The Allen House, or Twenty Years Ago and Now by T.S. Arthur
It was in October when Mrs. Montgomery, after a residence of three years in the Allen House, went from among us. Old "Aunty," and another colored servant who had lived with Mrs. Allen, remained in charge of the mansion. There was, of course, no removal of furniture, as that belonged to the estate. Mrs. Montgomery had brought with her three servants from England, a coachman, footman, and maid. The footman was sent back after he had been a year in the country; but the coachman and maid still lived with her, and accompanied her to Boston.
The large schemes of men ambitious for gain, will not suffer them to linger by the way. Ralph Dewey had set his mind on getting possession, jointly with others, of the valuable Allen property; and as the Court had granted a decree of sale, he urged upon his father-in-law and uncle an early day for its consummation. They were in heart, honorable men, but they had embarked in grand enterprises with at least one dishonest compeer, and were carried forward by an impulse which they had not the courage or force of character to resist. They thought that spring would be the best time to offer the property for sale; but Dewey urged the fall as more consonant with their views, and so the sale was fixed for the first day of November. Notice was given in the country papers, and Dewey engaged to see that the proposed sale was duly advertised in Boston and New York. He managed, however, to omit that part of his duty.
On the day of sale, quite a company of curious people assembled at the Allen House, but when the property was offered, only a single bid was offered. That came from Dewey, as the representative of Floyd, Lawson, Lee & Co., and it was awarded to them for the sum of thirty-five thousand dollars, a little more than half its real value.
From that time until spring opened, all remained quiet. Then began the busy hum of preparation, and great things for our town foreshadowed themselves. A hundred men went to work on the site chosen for a new mill, digging, blasting, and hauling; while carpenters and masons were busy in and around the old mansion, with a view to its thorough renovation, as the future residence of Mr. Ralph Dewey. That gentleman was on the ground, moving about with a self-sufficient air, and giving his orders in a tone of authority that most of the work people felt to be offensive.
The antiquated furniture in the Allen House, rich though it was in style and finish, would not suit our prospective millionaire, and it was all sent to auction. From the auctioneers, it was scattered among the town's people, who obtained some rare bargains. An old French secretary came into my possession, at the cost of ten dollars--the original owner could not have paid less than a hundred. It was curiously inlaid with satin wood, and rich in quaint carvings. There seemed to be no end to the discoveries I was continually making among its intricate series of drawers, pigeon holes, slides, and hidden receptacles. But some one had preceded me in the examination, and had removed all the papers and documents it contained. It flashed across my mind, as I explored the mazes of this old piece of furniture, that it might contain, in some secret drawer, another will. This thought caused the blood to leap along my veins, my cheeks to burn, and my hands to tremble. I renewed the examination, at first hurriedly; then with order and deliberation, taking out each drawer, and feeling carefully all around the cavity left by its removal, in the hope of touching some hidden spring. But the search was fruitless. One drawer perplexed me considerably. I could not pull it clear out, nor get access above or below to see how closely the various partitions and compartments came up to its sides, top, and bottom. After working with it for some time, I gave up the search, and my enthusiasm in this direction soon died out. I smiled to myself many times afterwards, in thinking of the idle fancy which for a time possessed me.
In May, the furnishing of the renovated house began. This took nearly a month. Every thing was brought from New York. Car loads of enormous boxes, bales, and articles not made up into packages, were constantly arriving at the depot, and being conveyed to the Allen House--the designation which the property retains even to this day. The furniture was of the richest kind--the carpets, curtains, and mirrors, princely in elegance. When all was ready for the proud owners to come in and enjoy their splendid home, it was thrown open for examination and admiration. All S----went to see the show, and wander in dreamy amazement through parlors, halls, and chambers. I went with the rest. The change seemed like the work of magic. I could with difficulty make out the old landmarks. The spacious rooms, newly painted and decked out in rich, modern furniture, looked still more spacious. In place of the whitewashed ceilings and dingy papered walls, graceful frescoes spread their light figures, entrancing the eyes with their marvelous semblances. The great hall received you with a statelier formality than before; for it, too, had received also its gift of painting, and its golden broideries. As you passed from room to room, you said--"This is the palace of a prince--not the abode of a citizen."
The grounds around the mansion had been subject to as thorough a renovation as the mansion itself. The old gate had given place to one of larger proportions, and more imposing design. A new carriage-road swept away in a grander curve from the gate to the dwelling. Substantial stone-stabling had been torn down in order to erect a fanciful carriage-house, built in imitation of a Swiss cottage; which, from its singular want of harmony with the principal buildings, stood forth a perpetual commentary upon the false taste of the upstart owner.
I hardly think that either Mr. Dewey or his wife would have been much flattered by the general tone of remark that ran through the curious crowds that lingered in the elegant rooms, or inspected the improvements outside. Nobody liked him; and as for his wife, fashionable associations had so spoiled her, that not a single old friend retained either affection or respect. It was sad to think that three years of a false life could so entirely obliterate the good qualities that once blossomed in her soul with such a sweet promise of golden fruitage.
Early in June, the family of Mr. Dewey took possession of their new home, and the occasion was celebrated by a splendid entertainment, the cost of which, common rumor said, was over two thousand dollars. We--Constance and I--were among the invited guests. It was a festive scene, brilliant and extravagant beyond anything we had ever witnessed, and quite bewildering to minds like ours. Mrs. Dewey was dressed like a queen, and radiant in pearls and diamonds. I questioned her good taste in this, as hostess; and think she knew better--but the temptation to astonish the good people of S----was too strong to be resisted.
After the curtain fell on this brilliant spectacle, Mrs. Dewey assumed a stately air, showing, on all occasions, a conscious superiority that was offensive to our really best people. There are in all communities a class who toady to the rich; and we had a few of these in S----. They flattered the Deweys, and basked in the sunshine of their inflated grandeur.
I was not one towards whom Mrs. Dewey put on superior airs. My profession brought me into a kind of relation to her that set aside all pretence. Very soon after her removal to S----, my services were required in the family, one of her two children having been attacked with measles. On the occasion of my first call, I referred, naturally, to the fact of her removal from New York, and asked how she liked the change.
"I don't like it all, Doctor," she replied, in a dissatisfied tone.
"Could heart desire more of elegance and comfort than you possess?" I glanced around the richly decorated apartment in which we were seated.
"Gilded misery, Doctor!" She emphasized her words.
I looked at her without speaking. She understood my expression of surprise.
"I need not tell you, Doctor, that a fine house and fine furniture are not everything in this world."
I thought her waking up to a better state of mind, through the irrepressible yearnings of a soul that could find no sustenance amid the husks of this outer life.
"They go but a little way towards making up the aggregate of human happiness," said I.
"All well enough in their place. But, to my thinking, sadly out of place here. We must have society, Doctor."
"True." My voice was a little rough. I had mistaken her.
"But there is no society here!" And she tossed her head a little contemptuously.
"Not much fashionable society I will grant you, Delia."
She pursed up her lips and looked disagreeable.
"I shall die of ennui before six months. What am I to do with myself?"
"Act like a true woman," said I, firmly.
She lifted her eyes suddenly to my face as if I had presumed.
"Do your duty as a wife and mother," I added, "and there will be no danger of your dying with ennui."
"You speak as if I were derelict in this matter."
She drew herself up with some dignity of manner.
"I merely prescribed a remedy for a disease from which you are suffering," said I, calmly. "Thousands of women scattered all over the land are martyrs to this disease; and there is only one remedy--that which I offer to you, Delia."
I think she saw, from my manner, that it would be useless to quarrel with me. I was so much in earnest that truth came to my lips in any attempt at utterance.
"What would you have me do, Doctor?" There was a petty fretfulness in her voice. "Turn cook or nursery-maid?"
"Yes, rather than sit idle, and let your restless mind fret itself for want of useful employment into unhappiness."
"I cannot take your prescription in that crude form," she replied, with more seriousness than I had expected.
"It is not requisite to a cure," said I. "Only let your thought and purpose fall into the sphere of home. Think of your husband as one to be made happier by your personal control of such household matters as touch his comfort; of your babes as tender, precious things, blessed by your sleepless care, or hurt by your neglect; of your domestics, as requiring orderly supervision, lest they bring discord into your home, or waste your substance. Every household, Delia, is a little government, and the governor must be as watchful over all its concerns as the governor of a state. Take, then, the reins of office firmly into your hands, dispose of everything according to the best of your judgment, and require orderly obedience from every subject. But act wisely and kindly. Do this, my young friend, and you will not be troubled with the fashionable complaint--ennui."
"That is, sink down into a mere housekeeper," she remarked; "weigh out the flour, count the eggs, fill the sugar bowls, and grow learned in cookery-books. I think I see myself wandering about from cellar to garret, jingling a great bunch of keys, prying into rubbish-corners, and scolding lazy cooks and idle chambermaids!"
She laughed a short, artificial laugh, and then added--
"Is that the picture of what you mean, Doctor?"
"It is the picture of a happier woman than you are, Delia," said I, seriously.
The suggestion seemed to startle her.
"You speak very confidently, Doctor."
"With the confidence of one who makes diseases and their cure his study. I know something of the human soul as well as the human body, and of the maladies to which both are subjected. A cure is hopeless in either case, unless the patient will accept the remedy. Pain of body is the indicator of disease, and gives warning that an enemy to life has found a lodgment; pain of mind is the same phenomenon, only showing itself in a higher sphere, and for the same purpose. If you are unhappy, surrounded by all this elegance, and with the means of gratifying every orderly wish, it shows that an enemy to your soul has entered through some unguarded gateway. You cannot get rid of this enemy by any change of place, or by any new associations. Society will not help you. The excitement of shows; gauds, glitter, pageants; the brief triumphs gained in fashionable tournaments, will not expel this foe of your higher and nobler life, but only veil, for brief seasons, his presence from your consciousness. When these are past, and you retire into yourself, then comes back the pain, the languor, the excessive weariness. Is it not so, Delia? Is not this your sad experience?"
I paused. Her eyes had fallen to the floor. She sat very still, like one who was thinking deeply.
"The plodding housekeeper, whose picture you drew just now--humble, even mean in your regard though she be--sinks to peaceful sleep when her tasks are done, and rises refreshed at coming dawn. If she is happier than your fine lady, whose dainty hands cannot bear the soil of these common things, why? Ponder this subject, Delia. It concerns you deeply. It is the happiest state in life that we all strive to gain; but you may lay it up in your heart as immutable truth, that happiness never comes to any one, except through a useful employment of all the powers which God has given to us. The idle are the most miserable--and none are more miserable in their ever-recurring ennuied hours, than your fashionable idlers. We see them only in their holiday attire, tricked out for show, and radiant in reflected smiles. Alas! If we could go back with them to their homes, and sit beside them, unseen, in their lonely hours, would not pity fill our hearts? My dear young friend! Turn your feet aside from this way--it is the path that leads to unutterable wretchedness."
The earnestness of my manner added force to what I said, and constrained at least a momentary conviction.
"You speak strongly, Doctor," she said, with the air of one who could not look aside from an unpleasant truth.
"Not too strongly, Delia. Is it not as I have said? Are not your mere society-ladies too often miserable at home?"
She sighed heavily, as if unpleasant images were forcing themselves upon her mind. I felt that I might follow up the impression I had made, and resumed:
There was a time, Delia--and it lies only three or four short years backward on your path of life--when I read in your opening mind a promise of higher things than have yet been attained--you must pardon the freedom of an old but true friend. A time when thought, taste, feeling were all building for themselves a habitation, the stones whereof were truths, and the decorations within and without pure and good affections. All this--"I glanced at the rich furniture, mirrors, and curtains--"is poor and mean to that dwelling place of the soul, the foundations for which you once commenced laying. Are you happier now than then? Have the half bewildering experiences through which you have passed satisfied you that you are in the right way? That life's highest blessings are to be found in these pageantries? Think, think, my dear young friend! Look inwards. Search into your heart, and try the quality of its motives. Examine the foundation upon which you are building, and if it is sand, in heaven's name stop, and look for solid earth on which to place the corner stone of your temple of happiness."
"You bewilder me, Doctor," she said, in reply to this. "I can't think, I can't look inwards. If I am building on a sandy foundation, God help me!--for I cannot turn back to search for the solid earth of which you speak."
She raised her hand and said,
"Spare me, Doctor. I know you are truthful and sincere--a friend who may be trusted--but you cannot see as I see, nor know as I know. I have chosen my way, and must walk in it, even to the end, let it terminate as it will. I had once a dream of other things--a sweet, entrancing dream while it lasted--but to me it can never be more than a dream. There are quiet, secluded, peaceful ways in life, and happy are they who are content to walk in them. But they are not for my feet, and I do not envy those who hide themselves in tranquil valleys, or linger on the distant hill-slopes. The crowd, the hum, the shock of social life for me!"
"But this you cannot have in S----. And is it not the part of a wise woman--"
"Again, Doctor, let me beg of you to spare me." she said, lifting her hands, and turning her face partly away. "I only half comprehend you, and am hurt and disturbed by your well-meant suggestions. I am not a wise woman, in your sense of the word, and cannot take your admonitions to heart. Let us talk of something else."
And she changed the subject, as well as her whole manner and expression of countenance, with a promptness that surprised me; showing the existence of will and self-control that in a right direction would have given her large power for good.
It was the first and last time I ventured to speak with her so freely. Always afterwards, when we met, there was an impression of uneasiness on her part, as if she had an unpleasant remembrance, or feared that I would venture upon some disagreeable theme.