This eBook was created by Charles Aldarondo
The Works of E. P. ROE
FROM JEST TO EARNEST
This book is dedicated in fraternal affection to the friend of my youth and maturer years—the REV. A. MOSS MERWIN, who, with every avenue of earthly ambition open to him at home, and with every motive urged upon him to remain at home, has been for years, and is now, a faithful missionary in a foreign land.
CHAPTER I. A PRACTICAL JOKE
CHAPTER II. THE VICTIM
CHAPTER III. PUZZLED AND INTERESTED
CHAPTER IV. A LITTLE PAGAN
CHAPTER V. PLAIN TALK
CHAPTER VI. A SLEIGH-RIDE AND SOMETHING MORE
CHAPTER VII. ANOTHER SPELL THAN BEAUTY'S
CHAPTER VIII. FINDING ONE'S LEVEL
CHAPTER IX. "THE OTHER SET"
CHAPTER X. HUMAN NATURE
CHAPTER XI. A POSSIBLE TRAGEDY
CHAPTER XII. MISS MARSDEN ASKS SOMBRE QUESTIONS
CHAPTER XIII. A LOVER QUENCHED
CHAPTER XIV. LOTTIE A MYSTERIOUS PROBLEM
CHAPTER XV. HEMSTEAD SEES "OUR SET"
CHAPTER XVI. HOW WOMAN MAKES OR MARS
CHAPTER XVII. MIDNIGHT VIGILS
CHAPTER XVIII. HEMSTEAD'S HEAVY GUN AND ITS RECOIL
CHAPTER XIX. THE PREACHER TAUGHT BY THE PAGAN
CHAPTER XX. THE DAWNING LIGHT
CHAPTER XXI. MISUNDERSTOOD
CHAPTER XXII. "YOU MUST WAIT AND SEE"
CHAPTER XXIII. A RATIONALIST OF THE OLD SCHOOL
CHAPTER XXIV. THE TERROR OF A GREAT FEAR
CHAPTER XXV. A TRUE KNIGHT
CHAPTER XXVI. ON A CRUMBLING ICE-FLOE
CHAPTER XXVII. THE MEETING AND GREETING
CHAPTER XXVIII. THE TRIAL OF LOVE
CHAPTER XXIX. HEMSTEAD'S ADVICE, AND LOTTIE'S COLORS
CHAPTER XXX. AROUND THE YULE-LOG
CHAPTER XXXI. UNDER THE MISTLETOE
CHAPTER XXXII. THE CHRISTMAS SUNDAY
CHAPTER XXXIII. THE END OF THE "JEST"
CHAPTER XXXIV. LOYAL
CHAPTER XXXV. MR. DIMMERLY CONCLUDES TO "MEDDLE"
CHAPTER XXXVI. A NIGHT IN THE SNOW
CHAPTER XXXVII. IN EARNEST
FROM JEST TO EARNEST.
A PRACTICAL JOKE.
On a cloudy December morning a gentleman, two ladies, and a boy stepped down from the express train at a station just above the Highlands on the Hudson. A double sleigh, overflowing with luxurious robes, stood near, and a portly coachman with difficulty restrained his spirited horses while the little party arranged themselves for a winter ride. Both the ladies were young, and the gentleman's anxious and almost tender solicitude for one of them seemed hardly warranted by her blooming cheeks and sprightly movements. A close observer might soon suspect that his assiduous attentions were caused by a malady of his own rather than by indisposition on her part.
The other young lady received but scant politeness, though seemingly in greater need of it. But the words of Scripture applied to her beautiful companion, "Whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance." She had been surfeited all her life with attention, and though she would certainly have felt its absence, as she would the loss of wealth, life-long familiarity with both led her to place no special value upon them.
Therefore during the half-hour's ride her spirits rose with the rapid motion, and even the leaden sky and winter's bleakness could not prevent the shifting landscape from being a source of pleasure to her city eyes, while the devotion of her admirer or lover was received as a matter of course.
The frosty air brought color into her companion's usually pale face, but not of an attractive kind, for the north-east wind that deepened the vermilion in the beauty's cheek could only tinge that of the other with a ghastly blue. The delicate creature shivered and sighed.
"I wish we were there."
"Really, Bel, I sometimes think your veins are filled with water instead of blood. It's not cold to-day, is it, Mr. De Forrest?"
"Well, all I can say with certainty," he replied, "is that I have been in a glow for the last two hours. I thought it was chilly before that."
"You are near to 'glory' then," cried the boy saucily, from his perch on the driver's box.
"Of course I am," said Mr. De Forrest in a low tone, and leaning towards the maiden.
"You are both nearer being silly," she replied, pettishly. "Dan, behave yourself, and speak when you are spoken to."
The boy announced his independence of sisterly control by beginning to whistle, and the young lady addressed as "Bel" remarked, "Mr. De Forrest is no judge of the weather under the circumstances. He doubtless regards the day as bright and serene. But he was evidently a correct judge up to the time he joined you, Lottie."
"He joined you as much as he did me."
"O, pardon me; yes, I believe I was present."
"I hope I have failed in no act of politeness, Miss Bel," said De Forrest, a little stiffly.
"I have no complaints to make. Indeed, I have fared well, considering that one is sometimes worse than a crowd."
"Nonsense!" said Lottie, petulantly; and the young man tried not to appear annoyed.
The sleigh now dashed in between rustic gate-posts composed of rough pillars of granite; and proceeding along an avenue that sometimes skirted a wooded ravine, and again wound through picturesque groupings of evergreens, they soon reached a mansion of considerable size, which bore evidence of greater age than is usual with the homes in our new world.
They had hardly crossed the threshold into the hall before they were hospitably welcomed by a widowed lady, whose hair was slightly tinged with gray, and by her eldest daughter.
The greetings were so cordial as to indicate ties of blood, and the guests were shown to their rooms, and told to prepare for an early dinner.
In brief, Mrs. Marchmont, the mistress of the mansion, had gratified her daughter's wish (as she did all her fancies) by permitting her to invite a number of young friends for the Christmas holidays. Both mother and daughter were fond of society, and it required no hospitable effort to welcome visitors at a season when a majority of their friends had fled from the dreariness of winter to city homes. Indeed, they regarded it as almost an honor that so prominent a belle as Charlotte Marsden had consented to spend a few weeks with them at a time when country life is at a large discount with the fashionable. They surmised that the presence of Mr. De Forrest, a distant relative of both Miss Marsden and themselves, would be agreeable to all concerned, and were not mistaken; and to Miss Lottie the presence of a few admirers—she would not entertain the idea that they were lovers—had become an ordinary necessity of life. Mr. De Forrest was an unusually interesting specimen of the genus,—handsome, an adept in the mode and etiquette of the hour, attentive as her own shadow, and quite as subservient.
His love-making would equal his toilet in elegance. All would be delicately suggested by touch of hand or glance of eye, and yet he would keep pace with the wild and wayward beauty in as desperate a flirtation as she would permit.
Miss Lottie had left her city home with no self-sacrificing purpose to become a martyr for the sake of country relatives. She had wearied of the familiar round of metropolitan gayety; but life on the Hudson during midwinter was an entire novelty. Therefore, as her little brother had been included in the invitation, they had started on what was emphatically a frolic to both.
Bel Parton, her companion, was another city cousin of the Marchmonts, with whom they were in the habit of exchanging visits. She was also an intimate of Lottie's, the two being drawn together by the mysterious affinity of opposites.
She was indeed a very different girl from Lottie Marsden, and many would regard her as a better one. Her face and character were of a type only too familiar to close observers of society. She was the beginning of several desirable things, but the pattern was in no instance finished, and was always ravelling out on one side or the other. She had the features of a pretty girl, but ill health and the absence of a pleasing expression spoiled them. She had a fine education, but did not know what to do with it; considerable talent, but no energy; too much conscience, as she had not the resolution to obey it. Her life was passed mainly in easy chairs, chronic dyspepsia, and feeble protest against herself and all the world.
Lottie often half provoked but never roused her by saying: "Bel, you are the most negative creature I ever knew. Why don't you do something or be something out and out? Well, ''Tis an ill wind that blows nobody any good.' You make an excellent foil for me."
And gloriously rich and tropical did Lottie appear against the colorless background of her friend. Bel felt that she suffered by the comparison so frankly indicated, but was too indolent and irresolute to change for the better or avoid companionship with one whose positive and full-blooded nature seemed to supplement her own meagre life.
When all appeared in the dining-room the shades and contrasts in character became more evident. At the head of the table sat a gentleman as yet not introduced, Mr. Dimmerly by name, a bachelor brother of Mrs. Marchmont who resided with her. He was a quaint-appearing little man, who in a greater degree than his age required seemed to belong to a former generation. His manners were too stately for his stature, and he was embarrassed by his elaborate efforts at politeness as his movements might have been by too ample garments.
He and his sister were representatives of one of the "old families" of the State, and, like their mansion, reminded one of the past. Indeed, they seemed to cherish, as a matter of pride and choice, their savor of antiquity, instinctively recognizing that their claims upon society were inherited rather than earned.
Old families do not always appear to accumulate the elements of greatness to such a degree that there is an increasing and almost irresistible impetus of force and genius. Successive generations are not necessarily born to a richer dower of mind and morals. Too often it would seem that the great qualities that in the first place launched a family on a brilliant career expend themselves, until the latest scion, like a spent arrow, drops into insignificance.
Mrs. Marchmont was regarded by society as an elegant woman, and she was, in all externals. The controlling principle of her life was precedent. What had been customary, and still obtained among the "good old families," had a flavor of divine right in it.
Alas for the Marchmont family, for the young lady of the house seemed inclined to maintain and perpetuate nothing save her own will, and had no special development in any respect, save a passion for her own way. Still she was one of those girls whom society calls a "pretty little thing," and was predestined to marry some large, good-natured man who would imagine that she would make a nice little pet, a household fairy, but who might learn to his dismay that the fairy could be a tormenting elf. She would not marry the young gentleman with whom her name was at present associated by the gossips, and who had driven over that morning to help her entertain the expected guests. Mr. Harcourt and Miss Marchmont understood each other. He was a distant relative of her mother's, and so under the disguise of kinship could be very familiar. The tie between them was composed of one part friendship and two parts flirtation. He had recently begun the practice of law in a neighboring town, and found the Marchmont residence a very agreeable place at which to spend his leisure. It was Miss Marchmont's purpose that he should form one of the gay party that would make the holiday season a prolonged frolic. He, nothing loath, accepted the invitation, and appeared in time for dinner. To many he seemed to possess a dual nature. He had a quick, keen intellect, and, during business hours, gave an absorbed attention to his profession. At other times he was equally well known as a sporting man, with tendencies somewhat fast.
Mrs. Marchmont's well-appointed dining-room was peculiarly attractive that wintry day. Finished off in some dark wood on which the ruddy hickory fire glistened warmly, it made a pleasing contrast to the cold whiteness of the snow without. A portly colored waiter in dress coat seemed the appropriate presiding genius of the place, and in his ebon hands the polished silver and crystal were doubly luminous.
And yet the family, with its lack of original force, its fading traditions of past greatness, made rather a dim and neutral tint, against which such a girl as Charlotte Marsden appeared as the glowing embodiment of the vivid and intense spirit of the present age. Her naturally energetic and mercurial nature had been cradled among the excitements of the gayest and giddiest city on the continent. A phlegmatic uncle had remarked to her, in view of inherited and developed characteristics, "Lottie, what in ordinary girls is a soul, in you is a flame of fire."
As she sat at the table, doing ample justice to the substantial viands, she did appear as warm and glowing as the coals of hard-wood, which, ripened in the sunshine, lay upon the hearth opposite.
The bon-vivant, Julian De Forrest, found time for many admiring glances, of which Lottie was as agreeably conscious as of the other comforts and luxuries of the hour. They were all very much upon the same level in her estimation.
But De Forrest would ask no better destiny than to bask in the light and witchery of so glorious a creature. Little did he understand himself or her, or the life before him. It would have been a woful match for both. In a certain sense he would be like the ambitious mouse that espoused the lioness. The polished and selfish idler, with a career devoted to elegant nothings, would fret and chafe such a nature as hers into almost frenzy, had she no escape from him.
There would be fewer unhappy marriages if the young, instead of following impulses and passing fancies, would ask, How will our lives accord when our present tendencies and temperaments are fully developed? It would need no prophetic eye to foresee in many cases, not supplemental and helpful differences, but only hopeless discord. Yet it is hard for a romantic youth to realize that the smiling maiden before him, with a cheek of peach-bloom and eyes full of mirth and tenderness, can become as shrewish as Xantippe herself. And many a woman becomes stubborn and acid, rather than sweet, by allowing herself to be persuaded into marrying the wrong man, and then by not having the good sense to make the best of it.
Alas! experience also proves that, of all prosaic, selfish grumblers, your over-gallant lover makes the worst. And yet, while the world stands, multitudes will no doubt eagerly seek the privilege of becoming mutual tormentors.
Lottie thought Mr. De Forrest "very nice." She liked him better than any one else she had met and flirted with since her school-days, during which period of sincerity and immaturity she had had several acute attacks of what she imagined to be the "grand passion." But as the objects were as absurd as her emotions, and the malady soon ran, its course, she began to regard the whole subject as a jest, and think, with her fashionable mother, that the heart was the last organ to be consulted in the choice of a husband, as it was almost sure to lead to folly. While her heart slept, it was easy to agree with her mother's philosophy. But it would be a sad thing for Charlotte Marsden if her heart should become awakened when her will or duty was at variance with its cravings. She might act rightly, she might suffer in patience, but it would require ten times the effort that the majority of her sex would have to make.
Her mother thought that the elegant and wealthy Mr. De Forrest was the very one of all the city for her beautiful daughter, and Lottie gave a careless assent, for certainly he was "very nice." He would answer, as well as any one she had ever seen, for the inevitable adjunct of her life. He had always united agreeably the characters of cousin, playmate, and lover, and why might he not add that of husband? But for the latter relation she was in no haste. Time enough for that in the indefinite future. She loved the liberty and year-long frolic of her maiden life, though in truth she had no idea of settling down on becoming a matron. In the mean time, while she laughed at De Forrest's love-making, she did not discourage it, and the young man felt that his clear understanding with the mother was almost equal to an engagement to the daughter. He welcomed this country visit with peculiar satisfaction, feeling that it would bring matters to a crisis. He was not mistaken.
By the time they were sipping their coffee after dessert, the promise of the leaden sky of the morning was fulfilled in a snow-storm, not consisting of feathery flakes that fluttered down as if undecided where to alight, but of sharp, fine crystals that slanted steadily from the north-east. The afternoon sleigh-ride must be given up, and even the children looked ruefully and hopelessly out, and then made the best of in-door amusements.
Miss Marchmont gathered her guests around the parlor fire, and fancy work and city gossip were in order. The quiet flow and ripple of small talk was suddenly interrupted by her petulant exclamation:
"Oh! I forgot to tell you a bit of unpleasant news. Mother, without consulting me, has invited a poor and poky cousin of ours to spend the holidays with us also. He is from the West, green as a gooseberry, and, what's far worse, he's studying for the ministry, and no doubt will want to preach at us all the time. I don't know when I've been more provoked, but mother said it was too late, she had invited him, and he was coming. I fear he will be a dreadful restraint, a sort of wet blanket on all our fun, for one must be polite, you know, in one's own house."
"I am under no special obligation to be polite," laughed Lottie. "Mark my words. I will shock your pious and proper cousin till he is ready to write a book on total depravity. It will be good sport till I am tired of it."
"No, Lottie, you shall not give such a false impression of yourself, even in a joke," said Bel. "I will tell him, if he can't see, that you are not a sinner above all in Galilee."
"No, my matter-of-fact cousin, you shall not tell him anything. Why should I care what he thinks? Already in fancy I see his face elongate, and his eyes dilate, in holy horror at my wickedness. If there is one thing I love to do more than another, it is to shock your eminently good and proper people."
"Why, Miss Lottie," chuckled De Forrest, "to hear you talk, one would think you were past praying for."
"No, not till I am married."
"In that sense I am always at my devotions."
"Perhaps you had better read the fable of the Frogs and King Stork."
"Thank you. I had never dared to hope that you regarded me as good enough to eat."
"No, only to peck at."
"But listen to Miss Addie's proposal. If I mistake not, there is no end of fun in it," said Mr. Harcourt.
"I've thought of something better than shocking him. These Western men are not easily shocked. They see all kinds out there. What I suggest would be a better joke, and give us all a chance to enjoy the sport. Suppose, Lottie, you assume to be the good and pious one of our party, and in this character form his acquaintance. He will soon be talking religion to you, and like enough, making love and wanting you to go with him as a missionary to the Cannibal Islands."
"If you go, O that I were king of them!" broke in De Forrest.
"You mean, you would have Lottie for dinner, I suppose," continued Miss Marchmont. "She would be served up properly as a tart."
"No," he retorted, "as sauce piquante. She could make a long life a highly seasoned feast."
"You evidently are an Epicurean philosopher; all your thoughts seem to run on eating," said Lottie, sharply.
"But what say you to my suggestion?" asked Addie Marchmont. "I think it would be one of the best practical jokes I ever knew. The very thought of such an incorrigible witch as you palming yourself off as a demure Puritan maiden is the climax of comical absurdity."
Even Lottie joined heartily in the general laugh at her expense, and the preposterous imposition she was asked to attempt, but said dubiously: "I fear I could not act successfully the role of Puritan maiden, when I have always been in reality just the opposite. And yet it would be grand sport to make the attempt, and a decided novelty. But surely your cousin cannot be so verdant but that he would soon see through our mischief and detect the fraud."
"Well," replied Addie, "Frank, as I remember him, is a singularly unsuspicious mortal. Even as a boy his head was always in the clouds. He has not seen much society save that of his mother and an old-maid sister. Moreover, he is so dreadfully pious, and life with him such a solemn thing, that unless we are very bungling he will not even imagine such frivolity, as he would call it, until the truth is forced upon him. Then there will be a scene. You will shock him then, Lottie, to your heart's content. He will probably tell you that he is dumbfounded, and that he would not believe that a young woman in this Christian land could trifle with such solemn realities,—that is, himself and his feelings."
"But I don't think it would be quite right," protested Bel, feebly.
Mr. Harcourt lifted his eyebrows.
"Nonsense! Suppose it is not," said Lottie, impatiently.
"But, Addie," persisted Bel, "he will be your guest."
"No he won't. He's mother's guest, and I feel like punishing them both."
"Very well," said Lottie, lightly; "if you have no scruples, I have none. It will be capital sport, and will do him good. It would be an excellent thing for his whole theological seminary if they could have a thorough shaking up by the wicked world, which to him, in this matter, I shall represent. They would then know what they were preaching about. What do you say, Julian?"
"When did I ever disagree with you?" he replied, gallantly. "But in this case I really think we owe Miss Addie a vote of thanks for having hit upon a joke that may enliven the greater part of our visit. This embryo parson seems a sort of a scriptural character; and why should he not blindly, like Samson, make sport for us all?"
"I fear you do not understand your own scriptural allusion," sneered Bel. "Like Samson, he may also pull everything down about our ears in a most uncomfortable manner."
"I hope you won't spoil everything by telling him or mother," said Addie, petulantly.
"Oh, no! Since you are determined upon it, I will look on and see the fun, if there is any. But, bah! He will find you all out in a day. As for Lottie palming herself off as a goodish young woman to whom any sane man would talk religion,—the very thought is preposterous!"
"Don't be too confident, Miss Bel," said Lottie, put upon her mettle. "If you all will only sustain me and not awaken his suspicions with your by-play and giggling, I will deceive the ingenuous youth in a way that will surprise you as well as him. Good acting must have proper support. This is something new,—out of the rut; and I am bound to make it a brilliant jest that we can laugh over all our lives. So remember, Julian, you will disconcert me at your peril."
"No fears of me. So long as your jest remains a jest, I will be the last one to spoil the sport."
With a chime of laughter that echoed to the attic of the old mansion, Lottie exclaimed, "The idea that I could ever become in earnest!"
"But the young clergyman may become dead in earnest," said Bel, who seemed the embodiment of a troublesome but weak conscience. "You know well, Mr. De Forrest, that Lottie's blandishments may be fatal to his peace."
"That is his affair," replied the confident youth, with a careless shrug.
Having arranged the details of the plot and been emphatically cautioned by Lottie, they awaited their victim.
Frank Hemstead was expected on the evening train from the north, so the conspirators would not have long to wait. To pass the brief intervening time Lottie went to the piano and gave them some music like herself, brilliant, dashing, off-hand, but devoid of sentiment and feeling. Then she sprang up and began playing the maddest pranks on languid Bel, and with Addie was soon engaged in a romp with De Forrest and Harcourt, that would have amazed the most festive Puritan that ever schooled or masked a frolicsome nature under the sombre deportment required. The young men took their cue from the ladies, and elegance and propriety were driven away in shreds before the gale of their wild spirits. Poor Bel, buffeted and helpless, half-enjoying, half-frightened, protested, cried, and laughed at the tempest around her.
"I mean," said Lottie, panting after a desperate chase among the furniture, "to have one more spree, like the topers before they reform."
Though these velvety creatures with their habits of grace and elegance could romp without roughness, and glide where others would tear around, they could not keep their revel so quiet but that hurrying steps were heard. Bel warned them, and, before Mrs. Marchmont could enter, Lottie was playing a waltz, and the others appeared as if they had been dancing. The lady of precedent smiled, whereas if she had come a moment earlier she would have been horrified.
But the glow from the hearth, uncertain enough for their innocent deeds of darkness, had now to fade before the chandelier, and Mrs. Marchmont, somewhat surprised at the rumpled plumage of the young ladies, and the fact that Mr. De Forrest's neck-tie was awry, suggested that they retire and prepare for supper, whereat they retreated in literal disorder. But without the door their old frenzy seized them, and they nearly ran over the dilatory Bel upon the stairs. With sallies of nonsense, smothered laughter, a breezy rustle of garments, and the rush of swift motion, they seemed to die away in the upper halls like a summer gust. To Mrs. Marchmont their departure had seemed like a suppressed whirlwind.
"The young people of my day were more decorous," soliloquized the lady, complacently. "But then the De Forrests have French blood in them, and what else could you expect? It's he that sets them off."
The sound of approaching sleigh-bells hastened the young people's toilets, and when they descended the stairs, this time like a funeral procession, a tall figure, with one side that had been to the windward well sifted over with snow, was just entering the hall.
Mrs. Marchmont welcomed him with as much warmth as she ever permitted herself to show. She was a good and kind lady at heart, only she insisted upon covering the natural bloom and beauty of her nature with the artificial enamel of mannerism and conventionality. During the unwrapping process the young people stood in the background, but Lottie watched the emergence from overcoat and muffler of the predestined victim of her wiles with more than ordinary curiosity.
The first thing that impressed her was his unusual height, and the next a certain awkwardness and angularity. When he came to be formally presented, his diffidence and lack of ease were quite marked. Bel greeted him with a distant inclination of her head, De Forrest also vouchsafed merely one of his slightest bows, while Harcourt stood so far away that he was scarcely introduced at all; but Lottie went demurely forward and put her warm hand in his great cold one, and said, looking up shyly, "I think we are sort of cousins, are we not?"
He blushed to the roots of his hair and stammered that he hoped so.
Indeed, this exquisite vision appearing from the shadows of the hall, and claiming kinship, might have disconcerted a polished society man; and the conspirators retired into the gloom to hide their merriment.
As the stranger, in his bashful confusion, did not seem to know for the moment what to do with her hand, and was inclined to keep it, for in fact it was warming, or, rather, electrifying him, she withdrew it, exclaiming, "How cold you are! You must come with me to the fire at once."
He followed her with a rather bewildered expression, but his large gray eyes were full of gratitude for her supposed kindness, even if his unready tongue was slow in making graceful acknowledgment.
"Supper will be ready in a few moments, Frank," said his aunt, approaching them and rather wondering at Lottie's friendliness. "Perhaps you had better go at once to your room and prepare. You will find it warm," and she glanced significantly at his rumpled hair and general appearance of disorder, the natural results of a long journey.
He started abruptly, blushed as if conscious of having forgotten something, and timidly said to Lottie, "Will you excuse me?"
"Yes," she replied sweetly, "for a little while."
He again blushed deeply and for a second indulged in a shy glance of curiosity at the "cousin" who spoke so kindly. Then, as if guilty of an impropriety, he seized a huge carpet-bag as if it were a lady's reticule. But remembering that her eyes were upon him, he tried to cross the hall and mount the stairs with dignity. The great leathern bag did not conduce to this, and he succeeded in appearing awkward in the extreme, and had a vague, uncomfortable impression that such was the case.
Mrs. Marchmont having disappeared into the dining-room, the young people went off into silent convulsions of laughter, in which even Bel joined, though she said she knew it was wrong.
"He is just the one of all the world on whom to play such a joke," said Lottie, pirouetting into the parlor.
"It was capital!" chimed in De Forrest. "Lottie, you would make a star actress."
"He has an intelligent eye," continued she, a little more thoughtfully. "He may be able to see more than we think. I insist that you all be very careful. Aunt will suspect something, if he doesn't, and may put him on his guard."
Mr. Hemstead soon returned, for it was plain that his toilets were exceedingly simple. The elegance wanting in his manners was still more clearly absent from his dress. The material was good, but had evidently been put together by a country tailor, who limped a long way behind the latest mode. What was worse, his garments were scarcely ample enough for his stalwart form. Altogether he made in some externals a marked contrast to the city exquisite, who rather enjoyed standing beside him that this contrast might be seen.
To Lottie he appeared excessively comical as he stalked in and around, trying vainly to appear at ease. And yet the thought occurred to her, "If he only knew what to do with his colossal proportions—knew how to manage them—he would make an imposing-looking man." And when De Forrest posed beside him just before they went out to tea, even this thought flashed across her, "Julian, seems like an elegant manikin beside a man." If De Forrest had only known it, the game of contrasts was not wholly in his favor.
But poor Mr. Hemstead came to grief on his way to the supper-room. Miss Marchmont tried to disguise her diminutive stature by a long trailing dress. Upon this he placed his by no means delicate foot, as she was sweeping out with Mr. Harcourt. There was an ominous sound of parting stitches, and an abrupt period in the young lady's graceful progress. In his eager haste to remedy his awkwardness, he bumped up against Mr. Dimmerly, who was advancing to speak to him, with a force that nearly overthrew that dapper gentleman, and rendered his greeting rather peculiar. Hemstead felt, to his intense annoyance, that the young people were at the point of exploding with merriment at his expense, and was in a state of indignation at himself and them. His aunt and Mr. Dimmerly, who soon recovered himself, were endeavoring to look serenely unconscious, with but partial success. All seemed to feel as if they were over a mine of discourteous laughter. The unfortunate object looked nervously around for the beautiful "cousin," and noted with a sigh of relief that she had disappeared.
"I hope she did not see my meeting with uncle," he thought. "I was always a gawk in society, and to-night seem possessed with the very genius of awkwardness. She is the only one who has shown me any real kindness, and I don't want her to think of me only as a blundering, tongue-tied fool."
He would not have been re-assured had he known that Lottie, having seen all, had darted back into the parlor and was leaning against the piano, a quivering, and for the moment a helpless subject of suppressed mirth. Mr. Dimmerly was always a rather comical object to her, and his flying arms and spectacles, as he tried to recover himself from the rude shock of his nephew's burly form, made a scene in which absurdity, which is said to be the chief cause of laughter, was pre-eminent.
But, the paroxysm passing, she followed them and took a seat opposite her victim, with a demure sweetness and repose of manner well-nigh fatal to the conspirators.
As Mr. Hemstead was regarded as a clergyman, though not quite through with his studies, his aunt looked to him for the saying of grace. It was a trying ordeal for the young fellow under the circumstances. He shot a quick glance at Lottie, which she returned with a look of serious expectation, then dropped her eyes and veiled a different expression under the long lashes. But he was sorely embarrassed, and stammered out he scarcely knew what. A suppressed titter from Addie Marchmont and the young men was the only response he heard, and it was not re-assuring. He heartily wished himself back in Michigan, but was comforted by seeing Lottie looking gravely and reproachfully at the irreverent gigglers.
"She is a good Christian girl," he thought, "and while the others ridicule my wretched embarrassment, she sympathizes."
Hemstead was himself as open as the day and equally unsuspicious of others. He believed just what he saw, and saw only what was clearly apparent. Therefore Lottie, by tolerably fair acting, would have no difficulty in deceiving him, and she was proving herself equal to very skilful feigning. Indeed she was one who could do anything fairly that she heartily attempted.
A moment after "grace" Harcourt made a poor witticism, at which the majority laughed with an immoderateness quite disproportionate. Mrs. Marchmont and her brother joined in the mirth, though evidently vexed with themselves that they did. Even Hemstead saw that Harcourt's remark was but the transparent excuse for the inevitable laugh at his expense. Lottie looked around with an expression of mingled surprise and displeasure, which nearly convulsed those in the secret. But her aunt and uncle felt themselves justly rebuked, while wondering greatly at Lottie's unwonted virtue. But there are times when to laugh is a dreadful necessity, whatever be the consequences.
"Mr. Hemstead," said Lottie, gravely, beginning, as she supposed, with the safe topic of the weather, "in journeying east have you come to a colder or warmer climate?"
"Decidedly into a colder one," he answered, significantly.
"Indeed, that rather surprises me!"
"Well, I believe that the thermometer has marked lower with us, but it has been said, and justly I think, that we do not feel the cold at the West as at the East."
"No matter," she said, sweetly. "At the East, as in the West, the cold is followed by thaws and spring."
He looked up quickly and gratefully, but only remarked, "It's a change we all welcome."
"Not I, for one," said Mr. Harcourt. "Give me a clear, steady cold. Thaws and spring are synonymous with the sloppy season or sentimental stage."
"I, too, think steady cold is better in the season of it," remarked Mr. Dimmerly, sententiously.
"But how about it out of season, uncle?" asked Lottie.
"Your hint, perhaps, is seasonable, Lottie," quietly remarked her aunt, though with somewhat heightened color. "I trust we shall keep the steady cold out of doors, and that ALL our guests will find only summer warmth within."
"Really, auntie, you put me in quite a melting mood."
"No need of that, Lottie, for you are the month of June all the year round," said her aunt.
"The month of April, rather," suggested Bel.
"I should say July or August," added Mr. Dimmerly, laughing.
"Would you not say November?" asked Lottie of Mr. Hemstead.
"Yes, I think so," he replied, with a blush, "for Thanksgiving comes in that month."
There was a general laugh, and Mr. Dimmerly chuckled, "Very good, you are getting even, Frank."
"I hardly understand your compliment, if it is one," said Lottie, demurely. "Is it because you are so fond of sermons or dinners that Thanksgiving glorifies the dreary month of November?"
"Neither a sermon nor a dinner is always a just cause for Thanksgiving," he replied, with a pleasant light in his gray eyes.
"Then where is the force of your allusion?" she said, with a face innocently blank.
"Well," replied he, hesitatingly, and blushing deeply, "perhaps my thought was that you might be an occasion for Thanksgiving if both sermon and dinner were wanting."
Again there was a general laugh, but his aunt said, "Frank, Frank, have you learned to flatter?"
Lottie shot a quick glance of pleased surprise at him, and was much amused at his evident confusion and flaming cheeks. To be sure his words were part of the old complimentary tune that she knew by heart, but his offering was like a flower that had upon it the morning dew. She recognized his grateful effort to repay her for supposed kindness, and saw that, though ill at ease in society, he was not a fool.
"Would it not be better to wait till in possession before keeping a Thanksgiving?" said De Forrest, satirically.
"Not necessarily," retorted Hemstead, quickly, for the remark was like the light touch of a spur. "I was grateful for the opportunity of seeing a fine picture at Cleveland, on my way here, that I never expect to own."
Lottie smiled. The victim was not helpless. But she turned, and with a spice of coquetry said, "Still I think you are right, Mr. De Forrest."
Then she noted that Mr. Hemstead's eyes were dancing with mirth at her hint to one who was evidently anxious to keep "Thanksgiving" over her any month in the year.
"I'm sure I am," remarked De Forrest. "I could never be satisfied to admire at a distance. I could not join in a prayer I once heard, 'Lord, we thank thee for this and all other worlds.'"
"Could you?" asked Lottie of Hemstead.
"That is no answer."
Hemstead was growing more at ease, and when he only had to use his brains was not half so much at a loss as when he must also manage his hands and feet, and he replied laughingly: "Well, not to put too fine a point upon it, this world is quite useful to me at present. I should be sorry to have it vanish and find myself whirling in space, if I am a rather large body. But as I am soon to get through with this world, though never through with life, I may have a chance to enjoy a good many other worlds—perhaps all of them—before eternity is over, and so be grateful that they exist and are in waiting."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Lottie. "What a traveller you propose to be. I should be satisfied with a trip to Europe."
"To Paris, you mean," said Bel.
"Yes," replied Mr. Hemstead, "until the trip was over."
"Then I trust she will be content with New York," insinuated De Forrest; "for Mr. Hemstead speaks as if the stars were created for his especial benefit."
"You are enjoying some honey, Mr. De Forrest?" said Hemstead, quietly.
"Did the flowers grow and the bees gather for your especial benefit?"
"I admit I'm answered."
"But," said sceptical Mr. Harcourt, "when you've got through with this world how do you know but that you will drop off into space?"
"Come," said Addie, rising from the table, "I protest against a sermon before Sunday."
They now returned to the parlor, Hemstead making the transition in safety, but with no little trepidation.
PUZZLED AND INTERESTED.
On the way to the parlor Lottie hovered near Mr. Hemstead. Unlike Micawber, she was not one to wait, but purposed that something SHOULD "turn up." The two other young ladies, and Harcourt and De Forrest, sat down to a game of whist. In pursuance of instructions from Lottie, De Forrest was not to be over-attentive, though it was evident that he would give more thought to her than to his game. Her demure mischief amused him vastly, and, knowing what she was, the novelty of her Puritan style had a double fascination. Making personal enjoyment the object of his life, he felicitated himself on soon possessing the beautiful and piquant creature, who, when she came to devote herself to him, would spice his days with endless variety. The thought that this high-spirited, positive, strong-minded American girl might crave better and more important work than that of an Eastern houri or a Queen Scheherezade, never occurred to him. He blundered, with many other men, in supposing that, if once married, the wayward belle would become subservient to his tastes and modes as a matter of course. In his matrimonial creed all his difficulty consisted in getting the noose finally around the fair one's neck: this accomplished, she would become a ministering captive. Many a one has had a rude awakening from this dream.
Although from Addie Marchmont's description he believed that he had little cause to fear a rival in Hemstead, still he awaited his coming with a trace of anxiety. But when the seemingly overgrown, awkward student stepped upon the scene, all his fears vanished. The fastidious Lottie, whose eye had grown so nice and critical that she could refuse the suit of many who from their wealth and position thought it impossible to sue in vain, could never look upon this Western giant in a way other than she proposed,—the ridiculous subject of a practical joke. True, he had proved himself no fool in their table-talk, but mere intellectuality and moral excellence counted for little in De Forrest's estimation when not combined with wealth and external elegance. The thought that the "giant" might have a heart, and that Lottie's clever seeming might win it, and the consequent mortification and suffering, did not occasion a moment's care. Unconsciously De Forrest belonged to that lordly class which has furnished our Neros, Napoleons, and tyrants of less degree, even down to Pat who beats his wife. These, from their throne of selfishness, view the pain and troubles of others with perfect unconcern. Therefore, believing that his personal interests were not endangered by so unpromising a man as Hemstead, even Lottie did not look forward to the carrying out of the practical joke with more zest than he. If the unsuspicious victim could only be inveigled into something like love, its awkward display might become comical in the extreme. Therefore, he gave but careless heed to his game, and keen glances to Lottie's side-play. But as the other conspirators were acting in much the same manner he was able to hold his own.
Hemstead looked grave, as cards were brought out, but without remark he sat down with his aunt at a table on the opposite side of the hearth. Lottie perched on a chair a little back of them, so that while she saw their side faces they must turn somewhat to see her. When they did so she was quietly stitching at her fancy-work, but the rest of the time was telegraphing with her brilliant eyes all sorts of funny messages to the party opposite, so that they were in a state of perpetual giggle, not in keeping with whist.
Mr. Dimmerly soon bustled in, and, looking wistfully at the game in progress, was about to propose that they form one likewise at their table, for an evening without cards was to him a mild form of purgatory. But Lottie anticipated him. Giving a signal to the others and drawing down her face to portentous length, she said to Hemstead, "I fear you do not approve of cards."
"You are correct, Miss Marsden," he replied, stiffly.
As he turned away, she glanced at the card-players with a look of horror, as if they were committing sacrilege, and Harcourt had to improvise another poor joke to account for their increasing merriment.
But Mr. Dimmerly looked at his nephew in dismay and some irritation. "What under heaven can I now do, this long evening," he thought, "but gape and talk theology?"
But Lottie, in the purpose to draw out and quiz her victim, continued: "Really, Mr. Hemstead, you surprise me. Cards are the staple amusement of a quiet evening in New York. I fear I have been doing wrong all my life without knowing it."
"If you did not know you were wrong, you were not very guilty," he replied, smiling.
"Yes, but now I do know, or at least from one who will be an authority on such matters—pardon me—who is one now, I am assured that this old custom is wrong. In questions of right and wrong, I suppose a minister should guide."
"No, Miss Marsden, that is not Protestantism. Your conscience, instructed by the Bible, should guide."
"But I see no more harm in whist than in a sleigh-ride."
"Perhaps your conscience needs instruction."
"O, certainly, that is it! Please instruct it."
He turned quickly, but saw a face serious enough for an anxious seat in an old-time revival.
"Yes," said Mr. Dimmerly, testily. "My conscience needs instruction also. What harm is there in a quiet game of whist?"
"Well, I do not know that there is anything wrong in a 'quiet game of cards,' per se" commenced Hemstead, didactically.
"'Per' who?" asked Lottie, innocently.
Just then the party at the other table seemed to explode, but they made it appear as if the cause came from themselves.
"Yes, yes, nephew, speak English. You may find some reasons in Latin, but none in English, the only language of sound sense."
"Well," resumed Hemstead, somewhat confused, "I do not know that a quiet game such as you would play here would be wrong in itself. But the associations of the game are bad, and your example might be injurious."
"The associations bad!" said Lottie, lifting her eyebrows. "Cards are associated in my mind with father, mother, and quiet home evenings."
"I have chiefly seen them played by rough characters, and in questionable places," he replied quickly.
"I'm sorry you visit such places," she replied in a tone of rebuke.
Even Mr. Dimmerly and his sister laughed at this remark, as coming from Lottie, while the others were almost convulsed. Bel managed to gasp out, as a blind, "Mr. Harcourt, if you don't behave yourself and play fair, I'll throw down my hand."
But straightforward Hemstead increased difficulties by saying, a little stiffly, "I hope, Miss Marsden, that you do not suppose that one of my calling would frequent places of improper resort."
"No, indeed," she replied quickly, "and therefore I was the more surprised when you spoke of witnessing something in 'questionable places.'"
He turned to her with a look in which perplexity and annoyance were mingled, and said hastily: "It is different with a man from a lady. A man is more out in the world, and, no matter how careful, cannot help catching glimpses of the evil substratum of society. One cannot help passing through a smoking-car occasionally, or—"
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Lottie, as if startled. "Is a smoking-car a 'questionable place'? Mr. De Forrest," she continued sharply, "did you not spend half an hour in the smoking-car coming up?"
"Yes," he replied faintly.
"You surprise me, sir," she said severely. "Mr. Hemstead declares it is a 'questionable place.' I hope hereafter you will have more regard for your reputation."
"Please do not mistake me," said Hemstead, with increasing annoyance; "I did not mean to assert any moral qualities of smoking-cars, though with then filth and fumes there would be no question in your mind about them whatever, Miss Marsden. What I meant to say was, that in such places as smoking-cars, hotel lobbies, and through the open doors of saloons, are caught glimpses of a life which we all should unite in condemning and loathing; and what I have seen has always led me to connect cards with just that kind of life. Moreover, gambling—that fearful and destructive vice—is almost inseparable from cards."
"How experiences differ!" said Lottie, reflectively. "I have had but few glimpses of the life you describe so graphically. With the bits of pasteboard that you have seen chiefly in coarse, grimy hands, I associate our cosey sitting-room at home, with its glowing grate and 'moon-light lamp,' as we call it, for father's eyes are weak. Even now," she continued, assuming the look of a rapt and beautiful sibyl, that was entrancing to Hemstead as well as De Forrest—"even now I see papa and mamma and old-fashioned Auntie Jane, and poor invalid Jennie, all gathered at home in our sacred little snuggery where father permits no visitors to come."
The look she had assumed became genuine, and her eyes suddenly moistened as the scene called up became real and present to her. With all her faults she had a warm heart, and loved her kindred sincerely.
But this touch of truth and feeling served her mischievous purpose better than she thought, for it convinced the honest-minded Hemstead that she was just what she seemed, and his sympathy went out to her at once as a well-meaning, true-hearted girl.
He was a little taken aback, however, when Lottie, ashamed of her feeling, said brusquely, "As to gambling with cards, we no more thought of it than sending to a corner grocery for a bottle of whiskey, and taking from it a drink all around between the games."
"O Lottie!" laughed her aunt, "what an absurd picture you suggest! The idea of your stately mother taking a drink from a bottle of whiskey!"
"It is no more strange to me," persisted Lottie, gravely, "than Mr. Hemstead's associations. Of course I know that bad and vulgar people play cards, but they also drive horses and walk the streets, and do other things which it is perfectly proper for us to do."
"I admit, Miss Marsden, that education and custom make a great difference. I have always been taught to look upon cards with great abhorrence. What may be right for you would be wrong for me."
"No," said positive Lottie, "that will not satisfy me. A thing is either right or wrong. If you can prove to me that a quiet game of cards is wrong, I won't play any more—at least I ought not," she added hastily. "Because some vulgar and fast people gamble with them is nothing. You will take a sleigh-ride with us to-morrow, and yet loud jockeys bet and gamble over horses half the year."
Hemstead sprang up. His ungainliness disappeared, as was ever the case when he forgot himself in excitement.
"Miss Marsden," he said, "what you say sounds plausible, but years ago I saw the mangled corpse of a young suicide. He was an adept at cards, and for aught I know had learned the game as your brother might, at home. But away among strangers at the West that knowledge proved fatal. He was inveigled into playing by some gamblers, staked all his own money, then that committed to his trust. Having lost everything but life, he threw that also down the abyss. He might have been living to-day if he had known as little about cards as I do."
His manner was so earnest, the picture called up so sad and tragic, that even Lottie's red cheek paled a little, and the gigglers became quiet. She only said, "He was very weak and foolish. I can't understand such people."
"But the world is largely made up of the weak and foolish, who need safeguards rather than temptations. And history would seem to prove that even the wisest and best are at times 'weak and foolish.' I think the knowledge of card-playing can result in no harm to you, shielded as you will be, but it might to your brother. Miss Marsden," asked he, abruptly, "do you know how many professional gamblers there are in the world?"
"I do not remember the estimated number accurately, but it is very large. They often revel in wealth, but they do not make it out of each other. It is from the unwary, the 'weak and foolish' who think they can win money by playing a fair game. They are permitted to win just enough to turn their heads, and then are robbed. Remorse, despair, and suicide too often follow. Cards are the usual means employed in these great wrongs. I should be sorry to see a young brother of mine, who was soon to face the temptations of the world, go away with a knowledge that has been the ruin of so many."
This was bringing the question home to Lottie in a way that she did not expect. Her heedless, wilful, impulsive brother, the dear torment of her life, was just the one an artful knave could mislead. For a moment or two she sat silent and thoughtful. All awaited her answer save Mr. Dimmerly, who, without his whist, had dropped off into a doze, as was his wont. Then her decided character asserted itself, and she spoke sincerely for the moment.
"I do not believe in the safety of ignorance. If a young man is weak and bad enough to gamble, he will do it with something else, if not cards. From what I hear, men bet and gamble with all uncertainties. The most innocent things are carried to vulgar and wicked excess. You can't shield one from without if lacking the will and power to say, No! I think it will be safer and wiser in the end, if a thing is right fer se, as you say, to do it, and if wrong not to do it. To me, a game of cards is no more than a game of checkers, or a stroll in a garden."
In his eagerness to reply, Hemstead took a step forward and trod upon, not a lady's dress this time, but the tail of Mrs. Marchmont's pet dog. As may be imagined, his tread was not fairy-like, and there was a yelp that awoke the echoes. Mr. Dimmerly started out of his sleep, with a snort like the blast of a ram's hom before Jericho, and, pushing his gold spectacles to the top of his bald head, stared in bewilderment at the forms convulsed with merriment around him.
Even Hemstead joined in the laugh, though inwardly inclined to anathematize his big feet. Lottie retreated from further discussion by saying:
"I have heard that theologians were inclined to be dogmatic in controversy, and I fear that you are no exception, Mr. Hemstead. So, since I have had the last word, with your permission, I retire 'of the same opinion still.'"
"I submit," he rejoined, good-naturedly. "In any case my answer would have been CURTAILED"
"Ha, ha!" chimed out Lottie's laugh. "That is better than your logic."
"Frank! that you should call this dear little creature a cur!" said Mrs. Marchmont, comforting her still whining pet.
"What DISCOURTESY!" said Lottie.
"What is the matter with you all?" asked Mr. Dimmerly, rising. "From talking Latin you have got on something that I understand as well as Choctaw. Lottie, I hope you are not argued out of one of our best old English customs. I have inherited whist from a dozen generations. So, nephew, with your leave or your frown, I must have my game."
"I cannot say, uncle, that Mr. Hemstead has argued very much, but two very painful TALES have been presented in an imPRESSIVE manner. You see how moved auntie and Fido are still over one of them. But come, Mr. Hemstead, you have discharged your duty. If they play whist all night and commit suicide in the morning, your skirts are clear. Shake off the dust of your feet at them, and take a promenade in the hall with me. Cousin Julian" (with emphasis on the word cousin), "your conscience is as tough and elastic as Mr. Hemstead's is tender. You haunt smoking-cars and other questionable places; so, without serious moral harm, you can gratify uncle."
Mrs. Marchmont, who had listened with polite weariness to the latter part of the discussion, now took part in the game as quietly as she would pour tea at the head of the table. The aunt and nephew had lived in such different atmospheres that they could scarcely understand each other, and both harbored thoughts that were hardly charitable, as is usually the case in regard to those actions which have no moral qualities in themselves, and after all must be decided by each one's conscience. To Mrs. Marchmont, with her antecedents, a game of whist was one of the most innocent ants of her life.
But Hemstead was too well pleased with Lottie's arrangement to grieve deeply over what, to his conscience, was wrong, and soon forgot uncle, aunt, and cousin, and even the unlucky lap-dog, whose dismal howl had so discomfited him a moment before. Just such a luminary as Lottie Marsden had never appeared above his horizon, and her orbit seemed so eccentric that as yet he could not calculate it; but this element of uncertainty made observation all the more interesting. The wide old hall, without the embarrassment of observant eyes, was just the place to learn something more definite of one who thus far had dazzled and puzzled, while she gained his strong interest. True, Addie and Mr. Harcourt were walking before them, but seemed so absorbed in each other as not to notice them. He felt a curious thrill when a little hand lighted, like a snow-flake, upon his arm, but soon increased its pressure with a sort of cousinly confidence. He looked inquiringly into the face turned up to him as they passed under the lamp, and thought, "In its guileless beauty it reminds me of the clear mountain lakes that I have seen in this region."
His figure was true, but not as he understood it; for Lottie's face, like the lake, would then reflect anything that happened upon the margin of her thoughts, while her heart remained hidden. He thought he saw herself, but in truth only false and vanishing images. Still, like the mirroring water, her skilful feigning could make the images seem very real. Hemstead, with his boundless faith in woman, believed all he saw, and hoped still more.
A LITTLE PAGAN.
The joke had now taken a phase that De Forrest did not relish. While Lottie's by-play was present, and she was telegraphing to him with her brilliant eyes, it was excellent. But to sit with his back to the door leading into the hall, vis-a-vis to Mr. Dimmerly's puckered face, and give close attention to the game, was a trying ordeal to one who only consulted his own pleasure. And yet he feared he would offend Lottie, did he not remain at his post. She was a despotic little sovereign, and he felt that he must use all address until she was safely brought to the matrimonial altar. He comforted himself, however, with the thought that she was generous, and when he acted the role of martyr she usually rewarded him with a greater show of kindness, and no got through an hour with indifferent grace.
But this purgatorial hour to him was keenly enjoyed by Lottie and Hemstead, though by each for different reasons.
"I fear you think me a giddy, wayward girl," said Lottie gently.
"In frankness, I hardly know what to think," replied Hemstead.
"Frank is your name, is it not?"
"It seems appropriate. I hope you won't judge me too harshly."
"The danger is the other way, I fear," he said laughing.
"Well, one of your profession ought to be charitable. But I might naturally expect to be disapproved of by one so good and wise as you are."
"Why do you think me 'good and wise'?"
"Because you are a minister, if for no other reason."
"I am also a man."
"Yes," she said innocently. "You are quite grown up."
He looked at her quickly; her demure face puzzled him, and he said, "I fear you think I am overgrown."
"And I fear you don't care what I think. Men of your profession are superior to the world."
"Really, I shall think you are sarcastic, if you talk in that way any more." But she looked so serious that he half believed she was in earnest.
"Are ministers like other men?" she asked, with a spice of genuine curiosity in her question. The venerable pastor of the church which she attended in New York had not seemed to belong to the same race as herself. His hair was so white, his face so bloodless, his life so saintly, and his sermons so utterly beyond her, that he appeared as dim and unearthly as one of the Christian Fathers. A young theologian on the way to that same ghostly state was an object of piquant interest. She had never had a flirtation with a man of this character, therefore there was all the zest of novelty. Had she been less fearless, she would have shrunk from it, however, with something of the superstitious dread that many have of jesting in a church, or a graveyard. But there was a trace of hardihood in her present course that just took her fancy. From lack of familiarity with the class, she had a vague impression that ministers differed widely from other men, and to bring one down out of the clouds as a fluttering captive at her feet would be a triumph indeed. A little awe mingled with her curiosity as she sought to penetrate the scholastic and saintly atmosphere in which she supposed even an embryo clergyman dwelt. She hardly knew what to say when, in reply to her question, "Are ministers like other men?" he asked, "Why not?"
"That is hardly a fair way to answer."
"You do not find me a mysterious being."
"I find you very different from other young men of my acquaintance. What to me is a matter of course is dreadful to you. Then you ministers have such strange theological ways of dividing the world up into saints and sinners, and you coolly predict such awful things for the sinners (though I confess the sinners take it quite as coolly). The whole thing seems professional rather than true."
The tone of deep sadness in which the young man next spoke caused her to look at him with a little surprise.
"I do not wonder that this mutual coolness perplexes you. If we believe the Bible, it is the strangest mystery in existence."
"You may well put that in. Do the generality of people believe the Bible? But as I was saying, from the very nature of your calling you come to live far away from us. Our old minister knows more about dead people than living. He knows all about the Jews and Greeks who lived eighteen centuries ago, but next to nothing of the young of his own church. My motives and temptations would be worse than. Sanscrit to him,—harder to understand than the unsolved problems of mathematics. What does such a man know about the life of a young lady in society? That which influences me would seem less than nothing to him."
"I think you misjudge your pastor. If you became well acquainted with him, you might find a heart overflowing with sympathy."
"I can no more get acquainted with him than if he dwelt on Mount Olympus. If I were only a doctrine, he might study me up and know something about me. But there is so much flesh and blood about me that I fear I shall always be distasteful to ministers."
"I assure you, Miss Marsden, I find you more interesting than some doctrines."
"But you are young. You are on a vacation, and can for a time descend to trifles, but you will grow like the rest. As it is, you speak very guardedly, and intimate that I would be as nothing compared with other doctrines."
"What is a doctrine, Miss Marsden?"
"O, bless me, I don't know exactly; a sort of abstract summing up of either our qualities or God's qualities. The only doctrine I even half understand is that of 'total depravity,' and I sometimes fear it's true."
"I think you are a great deal more interesting than the 'doctrine of total depravity,'" said Hemstead, laughing.
"Perhaps you will come to think I am synonymous with it."
"No fear. I have seen too much of you for that already."
"What redeeming features have you seen?"
He looked at her earnestly for a moment, and she sustained his gaze with an expression of such innocent sweetness that he said, a little impulsively, "All your features redeem you from that charge."
"O, fie!" she exclaimed, "a pun and flattery in one breath!"
"I do not mean to flatter. Although in some respects you puzzle me, I am very clear and positive as to my feeling of gratitude. While my aunt feels kindly toward me, she is formal. It seemed to me when I came out of the cold of the wintry night I found within a more chilling coldness. But when you gave me your warm hand and claimed something like kindred, I was grateful for that which does not always accompany kindred,—genuine kindness. This feeling was greatly increased when instead of making my diffidence and awkwardness a theme of ridicule, you evinced a delicate sympathy, and with graceful tact suggested a better courtesy to others. Do you think then, that, after this glimpse down such a beautiful vista in your nature, I can associate you with 'total depravity'? It was plain to you, Miss Marsden, that I had seen little of society, but you acted as if that were my misfortune, not my fault. I think the impulse that leads one to try to shield or protect another who for the time may be weak or defenceless is always noble."
If Lottie had shown a little before that she had a heart, she now became painfully aware that she had a conscience, and it gave her some severe twinges during this speech. For a moment she wished she deserved his commendation. But she was not one to do things by halves, and so, recklessly throwing aside her qualms, she said laughingly, "I don't think a gentleman of your inches at all an object of pity. You are big enough to take care of yourself."
"And I mean to as far as I can. But we all need help at times. You know a mouse once served a lion."
"Thank you. Now you have counterbalanced all your fine speeches and compliments. 'A mouse serving a lion!' Well, roar gently if you please."
"I'm afraid I appear to you like another animal that once donned a lion's skin, but whose ears, alas, protruded."
"That is rather a skilful retreat; but I imagine that you think yourself a veritable lion."
"If you insist on my being a lion, I must refer you to ancient mythology, where one of these overrated beasts is held a crouching captive by Diana."
"Well, that is quite a transition. First compared to a mouse, and then to the moon. I fear that if you have not visited 'questionable places,' you have permitted your mind to dwell on the 'questionable' myths of the past.
"O, that was in the regular order of things," he replied. "Before coming to the study of theology, we are put through mythology; that is, under the guidance of reverend professors we make the acquaintance of a set of imaginary beings who, had they veritably lived, and in our day, would have soon found their way to the penitentiary."
"At the door of which the 'lion' and 'Diana' would part company, and so I should lose my gentle 'captive' and become as disconsolate as auntie would have been had you trodden on the reverse extremity of her pet."
"O, pardon me, but Diana was an exception to the rest."
"Better or worse?"
"Better, of course. She was a trifle cruel, though, was she not?"
"You have been proving me very tender-hearted."
"So every woman should be."
"I doubt whether you know much about us."
"I cannot imagine a being—not even an angel-more pure, unselfish, and true than my mother; and she is a woman."
"Miss Lottie," here broke in De Forrest, "I've played whist to the utmost limit of my conscience. You will not keep me on the rack any longer."
"O, no, Cousin Julian," she replied, sotto voce, "only on the sofa with our dear cousin Bel. See, she sits there alone. Good-by," and she swept past, with a malicious twinkle in her eyes at his blank expression.
But Bel saw and understood the scene. With a cynical smile she went to the piano, and commenced a brilliant waltz. Under its spell Addie and Mr. Harcourt came whirling up the hall, and Lottie, who had been under restraint so long, could not resist the temptation of letting De Forrest carry her off also.
"It's only with my cousin, you know," she whispered apologetically to Hemstead.
He stood in the door-way for a few moments and watched her graceful figure with a strange and growing interest Whether saint or sinner, this being so emphatically of flesh and blood was exceedingly fascinating. The transition from the cloister-like seclusion of his seminary life to this suburb of the gay world was almost bewildering; and Lottie Marsden was one to stir the thin blood and withered heart of the coldest anchorite. The faint perfume which she seemed to exhale like a red rosebush in June was a pleasing exchange for the rather musty and scholastic atmosphere in which he so long had dwelt. As she glanced by as lightly as a bird on the wing, she occasionally beamed upon him with one of her dangerous smiles. She then little thought or cared that his honest and unoccupied heart was as ready to thaw and blossom into love as a violet bank facing the south in spring. He soon had a vague consciousness that he was not doing just the prudent thing, and therefore rejoined his aunt and uncle. Soon after he pleaded the weariness of his journey and retired. As he was about to mount the stairs Lottie whirled by and whispered, "Don't think me past praying for."
The slang she used in jest came to him, with his tendencies and convictions, like an unconscious appeal and a divine suggestion. He was utterly unconventional, and while readily unbending into mirthfulness, he regarded life as an exceedingly serious thing. As the eyes of artist and poet catch glimpses of beauty where to others are only hard lines and plain surfaces, so strong religious temperaments are quick to see providences, intimations, and leadings.
Hemstead went to his room with steps that deep thought rendered slower and slower. He forgot his weariness, and sat down before the fire to think of one known but a few brief hours. If there are those who can coolly predict "awful things" of the faithless and godless, Hemstead was not one of them. The young girl who thought him a good subject for jest and ridicule, he regarded with profound pity. Her utter unconsciousness of danger had to him the elements of deepest pathos.
While perplexed by contradictions in her manner and words, he concluded that she was what she seemed, a girl of unusual force of mind, frank and kindly, and full of noble impulses, but whose religious nature was but slightly developed. He at that time would have been shocked and indignant if he had known the truth. Her natural tendencies had been good. Her positive nature would never waver weakly along the uncertain boundary of good and evil, as was the case with Bel Parton. She was one who would be decided and progressive in one direction or the other, but now was clearly on the sinister side of truth and moral loveliness. Surrounding influences had been adverse. She had yielded to them, and they had carried her farther astray than if she had been of a cautious and less forceful temperament. While therefore full of good impulses, she was also passionate and selfish. Much homage had made her imperious, exacting, and had developed no small degree of vanity. She exulted in the power and pre-eminence that beauty gave, and often exerted the former cruelly, though it is due to her to state that she did not realize the pain she caused. While her own heart slept, she could not understand the aching disquiet of others that she toyed with. That it was good sport, high-spiced excitment, and occupation for her restless, active mind, was all she considered. As she would never be neutral in her moral character, so she was one who would do much of either harm or good. Familiarity with the insincerities of fashionable life had blurred her sense of truthfulness in little things, and in matters of policy she could hide her meaning or express another as well as her veteran mother.
And yet there were great possibilities of good in her character. She had a substratum of sound common sense; was wholesomely averse to meanness, cowardice, and temporizing; best of all, she was not shallow and weak. She could appreciate noble action, and her mind could kindle at great thoughts if presented clearly and strongly.
She could scarcely be blamed severely for being what she was, for she had only responded to the influences that had ever surrounded her, and been moulded by them. Her character was rapidly forming, but not as yet fixed. Therefore her best chance of escaping a moral deformity as marked as her external beauty was the coming under an entirely different class of influences.
However earthly parents may wrong their children by neglect, or by permitting in themselves characters that react ruinously upon those sacredly intrusted to their training, the Divine Father seems to give all a chance sometime in life for the achievement of the grandest of all victories, the conquest of self. Whatever abstract theories dreamers may evolve secluded from the world, those who observe closely—who KNOW humanity from infancy to age—are compelled to admit, however reluctantly, that the inner self of every heart is tainted and poisoned by evil. The innocence of childhood is too much like the harmlessness of the lion's whelps. However loftily and plausibly some may assert the innate goodness and self-rectifying power of humanity, as Tom Paine wrote against the Bible without reading it, not having been able at the time to procure one in infidel Paris, those who take the scientific course of getting the facts first shake their heads despondingly. It is true that parents discover diversities in their children. Some are sweeter-tempered than others, and seem pointed horizontally, if not heavenward, in their natures. Many bid fair to stand high, measured by earthly standards. But the approving world can know nothing of the evil thoughts that haunt the heart.
What mother has not been almost appalled as she has seen the face of her still infant child inflamed with rage and the passionate desire for revenge? The chubby hand is not always raised to caress, but too often to strike. As mind and heart develop, darker and meaner traits unfold with every natural grace. There is a canker-worm in the bud, and unless it is taken out, there never can be a perfect flower.
But Mr. and Mrs. Marsden thought of none of these things. The mother received her estimate of life, and her duty, from current opinion on the avenue. She complacently felicitated herself that she kept up with the changing mode quite as well as most women of wealth and fashion, if not better. She managed so well that she excited the admiration of some, and the envy of more; and so was content. As for Mr. Marsden, what with his business, his newspaper, whist, and an occasional evening at the club or some entertainment or public meeting that he could not escape, his life was full and running over. He never had time to give a thought to the fine theories about his children, nor to the rather contradictory facts often reported from the nursery. But as year after year he paid the enormous and increasing bills for nurses, gouvernantes, Italian music masters, and fashionable schools, he sincerely thought that few men did as much for their children as he.
Of course, a lady from whom society expected so much as from Mrs. Marsden could not give her time to her children. In the impressible period of infancy and early childhood, Lottie and her brother, and an invalid sister older than herself, had been left chiefly to the charge of servants. But Mrs. Marsden's conscience was at rest, for she paid the highest prices for her French and German nurses and governesses, and of course "had the best," she said. Thus the children lived in a semi-foreign atmosphere, and early caught a, "pretty foreign accent," which their mamma delighted to exhibit in the parlor; and at the same time they became imbued with foreign morals, which they also put on exhibition disagreeably often. When through glaring faults the stylish nursery-maid was dismissed, the obliging keeper of the intelligence office around the corner had another foreign waif just imported, who at a slightly increased sum was ready to undertake the care, and he might add the corruption, of the children in the most approved style. She was at once engaged, and to this alien the children were committed almost wholly, while Mrs. Marsden would tell her afternoon visitors how fortunate she had been in obtaining a new nurse with even a "purer accent." The probabilities were that her doubtful accent was the purest thing about her. Sometimes, as the results of this tutelage grew more apparent, even Mrs. Marsden had misgivings. But then her wealthiest and most fashionable neighbors were pursuing the same course with precisely the same results; and so she must be right.
If Lottie had been born pellucid as a drop of dew, as some claim, she would not have remained so long, even in the nursery, and as she stepped out farther and faster in the widening sphere of her life, surrounding influences did not improve.
Her extreme beauty and grace, and the consequent admiration and flattery, developed an unusual degree of vanity, which had strengthened with years; though now she had too much sense and refinement to display it publicly. While generous and naturally warm-hearted, the elements of gentleness and patient self-denial for the sake of others at this time could scarcely have been discovered in her character.
Indeed this beautiful girl, nurtured in a Christian land, a regular attendant upon church, was a pagan and belonged to a pagan family. Not one of her household worshipped God. Mr. and Mrs. Marsden would have been exceedingly shocked and angered if they had been told they were heathens. But at the time when Paul found among the multitudinous altars of Athens one dedicated to the "Unknown God," there were many Grecian men and women more highly cultivated than these two aristocrats of to-day. But in spite of external devoutness at church, it could easily be shown that to this girl's parents the God of the Bible was as "unknown" and unheeded as the mysterious and unnamed deity concerning whose claims the Apostle so startled the luxurious Athenians. Like the ancient Greeks, all had their favorite shrines that, to a greater or a less degree, absorbed heart and brain.
Lottie was a votaress of pleasure: the first and about the only article of her creed was to make everything and everybody minister to her enjoyment. She rarely entered on a day with a more definite purpose than to have a "good time"; and in the attainment of this end we have seen that she was by no means scrupulous.
She was as cruel a little pagan, too, as any of her remote Druidical ancestors, and at her various shrines of vanity, pleasure, and excitement, delighted in offering human sacrifices. She had become accustomed to the writhing of her victims, and soothed herself with the belief that it did not hurt them so very much after all. She considered no farther than that flirtation was one of the recognized amusements of the fashionable. What the TON did was law and gospel to her mother; and the same to Lottie, if agreeable. If not, there was no law and no gospel for her.
She had no more scruple in making a victim of Hemstead than a Fiji Island potentate would have in ordering a breakfast according to his depraved and barbarous taste. And when even society-men had succumbed to her wiles, and in abject helplessness had permitted her to place her imperious foot upon their necks, what chance had a warm-hearted, unsophisticated fellow, with the most chivalric ideas of womanhood?
Quick-witted Lottie, on seeing Hemstead and hearing his table-talk, had modified Addie Marchmont's suggestion in her own mind. She saw that, though unsuspicious and trusting in his nature, he was too intelligent to be imposed upon by broad farce. Therefore, a religious mask would soon be known as such. Her aunt also would detect the mischievous plot against her nephew and guest, and thwart it. By appearing as a well-meaning unguided girl, who both needed and wished an adviser, she might more safely keep this modern Samson blindly making sport for her and the others, and at the same time not awaken the troublesome suspicions of her aunt and uncle. In the character of one who was full of good impulses—who erred through ignorance, and who wished to be led and helped to better things—she was nearer the truth, and could act her part more successfully.
But what could Frank Hemstead, coming from a home in which he had breathed the very atmosphere of truth and purity, know of all this? To him Lottie was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, and in his crystal integrity he would have deemed it a foul insult to her to doubt that she was just what she seemed. To his straightforward nature, believing a woman the opposite of what she seemed was like saying to her, "Madam, you are a liar."
The world would be better if women did more to preserve this chivalric trust.
"Past praying for!" His creed taught him to pray for all the world, and already a subtile, unrecognized impulse of his heart led him to plead before the Divine Father for one who seemed, in outward grace, already fitted for heavenly surroundings.
When a block of unusually perfect marble falls under the eye of a true sculptor, he is conscious of a strong impulse to bring out the exquisite statue that is distinctly visible to his mind. Hemstead was an enthusiast in the highest form of art and human effort, and was developing, as the ruling motive of his life, a passion for moulding the more enduring material of character into moral symmetry and loveliness. Humanity in its most forbidding guise interested him, for his heart was warm and large and overflowed with a great pity for the victims of evil. In this respect he was like his Master, who had "compassion on the multitude." His anticipation of his life-work was as non-professional as that of a mother who yearns over the children she cannot help loving. Lottie appeared strong and lovely by nature. It seemed to him that the half-effaced, yet still lingering image of God rested upon her beautiful face more distinctly than he had ever seen it elsewhere. The thought of that image becoming gradually blurred and obliterated by sin—of this seemingly exquisite and budding flower growing into a coarse, rank weed—was revolting to his mind.
At last the sound of mirth and laughter ceased, and the house became quiet.
Lottie sat warming her feet at the glowing coals in her room, before retiring. A dreamy smile played upon her face, coming and going with passing thoughts, even as the firelight flickered upon it.
She was in an unusually amiable mood, for this affair with Hemstead promised richly. If he had been an ordinary and polished society-man, the flirtation would have been humdrum, like a score of others. But he was so delightfully fresh and honest, and yet so clever withal, that her eyes sparkled with anticipating mirth as she saw him in various attitudes of awkward love-making, and then dropping helplessly into the abyss of his own great, but empty heart, on learning the vainness of his passion.
"He finds me 'more interesting than some doctrines,' indeed! I'll put all his dry doctrines to rout in less than a week. I'll drive text-books and professors out of his head, and everything else (save myself) out of his heart, for a little while. But after he gets back to Michigan, the doctrines will come creeping back into their old place, and he will get comfortably over it like the rest. In the mean while, as substantial and useful results, I will have my rare bit of sport, and he will know more about the wicked world against which he is to preach. By and by he will marry a pious Western giantess, whose worst dissipation is a Sunday-school picnic, and will often petrify her soul with horror and wonder by describing that awful little pagan, Lottie Marsden.
"And a heathen I am in very truth. Where are missionaries needed more than in Fifth Avenue? They had better not come, though; for if we would not eat them, we would freeze them."