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- The Earth Trembled - 40/74 -
and slowly pursued his way to his father's counting-rooms. Entering he paused an instant and looked grimly at Bodine, whose head was bent over his writing. "I'll tackle you next, old gentleman," was his thought.
Punctually to a minute he called on Mrs. Willoughby when the week had expired. She looked into his resolute face and surmised before he spoke that time and reflection had not inclined him to a prudent withdrawal from a very doubtful suit. Nevertheless she said: "Well, you've had a little time to think, and you probably see now that your wisest course will be to give up this little affair utterly."
"Pardon me, Mrs. Willoughby, I've had an age in which to think, and it's not a little affair to me. I did not quite understand myself when I last saw you--it was all so new, strange, and heavenly. But I understand myself now. Ella Bodine shall be my wife unless she finally rejects me, unless she herself makes me sure that it's of no use to try. What's more, it will take years to prove this. As long as she does not belong to another I'll never give up."
"She belongs to her father."
"No, not in this sense. She has the right of every American girl to choose her husband."
"Do you mean to defy her father?"
"No, I mean to go to him like a gentleman, and ask permission to pay my addresses to his daughter. I mean to do this before I say one word of love to her."
"Since you are so resolved upon your course you do not need any more advice from me."
"I don't mean that at all. Isn't this the right, honorable course?"
"Oh, your royalty wishes me to applaud your decrees and decisions," she said laughing.
"Now please don't be hard on me, Mrs. Willoughby. I've followed your advice with all my might for a week."
"Done nothing with all your might?"
"Yes, and you couldn't have given me a harder task."
"Are you of age?"
"Yes, I am. I'm twenty-two, however immature I may seem to you."
"Miss Bodine is not of age."
"Well, I'll wait till she is."
"Wouldn't that be better? Wait till she is of age, and more capable of judging and acting for herself. Time may soften her father's feelings, and your father's also, for, believe me, you are going to have as much trouble at home as with Captain Bodine, that is, supposing that Ella would listen to your suit."
"And while I'm idly biting my nails through the creeping years some level-headed Southerner will quietly woo and win her. I would deserve to lose her, should I take such a course."
"You certainly would have to take that risk; but perhaps you will incur greater risks by too hasty action."
"Be sincere with me now, Mrs. Willoughby. I don't believe you women like timid, pusillanimous men. How could I appear otherwise to Miss Bodine if I should withdraw, like a growling bear into winter quarters, there to hibernate indefinitely? The period wouldn't be life to me, scarcely tolerable existence. What could she know about my motives and feelings? I tell you my love is as sacred as my faith in God. I'm proud of it, rather than ashamed. I wish her to know it, no matter what the result may be, and I don't care if all the world knows it, too."
"You mean to tell your father then?"
"Certainly, at the proper time."
"Suppose you find him utterly opposed to it all?"
"I do not think I shall; not when he sees my happiness is at stake. He may fume over it for a time, but when he comes to know Ella she'll disarm him. Why, it's just as clear to me as that I see you, that she could make the old gentleman happier than he has been for over a quarter of a century."
"My poor young friend! I wish I could share in your sanguine feelings."
"Oh, I'm not so very sanguine about her. What she will do worries me far more than what the old people will do."
"Well, you are right there. The old people are the outworks, she the citadel, which you can never capture unless she chooses to surrender."
"That's true, but I don't believe she ever would surrender to a man who was afraid to approach even the outworks."
Mrs. Willoughby laughed softly as she admitted, "Perhaps you are right."
"If I'm not, my whole manhood is at fault," he replied earnestly. "Please tell me, haven't I decided on the right, honorable course--on what would seem honorable to Captain Bodine and to Ella also?"
"Yes, if you _will_ act now you can take no other."
"Well, won't you please approve of it?"
"Mr. Houghton, I'm not going to be timid and pusillanimous either. Since you are of age, and will take a perfectly honorable course, I will stand by you as a friend. I will still counsel you, if you so wish, for I fear that your troubles have only begun."
"I thank you from my heart," he said, seizing her hand and pressing it warmly. "I do need and wish your counsel, for I have very little tact. I can sail a boat better than I can manage an affair like this."
"Will you make me one solemn promise?"
"Yes, if I can."
"Then pledge me your word that you will not lose your temper with either Captain Bodine or your father."
"Oh, I think I can easily do that," he said good-humoredly.
"You don't know, you can't imagine, how you may be tried."
"Well, it's a sensible thing you ask, and I've sense enough to know it. I pledge you my word. If I break it, it will be because I'm pushed beyond mortal endurance."
"Mr. Houghton," she said, almost sternly, "you must not break it, no matter what is said or what happens. You would jeopardize everything if you did. You might lose Ella's respect."
He drew a long breath. "You make me feel as if I were going into a very doubtful battle," he said thoughtfully.
"It is a very doubtful battle. It certainly will be a hard, and probably a long one, and you will lose it if you don't keep cool."
"I can be very firm, I suppose."
"Yes, as firm and decided as you please, as long as you are quiet and gentlemanly in your words. Let me say one thing more," she added, very gravely. "If you enter on this affair, and then, in any kind of weakness or fickleness, give it up, I shall despise you, and so will all in this city who know about it. Count the cost. I'm too true a Southerner to look at you again if you trifle with a Southern girl. Your father will offer you great inducements to abandon this folly, as he will term it."
He flushed deeply, but only said, in quiet emphasis, "If I ever give up, except for reasons satisfactory to you, I shall despise myself far more than you can despise me."
"And you give me your word that you will keep your temper to the very end?"
"Yes, Heaven helping me, I will."
"Heaven speed you then, my friend."
Young Houghton was like a high-mettled steed, from which the curb had been removed. His temperament, even more than the impatience of youth, led him to chafe at delay, and Ella appeared so lovely, so exactly to his mind, that he had a nervous dread lest others should equally appreciate her, and forestall his effort to secure her affection. He resolved, therefore, that not an hour should be lost, and so went directly back to his father's counting-rooms.
Bodine was writing as usual at his desk, and Houghton looked at him with an apprehension thus far unknown in his experience. But he did not hesitate. "Captain Bodine," he said, with a little nervous tremor in his voice, "will you be so kind as to grant me a private interview this evening?"
The veteran looked at him coldly as he asked, "May I inquire, sir, your object in seeking this interview?"
"I will explain fully when we are alone. I cannot here, but will merely say that my motives are honorable, as you yourself will admit."
Bodine contracted his brows in painful thought for a moment. "I may as well have it out with him at once," was his conclusion. "Very well, sir, I will remain after the office is closed," he said frigidly, then turned to his writing.
George went to his desk in his father's private room, and there was a very grim, set look on his face also. "I understand you, my future father-in-law," he murmured softly. "You think you are going to end this affair in half an hour. We'll see."
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