Chapter VI. "Pahnaship"
 

When Mara realized that her lover had indeed gone, that in fact he had been driven forth, and that she had said not one word to pave the way for a future meeting, a sense of desolation she had never known before overwhelmed her. Hitherto she had been sustained by an unfaltering belief that no other course than the one which her aunt had inculcated was possible; that, cost what it might, and end as it might, it was her heritage. All now was confused and in doubt. She had heard her lofty, self-sacrificing purpose virtually characterized as vain and wrong. She had idolized the memory of her father and mother, and yet had been told that her course was the very one of which they would not approve. The worst of it all was that it now seemed true, for she could not believe that they would wish her to be so utterly unhappy. In spite of her unworldliness and lack of practical training, the strong common-sense of Clancy's question would recur, "What good will it do?" She was not sacrificing her heart to sustain or further any cause, and her heart now cried out against the wrong it was receiving. These miserable thoughts rushed through her mind and pressed so heavily upon all hope that she leaned her arms upon the table, and, burying her face, sobbed aloud.

"Mara," said her aunt, severely, "I did not think you could be so weak."

Until the storm of passionate grief passed, the young girl gave no heed to Mrs. Hunter's reproaches or expostulations. At last she became quiet, as much from exhaustion as from self-control, and said wearily, "You need worry no further about Mr. Clancy. He will not come again. If he has a spark of pride or manhood left, he will never look at me again," and a quick, heart-broken sob would rise at the thought.

"I should hope you would not look at him again after his insolence to me."

Mara did not reply. For the first time her confidence in her aunt had been shaken, for she could not but feel that Mrs. Hunter, in her judgment of Clancy, saw but one side of the question. She did not approve of his stern arraignment of her aunt, but she at least remembered his great provocation, and that he had been impelled to his harsh words by loyalty to her.

At last she said, "Aunty, I'm too worn out to think or speak any more tonight. There is a limit to endurance, and I've reached it."

"That's just where the trouble is," Mrs. Hunter tried to say reassuringly. "In the morning you will be your own true, brave self again."

"What's the use of being brave; what can I be brave for?" thought Mara in the solitude of her room.

Although her sleep was brief and troubled, she had time to grow calm and collect her thoughts. While she would not admit it to herself, Clancy's repeated assertions of his love had a subtle and sustaining power. She could see no light in the future, but her woman's heart would revert to this truth as to a secret treasure.

In the morning after sitting for a time almost in silence over their meagre breakfast, her aunt began: "Mara, I wish you to realize the truth in regard to Mr. Clancy. It is one of those things which must be nipped in the bud. There is only one ending to his path, and that is full acceptance of Northern rule and Northern people. What is more, after his words to me, I will never abide under the same roof with him again."

"Aunty," said Mara sadly, "we have much else to think about besides Mr. Clancy. How are we going to keep a roof over our own heads?"

Compelled to face their dire need, Mrs. Hunter broke out into bitter invective against those whom she regarded as the cause of their poverty.

"Aunty," protested Mara, almost irritably, for her nerves were sadly worn, "what good can such words do? We must live, I suppose, and you must advise me."

"Mara, I am almost tempted to believe that you regret--"

"Aunty, you must fix your mind on the only question to be considered. What are we to do? You know our money is almost gone."

Mrs. Hunter's only response was to stare blankly at her niece. She could economize and be content with very little as long as her habitual trains of thought were not interrupted and she could maintain her proud seclusion. Accustomed to remote plantation life, she knew little of the ways of the modern world, and much less of the methods by which a woman could obtain a livelihood from it. To the very degree that she had lived in the memories and traditions of the past, she had unfitted herself to understand the conditions of present life or to cope with its requirements. Now she was practically helpless. "We can't go and reveal our situation to our friends," she began hesitatingly.

"Certainly not," said Mara, "for most of them have all they can do to sustain themselves, and I would rather starve than live on the charity of those on whom we have no claim."

"We might take less expensive rooms."

"What good would that do, Aunty? If we can't earn anything, five dollars will be as hard to raise as ten."

"Oh, to think that people of the very best blood in the State, who once had scores of slaves to work for them, should be so wronged, robbed and reduced!"

Mara heaved a long, weary sigh, and Clancy's words would repeat themselves again and again. She saw how utterly incapable her aunt was to render any assistance in their desperate straits. Even the stress of their present emergency could not prevent her mind from vainly reverting to a past that was gone forever. Again her confidence was more severely shaken as she was compelled to doubt the wisdom of their habits of seclusion and reticence, of living on from year to year engrossed by memories, instead of adapting themselves to a new order of things which they were powerless to prevent. "Truly," she thought, "my father and mother never could have wished me to be in this situation out of love for them. It is true I could never go to the length that he does without great hypocrisy, and I do not see the need of it. I can never forget the immense wrong done to me and mine, but Aunty should have taught me something more than indignation and hostility, however just the causes for them may be."

While such was the tenor of her thoughts, she only said a little bitterly: "Oh, that I knew how to do something! My old nurse, Aun' Sheba, is better off than we are."

"She belongs to us yet," said Mrs. Hunter, almost fiercely.

"You could never make her or any one else think so," was the weary reply. "Well, now that I have thought of her, I believe I could advise with her better than any one else."

"Advise with a slave? Oh, Mara!--"

"Whom shall I advise with then?" And there was a sharp ring in the girl's tone.

"Oh, any one, so that it be not Mr. Clancy," replied her aunt irritably. "Were it not that you so needed a protector, I could wish that I were dead."

"Aunt," said Mara, gently yet firmly, "we must give up this hopeless, bitter kind of talk. I, at least, must do something to earn honest bread, and I am too depressed and sad at heart to carry any useless burdens. Mr. Clancy said much that was wrong last night, and there are matters about which he and I can never agree, but surely he was right in saying that my father and mother would not wish to see me crushed body and soul. If I am to live, I must find a way to live and yet keep my self-respect. I suppose the natural way would be to go to those who knew my father and grandfather; but they would ask me what I could do. What could I tell them? It would seem almost like asking charity."

"Of course it would," assented her aunt.

Then silence fell between them.

Before Mara could finish her morning duties and prepare for the street, a heavy step was heard on the stairs, then a knock at the door. Opening it, the young girl saw the very object of her thoughts, for Aun' Sheba's ample form and her great basket filled all the space.

"Oh, Aun' Sheba," cried the girl, a gleam of hope lighting up her eyes, "I'm so glad to see you. I was just starting for your cabin."

"Bress your heart, honey, Aun' Sheba'll allus be proud to hab you come. My spec's, Missus," and she dropped her basket and a courtesy before Mrs. Hunter.

"Aun' Sheba," said Mara, giving the kindly vender a chair, "you are so much better off than we are. I was saying just that to aunty this morning."

"Why, honey, I'se only a po' culled body, and you'se a beauty like you moder, bress her po' deah heart."

"Yes, Aun' Sheba, you were a blessing to her," said Mara with moist eyes. "How you watched over her and helped to take care of me! Perhaps you can help take care of me again. For some reason, I can speak to you and tell you our troubles easier than to any one else in the world."

"Dat's right, honey lam', dat's right. Who else you tell your troubles to but Aun' Sheba? Didn't I comfort you on dis bery bres time an' time agin when you was a little mite? Now you'se bigger and hab bigger troubles, I'se bigger too," and Aunt Sheba shook with laughter like a great form of jelly as she wiped her eyes with sympathy.

"Aun' Sheba," said Mara in a voice full of unconscious pathos, "I don't know what to do, yet I must do something. It seems to me that I could be almost happy if I were as sure of earning my bread as you are."

"Now, doggone dat ar lazy husban' o' mine. But he got his 'serts an'll git mo' ob dem eff he ain't keerful. I jes' felt it in my bones las' night how 'twas wid you, an I 'lowed how I'd see you dis mawnin', an' den he began to go on as ef you was nothin' but white folks stid ob my deah honey lam' dat I nussed till you was like my own chile. But he won' do so no mo'."

"Oh, Aun' Sheba, believe me, I don't wish to interfere with any of your duties to him," began Mara earnestly.

"Duty to him," exclaimed the colored woman with a snort of indignation. "He mout tink a little 'bout his duty to me. Doan you trubble 'bout him, for he's boun' to git mo' dan his shar anyhow. Now I know de good Lawd put it in my min' to come heah dis mawnin' case you was on my min' las' night. You needn't tink you kin go hungry while Aun' Sheba hab a crus'."

"I know what a big heart you've got, but that won't do, Aun' Sheba. Can you think I would live idly on your hard-earned money?"

"Well, 'tis my money, an' I make mo dan you tink, an' a heap mo' dan I let Unc. know about. He'd be fer settin' up his kerrige ef he knew," and she again laughed in hearty self-complacency. "Why, honey, I can 'sport you an' Missus widout pinchin', an' who gwine to know 'bout it?"

"I'd know about it," said Mara, rising and putting her hand caressingly on the woman's shoulder, "yet I feel your kindness in the very depths of my heart. Come, I have a thought. Let me see what's in your basket."

"Ony cakes dis mawnin', honey. Help you's sef."

"Oh, how delicious they are," said Mara eating one, and thoughtfully regarding her sable friend. "You beat me making cakes, Aun' Sheba, and I thought I was good at it."

"So you am, Missy, so you am, fer I taught you mysef."

"Aun' Sheba, suppose we go into partnership."

"Pahnaship!" ejaculated Aun' Sheba in bewilderment.

"Oh, Mara!" Mrs. Hunter expostulated indignantly.

"Well, I suppose it would be a very one-sided affair," admitted the girl, blushing in a sort of honest shame. "You are doing well without any help from me, and don't need any. I'm very much like a man who wants to share in a good business which has already been built up, but I don't know how to do anything else, and could at least learn better every day, and--and--I thought--I must do something--I thought, perhaps, if I made the cakes and some other things, and you sold them, Aun' Sheba, you wouldn't have to work so hard, and--well, there might be enough profit for us both."

"Now de Lawd bress you heart, honey, dar ain't no need ob you blisterin' you'se pretty face ober a fiah, bakin' cakes an' sich. I kin--"

"No, no, Aun' Sheba, you can't, for I won't let you."

"Mara," protested Mrs. Hunter, severely, "do you realize what you are saying? Suppose it became known that you were in--in--" but the lady could not bring herself to complete the humiliating sentence.

"Yis, honey, Missus am right. De idee! Sech quality as you in pahnaship wid ole Aun' Sheba!" and she laughed at the preposterous relationship.

"Perhaps it needn't be known," said Mara, daunted for a moment. Then the necessities in the case drove her forward, and, remembering that her aunt was unable to suggest or even contemplate anything practicable, she said resolutely, "Let it be known. Others of our social rank are supporting themselves, and I'm too proud to be ashamed to do it myself even in this humble way. What troubles me most is that I'm making such a one-sided offer to Aun' Sheba. She don't need my help at all, and I need hers so much."

"Now see heah, honey, is your heart set on dis ting?"

"Yes, it is," replied Mara, earnestly. "My heart was like lead till you came, and it would be almost as light as one of these cakes if I knew I could surely earn my living. Oh, Aun' Sheba, you've had troubles, and you know what sore troubles my poor mother had, but neither you nor she ever knew the fear, the sickening dread which comes over one when you don't know where your bread is to come from or how you are to keep a roof over your head. Aunty, do listen to reason. Making cake and other things for Aun' Sheba to sell would not be half so humiliating as going to people of my own station and revealing my ignorance, or trying to do what I don't know how to do, knowing all the time that I was only tolerated. My plan leaves me in seclusion, and if any one thinks less of me they can leave me alone. I don't want to make my way among strangers; I don't feel that I can. This plan enables us to stay together, Aunty, and you must know now that we can't drift any longer."

While Mara was speaking Aun' Sheba's thrifty thoughts had been busy. Her native shrewdness gave her a keen insight into Mrs. Hunter's character, and she knew that the widow's mind was so warped that she was practically as helpless as a child. While, in her generous love for Mara and from a certain loyalty to her old master's family, she was willing temporarily to assume what would be a very heavy burden, she was inwardly glad, as she grew accustomed to the idea, that Mara was willing to do her share. Indeed it would be a great relief if her basket could be filled for her, and she said, heartily, "Takes some time, honey, you know, fer an idee to git into my tick head, but when it gits dar it stick. Now you'se sensible, an' Missus'll see it soon. You'se on de right track. Ob cose, I'd be proud ob pahnaship, an' it'll be a great eas'n up to me. Makes a mighty long day, Missy, to git up in de mawnin' an' do my bakin' an' den tromp, tromp, tromp. I could put in an hour or two extra sleep, an' dat counts in a woman ob my age an' heft. But, law sakes! look at dat clock dar. I mus' be gitten along. Set you deah little heart at res', honey. I'se comin' back dis ebenin', an' we'se start in kin' ob easy like so you hab a chance to larn and not get 'scouraged."

"I can't approve of this plan at all," said Mrs. Hunter, loftily, "I wash my hands of it."

"Now, now, Missus, you do jes' dat--wash you hans ob it, but don' you 'fere wid Missy, kase it'll set her heart at res' and keep a home fer you bof. We's gwine to make a pile, honey, an' den de roses come back in you cheeks," and nodding encouragingly, she departed, leaving more hope and cheer behind her than Mara had known for many a month.

To escape the complaining of her aunt, Mara shut herself in her room and thought long and deeply. The conclusion was, "The gulf between us has grown wider and deeper. When Mr. Clancy learns how I have sought independence without his aid--" but she only finished the sentence by a sad, bitter smile.