Elsie's Girlhood by Martha Finley
When to mischief mortals bend their will, How soon they find fit instruments of ill. --POPE'S "RAPE OF THE LOCK."
"What, Art, are you going out?"
"Do you know it's after ten?"
"Yes, you just mind your own business, Wal; learn your lessons, and go off to bed like a good boy when you get through. I'm old enough to take care of myself."
"Dear me! I'm awfully afraid he's gone back to his evil courses, as father says," muttered Walter Dinsmore to himself, as the door closed upon his reckless elder brother. "I wonder what I ought to do about it," he continued, leaning his head upon his hand, with a worried, irresolute look; "ought I to report to the governor? No, I shan't, there then; I don't know anything, and I never will be a sneak or a tell-tale." And he drew the light nearer, returned to his book with redoubled diligence for some ten or fifteen minutes more; then, pushing it hastily aside, with a sigh of relief, started up, threw off his clothes, blew out the light, and tumbled into bed.
Meanwhile Arthur had stolen noiselessly from the college, and pursued his way into the heart of the town. On turning a corner he came suddenly upon another young man who seemed to have been, waiting for him; simply remarking, "You're late to-night, Dinsmore," he faced about in the same direction, and the two walked on together.
"Of course; but how can a fellow help it when he's obliged to watch his opportunity till the Argus eyes are closed in sleep, or supposed to be so?" grumbled Arthur.
"True enough, old boy; but cheer up, your day of emancipation must come some time or other," remarked his companion, clapping him familiarly; on the shoulder. "Of age soon, aren't you?"
"In about a year. But what good does that do me? I'm not so fortunate as my older brother--shall have nothing of my own till one or other of my respected parents sees fit to kick the bucket, and leave me a pile; a thing which at present neither of them seems to have any notion of doing."
"You forget your chances at the faro-table."
"My chances! You win everything from me, Jackson. I'm a lame duck now, and if my luck doesn't soon begin to turn, I'll--do something desperate, I believe."
The lad's tone was bitter, his look reckless and half despairing.
"Pooh, don't be a spooney! We all have our ups and downs, and you must take your turn at both, like the rest."
They had ascended a flight of steps, and Jackson rang the bell as he spoke. It was answered instantly by a colored waiter, who with, a silent bow stepped back and held the door open for their entrance. They passed in and presently found themselves in a large, well-lighted, and handsomely-furnished room, where tables were set out with the choicest viands, rich wine, and trays of fine cigars.
They seated themselves, ate and drank their fill, then, each lighting a cigar, proceeded to a saloon, on the story above, where a number of men were engaged in playing cards--gambling, as was evident from the piles of gold, silver, and bank-notes lying here and there upon the tables about which they sat.
Here also costly furniture, bright light, and rich wines lent their attractions to the scene.
Arthur took possession of a velvet-cushioned chair on one side of an elegant marble-topped table, his companion placing himself in another directly opposite. Here, seated in the full blaze of the gas-light, each face was brought out into strong relief. Both were young, both handsome; Jackson, who was Arthur's senior by five or six years, remarkably so; yet his smile was sardonic, and there was often a sinister expression in his keen black eye as its glance fell upon his victim, for such Arthur Dinsmore was--no match for his cunning and unscrupulous antagonist, who was a gambler by profession.
Arthur's pretended reformation had lasted scarcely longer than until he was again exposed to temptation, and his face, as seen in that brilliant light, wore unmistakable signs of indulgence in debauchery and vice. He played in a wild, reckless way, dealing out his cards with a trembling hand, while his cheek burned and his eye flashed.
At first Jackson allowed him to win, and filled with a mad delight at the idea that "his luck had turned," the boy doubled and trebled his stakes.
Jackson chuckled inwardly, the game went on, and at length Arthur found all his gains suddenly swept away and himself many thousands of dollars in debt.
A ghastly pallor overspread his face, he threw himself back in his chair with a groan, then starting up with a bitter laugh, "Well, I see only one way out of this," he said. "A word in your ear, Tom; come along with me. I've lost and you won enough for one night; haven't we, eh?"
"Well, yes; I'm satisfied if you are." And the two hurried into the now dark and silent street, for it was long past midnight, and sober and respectable people generally had retired to their beds.
"Where are you going?" asked Jackson.
"Anywhere you like that we can talk without danger of being overheard."
"This way then, down this street. You see 'tis absolutely silent and deserted."
They walked on, talking in an undertone.
"You'd like your money as soon as you can get it?" said Arthur.
"Of course; in fact I must have it before very long, for I'm hard pushed now."
"Suppose I could put you in the way of marrying a fortune, would you hold me quit of all your claims against me?"
"H'm, that would depend upon the success of the scheme."
"And that upon your own coolness and skill. I think I've heard you spoken of as a woman-killer?"
"Ha, ha! Yes, I flatter myself that I have won some reputation in that line, and that not a few of the dear creatures have been very fond of me. It's really most too bad to break their soft little hearts; but then a man can't marry 'em all; unless he turns Mormon."
Arthur's lips curled with scorn and contempt, and he half turned away in disgust and aversion; but remembering that he was in the power of this man, whom, too late, alas! he was discovering to be an unscrupulous villain, he checked himself, and answered in his usual tone, "No, certainly not; and so you have never yet run your neck into the matrimonial noose?"
"No, not I, and don't fancy doing so either, yet I own that a fortune would be a strong temptation. But, I say, lad, if it's a great chance, why do you hand it over to me? Why not try for it yourself? It's not your sister, surely?"
"No, indeed; you're not precisely the sort of brother-in-law I should choose," returned the boy, with a bitter, mocking laugh. "But stay, don't be insulted"--for his companion had drawn himself up with an air of offended pride--"the lady in question is but a step farther from me; she is my brother's daughter."
"Eh! you don't say? A mere child, then, I presume."
"Eighteen, handsome as a picture, as the saying is, and only too sweet-tempered for my taste."
"And rich you say? that is her father's wealthy, eh?"
"Yes, he's one of the richest men in our county, but she has a fortune in her own right, over a million at the very lowest computation."
"Whew! You expect me to swallow that?"
"It's true, true as preaching. You wonder that I should be so willing to help you to get her. Well, I owe her a grudge, I see no other way to get out of your clutches, and I shall put you in the way of making her acquaintance only on condition that if you succeed we share the spoils."
"Agreed. Now for the modus operandi. You tell me her whereabouts and provide me with a letter of introduction, eh?"
"No; on the contrary, you are carefully to conceal the fact that you have the slightest knowledge of me. The introduction must come from quite another quarter. Listen, and I'll communicate the facts and unfold my plan. It has been running in my head for weeks, ever since I heard that the girl was to spend the summer in the North with nobody but an old maiden aunt, half-cracked at that, to keep guard over her; but I couldn't quite make up my mind to it till to-night, for you must see, Tom," he added with a forced laugh, "that it can't be exactly delightful to my family pride to think of bringing such a dissipated fellow as you into the connection."
"Better look at home, lad. But you are right; one such scamp is, or ought to be, all-sufficient for one family."
Arthur said, "Certainly," but winced at the insinuation nevertheless. It was not a pleasant reflection that his vices had brought him down to a level with this man who lived by his wits--or perhaps more correctly speaking, his rascalities--of whose antecedents he knew nothing and whom, with his haughty Southern pride, he thoroughly despised.
But scorn and loathe him as he might in his secret soul, it was necessary that he should be conciliated, because it was now in his power to bring open disgrace and ruin upon his victim. So Arthur went on to explain matters and, with Jackson's assistance, to concoct a plan of getting Elsie and her fortune into their hands.
As he had said, the idea had been in his mind for weeks, yet it was not until that day that he could see clearly how to carry it out. Also, his family pride had stood in the way until the excitement of semi-intoxication and his heavy losses had enabled him to put it aside for the time. To-morrow he would more than half regret the step he was taking, but now he plunged recklessly into the thing with small regard for consequences to himself or others.
"Can you imitate the chirography of others?" he asked.
"Perfectly, if I do say it that shouldn't."
"Then we can manage it. My brother Walter has kept up a correspondence with this niece ever since he left home. In a letter received yesterday she mentions that her father was about leaving her for the rest of the summer. Also that Miss Stanhope, the old aunt she's staying with, was formerly very intimate with Mrs. Waters of this city.
"It just flashed on me at once that a letter of introduction from her would be the very thing to put you at once on a footing of intimacy in Miss Stanhope's house; and that if you were good at imitating handwriting we might manage it by means of a note of invitation which I received from Mrs. Waters some time ago, and which, as good luck would have it, I threw into my table drawer instead of destroying."
"But who knows that it was written by the lady herself?"
"I do, for I heard Bob Waters say so."
"Good! have you the note about you?"
"Yes, here it is." And Arthur drew it from his pocket. "Let's cross over to that lamp-post."
They did so, and Jackson held the note up to the light for a moment, scanning it attentively. "Ah, ha! the very thing! no trouble at all about that," he said, pocketing it with a chuckle of delight, "But," and a slight frown contracted his brows, "what if the old lady should take it into her head to open a correspondence on the subject with her old friend?"
"I've thought of that too, but fortunately for our scheme Mrs. Waters sails for Europe to-morrow; and by the way that should be mentioned in the letter of introduction."
"Yes, so it should. Come to my room at the Merchants' House to-morrow night, and you shall find it ready for your inspection. I suppose the sooner the ball's set in motion the better?" he added as they moved slowly on down the street.
"Yes, for there's no knowing how long it may take you to storm the citadel of her ladyship's heart, or how soon her father may come to the conclusion that he can't do without her, and go and carry her off home. And I tell you, Tom, you'd stand no chance with him, or with her if he were there. He'd see through you in five minutes."
"H'm! What sort is she?"
"The very pious!" sneered Arthur, "and you're bound to take your cue from that or you'll make no headway with her at all."
"A hard role for me, Dinsmore. I know nothing of cant."
"You'll have to learn it then; let her once suspect your true character--a drinking, gambling, fortune-hunting roue--and she'll turn from you with the same fear and loathing that she would feel for a venomous reptile."
"Ha, ha! you're in a complimentary mood to-night, Dinsmore. Well, well, such a fortune as you speak of is worth some sacrifice and effort, and I think I may venture the character of a perfectly moral and upright man with a high respect for religion. The rest I can learn by degrees from her; and come to think of it, it mightn't be a bad idea to let her imagine she'd converted me."
"Capital! The very thing, Tom! But good-night. I must be off now to the college. I'll come to your room to-morrow night and we'll finish the arrangement of all preliminaries."
More than a fortnight had passed since the arrival of Miss Stanhope's guests. It had been a season of relaxation and keen enjoyment to them, to her, and to Dr. King's family, who had joined them in many a pleasant little excursion to points of interest in the vicinity, and several sociable family picnics among the surrounding hills and woods. A warm friendship had already sprung up between the three young girls, and had done much toward reconciling Elsie to the idea of spending the summer there away from her father.
She had finally consented to do so, yet as the time drew near her heart almost failed her. In all these years since they went to live together at the Oaks, they had never been far apart--except once or twice for a few days when he had gone to New Orleans to attend to business connected with the care of her property; and only on a very few occasions, when she paid a little visit in their own neighborhood, had they been separated for more than a day.
She could not keep back her tears as she hung about his neck on parting. "Ah, papa, how can I do without you for weeks and months?" she sighed.
"Or I without you, my darling?" he responded, straining her to his breast. "I don't know how I shall be able to stand it. You need not be surprised to see me again at any time, returning to claim my treasure; and in the meanwhile we will write to each other every day. I shall want to know all you are doing, thinking, and feeling. You must tell me of all your pursuits and pleasures; your new acquaintances, too, if you form any. In that you must be guided by the advice of Aunt Wealthy, together with your father's known wishes. I am sure I can trust my daughter to obey those in my absence as carefully as in my presence."
"I think you may, papa. I shall try to do nothing that you would disapprove, and to attend faithfully to all your wishes."
Mr. Dinsmore left by the morning train, directly after breakfast. It was a bright, clear day, and Miss Stanhope, anxious to help Elsie to recover her spirits, proposed a little shopping expedition into the village.
"You have not seen our stores yet," she said, "and I think we'd better go now before the sun gets any hotter. Should you like it, my dear?"
"Thank you, yes, auntie. I will go and get ready at once."
Elsie could hardly forbear smiling at the quaint little figure that met her in the porch a few moments later, and trotted with quick, short steps by her side across the lawn and up and down the village streets. The white muslin dress with its short and scanty skirt, an embroidered scarf of the same material, the close, old-fashioned leg-horn bonnet, trimmed with one broad strip of white mantua ribbon, put straight down over the top and tied under the chin, and the black mitts and morocco slippers of the same hue, formed a tout ensemble which, though odd, was not unpleasant to look upon. In one hand the little lady carried a very large parasol, in the other a gayly-colored silk reticule of corresponding size, this last not by a ribbon or string, but with its hem gathered up in her hand. All in singular contrast to Elsie with her slight, graceful form, fully a head taller, and her simple yet elegant costume. But the niece no more thought of feeling ashamed of her aunt, than her aunt of her.
They entered a store, and the smiling merchant asked, "What can I do for you to-day, ladies?"
"I will look at shirting muslin, if you please, Mr. Under," replied Miss Stanhope, laying parasol and reticule upon the counter.
"Over, if you please, Miss Stanhope," he answered with an amused look. "Just step this way, and I'll show you a piece that I think will suit."
"I beg your pardon, I'm always making mistakes in names," she said, doing as requested.
"Anything else to-day, ladies?" he asked when the muslin had been selected. "I have quite a lot of remnants of dress goods, Miss Stanhope. Would you like to look at them?"
"Yes," she answered almost eagerly, and he quickly spread them on the counter before her. She selected quite a number, Elsie wondering what she wanted with them.
"I'll send the package at once," said Mr. Over, as they left the store.
They entered another where Miss Stanhope's first inquiry was for remnants, and the same thing was repeated till, as she assured Elsie, they had visited every dry-goods store in the place.
"Pretty nice ones, too, some of them are; don't you think so, dear?"
"Yes, auntie; but do you know you have strongly excited my curiosity?"
"Ah! how so?"
"Why, I cannot imagine what you can want with all those remnants. I'm sure hardly one of them could be made into a dress for yourself or for Phillis, and you have no little folks to provide for."
"But other folks have, child, and I shall use some of the smallest for patchwork."
"Dere's a lady in de parlor, Miss Stanhope," said Chloe, meeting them at the gate; "kind of lady," she added with a very broad smile, "come to call on you, ma'am, and Miss Elsie too."
"We'll just go in without keeping her waiting to take off our bonnets," said Aunt Wealthy, leading the way.
They found a rather gaudily-dressed, and not very refined-looking woman, who rose and came forward to meet them with a boisterous manner, evidently assumed to cover a slight feeling of embarrassment. "Oh, I'm quite ashamed, Aunt Wealthy, to have been so long in calling to see your friends; you really must excuse me; it's not been for want of a strong disinclination, I do assure you: but you see I've been away a-nursing of a sick sister."
"Certainly, Mrs. Sixpence."
"Excuse me, Schilling."
"Oh no, not at all, it's my mistake. Elsie, Mrs. Schilling. My niece, Miss Dinsmore. Sit down, do. I'm sorry you got here before we were through our shopping."
"I'm afraid it's rather an early call," began Mrs. Schilling, her rubicund countenance growing redder than ever, "but--"
"Oh, aunt did not mean that," interposed Elsie, with gentle kindliness. "She was only regretting that you had been kept waiting."
"Certainly," said Miss Stanhope. "You know I'm a sad hand at talking, always getting the horse before the cart, as they say. But tell me about your sister. I hope she has recovered. What ailed her?"
"She had inflammation of the tonsils; she's better now though; the tonsils is all gone, and I think she'll get along. She's weak yet; but that's all. There's been a good bit of sickness out there in that neighborhood, through the winter and spring; there were several cases of scarlet fever, and one of small-pox. That one died, and what do you think, Aunt Wealthy; they had a reg'lar big funeral, took the corpse into the church, and asked everybody around to come to it."
"I think it was really wicked, and that if I'd been the congregation, every one of me would have staid away."
"So would I. There now, I'm bound to tell you something that happened while I was at father's. My sister had a little girl going on two years old, and one day the little thing took up a flat iron, and let it fall on her toe, and mashed it so we were really afraid 'twould have to be took off. We wrapped it up in some kind o' salve mother keeps for hurts, and she kept crying and screamin' with pain, and we couldn't peacify her nohow at all, till a lady that was visiting next door come in and said we'd better give her a few drops of laud'num. So we did, and would you believe it? it went right straight down into her toe, and she stopped cryin', and pretty soon dropped asleep. I thought it was the curiosest thing I ever heard of."
"It was a wise prescription, no doubt," returned Miss Stanhope, with a quiet smile.
"Oh, Aunt Wealthy, won't you tell me how you make that Farmer's fruit-cake?" asked the visitor, suddenly changing the subject. "Miss Dinsmore, it's the nicest thing you ever eat. You'd be sure it had raisins or currants in it."
"Certainly, Mrs. Schilling. You must soak three cups of dried apples in warm water over night, drain off the water through a sieve, chop the apples slightly, them simmer them for two hours in three cups of molasses. After that add two eggs, one cup of sugar, one cup of sweet milk or water, three-fourths of a cup of butter or lard, one-half teaspoonful of soda, flour to make a pretty stiff batter, cinnamon, cloves, and other spices to suit your taste."
"Oh, yes! but I'm afraid I'll hardly be able to remember all that."
"I'll write the receipt and send it over to you," said Elsie.
Mrs. Schilling returned her thanks, sat a little longer, conversing in the same lucid style, then rose and took leave, urging the ladies to call soon, and run in sociably as often as they could.
She was hardly out of the door before Aunt Wealthy was beating up her crushed chair-cushions to that state of perfect roundness and smoothness in which her heart delighted. It amused Elsie, who had noticed that such was her invariable custom after receiving a call in her parlor.
Lottie King and Mrs. Schilling passed each other on the porch, the one coming in as the other went out. Kind Aunt Wealthy, intent on preventing Elsie from grieving over the emptiness of her father's accustomed seat at the table, had invited her young friend to dinner. The hour of the meal had, however, not yet arrived, and the two girls repaired to Elsie's room to spend the intervening time.
Lottie, in her benevolent desire to be so entertaining to Elsie that her absent father should not be too sorely missed, seized upon the first topic of conversation which presented itself and rattled on in a very lively manner.
"So you have begun to make acquaintance with our peculiar currency, mon ami! An odd sixpence as Aunt Wealthy calls her. Two of them I should say, since it takes two sixpences to make a shilling."
"I don't know; I'm inclined to think Aunt Wealthy's arithmetic has the right of it, since she was never more than a shilling, and has lost her better half," returned Elsie, laughing.
"Better half, indeed! fie on you, Miss Dinsmore! have you so little regard for the honor of your sex as to own that the man is ever that? But I must tell you of the time when she sustained the aforesaid loss; and let me observe, sustained is really the proper--very properest of words to express my meaning, for it was very far from crushing her. While her husband was lying a corpse, mother went over with a pie, thinking it might be acceptable, as people are not apt to feel like cooking at such a time. She did not want to disturb the new-made widow in the midst of her grief, and did not ask for her; but Mrs. Schilling came to the door. 'Oh, I'm so much obliged to you for bringing that pie!' she said. 'It was so good of you. I hadn't any appetite to eat while he was sick, but now that he's dead, I feel as if I could eat something. You and your girls must come over and spend a day with me some time soon. He's left me full and plenty, and you needn't be afraid to take a meal's victuals off me'!"
"How odd! I don't think she could be quite broken-hearted."
"No, and she has apparently forgotten him, and bestowed her affections upon another; a widower named Wert. Mr. Was, Aunt Wealthy usually calls him. They both attend our church, and everybody notices how impossible it seems to be for her to keep her eyes off him; and you can never be five minutes in her company without hearing his name. Didn't she talk of him to-day?"
"Oh, yes, she spoke of Mr. Wert visiting some sick man, to talk and pray with him, and rejoiced that the man did not die till he gave evidence that he was repaired."
"Yes, that sounds like her," laughed Lottie. "She's always getting the wrong word. I told you she never could keep her eyes off Mr. Wert. Well, the other day--three or four weeks ago--coming from church he was behind her; she kept looking back at him, and presently came bump up against a post. She made an outcry, of course everybody laughed, and she hurried off with a very red face. That put an idea into my head, and--" Lottie paused, laughing and blushing--
"I'm half ashamed to tell you, but I believe I will--Nettie and I wrote a letter in a sort of manly hand, signed his initials, and put it into an iron pot that she keeps standing near her back door. The letter requested that she would put her answer in the same place, and she did. Oh, it was rich! such a rapture of delight; and such spelling and such grammar as were used to express it! It was such fun that we went on, and there have been half a dozen letters on each side. I daresay she is wondering why the proposal doesn't come. Ah, Elsie, I see you don't approve; you are as grave as a judge."
"I would prefer not to express an opinion; so please don't ask me."
"But you don't think it was quite right, now do you?"
"Since you have asked a direct question, Lottie, dear," Elsie answered, with some hesitation, "I'll own that it does not seem to me quite according to the golden rule."
"No," Lottie said, after a moment's pause, in which she sat with downcast eyes, and cheeks crimsoning with mortification. "I'm ashamed of myself, and I hope I shall never again allow my love of fun to carry me so far from what is true and kind.
"And so Aunt Wealthy took you out shopping, and secured the benefit of your taste and judgment in the choice of her remnants?" she exclaimed, with a sudden change to a lively, mirthful tone.
"How do you know that she bought remnants?" asked Elsie, in surprise.
"Oh, she always does; that's a particular hobby of the dear old body's; two or three times in a season she goes around to all the stores, and buys up the most of their stock; they save the best of them for her, and always know what she's after the moment she shows her pleasant face. She gives them away, generally, to the minister's wife, telling her the largest are to be made into dresses for her little girls; and the poor lady is often in great tribulation, not knowing how to get the dresses out of such small patterns, and afraid to put them to any other use, lest Miss Stanhope should feel hurt or offended. By the way, what do you think of Aunt Wealthy's own dress?"
"That it is very quaint and odd, but suits her as no other would."
"I'm so glad! It's just what we all think, but before you came we were much afraid you would use your influence to induce her to adopt a more fashionable attire."