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- Miss Lou - 30/64 -
the young girl immediately followed. Whately hesitated a moment or two, then left the breakfast room also. But Zany had had time to whisper:
"Oh, Miss Lou, Miss Whately's keridge's at de do', en Perkins en sogers wid it. Ole miss in yo' room en--"
"Quit that," said Whately in a low, stern voice, and Zany scuttled away.
"Now, then," resumed Whately to his cousin, "if you have any dignity or sense left, get ready at once. I can tell you that I'm far past being trifled with now."
"I'll finish my breakfast first, if you please," was the quiet response, so quiet that he was misled, and imagined her will breaking before his purpose.
They were scarcely seated at the table again before she startled them all by saying, "Major Brockton, I appeal to you, as a Southern gentleman and a Southern officer, for protection."
"Why, Miss Baron!" exclaimed the major, "you fairly take away my breath."
"Little wonder, sir. I have had mine taken away."
"Louise, you are insane!" cried Mr. Baron, starting up.
"Major, you can see for yourself that I am not insane, that I have perfect self-control. As you are a true man I plead with you not to let my cousin send me away. He can only do so by force, but I plead with you not to permit it. If I must I will tell you all, but I'd rather not. I am an orphan and so have sacred claims on every true man, and I appeal to you. I do not fear any battle that may be fought here, but I do fear being sent away, and with good reason."
"Oh, Louise!" cried Mrs. Whately, with scarlet face, "you place us in a horrible position."
"Not in so horrible a one as I have been placed, and which I will not risk again, God is my witness."
Major Brockton looked very grave, for he was acquainted with Whately's recklessness. The young man himself was simply speechless from rage, but Mr. Baron sprang up and said sternly, "You shall hear the whole truth, sir. It can be quickly told, and then you can judge whether I, as guardian, am capable of countenancing anything unwarranted by the highest sense of honor. This girl, my niece, has been virtually betrothed to her cousin since childhood. I and her aunts deemed it wisest and safest, in view of dangers threatening the direst evils, that she should be married at once and escorted by my sister and her son to the house of a relative residing further south. First and last, we were considering her interests, and above all, her safety. That's all."
"No, it is not all," cried Miss Lou, with a passionate pathos in her voice which touched the major's heart. "Would you, sir, force a girl, scarcely more than a child, to marry a man when you knew that she would rather die first? Safety! What would I care for safety after the worst had happened? I will not be married like a slave girl. I will not go away to Lieutenant Whately's relations unless I am taken by force."
"Great God, sir, that I should hear a Southern girl make such an appeal," said Major Brockton, his face dark with indignation. "We are justly proud of the respect we show to our women, and who more entitled to respect than this orphan girl, scarcely more than a child, as she says herself? Good Heaven! Whately, could you not have protected your cousin as you would your sister? You say, sir" (to Mr. Baron) "that she was betrothed from childhood. She didn't betroth herself in childhood, did she? Believe me, Miss Baron, no one has the power to force you into marriage, although your kindred should use all means, while you are so young, to prevent an unworthy alliance."
"I had no thought of marriage, sir, until terrified by my cousin's purpose and my family's urgency but a day since. I am willing to pay them all respect and deference if they will treat me as if I had some rights and feelings of my own. My only wish is a little of the freedom which I feel a girl should enjoy when as old as I am. I detest and fear the man whom my cousin has selected to take me away. I do not fear a battle. They all can tell you that I stood on the piazza when bullets were flying. I only ask and plead that I may stay in such a home as I have. My old mammy is here and--"
"Well," ejaculated the major, "have you no stronger tie than that of a slave mammy in your home?"
"I do not wish to be unjust, sir. I try to think my aunt and uncle mean well by me, but they can't seem to realize that I have any rights whatever. As for my cousin, he has always had what he wanted, and now he wants me."
"That is natural enough; but let him win you, if he can, like a Southern gentleman. Lieutenant Whately, I order you to your duty. Mr. Baron, if you wish to send your ladies away and go with them, I will furnish an escort. Any Southern home beyond the field of hostilities will be open to you. Acquaint me with your decision," and he bowed and strode away.
Even the most prejudiced and blind are compelled at times by an unhesitating and impartial opinion to see things somewhat in their true light. Long-cherished purposes and habits of thought in regard to Miss Lou, then panic, and strong emotions mixed with good and evil, had brought the girl's relatives into their present false relations to her. After the scene at the attempted wedding, Mrs. Whately would have returned to safe and proper ground, hoping still to win by kindness and coaxing. She had learned that Miss Lou was not that kind of girl, who more or less reluctantly could be urged into marriage and then make the best of it as a matter of course. This fact only made her the more eager for the union, because by means of it she hoped to secure a balance-wheel for her son. But the blind, obstinate persistence on the part of the Barons in their habitual attitude toward their niece, and now her son's action, had placed them all in a most humiliating light. Even Mr. Baron, who had always been so infallible in his autocratic ways and beliefs, knew not how to answer the elderly major. Whately himself, in a revulsion of feeling common to his nature, felt that his cousin had been right, and that a miserable space for repentance was before him, not so much for the wrong he had purposed, as for the woful unwisdom of his tactics and their ignominious failure. His training as a soldier led him to obey without a word.
Miss Lou was magnanimous in her victory. "Cousin Madison," she said earnestly, "why don't you end this wicked nonsense and act like a cousin? As such I have no ill-will toward you, but I think you and uncle must now see I'll stop at nothing that will keep me from becoming your wife. There's no use of trying to make me think I'm wrong in my feelings, for I now believe every true man would side with me. Be my cousin and friend and I will give you my hand here and now in goodwill."
But his anger was too strong to permit any such sensible action, and he rushed away without a word.
"Madison!" called his mother. "Oh, I'm just overwhelmed," and she covered her face with her hands and burst into tears.
"Well," said Mr. Baron in a sort of dreary apathy, "do you and Louise wish to go away under an escort furnished by the major?"
"No," cried Mrs. Whately, "I would accept my fate rather than favor at his hands. If I could only explain to him more fully--yet how can I? My son, with all his faults, is all I have to live for. I shall stay near him while I can, for he will be reckless to-day. My heart is just breaking with forebodings. Oh, why couldn't you, with your gray hairs, have shown a little wisdom in helping me restrain him?"
"I reckon the restraining should have been practiced long ago," replied her brother irritably.
"You have practiced nothing but restraint in the case of Louise, and what is the result?"
The girl looked at them wonderingly in their abject helplessness, and then said, "If you are taking it for granted that I am spoiled beyond remedy, I can't help it. I would have made no trouble if you had not set about making me trouble without end. As soon as I can I'll go away and take care of myself."
"Of course, Louise," said Mrs. Whately, "we're all wrong, you as well as the rest of us. We must try to get this snarl untangled and begin right. The idea of your going away!"
"I supposed that was the only idea," said Mrs. Baron, entering. "I, at least, have tried to remedy our niece's perverseness by getting her things ready."
Mrs. Whately wrung her hands in something like despair, while Miss Lou burst into a peal of half-nervous laughter at the expression on her uncle's face. "Well," she said, "there'll be no more trouble as far as I am concerned unless it's of your own making. If I am protected in my home, I shall stay; if not, I shall leave it. One learns fast in such ordeals as I have passed through. Aunt Sarah, your son threatened to shoot me for doing what you permitted. Suppose I had told Major Brockton that? I made allowances for Madison's passion, but unless he learns to control himself he will have to vent his passion on some one else."
"She has just lost her senses," gasped Mrs. Baron.
"No, we have acted as if we had lost ours," said Mrs. Whately rising with dignity. "I can't reason with either of you any more, for you have made up your minds that a spade is not a spade. I shall tell my niece that hereafter I shall treat her kindly and rationally, and then go home," and she left husband and wife confronting each other.
"What are you going to do?" asked the wife.
"Do!" exploded the husband in desperation, "why, hump myself and restore everything in a twinkling as it was five years ago. What else can I do?"
Even Mrs. Baron was speechless at this admission that events had now passed far beyond his control.
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