Chapter IX. A New Solace
 

On her way home Aun' Sheba shook her head more than once in perplexity and disapprobation over what she had heard. She had the freedom of speech of an old family servant who had never been harshly repressed even when a slave, and now was added the fearlessness of a free woman. Her affection for Mara was so strong that in her ignorance she shared in some of the girl's prejudices against the North, but not in her antipathy. The thought that Clancy had waned in his regard or that he could even think of a Northern girl after having "kep' company" with Mara, had been exasperating, but now Aun' Sheba began to suspect that the estrangement was not wholly his fault. "She set agin him by his gwine Norf an' his habin' to do wid de folks dat she an' ole Missus hates. Doan see why he is mad at me 'bout it. Reckon he's mad anyhow an' can't speak peac'ble to nobody. Well, I likes him a heap betteh in dat view ob de case an' he kin glower at me all he please 'long as he ain't 'sertin' young Missy case she is po'. Couldn't stan' dat no how. He's willin' an' she ain't, an' dat wat she mean by sayin' 'No, Owen Clancy, nebbeh.' She won't lis'n to him kase he doan hate de Norf like pizen. Now dat is foolishness, an' she's sot up to it by de ole Missus. De Norf does as well as it know how. To be sure, it ain't quality like young Missy, but it buy de cotton an' it got de po'r. Wat's mo', it gib me a chance to wuck fer mysef. I would do as much fer young Missy as eber. I'd wuck my fingers off fer her, but I likes ter do it like white folks, kase I lub her. She orten' be so hard on young Clancy. He got his way ter make and dere'd be no good in his buttin' his head agin a wall. Tings am as dey is, an' I'm glad dey is as dey am. Dey's a long sight betteh fer cullud folks and white folks too, ef dey's a min' ter pull wid de curren' sted ob agin it. Massa Clancy's no fool. He know dis. He los' his pa an his prop'ty too, but he know betteh dan to go on hatin' fereber. Dey can't spec' me to uphole dem in dis fer it agin de Scripter an' my feelin's. Ole Missus bery 'ligious. She dun fergit wat de words mean she say ebry Sunday, But den, wot de use ob callin' ole Missus to 'count. She neber could see ony her side ob de question. It don make any dif'ence to her how many widers dere is in de Norf an' she hab jes dinged her 'pinions inter young Missy eber sence she was bawn. I'se glad ter do fer dem long as I lib, but I'se gwine ter speak my min' too."

With such surmises and self-communings she reached her home and found Uncle Sheba asleep in his chair and the fire out. She nodded at him ominously and muttered, "I gib him anuder lesson." Slipping quietly into the bedroom, she bolted the door, and, unrelenting to all remonstrances left him to get through the night as well as he could in his chair. The result justified the wisdom of the means employed, for thereafter Uncle Sheba always had a good fire when she returned.

Aun' Sheba had correctly interpreted the ellipsis suggested by Mara's passionate utterance. The scenes called up by her old nurse's words and rendered vivid by a strong imagination again presented themselves as an impassable barrier between herself and her lover unless he should feel their significance as she did. As a woman her heart was always pleading for him, but when strongly excited by the story of the past her anger flamed that he should even imagine that she would continue her regard for him. Indeed she wondered and was almost enraged at herself that she could not at once blot out his image and dismiss him from her thoughts when he was taking the course of all others most repugnant to her. At such moments she could easily believe that all was over between them, but with quiet persistence her heart knew better, and preferred love to enmities and sad memories.

Moreover, passionate as had been her mood there was a hard, homely common-sense in her old nurse's words, "Reckon de wah's ober an' wat you gwine ter do wid de Lawd's prar?" that quenched her fire like cold water. No one can be in a false position, out of harmony with normal laws and principles, without meeting spiritual jars. Mara was too young and too intelligent not to recognize the difficulties in maintaining her position, but she believed sincerely that the circumstances of her lot justified this position and made it the only honorable one for her. Northerners were to her what the Philistines were to the ancient Hebrews, the hereditary foes from which she had suffered the chief ills of her life. To compromise with them was to compromise with evil, and therefore she was always able to reason away the significance of all words like those of Aun' Sheba, although for the moment they troubled her.

Mrs. Hunter, however, had long since been incapable of doubts or compunctions. She tolerated Aun' Sheba's outspokenness as she would that of a child or a slave babbling of matters far above her comprehension.

The day marked a change in Mara's policy and action, and these led to some very important experiences. A false pride had at first prompted, or at least induced her to acquiesce in secrecy; now an honest pride led her to openness in all her efforts to obtain a livelihood. She would volunteer no information, but would simply go on in an unhesitating manner, let the consequences be what they might.

They soon began to take a surprisingly agreeable form, for the quick warm sympathies of the Southern people were touched. Here was a young girl, the representative of one of the oldest and best families, seeking quietly and unostentatiously to support herself and her aged aunt. There had been scores of people who would gladly have offered her assistance, but they had respected her reticence in regard to her affairs as jealously as they guarded the condition of their own. Frank in the extreme with each other in most respects, there was an impoverished class in the city who would suffer much rather than reveal pecuniary need or accept the slightest approach to charity. Poverty was no reproach among these families that had once enjoyed wealth in abundance. Indeed it was rather like a badge of honor, for it indicated sacrifice for the "lost cause" and an unreadiness for thrifty compacts and dealings with those hostile to that cause. In the class to which Mara belonged, therefore, she gained rather than lost in social consideration, and especial pains were taken to assure her of this fact.

Those in whose veins, even in Mrs. Hunter's estimation, flowed the oldest and bluest blood, called more frequently and spoke words of cheer and encouragement. That good lady, in a rich but antiquated gown, received the guests and was voluble in Mara's praises and in lamentation over the wrongs of the past. The majority were sympathetic listeners, but all were glad that the girl could do and was willing to do something more than complain. To their credit it should be said that they were ready to do more than sympathize, for even the most straitened found that they could spare something for Mara's cake, and Aun' Sheba's basket began to be emptied more than once every day. Orders were given also, and the young girl had all she could do to keep up with the growing demand.

It was well for her that each day brought its regular work, and its close found her too weary for the brooding so often the bane of idleness. Yet, in spite of all that was encouraging, the cheering words spoken to her, the elation of Aun' Sheba and the excitement resulting from her humble prosperity, she was ever conscious of a dull ache at heart. Clancy had gone North for an indefinite absence, and it looked as if their separation were final. In vain she assured herself that it was best that they should not meet again until both were satisfied that their paths led apart. She knew that she had hoped his path would come back to hers--that in secret she hoped this still, with a pathetic persistence which defied all effort. She believed, however, that such effort was her best resource, for he was again under the influences she most feared and detested. At times she reproached herself for having been too reserved, too proud and passionate in her resentment at his course. He had asked her to convince him of his error if she could, and she had not only failed to make such effort, but also had denied him the hope that would have been more than all argument. Thus, at variance with her heart, she alternated between the two extremes of anger at his course and regret and compunction at her own. As a rule, though, her resolute will enabled her to concentrate her thoughts on daily occupations and immediate interests, and it became her chief aim to so occupy herself with these interests that no time should be left for thoughts which now only tended to distress and discourage.

Mara was a girl who consciously would be controlled by a few simple motives rather than by impulses, circumstances or the influence of others. We have seen that loyalty, as she understood it, was her chief motive. Her love for parents she had never seen was profound, and all relating to them was sacred. To do what she believed would be pleasing to them, what would now reflect honor upon their memory, was her supreme duty. All other motives would be dominated by this pre-eminent one and all action guided by it. She felt that the effort to provide for her aunt, the one remaining member of her family, and to enable her to spend her remaining days in the congenial atmosphere of the past, would certainly be in accord with her parents' wishes. Then by natural sequence her sympathies went out to those whose fortunes, like her own, had been wrecked by the changes against which they could interpose only a helpless protest. In various ways she learned of those of her own class who had been disabled and impoverished, whose lives were stripped of the embroidery of pleasant little gratifications only permitted by a surplus of income. It gradually came to be a cherished solace after the labors of the morning, to carry to the sick and afflicted, dwelling in homes of faded gentility like her own, some delicacy made by her own hands. While these were received in the spirit in which they were brought, the girl's lovely, sympathetic face was far more welcome, and the orphan began to embody to those of the old regime the cause for which they all had suffered so much. Within this limited circle Mara was kindness and gentleness itself, beyond it cold and unapproachable. Occasionally some, with whom she had no sympathy, sought to patronize her. They intimated that they were willing to buy lavishily, but it was also evident that they wished their good-will appreciated and reciprocated in ways that excited the girl's scorn. In spite of her poverty and homely work, it was known that she was a favorite in the most aristocratic circle in the city, and there are always those ready to seek social recognition in many and devious ways. These pushing people represented to Mara the Northern element and leaven in the city, and she soon made it clear that there was an invisible line beyond which they could not pass. Their orders were either declined or scrupulously filled, if her time permitted, but with a quiet tact which was inflexible she warded off every approach which was not purely commercial.