Chapter VII. Mara's Purpose
 

"Neber had sech luck in all my bawn days," soliloquized Aun' Sheba as she saw the bottom of her basket early in the day. "All my cus'mers kin' o' smilin' like de sunshine. Only Marse Clancy grumpy. He go by me like a brack cloud. I'se got a big grudge against dat ar young man. He use to be bery sweet on Missy. He mus' be taken wid some Norvern gal, and dat's 'nuff fer me. Ef he lebe my honey lam' now she so po', dar's a bad streak in his blood and he don' 'long to us any mo'. I wouldn't be s'prised ef dey hadn't had a squar meal fer a fortnight. I can make blebe dat I wants to take my dinner 'long o' dem to sabe time, an' den dey'll hab a dinner wat'll make Missy real peart 'fore she gin to work," and full of her kindly intentions she bought a juicy steak, some vegetables, a quantity of the finest flour, sugar, coffee, and some spices.

Mara had slipped out and invested the greater part of her diminished hoard in the materials essential to her new undertaking. Not the least among them, as she regarded it, was an account book. When, therefore, Aun' Sheba bustled in between one and two o'clock, she found some bulky bundles on the kitchen table over which Mrs. Hunter had already groaned aloud.

"Law sakes, honey, what all dese?" the colored aunty asked.

"They are my start in trade," replied Mara, smiling.

"Den you's gwine to hab a mighty big start, fer I got lots o' tings in dis basket."

"Why, Aun' Sheba! Did you think I was going to let you furnish the materials?"

"Ef you furnish de makin' up ob de 'terials what mo' you oughter do, I'd like ter know?"

"Aun' Sheba, I could cheat you out af your two black eyes."

"Dey see mo' dan you tink, Missy," she replied, nodding sagaciously.

"Yes, I reckon they do, but my eyes must look after your interests as well as my own. I am going to be an honest partner. Do you see this book?"

"What dat ar got to do wid de pahnaship?"

"You will see. It will prevent you from ever losing a penny that belongs to you."

"Penny, indeed! As if I'se gwine to stand on a penny!"

"Well, I am. Little as I know about business, I am sure it will be more satisfactory if careful accounts are kept, and you must promise to tell me the whole truth about things. That's the way partners do, you know, and everything is put down in black and white."

"Oh, go 'long wid you, honey, an' hab you own way. All in my pahnaship go down in black, I s'pose, an' you'se in white. How funny it all am!" and the old woman sat back in her chair and laughed in her joyous content.

"It is all a very humiliating farce to me," said Mrs. Hunter, looking severely at the former property.

"Yas'm," said Aun' Sheba, suddenly becoming stolid as a graven image.

"Aunty," said Mara firmly but gently, "the time has come when I must act, for your sake as well as my own. Nothing will prevent me from carrying out this plan, except its failure to provide for Aun' Sheba as well as for ourselves."

"Well, I wash my hands of it, and, if your course becomes generally known, I shall have it understood that you acted without my approval." And she rose and left the kitchen with great dignity.

When the door closed upon her, Aun' Sheba again shook in vast and silent mirth.

"Doan you trubble long o' Missus, honey," she said, nodding encouragingly at Mara. "She jes' like one dat lib in de dark an' can't see notin' right." Then in sudden revulsion of feeling she added, "You po' honey lam', doan you see you'se got to take keer ob her jes' as ef she was a chile?"

"Yes," said Mara, sadly, "I've been compelled to see it at last."

"Now doan you be 'scouraged. 'Tween us we take keer ob her, an' she be a heap betteh off eben ef she doan know it. You hab no dinner yit?"

"We were just going to get it as you came."

"Well now, honey, I habn't had a bite nudder, an' I'se gwine to take dinneh heah ef you'se willin'."

"Why, surely, Aun' Sheba. It's little we have, you but know I'd share my last crust with you."

Again the guest was bubbling over with good-natured merriment. "We ain't got to de las' crus' yit, an' I couldn't make my dinneh on a crus' nohow. Dar's one ting I'se jes' got to 'sist on in de pahnaship. I don't keer notin' 'bout 'count books and sich, but ef we'se gwine to make a fort'n you got to hab a heap o' po'er in you'se arms. You got to hab a strong back and feel peart all ober. Dis de ony ting I 'sist on. Now how you gwine to be plump and strong?"

"Oh, I'm pretty strong, and I'll get stronger now that I have hope, and see my way a little."

"Hope am bery good fer 'sert, honey, but we want somep'n solider to start in on. You jes' set de table in de oder room, an' I'll be de brack raben dat'll pervide. Now you must min' kase I'se doing 'cording to Scripter, an' we neber hab no luck 'tall if we go agin Scripter."

"Very well," said Mara, laughing, "you shall have your own way. I see through all your talk, but I know you'll feel bad if you can't carry out your purpose. You'll have a better dinner, too."

"Yeh, yeh, she knows a heap moah'n me," thought Aun' Sheba when alone, "but I know some tings too, bress her heart. I kin see dat her cheeks am pale and thin an' dat her eyes am gettin' so big and brack dat her purty face am like a little house wid big winders. She got quality blood in her vein, shuah, but habn't got neah 'nuff. Heah's de 'terial wat gibs hope sometimes better'n preachin," and she whipped out the steak and prepared it for the broiler. Then she clapped some potatoes into the oven, threw together the constituents of light biscuit, and put the coffee over the fire. A natural born cook, she was deft and quick, and had a substantial repast ready in an amazingly short time. Soon it was smoking on the table, and then she said with a significant little nod at Mara, "Now I'se gwine to wait on Missus like ole times."

Mara understood her and did not protest, for she felt the necessity of humoring her aunt, who quite thawed out at the semblance of her former state. While the poor lady enlarged on the thought that such should be the normal condition of affairs, and would be if the world were not wholly out of joint, she nevertheless dined so heartily as to prove that she could still enjoy the good things of life if they were provided without personal compromise on her part. Mara made a silent note of this, and felt more strongly than ever that her aunt's needs and not her words must control her actions. After dinner she said, "Come, aunty, you have had much to try your nerves of late, and there must be much more not in harmony with your feelings. It can't be helped, but I absolve you of all responsibility, and I know very well if you had what was once your own, I would not have to raise my hand. You see I am not seeking relief in the way that is so utterly distasteful to you, and, when you come to think this plan all over, you will admit that it is the one that would attract the least attention, and involve the least change. Now lie down and take a good rest this afternoon."

"Well," said Mrs. Hunter, with the air of one yielding a great deal, "I will submit, even though I can not approve, on the one condition that you have nothing more to say to Mr. Clancy."

A painful flush overspread Mara's features, and she replied in a constrained voice, "You will have no occasion to worry about Mr. Clancy. After--" then remembering that Aunt Sheba was within ear-shot, she concluded, "Mr. Clancy will have nothing to say to me when he knows what is taking place. When you have thought it over you will see that my plan makes me independent of every one."

"That is, if you succeed," remarked Mrs. Hunter, "and it will be about the only thing to be said in its favor."

This degree of toleration obtained, Mara prepared to join Aunt Sheba in the kitchen, with the purpose of giving her whole thought and energy to the securing of an independence, now coveted more than ever. In spite of the influences and misapprehensions of her life which had tended to separate her from Clancy, when she fully learned that he was affiliating with those who dwelt as aliens in her thoughts, she had been overborne by his words and the promptings of her own heart. She was glad, indeed, that she had not revealed what she now regarded as her weakness, feeling that it would have complicated matters most seriously. While she had been compelled to see the folly of seclusion and inaction, the natural result of a morbid pride which blinds as well as paralyzes, she was by no means ready to accept his views or go to his lengths. She would have shared poverty with him gladly if he would continue to be "a true Southerner," in other words, one who submitted in cold and unrelenting protest to the new order of things. In accepting this new order, and in availing himself of it to advance his fortunes and those of his State as he also claimed, he alienated her in spite of all his arguments, and his avowed love. She felt that he should take the ground with her that they had suffered too deeply, and had been wronged too greatly, to ignore the past. They were a conquered people, but so were the Poles and Alsatians. Were those subject races ready to take the hands that had struck them and still held them in thraldom? Their indignant enmity was patriotism, not hate. Now that the habitual thoughts of her life had been given time to resume their control, she felt all the more bitterly what seemed a hopeless separation. The North had not only robbed her of kindred and property, but was now taking her lover. She knew she loved him, yet not for the sake of her love would she be false to her deep-rooted feelings and convictions. If he had seen how nearly she yielded to him, not to his views, the previous evening, it would have been doubly hard to show him in the end that she could never share in his life, unless he adopted her attitude of passive submission to what could not be helped.

Others might do as they pleased, but their dignity and personal memories required this position, and, as she had said to him, she could take no other course without hypocrisy, revolting alike to her feelings and sense of honor. His strong words, however, combining with the circumstances of her lot, had broken the spell of her aunt's influence, and had planted in her mind the thought that any useless suffering on her part was not loyalty to the memory of her father and mother. Her new impulse was to make the most and best of her life as far as she could conscientiously: and the hope would assert itself that if she were firm he would eventually be won over to her position. "If he loves as I do," she thought, "he will be. He, no doubt, is sincere, but he has been beguiled into seeing things in the light of his immediate interests. Love to me, if it is genuine, and loyalty to the cause for which his father gave his life, should lead him to the dignified submission of the conquered and away from all association with the conquerors that can be avoided. I'll prove to him," was her mental conclusion, accompanied with a flash of her dark eyes, "that a girl ignorant of the world and its ways, and with the help only of a former slave, can earn her bread, and thus show him how needless are his Northern allies."

Thoughts like these had been swiftly coursing through her mind while dining, and therefore, when she joined Aun' Sheba in the kitchen, she was ready to employ every faculty, sharpened to the utmost, in the tasks before her.

In that humble arena, and by the prosaic method contemplated, she would assert her unsubdued spirit, and maintain a consistency which should not be marred, even at the bidding of love, by an insincere acceptance of his views and associations.