Chapter V. Past and Future
 

Under the impulses of his solicitude and affection Clancy entered quickly, and took Mara's hand in such a strong, warm grasp that the color would come into her pale face. In spite of her peculiarities and seeming coldness, she was a girl who could easily awaken a passionate love in a warm, generous-hearted man like the one who looked into her eyes with something like entreaty in his own. She had a beauty peculiar to herself, and now a strange loveliness which touched his very soul. The quick flush upon her cheeks inspired hope, and a deep emotion, which she could not wholly suppress, found momentary expression. Even in that brief instant she was transfigured, for the woman within her was revealed. As if conscious of a weakness which seemed to her almost criminal, her face became rigid, and she said formally, "Please be seated, Mr. Clancy."

"You must not speak to me in that way and in that tone," he began impetuously, and then paused, for he was chilled by her cold, questioning gaze. Her will was so strong, and found such powerful expression in her dark, sad eyes, that for a moment he was dumb and embarrassed. Then his own high spirit rallied, and a purpose grew strong that she should hear him, and hear the truth also. His gray eyes, that had wavered for a moment, grew steady in their encounter with hers.

Seating himself on the opposite side of the table, he said quietly, "You think I have no right to speak to you in such a way."

"I fear we think differently on many subjects, Mr. Clancy."

"Admitting that, would you like a man to be a weak echo of yourself?"

"A man should not be weak in any respect. I do not think it necessary, however, to raise the question of my likes or dislikes."

"I must differ with you, Mara," he replied gravely.

"I agree with you now, fully, Mr. Clancy. We differ. Had we not better change the subject?"

"No, not unless you would be unfair. I am at a disadvantage. I am in your home. You are a lady, and therefore can compel me to leave unsaid what I am bent on saying. We have been friends, have we not?"

She bowed her acquiescence.

"Well," he continued a little bitterly, "I have one Southern trait left--frankness. You know I would speak in a different character if permitted, if I received one particle of encouragement." Then, with a sudden flush, he said firmly, "I will speak as I feel. I only pay homage in telling you what you must already know. I love you, and would make you my wife."

Her face became very pale as she averted it, and replied briefly, "You are mistaken, Mr. Clancy."

"Mara, I am not mistaken. Will you be fair enough to listen to me? We agree that we differ. Can we not also agree that we differ conscientiously? You cannot think me false, even though you say I am mistaken. Hitherto you have opposed to me a dead wall of silence. Though you will not listen to me as a lover, you might both listen and speak to me as a friend. That word would be hollow indeed if estrangment could result from honest differences of opinion."

"It is far more than a difference of opinion."

"Let the difference be what it may, Mara," he answered gently, resolving not to be baffled, "if you are so sure you are right, you should at least be willing to accord to one whom you once regarded as a friend the privilege of pleading his cause. Truth and right do not intrench themselves in repelling silence. That is the refuge of prejudice. If you will hear my side of the question, I will listen with the deepest interest to yours, and believe me you have a powerful ally in my heart."

"Your head has gained such ascendency over your heart, Mr. Clancy, that you cannot understand me. In some women the strongest reasons for or against a thing proceed from the latter organ."

"Is yours, then, so cold toward me?" he asked sadly.

"It is not cold toward the memory of my murdered parents," she replied with an ominous flash in her eyes.

Clancy looked at her in momentary surprise, then said firmly, "My father eventually died from injuries received in the war, but he was not murdered. He was wounded in fair battle in which he struck as well as received blows."

Again there was a quick flush upon her pale face, but now it was one of indignation as she said bitterly, "Fair battle! So you call it fair battle when men are overpowered in defending their homes. If armed robbers broke into your house, and you gave blows as well as received them, would you not be murdered if it so happened that you were killed? Why should we speak of these subjects further?" And there was a trace of scorn in her tone.

His pride was touched, and he was all the more determined that he would be heard. "I can give you good reason why we should speak further," he answered resolutely yet quietly. "However strong your feeling may be, I have too much respect for your intelligence and too much confidence in your courage to believe that you will weakly shrink from hearing one who is as conscientious as yourself. I cannot accept your illustration, and do not think the instance you give is parallel. In the differences between the North and the South, an appeal was made to the sword. If I had been old enough I would have fought at my father's side. But the question is now settled. No matter how we feel about it, the North and the South must live together, and it is not my nature to live in hate. Suppose I could--suppose it were possible for all Southern men to feel as you do and act in accordance with such bitter enmity, what would be the result? It would be suicide. Our land would become a desert. Capital and commerce would leave our cities because there would be no security among a people implacably hostile. Such a course would be more destructive than invading armies. My business, the business of the city, is largely with the North. If native Southern men tried to transact it in a cold, relentless spirit, we should lose the chance to live, much less to do anything for our land. We have suffered too much from this course already, and have allowed strangers, who care nothing for us, to take much that might have been ours. I love the South too well to advocate a course which would prove so fatal. What is more, I cannot think it would be right. The North of your imagination does not exist. I cannot hate people who have no hate for me, but on the contrary abound in honest, kindly feeling."

She had listened quietly with her face turned from him, and now met his eyes with an inscrutable expression in hers. "Have I not listened?" she asked.

"But you have not answered," he urged, "you have not even tried to show me wherein I am wrong."

The eyes whose sombre blackness had been like a veil now flamed with the anger she had long repressed. "How little you understand me," she said passionately, "when you think I can argue questions like these. You are virtually asking what to me is sacrilege. I have listened to you patiently, at what cost to my feelings you are incapable of knowing. Do you think that I can forget that my grandfather was mangled to death, and that his last words were, 'I was only trying to defend my home'? Do you think I can forget that my father was trampled into the very earth by your Northern friends with whom you must fraternize as well as trade? I will not speak of my martyred mother. Her name and agony are too sacred to be named in a political argument," and she uttered these last words with intense bitterness. Then rising to end the interview, she continued coldly in biting sarcasm, "Mr. Clancy, I have no relations with the North. I do not deal in cotton, and none of its fibre has found its way into my nature."

At these words he flushed hotly, sprang up, but by an evident and powerful effort controlled himself, and sat down again.

"How could you even imagine," she added, "that words, arguments, political and financial considerations would tempt me to be disloyal to the memory of my dead kindred?"

"You are disloyal to them," he said firmly.

"What!"

"Mara, I am indeed proving myself a friend because I am such and more, and because you so greatly need a friend. Your kindred had hearts in their breasts. Would they doom you to the life upon which you are entering? Can you not see that you are passing deeper and deeper into the shadow of the past? What good can it do them? Could they speak would they say, 'We wish our sorrows to blight your life'? You are not happy, you cannot be happy. It is contrary to the law of God, it is impossible to human nature, that happiness and bitter, unrelenting enmity should exist in the same heart. You are not only unhappy, but you are in deep trouble of some kind. I saw that from your face to-day before you saw me and could mask from a friend its expression of deep anxiety. You shall hear the truth from me which I fear you hear from no other, and your harsh words shall not deter me from my resolute purpose to be kind, to rescue you virtually from a condition of mind that is so morbid, so unhealthful, that it will blight your life. I cannot so wrong your father and mother as even to imagine that it could be their wish to see your beautiful young life grow more and more shadowed, to see you struggling under burdens which strong, loving hands would lift from you. Can you believe that they, happy in heaven, can wish you no happiness on earth?"

There was a grave, convincing earnestness in his tone, and a truth in his words hard to resist. What she considered loyalty to her kindred had been like her religion, and he had charged her with disloyalty, yes, and while he spoke the thought would assert itself that her course might be a wretched mistake. Although intrenched in prejudice, and fortified against his words by the thought and feeling of her life, she had been made to doubt her position and feel that she might be a self-elected martyr. The assertion that she was doing what would be contrary to the wishes of her dead kindred pierced the very citadel of her opposition, and tended to remove the one belief which had been the sustaining rock beneath her feet. She knew she had been severe with him, and she was touched by his forbearance, his resolute purpose to befriend her. She remembered her poverty, the almost desperate extremity in which she was, and her heart upbraided her for refusing the hand held out so loyally and persistently to her help. She became confused, torn, and overwhelmed by conflicting emotions; her lip quivered, and, bowing her head in her hands, she sobbed, "You are breaking my heart."

In an instant he was on one knee at her side. "Mara," he began gently, "if I wound it is only that I may heal. Truly no girl in this city needs a friend as you do. For some reason I feel this to be true in my very soul. Who in God's universe would forbid you a loyal friend?" and he tried to take her hand.

"I forbid you to be her friend," said a stern voice.

Springing up, Clancy encountered the gaze of a gaunt, white-haired woman, with implacable enmity stamped upon her thin visage. The young man's eyes darkened as they steadily met those of Mrs. Hunter, and it was evident that the forbearance he had manifested toward the girl he loved would not be extended to her guardian. Still he controlled himself, and waited till she should speak again.

"Mr. Clancy," she resumed after a moment, "Miss Wallingford is my ward; I received her from her dying mother, and so have rights which you must respect. I forbid you seeing her or speaking to her again."

"Mrs. Hunter," he replied, "permit me to tell you with the utmost courtesy that I shall not obey you. Only Mara herself can forbid me from seeing her or speaking to her."

"What right have you, sir--"

"The best of rights, Mrs. Hunter, I love the girl; you do not. As remorselessly as a graven image you would sacrifice her on the altar of your hate."

"Mr. Clancy, you must not speak to my aunt in that way. She has been devoted to me from my infancy."

"On the contrary, she has devoted you from infancy to sadness, gloom, and bitter memories. She is developing within you the very qualities most foreign to a woman's heart. Instead of teaching you to enshrine the memory of your kindred in tender, loving remembrance, she is forging that memory into a chain to restrain you from all that is natural to your years. She is teaching you to wreck your life in fruitless opposition to the healing influences that have followed peace. Madam, answer me--the question is plain and fair--what can you hope to accomplish by your enmity to me and to the principles of hope and progress which, in this instance, I represent, but the blighting of this girl whom I love?"

"You are insolent, sir," cried Mrs. Hunter, trembling with rage.

"No, madam, I am honest, and be the result to me what it may, you shall both hear the truth to-night."

"This is our home," was the harsh response, "and you are not a gentleman if you do not leave it instantly."

"I shall certainly do so. Mara, am I to see you and speak to you no more?"

She had sunk into a chair, and again buried her face in her hands.

He waited a moment, but she gave no sign. Then with his eyes fixed on her he sadly and slowly left the apartment.

At last she sprang up with the faint cry, "Owen," but her aunt stood between her and the door, and he was gone.