation," said George, hastening away, followed by Clancy, Aun' Sheba, Jube, and Sam. When the last-named worthy appeared near Mr. Houghton's barn the horses whinnied and the two dogs barked joyously.

"Mr. Clancy," said George, handing him his pocket-book, "since you have kindly offered to aid, please take Jube and visit the nearest butcher's shop and bakery. I suggest that you lay in a large supply, for we don't know what may happen. Please get eggs, canned delicacies, anything you think best. Don't spare money. Help yourself, if owners are absent. I will honor all your I.O.U's."

"All right, Houghton; but remember that I'm an active partner in this catering business. Fortunately I don't need to go to the bank for money."

Aun' Sheba exclaimed over the evidences of disaster along the street, but when she saw what a wreck Mr. Houghton's massive portico had become she lifted her hands in dismay.

"That don't trouble me," said George, "since I'm not under it. I passed beneath a second or two before it fell."

"De Lawd be praised! 'Pears ter me He know wot He 'bout, an is gwine ter bring down pride ez well ez piazzers."

"It looks that way, Aun' Sheba. Here, Sam, make the kitchen fire before you do anything else. Now we must rummage and see what we can find."

Aun' Sheba took possession of the kitchen, and with broom, mop, and cloths, soon brought order out of chaos. Sam found that although the chimney had lost its top, it fortunately drew, and the fire in the range speedily proved all that could be desired. George ravaged the store-closet until Aun' Sheba said, "Nuff heah already ter feed de squar."

Then he went up and looked about the poor wrecked home, meanwhile setting Sam to dusting chairs and carrying them to the square. Then a table, crockery, knives, forks, spoons, napkins, etc., were despatched.

Clancy and Jube found that the proprietors of some of the shops were plucking up courage to enter them and resume trade, and so they eventually returned well laden with provisions. Then Jube was sent with wash-basins, water and towels for ablutions. Meantime George and Clancy took a hasty bath and exchanged their ruined clothing for clean apparel.

"Houghton, you are a godsend to us all," exclaimed his friend.

"I suppose the whole affair is a godsend," was the reply; "anyway, I'm getting my satisfaction out of it this morning."

As sprightly Mrs. Willoughby saw the applicances for their comfort following one after another she said to Ella, "We may as well make believe that it is a picnic."

Ella smiled and replied, "I'm better dressed for breakfast than you are, for I have on a wrapper, and you are in a low-necked evening costume."

"I feel as if I could eat a breakfast all the same. What creatures these mortals be! A little while ago I was in the depths of misery, and now I'm hungry and kind of happy."

"Oh, you are," said her husband, "when you may have to take in washing for a living, while I shovel brick and mortar."

"No, indeed," cried his wife, "I'll join the firm of Wallingford and Bodine, and you can help Aun' Sheba peddle cakes."

"That's right, children," said Mrs. Bodine, "that's the true brave Southern spirit. We are all born soldiers, seamen rather, since the land has been as freakish as the waves. Now mind, I'll send the first one below who shows the white feather."

Mr. Houghton lay apart from this group; and, while he felt his isolation, knew that he was to blame for it. They also felt the awkwardness of their situation, not knowing how far he was willing or able to converse with them. Mr. Willoughby was about to break the ice, but Ella forestalled him. "Mr. Houghton," she said, timidly approaching, "is there anything we can do for you? We are all so grateful."

"Yes, Miss Bodine. Forget and forgive."

"There seems very little now to forgive, and we do not wish to forget your kindness."

"Good Lor!" whispered Mrs. Bodine to Mrs. Willoughby, "I couldn't have turned a neater sentence myself."

"Well, Miss Bodine," resumed Mr. Houghton, "I suppose we shall have to let bygones be bygones. Now that sunshine and brightness have come, we should not recall anything painful. I trust that the worst is over, but our courage may yet be sorely tried. I will esteem it a very great favor if you and your friends will accept without reluctance what my son can do for your comfort."

Ella could not repress a little laugh of pleasure as she replied, "It is too late now to affect any reluctance. We owe him so much that we might as well owe him more." Then, ever practical, she arranged a screen to shade his face from the sun's rays.

Mr. Willoughby now came up and spoke in a friendly way of the probable effects of the disaster upon the city, and so the touch of mutual kindness began to make them kin.

Mrs. Hunter commenced to moan and toss, and this awakened Miss Ainsley, who looked around wonderingly. Mrs. Willoughby in low tones recalled what had happened, and explained the present aspect of affairs. Mrs. Bodine performed the same office for Mara, who also had been aroused by the voices near. The girl's habit of self-control served her in good stead, and she immediately rose, gave her hand to Bodine in greeting, and then knelt beside her aunt. Seeing Mara so near, Miss Ainsley quickly rose also, and moved away in instinctive antipathy.

Mrs. Hunter was feverish and evidently very ill. She was unable to comprehend what was taking place, but recognized Mara, whose soothing touch and words alone had the power of quieting her.

Ella bathed Mrs. Bodine's face and hands, and enabled her to make "the ghost of a toilet," as the old lady said. Then Ella whispered, "I wish I could do as much for Mr. Houghton."

"I dare you to do it," said Mrs. Bodine, with a mirthful gleam in her eyes.

Ella caught her spirit, and without hesitation, although blushing like a rose, went to Mr. Houghton, and asked, "Will you please let me bathe your hands and face also?"

"Why, Miss Bodine, I should not expect such kindness from you. I can wait till my son returns."

"He is doing so much that he will be tired. It would give me pleasure if you will permit it. In waiting on my cousin I've learned to be not a very awkward nurse."

"Well, Miss Bodine, I am learning that even earthquakes can bring pleasant compensations. You shall have your own way. Yes, you are a good nurse, and a brave and patient one. Your kindness to that poor creature who died in your arms touched my heart."

"And mine too, Mr. Houghton. She told me a very pitiful story."

"You shall tell it to me some time, my dear."

Her heart thrilled as he gently spoke these words, while George, striding up with a great platter of steak, almost dropped it as he saw the girl waiting on his father as if filial relations were already established. The old man enjoyed his look of pleased wonder, and, when he had a chance, whispered, "I'm getting ahead of you, my boy, I don't want your clumsy hands or Jube's around me any more." Mrs. Bodine put her head under the blanket and shook with silent laughter.

Ella was very shy of the young man, however. He could not catch her eye, nor get a chance to speak to her except in the presence of her father, Mrs. Bodine, or some one else. But he possessed his soul in patience, and did his best to be a genial host. Clancy, Jube, and Sam followed with the coffee and various comestibles. Miss Ainsley was a little effusive in her greeting of the man whom she had deserted in the street, and again had left to pass the night as he could, while she sought oblivion. His response was grave, kind, yet not altogether reassuring. He certainly indulged in no lover-like glances; and he went direct to Mara, and inquired gently after Mrs. Hunter. She replied quietly, without looking up. It was evident that the sound of his voice distressed the injured woman, who was barely conscious enough to have vague memories of the past.

Weary Dr. Devoe was wakened, while George gave Mrs. Willoughby his arm, and gallantly placed her behind the coffee-urn. Even Captain Bodine assumed a measure of cheerfulness during breakfast. When newsboys came galloping up with the morning paper, Mr. Willoughby rose and waved his hat, joining in the general hurrah which rose from all parts of the square. Every one warmly appreciated the heroism displayed in gathering news and printing a journal during the past night. Next to the vivifying light and the apparent cessation of the shocks, nothing did more to restore confidence than the appearance of the familiar paper.

"Old Charleston is alive yet," cried Mr. Willoughby; "and if the rest of us have half the pluck shown in that printing-house, we'll soon restore everything."

"Give me a paper," said Mrs. Bodine. "I'd rather have it than my breakfast."

"You shall have both," replied Ella, bringing a little tray to her side.

"Ah, Cousin Hugh, you veterans never did anything braver. Own up."

"I do, most sincerely and heartily."

Clancy read the journal aloud; and the coffee grew cold as all listened breathlessly to a chapter in the city's history never to be forgotten. Mr. Houghton was so absorbed that he suddenly became conscious that Ella was beside him with the daintiest of breakfasts. "You are spoiling me for any other nurse," he said.

"It is a relief at such a time to care for those who are ill and feeble," she replied gently. "If we have to stay here, I hope you will let me wait on you; but I trust that we can all soon go to our homes."

"I have my doubts. Now give me the pleasure of seeing you make a good meal."

"Mr. Clancy," cried Mrs. Willoughby, "in the general chaos women may obtain their just pre-eminence. I shall take the lead by ordering you to lay down that paper, so that you and others may have a hot breakfast."

Mara could be induced to take nothing beyond a cup of coffee. In spite of the sunshine and the general reaction into hopefulness and courage, she felt that black chaos was coming into her life. Her aunt and natural protector was very ill. After the events of the night she shrank inexpressibly from her former relations to Bodine. Indeed, it seemed impossible to continue them. Yet she asked herself again and again, "What else is there for me?" He was very kind, but the expression of his face was inscrutable. Moreover, there was Miss Ainsley acting as if Clancy were her own natural property, and he unable to dispute her claims. It appeared to her that poor stricken Mrs. Hunter was her only refuge, and she resolved to remain close by the invalid's side.

With the coming of the day Uncle Sheba's most poignant fears had gradually subsided. He kept his eyes on his wife, feeling that any good that he might hope for in this world would come through her. Indeed the impression was growing that the greatest immediate good to be obtained from any world was a breakfast; and when Aun' Sheba went with George to his home, Unc. also followed at a discreet distance. The result was that his wife again had to put him on a "'lowance," or little would have been left in Mr. Houghton's kitchen. He surreptitiously stuffed a few eatables into his pocket, and then went out to smoke his pipe.

Breakfast was at last over at the square. Mr. Willoughby rose and said to his wife, "I will go to the house, and get more suitable costumes for you and Carrie. Houghton will loan you a dressing-room at his house, for the streets can be scarcely suitable for you to traverse yet. I'll bring a carriage for you, however, as soon as it is possible. Serious danger is now over, I hope."

He had scarcely uttered the words when, as if in mockery, far in the southeast was heard again the sound which appalled the stoutest hearts. On it came, as if a lightning express-train were thundering down upon them. They saw the tops of distant trees nod and sway as if agitated by a gale; men, women, and children rushing again, with loud cries, from their homes; then it seemed as if some subterranean monster was tearing its way through the earth.

The moment the paralysis of terror passed, Miss Ainsley threw herself shrieking upon Clancy, who was compelled to support and soothe her. Mara covered her face with her hands, trembled violently, but uttered no sound. Ella could not repress a cry, as she hid her face upon her father's breast, a cry echoed by Mrs. Willoughby as she and her husband clung together. George knelt, holding the hand of his father, who looked at his son with the feeling that, if the end had come, his boy should be the last object on which his eyes rested. Mrs. Bodine was as composed as the veteran himself, and simply looked heavenward. There was something so terrific in the immeasurable power of the convulsion, so suggestive of immediate and awful death, that few indeed could maintain any degree of fortitude.

There was one, however, a few rods away, who scarcely noticed the shock. Kern Watson, at last released from duty, sat on the ground, with his face buried in the neck of his dead child. He did not raise his head, and trembled only as the quivering earth agitated his form.