Elsie's Girlhood by Martha Finley
The bloom of opening flowers' unsullied beauty-- Softness and sweetest innocence she wears, And looks like nature in the world's first spring. --ROWE'S "TAMERLANE."
"What a very peculiar hand, papa; so stiff and cramped and old-fashioned," Elsie remarked, as her father laid down a letter he had just been reading.
"Yes. Did you ever hear me speak of Aunt Wealthy Stanhope?"
His glance seemed to direct the question to Rose, who answered, with a look of surprise and curiosity, "No, sir. Who is she?"
"A half-sister of my own mother. She was the daughter of my maternal grandfather by his first wife, my mother was the child of the second, and there were some five or ten years between them. Aunt Wealthy never married, would never live with any of her relatives, but has always kept up a cosey little establishment of her own."
"Do you know her, papa?" asked Elsie, who was listening with eager interest.
"I can hardly say that I do. I saw her once, nearly eighteen years ago, about the time you were born--but I was not capable of appreciating her then; indeed, was so unhappy and irritable as to be hardly in a condition to either make or receive favorable impressions. I now believe her to be a truly good and noble little woman, though decidedly an oddity in some respects. Then I called her a fidgety, fussy old maid."
"And your letter is from her?" Rose said inquiringly.
"Yes; she wants me to pay her a visit, taking Elsie with me, and leaving her there for the summer."
"There, papa! where?"
"Lansdale, Ohio. Should you like to go?"
"Yes, I think I should like to go, papa, if you take me; but whether I should like to stay all summer I could hardly tell till I get there."
"You may read the letter," he said, handing it to her.
"It sounds as though it might be very pleasant, papa," she said, as she laid it down after an attentive perusal.
It spoke of Lansdale as a pretty, healthful village, surrounded by beautiful scenery, and boasting of some excellent society: of two lively young girls, living in the next house to her own, who would be charming companions for Elsie, etc.
"Your remark that your aunt was an oddity in some respects has excited my curiosity," said Rose.
"Ah! and I am to understand that you would like me to gratify it, eh?" returned her husband, smiling. "Her dress and the arrangement of her hair are in a style peculiarly her own (unless she has become more fashionable since I saw her, which is not likely); and she has an odd way of transposing her sentences and the names of those she addresses or introduces, or calling them by some other name suggested by some association with the real one. Miss Bell, for instance, she would probably call Miss King; Mr. Foot, Mr. Shoe, and so on."
"Does she do so intentionally, papa?" Elsie asked.
"No, not at all; her mistakes are quite innocently made, and are therefore very amusing."
Mrs. Horace Dinsmore's parents had been urging her to visit them, and after some further consideration it was decided that the whole family should go North for the summer, Mr. Dinsmore see his wife and little son safe at her father's, then take Elsie on to visit his aunt; the length of the visit to be determined after their arrival.
* * * * *
It was a lovely morning early in May; the air was vocal with the songs of birds and redolent with the breath of flowers all bathed in dew; delicate wreaths of snowy vapor rose slowly from the rippling surface of the river that threaded its way through the valley, and folded themselves about the richly-wooded hill-sides, behind which bright streaks of golden light were shooting upward, fair heralds of the coming of the king of day. On the outskirts of the pretty village of Lansdale, and in the midst of a well-kept garden and lawn, stood a tasteful dwelling, of Gothic architecture. Roses, honeysuckle, and Virginia creeper clambered over its walls, twined themselves about the pillars of its porticos and porches, or hung in graceful festoons from its many gables; the garden was gay with sweet spring flowers; the trees, the grass on the lawn, and the hedge that separated it from the road, all were liveried in that vivid green so refreshing to the eye.
"Phillis! Simon!" called a sweet-toned voice from the foot of the back staircase; "are you up? It's high time; nearly five o'clock now, and the train's due at six."
"Coming, ma'am. I'll have time to do up all my chores and git to the depot 'fore de train; you neber fear," replied a colored lad of fifteen or sixteen, hurrying down as he spoke.
A matronly woman, belonging to the same race, followed close in his rear.
"You're smart dis mornin', missis," she said, speaking from the middle of the stairway. "I didn't 'spect you'd git ahead o' me, and de sun hardly showin' his face 'bove de hill-tops yit."
"I woke early, Phillis, as I always do when something's going to happen that I expect. Simon make haste to feed and water your horses and be sure you have old Joan in the carriage and at the gate by a quarter before six."
"Am I to drive her to the depot, ma'am?"
"No, Miss Lottie Prince will do that, and you are to take the one-horse wagon for the trunks. Did you go to Mr. Laugh's and engage it, as I told you yesterday?"
"I went to Mr. Grinn's and disengaged de one-horse wagon, ma'am; yes'm."
"Very well. Now come into the sitting room and I'll show you the likenesses of the lady and gentleman, and the old colored woman they're going to bring with them," replied the mistress, leading the way into an apartment that, spite of its plain, old-fashioned furniture, wore a very attractive appearance, it was so exquisitely neat; and the windows, reaching to the floor, opened upon one side into conservatory and garden, on the other upon a porch that ran the whole length of the front of the house. Taking a photograph album from a side-table, she showed the three pictures to Simon, who pronounced the gentleman very handsome, the lady the prettiest he ever saw, and was sure he should recognise both them and their servant.
"Now, Phillis, we'll have to bestir ourselves," said Miss Stanhope, returning to the kitchen. "Do you think you can get breakfast in less than an hour? such a breakfast as we should have this morning--one fit for a king."
"Yes, Miss Wealthy; but you don't want it that soon, do you? Folks is apt to like to wash and dress 'fore breakfast."
"Ah, yes! sure enough. Well, we'll give them half an hour."
A few moments later, as Miss Stanhope was busy with broom and duster in the front part of the house, a young girl opened the gate, tripped gayly up the gravel walk that led from it across the lawn, and stepped upon the porch. She was a brunette with a very rich color in her dark cheek, raven hair, and sparkling, roguish black eyes. She wore a suit of plain brown linen, with snowy cuffs and collar, and a little straw hat. "Good-morning, Aunt Wealthy!" she cried, in a lively tone, "You see I'm in good time."
"Yes, Lottie, and looking as neat as a pin, too. It's very kind in you, because of course I want to be here to receive them as they come, to offer to introduce yourself and drive down to the depot for them."
"Of course I'm wonderfully clever, considering that I don't at all enjoy a drive in this sweet morning air, and aint in a bit of a hurry to see your beautiful young heiress and her papa. Net wonders at my audacity in venturing to face them alone; but I tell her I'm too staunch a republican to quail before any amount of wealth or consequence, and if Mr. and Miss Dinsmore see fit to turn up their aristocratic noses at me, why--I'll just return the compliment."
"I hope they're not of that sort, Lottie; but if they are, you will serve them right."
"She does not look like it," observed the young girl, taking the album from the table and gazing earnestly upon Elsie's lovely countenance. "What a sweet, gentle, lovable face it is! I'm sure I shall dote on her; and if I can only persuade her to return my penchant, won't we have grand good times while she's here? But there's Simon with old Joan and the carriage. He'll hunt them up for me at the depot; won't he, Aunt Wealthy?"
"Yes, I told him to."
* * * * *
The shrill whistle of the locomotive echoed and re-echoed among the hills.
"Lansdale!" shouted the conductor, throwing open the car door.
"So we are at our destination at last, and I am very glad for your sake, daughter, for you are looking weary," said Mr. Dinsmore, drawing Elsie's shawl more closely about her shoulders.
"Oh, I'm not so very tired, papa," she answered, with a loving look and smile, "not more so than you are, I presume. Oh, see! papa, what a pretty girl in that carriage there!"
"Yes, yes! Come to meet some friend, doubtless. Come, the train has stopped; keep close to me," he said. "Aunt Chloe, see that you have all the parcels."
"Dis de gentleman and lady from de South, what Miss Stanhope's 'spectin'?" asked a colored lad, stepping up to our little party as they alighted.
"Dis way den, sah, if you please, sah. Here's de carriage. De lady will drive you up to de house, and I'll take your luggage in de little wagon."
"Very well; here are the checks. You will bring it up at once?"
"Yes, sah, have it dar soon as yourself, sah. Dis cullad person better ride wid me and de trunks."
They were nearing the carriage and the pretty girl Elsie had noticed from the car window. "Good-morning! Mr. and Miss Dinsmore, I presume?" she said with a bow and smile. "Will you get in? Let me give you a hand, Miss Dinsmore. I am Lottie King, a distant relative and near neighbor of your aunt, Miss Stanhope."
"And have kindly driven down for us. We are much obliged, Miss King," Mr. Dinsmore answered, as he followed his daughter into the vehicle. "Shall I not relieve you of the reins?"
"Oh, no, thank you; I'm used to driving, and fond of it. And, besides, you don't know the way."
"True. How is my aunt?"
"Quite well. She has been looking forward with great delight to this visit, as have my sister Nettie and I also," Lottie answered, with a backward glance of admiring curiosity at Elsie. "I hope you will be pleased with Lansdale, Miss Dinsmore; sufficiently so to decide to stay all summer."
"Thank you; I think it is looking lovely this morning. Does my aunt live far from the depot?"
"Not very; about a quarter of a mile."
"Oh, what a pretty place, and what a quaint-looking little old lady on its porch!" Elsie presently cried out. "See, papa!"
"Yes, that's Aunt Wealthy, and doesn't she make a picture standing there under the vines in her odd dress?" said Miss King, driving up to the gate. "She's the very oddest, and the very dearest and sweetest little old lady in the world."
Elsie listened and looked again; this time with eager interest and curiosity.
Certainly, Aunt Wealthy was no slave to fashion. The tyrannical dame at that time prescribed gaiter boots, a plain pointed waist and straight skirt, worn very long and full. Miss Stanhope wore a full waist made with a yoke and belt, a gored skirt, extremely scant, and so short as to afford a very distinct view of a well-turned ankle and small, shapely foot encased in snowy stocking and low-heeled black kid slipper. The material of her dress was chintz--white ground with a tiny brown figure--finished at the neck with a wide white ruffle; she had black silk mitts on her hands, and her hair, which was very gray was worn in a little knot almost on the top of her head, and one thick, short curl, held in place by a puff-comb, on each side of her face.
At sight of the carriage and its occupants, she came hurrying down the gravel walk, meeting them as they entered the gate. She took Mr. Dinsmore's hand, saying, "I am glad to see you, nephew Horace," and held up her face for a kiss. Then turning to Elsie, gave her a very warm embrace. "So, dear, you've come to see your old auntie? That's right. Come into the house."
Elsie was charmed with her and with all she saw; all without was so fresh and bright, everything within so exquisitely neat and clean. The furniture of the whole house was very plain and old-fashioned, but Miss Stanhope never thought of apologizing for what to her wore the double charm of ownership, and of association with the happy days of childhood and youth, and loved ones gone. Nor did her guests deem anything of the kind called for in the very least; house and mistress seemed well suited the one to the other: and Elsie thought it not unpleasant to exchange, for a time, the luxurious furnishing of her home apartments for the simple adornments of the one assigned her here. The snowy drapery of its bed and toilet-table, its wide-open casements giving glimpses of garden, lawn, and shrubbery, and the beautiful hills beyond, looked very inviting. There were vases of fresh flowers too, on mantel and bureau, and green vines peeping in at the windows. It seemed a haven of rest after the long, fatiguing journey.
"The child is sweet and fair to look upon, Horace, but I see nothing of you or my sister in her face," observed Miss Stanhope, as her nephew entered the breakfast-room, preceding his daughter by a moment or two. "Whom does she resemble?"
"Elsie is almost the exact counterpart of her own mother, Aunt Wealthy, and looks like no one else," he answered, with a glance of proud fatherly affection at the young creature as she entered and took her place at the table.
"Now my daughter," he said, at the conclusion of the meal, "you must go and lie down until near dinner-time, if possible."
"Yes, that is excellent advice," said Miss Stanhope. "I see, and I'm glad, she's worth taking care of, as you are sensible, Horace. You shall be called in season, dear. So take a good nap."
Elsie obeyed, retired to her room, slept several hours, and woke feeling greatly refreshed. Chloe was in waiting to dress her for dinner.
"Had you a nap too, my poor old mammy?" asked her young mistress.
"Yes, darlin'. I've been lying on that coach, and feel good as ever now. Hark! what dat?"
"It sounds like a dog in distress," said Elsie, as they both ran to the window and looked out.
A fat poodle had nearly forced his plump body between the palings of the front gate in the effort to get into the street, and sticking fast, was yelping in distress. As they looked Miss Stanhope ran quickly down the path, seized him by the tail, and jerked him back, he uttering a louder yelp than before.
"There, Albert," she said, stroking and patting him, "I don't like to hurt you, but how was I to get you out, or in? You must be taught that you're to stay at home, sir. Thomas! Thomas! come home, Thomas!" she called; and a large cat came running from the opposite side of the street.
"So those are Aunt Wealthy's pets. What an odd name for a cat," said Elsie, laughing.
"Yes, Miss Elsie, dey's pets, sure nuff: Phillis says Miss Wealthy's mighty good t'em."
"There, she is coming in with them, and, mammy, we must make haste. I'm afraid it's near dinner-time," said Elsie, turning away from the window.
Her toilet was just completed when there was a slight tap on the door, and her father's voice asked if she was ready to go down.
"Yes, papa," she answered, hurrying to him as Chloe opened the door.
"Ah, you are looking something like yourself again," he said, with a pleasant smile, as he drew her hand within his arm, and led her down the stairs. "You have had a good sleep?"
"A delicious rest. I must have slept at least four hours. And you, papa?"
"I took a nap of about the same length, and feel ready for almost anything in the shape of dinner, etc. And there is the bell."
Miss Stanhope cast many an admiring glance at nephew and niece during the progress of the meal.
"I'm thinking, Horace," she said at length, "that it's a great shame I've been left so many years a stranger to you both."
"I'm afraid it is, Aunt Wealthy; but the great distance that lies between our homes must be taken as some excuse. We would have been glad to see you at the Oaks, but you never came to visit us."
"Ah, it was much easier for you to come here," she replied, shaking her head. "I've been an old woman these many years. Come," she added, rising from the table, "come into the parlor, children, and let me show you the olden relics of time I have there--things that I value very highly, because they've been in the family for generations."
They followed her--Elsie unable to forbear a smile at hearing her father and herself coupled together as "children"--and looked with keen interest upon some half dozen old family portraits, an ancient cabinet of curiosities, a few musty, time-worn volumes, a carpet that had been very expensive in its day, but was now somewhat faded and worn, and tables, sofas, and chairs of solid mahogany; each of the last-named covered with a heavily-embroidered silken cushion.
"That sampler," said Aunt Wealthy, pointing to a large one with a wonderful landscape worked upon it, that, framed and glazed, hung between two of the windows, "is a specimen of my paternal grandmother's handiwork; these chair-cushions, too, she embroidered and filled with her own feathers, so that I value them more than their weight in gold."
"My great-grandmother kept a few geese, I presume," Mr. Dinsmore remarked aside to Elsie with a quiet smile.
Having finished their inspection of the parlor and its curiosities, they seated themselves upon the front porch, where trees and vines gave a pleasant shade. Miss Stanhope had her knitting, Mr. Dinsmore the morning paper, while Elsie sat with her pretty white hands lying idly in her lap, doing nothing but enjoy the beautiful prospect and a quiet chat with the sweet-voiced old lady.
The talk between them was quite brisk for a time, but gradually it slackened, till at length they had been silent for several minutes, and Elsie, glancing at her aunt, saw her nodding over her work.
"Ah, you must excuse me, dear," the old lady said apologetically, waking with a start; "I'm not very well, and, deary, I woke unusually early this morning, and have been stirring about ever since."
"Can't you afford yourself a little nap, auntie?" Elsie asked in return. "You mustn't make company of me; and, besides, I have a book that I can amuse myself with."
"You would be quite alone, child, for I see your father has gone in."
"I shall not mind that at all, auntie. Do go and lie down for at least a little while."
"Well, then, dear, I will just lie down on the sofa in the sitting room, and you must call me if any one comes."
"Aunt Wealthy couldn't have meant for a child like that, unless she comes on some important errand," thought Elsie, as, a few moments later, a little girl came slowly across the lawn and stepped upon the porch.
The child looked clean and decent, in a neat calico dress and gingham sun-bonnet. At sight of Elsie she stood still, and, gazing with open-mouthed curiosity, asked, "Be you the rich young lady that was coming to see Miss Wealthy from 'way down south?"
"I have come from the South to see Miss Stanhope. What do you wish?"
"Nothin', I just come over 'cause I wanted to."
"Will you take a seat?"
"Yes," taking possession of the low rocking chair Miss Stanhope had vacated.
"What's your name?" inquired Elsie.
"Lenwilla Ellawea Schilling," returned the child, straightening herself up with an air of importance; "mother made it herself."
"I should think so," replied Elsie, with a sparkle of fun in her eye. "And your mother is Mrs. Schilling, is she?"
"Yes, and pap, he's dead, and my brother's named Corbinus."
"What do they call you for short?"
"Willy, and him Binus."
"Where do you live?"
"Over yonder," nodding her head towards the opposite side of the street. "Mother's comin' over to see you some time. I guess I'll be going now." And away she went.
"What did that child want?" asked Miss Stanhope, coming out just in time to see the little maiden pass through the gate.
"Nothing but to look at and question me, I believe." Elsie answered, with an amused smile.
"Ah! she generally comes to borrow some little thing or other. They're the sort of folks that always have something they're out of. Mrs. Sixpence is a very odd sixpence indeed."
"I think the little girl said her last name was Schilling."
"Ah, yes, so it is: but I'm always forgetting their exact commercial value," and Aunt Wealthy laughed softly. "In fact, I've a very good forgetting of my own, and am more apt to get names wrong than right."
"Mrs. Schilling must have an odd taste for names," said Elsie.
"Yes, she's a manufacturer of them; and very proud of her success in that line."
Miss Stanhope was a great lover of flowers, very proud of hers, cultivated principally by her own hands. After tea she invited her nephew and niece to a stroll through her garden, while she exhibited her pets with a very excusable pride in their variety, beauty, and fragrance.
As they passed into the house again, Phillis was feeding the chickens in the back yard.
"You have quite a flock of poultry, aunt," remarked Mr. Dinsmore.
"Yes, I like to see them running about, and the eggs you lay yourself are so much better than any you can buy, and the chickens, too, have quite another taste. Phillis, what's the matter with that speckled hen?"
"Dunno, mistis; she's been crippled dat way all dis week."
"Well, well, I dare say it's the boys; one of them must have thrown a stone and hit her between her hind legs; they're great plagues. Poor thing! There, Albert, don't you dare to meddle with the fowls! Come away, Thomas. That cat and dog are nearly as bad and troublesome to the boys as the poultry."
Puss and the poodle followed their mistress into the house, where Albert lay down at her feet, while Thomas sprang into her lap, where he stood purring and rubbing his head against her arm.
"You seem to have a good many pets, auntie," Elsie remarked.
"Yes, I am fond of them. A childless old woman must have something to love. I've another that I'm fonder of than any of these though--my grand-nephew, Harry Duncan. He's away at school now; but I hope to show him to you one of these days."
"I should like to see him. Is he a relative of ours?" Elsie asked, turning to her father.
"No, he belongs to the other side of the house."
"How soft and fine this cat's fur is, aunt; he's quite handsome," remarked Elsie, venturing to stroke Thomas very gently.
"Yes, I raised him, and his mother before him. My sister Beulah was first husband's child of Harry's grandmother twice married, and my mother. Yes, I think a great deal of him, but was near losing him last winter. A fellow in our town--he's two years old now--wanted a buffalo robe for his sleigh, and undertook to make it out of cat-skins. He advertised that he'd give ten cents for every cat-skin the boys would bring him. You know the old saying that you can't have more of a cat than its skin, and hardly anybody's was safe after that; they went about catching all they could lay hands on, even borrowing people's pets and killing them."
Elsie turned to her father with a very perplexed look, puzzled to understand who it was that had married twice, and whether her aunt had stated Harry's age or that of the cat.
But at that instant steps and voices were heard upon the porch, and the door-bell rang.
"It's Lottie and her father," said Miss Stanhope, pushing Thomas from her lap. "Come in, friends, and don't stand for ceremony." For both doors stood wide open.
"Good-evening," said the young lady, coming forward, leaning upon the arm of a middle-aged gentleman. "Mr. Dinsmore, I have brought my father, Dr. King, to see you."
The gentlemen shook hands, the doctor observing, "I am happy to make your acquaintance, Mr. Dinsmore. I brought my daughter along to introduce me, lest our good Aunt Wealthy here, in her want of appreciation of nobility and birth, should, as she sometimes does, give me a rank lower than my true one, making me to appear only a Prince, while I am really a King."
A general laugh followed this sally, Miss Stanhope insisting that that was a mistake she did not often make now. Then Elsie was introduced, and, all being seated again, Dr. King turned to, his hostess with the laughing remark, "Well, Aunt Wealthy, by way of amends, I'll own up that my wife says that you're the better doctor of the two. That bran has done her a world of good."
"Bran?" said Mr. Dinsmore inquiringly.
"Yes, sir; Mrs. King was suffering from indigestion; Miss Stanhope advised her to try eating a tablespoonful or so of dry bran after her meals, and it has had an excellent effect."
"My father learnt it from an old sea-captain," said Miss Stanhope; "and it has helped a great many I've recommended it to. Some prefer to mix it with a little cream, or take a little water with it but the best plan's to take it dry if you can."