The Allen House, or Twenty Years Ago and Now by T.S. Arthur
Almost daily, while the pleasant fall weather lasted, did I meet the handsome carriage of Mrs. Dewey; but I noticed that she went less through the town, and oftener out into the country. And I also noticed that she rode alone more frequently than she had been accustomed to do. Formerly, one fashionable friend or another, who felt it to be an honor to sit in the carriage of Mrs. Dewey, was generally to be seen in her company when she went abroad. Now, the cases were exceptional. I also noticed a gathering shade of trouble on her face.
The fact was, opinion had commenced setting against her. The unhappy affair at Saratoga was not allowed to sleep in the public mind of S----. It was conned over, magnified, distorted, and added to, until it assumed most discreditable proportions; and ladies who respected themselves began to question whether it was altogether reputable to be known as her intimate friends. The less scrupulous felt the force of example as set by these, and began receding also. In a large city, like New York, the defection would only have been partial; for there, one can be included in many fashionable circles, while only a few of them may be penetrated by a defaming rumor. But in a small town like S----, the case is different.
I was surprised when I comprehended the meaning of this apparent isolation of herself by Mrs. Dewey, and saw, in progress, the ban of social ostracism. While I pitied the victim, I was glad that we had virtue enough, even among our weak-minded votaries of fashion, to stamp with disapproval the conduct of which she had been guilty.
"I saw Mrs. Dewey this morning," said my wife, one day, late in November. "She was in at Howard's making some purchases."
"Did you speak to her?"
"Yes, we passed a few words. How much she has changed!"
"For the worse?"
"Yes. She appears five years older than she did last summer, and has such a sad, disappointed look, that I could not help pitying her from my heart."
"There are few who need your pity more, Constance. I think she must be wretched almost beyond endurance. So young, and the goblet which held the shine of her life broken, and all its precious contents spilled in the thirsty sand at her feet. Every one seems to have receded from her."
"The common sentiment is against her; and yet, I am of those who never believed her any thing worse than indiscreet."
"Her indiscretion was in itself a heinous offence against good morals," said I; "and while she has my compassion, I have no wish to see a different course of treatment pursued towards her."
"I haven't much faith in the soundness of this common sentiment against her," replied Constance. "There is in it some self-righteousness, a good deal of pretended horror at her conduct, but very little real virtuous indignation. It is my opinion that eight out of ten of her old fashionable friends would be just as intimate with her as ever, though they knew all about the affair at Saratoga, if they only were in the secret. It is in order to stand well with the world that they lift their hands in pretended holy horror."
"We cannot expect people to act from any higher principles than they possess," said I; "and it is something gained to good morals, when even those who are corrupt in heart affect to be shocked at departures from virtue in their friends."
"Yes, I can see that. Still, when I look beneath the surface, I feel that, so far as the motives are concerned, a wrong has been done; and my soul stirs with a feeling of pity towards Mrs. Dewey, and indignation against her heartless friends. Do you know, dear, that since I met her this morning, I have had serious thoughts of calling upon her?"
Constance gave me one of her placid smiles in answer to my surprised ejaculation.
"Yes; why not?"
"What will people say?"
"I can tell you what they will not say," she replied,
"They will not say, as they do of her, that of all men, I care least for my husband."
"I am not afraid of their saying that; but--"
I was a little bewildered by this unexpected thought on the part of my wife, and did not at first see the matter clear.
"She has held herself very high, and quite aloof from many of her old friends," Constance resumed. "While this was the case, I have not cared to intrude upon her; although she has been kind and polite to me whenever we happened to meet. Now, when the summer friends who courted her are dropping away like autumn leaves, a true friend may draw near and help her in the trial through which she is passing."
"Right, Constance! right!" said I, warmly. "Your clearer eyes have gone down below, the surface. Oh, yes; call upon her, and be her true friend, if she will permit you to come near enough. There can be no loss to you; there may be great gain to her. Was there any thing in her manner that encouraged you to approach?"
"I think so. It was this, no doubt, that stirred the suggestion in my mind."
Constance waited a day or two, pondering the matter, and then made a call at the Allen House.
"How were you received?" I asked, on meeting her.
"Kindly," she said.
"But with indifference?"
"No. Mrs. Dewey was surprised, I thought, but evidently pleased."
"How long did you stay?"
"Only for a short time."
"What did you talk about?"
"Scarcely any thing beyond the common-place topics that come up on formal visits. But I penetrated deep enough into her mind to discover the 'aching void' there, which she has been so vainly endeavoring to fill. I do not think she meant to let me see this abyss of wretchedness; but her efforts to hide it were in vain. Unhappy one! She has been seeking to quench an immortal thirst at broken cisterns which can hold no water."
"Can you do her any good, Constance?" I asked.
"If we would do good, we must put ourselves in the way," she replied. "Nothing is gained by standing afar off."
"Then you mean to call upon her again?"
"She held my hand at parting, with such an earnest pressure, and looked at me so kindly when she said, 'Your visit has been very pleasant,' that I saw the way plain before me."
"You will wait until she returns your call?"
"I cannot say. It will depend upon the way things shape themselves in my mind. If I can do her good, I shall not stand upon etiquette."
As I came in sight of my modest little home a few days afterwards, I saw the stylish carriage of Mrs. Dewey dash away from my door, taking a direction opposite to that by which I was approaching.
"How are the mighty fallen!" It was hardly a good spirit by whom this thought was quickened, for I was conscious of something like a feeling of triumph. With an effort I repressed the ungenerous state of mind.
"So your call has been returned," said I, on entering our sitting room.
"Yes. How did you know?" Constance looked up, smiling, but curious.
"I saw Mrs. Dewey's carriage leave our door as I turned into the street. Did she come in, or only leave her card?"
"She came in, and sat for half an hour."
"And made herself very agreeable,--was patronizing, and all that?"
"No--nothing of the kind suggested by your words." And Constance looked at me reproachfully. "She was, on the contrary, quiet, subdued, and womanly. I called to see her, with the manner of one who had about her no consciousness of inferiority; and she returned the call, without a sign that I could regard as offensive."
"It is well," I answered, coming back into my better state. "If true friends can take the place of false friends, who left her the moment a shadow fell upon her good name, then the occasion of blame may pave the way to life instead of ruin. There must be remains of early and better states covered up and hidden away in her soul, but not lost; and by means of these she may be saved--yet, I fear, that only through deep suffering will the overlying accretions of folly be broken away."
"She is in the hands of one to whom all spirits are precious," said Constance, meekly; "and if we can aid in His good work of restoration and salvation, our reward shall be great."
After the lapse of a week, Constance called again upon Mrs. Dewey. She found her in a very unhappy state of mind, and failed, almost entirely, in her efforts to throw a few sunbeams across the shadow by which she was environed. Her reception was neither cold nor cordial.
"I think," she said, "that my visit was untimely. Some recent occurrence had, probably, disturbed her mind so deeply; that she was not able to rise above the depression that followed. I noticed a bitterness of feeling about her that was not apparent on the occasion of my first call; and a hardness of manner and sentiment, that indicated a condition of mental suffering having its origin in a sense of wrong. Mr. Dewey passed through the hall, and went out a few minutes after I entered the house, and before his wife joined me in the parlor. It may have been fancy; but I thought, while I sat there awaiting her appearance, that I heard angry words in the room above. The heavy tread of a man's foot was there; but the sound ceased all at once--so did the voices. A little while afterwards Mr. Dewey came down stairs, and went out, as I have said. Some minutes passed before I heard the rustle of Mrs. Dewey's garments. There was the air of one disturbed and ill at ease about her, when she entered; and though she made an effort to seem pleased, all was forced work. Poor woman! The path she selected to walk in through the world has proved rough and thorny, I fear, beyond any thing dreamed of in her young imagination."