Chapter XLVII. Lights and Shadows of a Night
 

Aun' Sheba, with a devotion which quite equalled that to her own offspring, returned to Mara with the intention of watching Mrs. Hunter while the girl slept. She found Mrs. Bodine sitting with Mara, but the old colored woman was received with a warmth of welcome and sympathy which put her at ease at once. Mrs. Hunter had sunk into a kind of stupor rendering her unconscious of what was passing, and therefore they conversed in low tones.

"I reckon we need have no secrets from Aun' Sheba," said Mrs. Bodine.

"No," answered Mara, taking her old mammy's hand. "If ever a motherless girl had a true friend I have one in Aun' Sheba."

"Yes, honey, you'se right dar, an' I hopes you git right on some oder tings. I put a spoke in de hon'ble business an' I'se ready to put mo' in." She then briefly related her interview with Clancy and concluded, "Missy Mara, fo' da Lawd, wot kin you do but mar'y Marse Clancy arter wot happen wen he come fer you an' ole missus?"

Mara made no reply, but sat with her face buried in her hands.

"Aun' Sheba, this matter is all settled and settled honorably, too, as far as it can be. Captain Bodine has released Mara in words of the utmost kindness."

"Well, now, he am quality!" ejaculated Aun' Sheba in hearty appreciation.

"But," sobbed Mara, "it just breaks my heart--"

"No, honey lam', it won' break you heart, nor his nuther. Doin' what's right an' nat'ral an 'cordin to de Lawd doan break no hearts. It's de oder ting wot dus in de long run, an' mar'in' gen'ly means a long run. You'd hab ter begin by lyin' 'miscuously, as I tole Marse Clancy, an no good ud come ob dat."

"Well, it is all settled as far as Mara is concerned," said Mrs. Bodine, with a little laugh, "and there need be no 'miscuous lying. How Mr. Clancy will get out of his scrape remains to be seen."

"Well, I tells you how he git out. I'se keep an eye on dat limpsey-slimpsey runaway as well as on de pots an kittles, an she's gwine ter run away agin from dis yere town jes as soon as de way open. Dat'll be de las you see ob her."

"She's had a hard time of it, poor thing," said Mrs. Bodine, charitably, "and we can't expect her to feel about Charleston as we do. The question is, will Mr. Clancy feel obliged to follow her eventually?"

"I tink he's 'bliged not ter."

"Well, Aun' Sheba, I'm glad you have such strong religious ideas of marriage."

"I'se feerd I ain't bery 'ligious 'bout anyting. I put myself on 'bation while ago, but I kin'er forgits 'bout dat 'bation, I hab so much to tink ob."

Mrs. Bodine began to laugh as she said, "I thought you were a sensible woman, Aun' Sheba."

"Yes, I know. I did tole Marse Clancy dat I hab hoss-sense."

"Then you were lying 'miscuously."

"How dat, missus?"

"Why, Aun' Sheba, do you think you have been hiding your light under a bushel basket all this time? Old Hannah--poor old Hannah! I wonder what has become of her--she and Mara have told me how you do for the sick and poor. Don't you know that the Bible says, 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren ye have done it unto Me'? You've sent me nice things more than once. I'm 'one of the least of these.' You don't do these things to be seen of men."

"No, nor I doesn't do it kase I specs ter git anoder string to my harp bime-by. I does it kase I'se kin'er sorry fer de po' critters."

"Exactly. That is why He fed the hungry and healed the sick. He was sorry for them. Come, Aun' Sheba, don't be foolish any more."

"I feels it kin'er sumptious ter be so shuah."

"Now, Aun' Sheba, you are doing wrong," said Mrs. Bodine, gravely and earnestly. "The Lord has been very patient with you--more so than I would be. If I had made you promises and you kept saying, 'I don't feel sure about them,' I'd give you a piece of my mind."

"Lor, missus, how you puts it! Is it dataway?"

"Certainly."

"Well, den, I jes takes myse'f off 'bation. I'se gwine ter hang onter de promises. Lawd, Lawd, missus, I s'posed I'd hab ter groan so dey heah me all ober de square fo' I could be 'ligious."

"Oh, dear, hear it now! Such groaning makes every one else groan. The voice that God hears is the wish of the heart and not a hullabaloo. How shall we get through the night if this keeps up? If you'll help me to my quarters I'll try to get what rest I can."

When Aun' Sheba returned, Mara insisted on her lying down till she was called. "I shall do something in this time of trouble except make trouble," said the girl resolutely, and she would take no denial.

Clancy found that his friend needed much attention, which he gave until warned by his own symptoms that he must see a physician. He found George lying on a blanket by a small fire, and that all the others were either sleeping or resting. "I declare I hate to waken Dr. Devoe," he said, "but I feel as if I were going to be ill."

George felt the hand of his friend, and sprang up, saying, "I'll waken Dr. Devoe with or without your leave."

After a brief examination the physician said:

"Why did you not come to me before?"

Clancy explained that he had been caring for a sick friend, to which the doctor replied testily:

"I don't believe he was half so ill as you are. Well, you must obey me now as long as you are rational, and I fear that won't be very long." And he promptly placed Clancy under the open part of the awning, which was the sleeping-room for the men by night, and general living-room by day. Having given his patient a remedy, he returned and said, "Here you are, too, Houghton, up and around. Do you wish to break down also?"

"You forget, doctor, that I had some sleep last night. Feel my pulse."

"Slightly febrile, but then I know what's the matter with you. If I were not so old and bald-headed I'd cut out a slow coach like you. I'm half a mind to try it as it is."

"Go ahead, doctor. You'll be only one more. How many are there now, do you suppose?"

"I know how many there should be after what I've seen. But bah! you Northern young chaps lay siege to a girl at such long range that she surrenders to some other fellow before you find it out."

"Would you have me call her now, shake her awake, and propose?" asked George, irritably.

"No, I'd have you fight shy and give me a chance. There, you are too far gone for a jest. What are you up for?"

"Because I'm not sleepy, for one thing, and I think some one should be on guard. What's more, I don't like the way those negroes are performing. They seem to be going wild."

"Yes, and they are doing a lot of harm to the sick and feeble. If they don't stop at midnight I'll find out whether there's any law in this city. I say, Houghton, since you are going to sit up, give Clancy this medicine every half hour, and call me at twelve." He then wrapped himself in a blanket and was asleep in a minute.

If George had been wide awake before, the doctor's raillery so increased his impatience and worry that for a time he paced up and down before the fire. Was he faint-hearted in wooing Ella? Suppose some bold Southerner should forestall him? The thought was torture; yet it seemed ungenerous and unkind to seek her openly while she was in a sense his guest and dependent upon him. "Well," he growled at last, "I won't do it. When she first spoke to me she said I was a gentleman, and I'll be hanged if I don't remain one and take my chances."

He threw himself down again by the fire with his back to the awning. Before very long he heard a light step. Turning hastily he saw Ella's startled face by the light of the fire.

"Oh, Mr. Houghton! is it you? Pardon me for disturbing you," and she was about to retreat.

He was on his feet instantly and said, "You will only disturb me by going away, that is--I mean if you are not tired and sleepy."

"There is such a dreadful noise I can't sleep any more," she replied, hesitating a moment.

"Suppose--you might help me watch a little while then," he stammered.

"I'll watch if you will rest."

"Certainly;" and he brought her a chair and then reclined near her feet.

"But I meant that you should sleep."

"I only promised to rest."

"But you need sleep if any one does. I've had a good nap and feel much better. How late is it?"

"Nearly eleven, and time for Clancy's medicine." When he returned he told her about Clancy.

"Poor fellow!" she said, sympathetically,

"Clancy seems to have trouble on his mind. We all have enough, but he more than his share."

"I should think you would be worried out of your senses with so many people to think about and care for. No wonder you can't sleep."

"Thoughts of people do not keep me awake, and I am glad to say my father's resting quietly. He and your father are born soldiers."

"Your father's to blame for my making a fool of myself at the supper-table. He spoke so kindly and sympathetically, and I was so tired and silly that I couldn't stand anything. Then you looked reproachfully at me because I couldn't eat all you sent--enough to make Uncle Sheba ill."

"Now, Miss Bodine, I didn't look at you reproachfully."

"Who's that snoring over there?"

"Dr. Devoe. My facial muscles must have been shaken out of shape to have given you so false an impression. Anyhow, I seem to have driven you away, and I've been miserable ever since."

"Why, Mr. Houghton! The idea of letting a tired girl's weakness disturb you! You will soon be as ill as Mr. Clancy."

"I'm only stating a fact."

"Well, facts are very queer nowadays. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised at anything."

"Yet you are a continual surprise to me, Miss Bodine. Do you think I've forgotten anything since you carried Mrs. Bodine out of her tottering house?"

"Oh, Mr. Houghton! my memory goes further back than that. I can see a tall man leap into a sinking boat and--and--oh, why did you sink with it? My father's agony over the thought that you had died for him turned his hair white."

"I couldn't help sinking, Miss Bodine. If it hadn't been for that blasted pole--Well, perhaps it saved all our lives, for my boat was overloaded as it was. But don't think about that affair. It might have turned out worse."

"It might indeed. If you knew how we all felt when we thought you were drowned!"

"Well, I thank God that I happened to be near."

"Happened! You seemed to have a presentiment of evil, and kept near."

"I was facing a certainty of evil then, Miss Bodine. I expected to go North in a few days, and feared I might not see you again. There, I shouldn't speak so now. My memory goes back further than yours. I remember a blue-eyed stranger who drew near to me when I was facing a street bully, as if she meditated becoming my protector. I saw a noble woman's soul in those clear eyes, and she said 'I was a gentleman.' I must remember her words now with might and main. All that I ask is that you won't let any one else--that you will give me a chance when in your own home. Your father has--"

"Mr. Houghton, is it not time for Mr. Clancy's medicine?"

"Yes, and past time," he replied, ruefully.

When he returned she said demurely, "I think I can promise what you ask. Now surely, since your mind is at rest, you can sleep. I will watch."

"I'm too happy to sleep."

"How absurd!"

"Oh, the shock this morning did not disturb me half so much as to see those fellows around with their devouring eyes."

"Mr. Houghton, don't you think that if we asked them, those colored people would be less loud? It must be dreadful for those who are sick, and there are so many."

"They will be brutal indeed if they don't yield to you," and he led the way to the nearest centre of disturbance.

"Oh, see! Mr. Houghton, there's our old Hannah."

He saw an old woman swaying back and forth, her lips moving spasmodically, but uttering no sound. The crowd watched her in a sort of breathless suspense. Suddenly she burst out with the hymn, "Oh, Raslin' Jacob! let me go," and the throng joined in the mighty refrain. The women swayed to and fro violently, all going together in a sort of rhythmic motion, meantime clapping their hands in an ecstasy of emotion. A man dropped to the earth "converted." He yelled rather than prayed for mercy, then suddenly swooned and became rigid as a corpse. Others, both men and women, were prostrated also; and to bring as many as possible into this helpless condition appeared to be the general object as far as any purpose was manifested. The crowd seemed to regard poor, demented Hannah as inspired, for a space was kept clear before her. When she began to sway in her weird fashion, and her face to twitch, she was the priestess and the oracle. The hymn she began was taken up first by two self-appointed exhorters, then by all.

"Oh, Hannah!" cried Ella, when her voice could be heard, "do stop and come away. You are harming the sick and the injured."

The old woman started, and on seeing the girl rushed forward, crying, "Down on you knees. Now you chance. Pray, bruders, pray, sistahs. De quakes neber stop till a white man or woman converted--converted till dere proud heads in de bery dus'"--and she sought to force Ella on her knees.

In a moment Ella was surrounded by the worshippers, whose groans, shouts, prayers and ejaculations created Pandemonium. The girl was terrified, but George encircled her with his arm, and thundered, "Give way. I'll brain the first man who stops us."

Awed for an instant they yielded to George's vigorous push out and away, and then returned to their former wild indulgence of religious frenzy.

For several paces after their escape he seemed to forget that his arm was still around Ella, nor did she remind him. Suddenly he removed it, saying, "Pardon me, Miss Bodine, I am that enraged with those lunatics that I'd like to give them something to howl about."

"Please be calm, Mr. Houghton," said Ella gently. "I'm not afraid now, and should not have been afraid at all. I know these people better than you do. They wouldn't have harmed us, and I fear they don't know any better. It's only their looks, tones, and words that seem blasphemous, that are frightful. It was I who took you there and I should have known better."

"Oh, Ella!--beg pardon--Miss Bodine, what a savage a man would be if you couldn't manage him!"

"Then promise you won't go near those people any more."

"You are too brave a girl to ask that when you learn that Dr. Devoe is going to tackle them with the police if they don't quiet down by midnight."

They spoke in low tones as he again held her hand, while they picked their way among the extemporized shelters and uneasy refugees in the square. As they approached their own quarters she faltered, "I'm not very brave tonight, and I have long since learned that you are only too brave."

He paused, still retaining her hand as he said, "What a strange scene this is! How wild and unearthly those sounds now seem! How odd it all is--our homes yonder deserted and we here under the stars. It's stranger than any dream I ever had, yet if it were a dream I would not wish to wake with you--"

"Mr. Houghton, what's that, that, that?"

Far oft in the southeast there were sounds like faint explosions which grew rapidly louder. Instinctively he drew her nearer, and saw her face grow white even in the faint radiance of the stars.

"Oh!" she gasped shuddering as the deep roar of the coming earthquake began. Then his arm drew her close, and she hid her face on his breast.

"Ella," he said solemnly, "I love you, God knows if these words were my last I would still say I love you."

The mighty roar gradually deepened, and with it blended the cry of thousands; the earth quivered and swayed, then the thunder passed on, accompanied by sounds like the distant crash of falling buildings.

George kissed the bowed head and whispered, "There, it's over and we are safe."

"Oh, thank God! you were with me!" she sobbed.

"May I not be with you always, Ella?"

"God grant it! Oh, George, George, I would have leaped after you into the water if they had not held me. How could I do without you now?"

"Come, my brave little wife, come with me to my father and reassure him."

"George," cried Mr. Houghton.

"We are here," he answered, drawing aside the screen.

"We?"

"Yes, Ella and I. That last shock has rather hastened matters."

"Ella, my dear child! Truly God is bringing good out of evil;" and he took the girl into his arms. Then he added, "You'll forgive me and be my own dear daughter?"

"Yes, Mr. Houghton. You'll find I am rich in love if nothing else."

"Ah! Ella dear, the world seems going to pieces, and my wealth with it, but love only grows more real and more precious."

"My father's calling me;" and kissing him a hasty good-by she vanished.

Miss Ainsley again ran shrieking out, calling upon Clancy, but Dr. Devoe met her and drew her away from his muttering, half-conscious patient. When she became sufficiently quiet he told her that Clancy was dangerously ill, and that nothing must be said or done to excite him. This seemed to her only another proof of general disaster, and, in almost abject tones, she begged, "Oh, doctor, make me sleep till--my father will surely come to-morrow, and then I can get away."

Her entreaty was so loud that even Mara could not help hearing her. The physician rather contemptuously thought that it would be better for all if she were quiet, and gave the anodyne. So far from feeling sympathy for Clancy she was almost vindictive toward him for having failed her.

Fear, uncontrolled, becomes one of the most debasing of the emotions. It can lead to panic even among soldiers with arms in their hands; sailors will trample on women and children in their blind rush for the boats; men will even deny their convictions, their faith, and cringe to brutal power; crimes the most vile are committed from fear, and fear had virtually obliterated womanhood in Miss Ainsley's soul. She was in a mood to accept any conditions for the assurance of safety, and she gave not a thought to any one or anything that offered no help. With the roar of the earthquake still in her ears, and in the dark midnight she knew there was no help, no way of escape, and so with the impulse of the shipwrecked who break into the spirit room she besought the opiate which could at least bring oblivion. Her eyes, which could be so beautiful, had the wild, hunted look of an animal, and her form, usually grace itself, writhed into distortions. Her demoralization under the long-continued terror was complete, and all were glad when she became unconscious and could be hidden from sight. As Aun' Sheba made her way to her own household she grunted, "A lun'tic out ob a 'sylem wouldn' mar'y dat gal if he seed wot I seed."