Elsie's Girlhood by Martha Finley
Bear fair presence, though your heart be tainted; Teach sin the carriage of a holy saint. --SHAKESPEARE'S "COMEDY OF ERRORS."
"It's a very handsome present, child, very; and your old auntie will be reminded of you every time she uses it, or looks at it."
"Both beautiful and useful, like the giver," remarked Lottie.
"It" was a sewing-machine, Elsie's gift to Aunt Wealthy, forwarded from Cincinnati, by Mr. Dinsmore; the handsomest and the best to be found in the city; so Elsie had requested that it should be, and so he had written that it was.
"I am glad you like it, auntie, and you too, Lottie," was all she said in response to their praises, but her eyes sparkled with pleasure at the old lady's evident delight.
"It" had arrived half an hour before, on this the second morning after Mr. Dinsmore's departure, and now stood in front of one of the windows of Aunt Wealthy's bedroom--a delightfully shady, airy apartment on the ground floor, back of the parlor, and with window and door opening out upon a part of the lawn where the trees were thickest and a tiny fountain sent up its showers of spray.
Miss Stanhope stood at a table, cutting out shirts. Lottie was experimenting on the machine with a bit of muslin, and Elsie sat near by with her father's letter in her hand, her soft dark eyes now glancing over it for perhaps the twentieth time, now at the face of one or the other of her companions, as Lottie rattled on in her usual gay, flighty style, and Aunt Wealthy answered her sometimes with a straightforward sentence, and again with one so topsy-turvy that her listeners could not forbear a smile.
"For whom are you making shirts, aunt?" asked Elsie.
"For my boy Harry. He writes that his last set are going wonderfully fast; so I must send up another to make."
"You must let us help you, Lottie and I; we have agreed that it will be good fun for us."
"Thank you, dearie, but I didn't suppose plain sewing was among your accomplishments."
"Mamma says I am quite a good needle-woman," Elsie replied with a smile and a blush, "and if I am not it is no fault of hers. She took great pains to teach me. I cut out a shirt for papa once, and made every stitch of it myself."
"And she can run the machine too," said Lottie, "though her papa won't let her do so for more than half an hour at a time, lest she should hurt herself."
"He's very careful of her, and no wonder," Aunt Wealthy responded, with a loving look at the sweet, fair face. "You may help me a little, now and then, children, when it just suits your humor, but I want you to have all the rides and walks, the reading and recreation of every sort that you can enjoy."
"Here comes Lenwilla Ellawea Schilling," said Lottie, glancing from the window.
"What do you want, Willy?" asked Miss Stanhope, as the child appeared in the doorway with a teacup in her hand.
"Mother wants a little light'ning to raise her bread."
"Yeast? Oh, yes, just go round to Phillis, and she'll give you some."
The door-bell rang.
"It's a gentleman," said the child, "I seen him a-coming in at the gate."
Chloe answered the bell and entered the room the next moment with a letter, which she handed to Miss Stanhope.
The old lady adjusted her spectacles and broke the seal. "Ah, a letter of introduction, and from my old friend and schoolmate Anna Waters; wishes me to treat the young man with all the courtesy and kindness I would show to her own son, for she esteems him most highly, etc., etc. Aunt Chloe, what have you done with him?"
"Showed him into de parlor, mistis, and leff him a-sittin' dar."
"What's his name, auntie?" asked Lottie, as the old lady refolded the letter and took off her glasses.
"Bromly Egerton; quite romantic, isn't it? Excuse me for a few minutes, dears; I must go and see what he wants."
Aunt Wealthy found a well-dressed, handsome young man seated on one of her softly-cushioned chairs. He rose and came forward to meet her with courtly ease and grace. "Miss Stanhope, I presume?"
"You are right, Mr. Ledgerfield. Pray be seated, sir."
"Thank you, madam, but let me first help you to a seat. Excuse the correction, but Egerton is my name."
"Ah, yes! For the sake of my friend, Mrs. Waters, I welcome you to Lansdale. Do you expect to make some stay in our town?"
"Well, madam, I hardly had such expectation before arriving here, but I find it so pretty a place that I begin to think I can scarcely do better. My health has been somewhat impaired by very strict and close attention to business; and my physician has ordered entire relaxation for a time, and fresh country air. Can you recommend a boarding-place in town? Some quiet, private hotel where drinking and things of that kind would not be going on. I'm not used to it, and should find it very disgusting."
"I'm glad to hear such sentiments, young man; they do you honor. I daresay Mrs. Sixpence,--no, Mrs. Schilling,--just opposite here, would take you in. She told me some weeks ago that she would be glad to have one or two gentlemen boarders."
"Thank you, the location would suit me well; and you think she could give me comfortable accommodations?"
"I do; she has pleasant rooms and is a good cook."
"Yes, not very young, and has two children. But they are old enough not to be annoying to a boarder."
"What sort of woman is she?"
"A good manager, neat, industrious, honest, and obliging. Very suitable for a landlady, if you are not looking in the person of your hostess for an intellectual companion."
"Oh, not at all, Miss Stanhope, unless--unless you could find it in your benevolent heart to take me in yourself;" and his smile was very insinuating. "In that case I should have the luxury of intellectual companionship superadded to the other advantages of which you have spoken."
The old lady smiled, but shook her head quite decidedly. "I have lived so long in the perfect house that I should not know how to give it up. I have come to think men a care and a trouble that I cannot take upon me in my old age."
"Excuse me, my dear madam, for the unwarrantable liberty I took in asking it," he said in an apologetic tone, and with a slightly embarrassed air. "I beg ten thousand pardons."
"That is a great many," she answered with a smile, "but you may consider them all granted. I hope you left my friend Mrs. Waters well? I must answer her letter directly."
"Ah, then you are not aware that she is already on her way to Europe?"
"No, is she indeed?"
"Yes, she sailed the day after that letter was written; which accounts for the date not being a very recent one. You see I did not leave immediately on receiving it from her."
She was beginning to wish that he would go, but he lingered for some time, vainly hoping for a glimpse of Elsie. On finally taking his leave, he asked her to point out Mrs. Schilling's house, and she noticed that he went directly there.
"Really, auntie, we began to think that your visitor must intend to spend the day," cried Lottie, as Miss Stanhope returned to her room and her interrupted employment.
"Ah? Well it was not my urging that kept him; I was very near telling him that he was making me waste a good deal of time" replied the old lady; then seeing that Lottie was curious on the subject, she kindly went on to tell all that she had learned in regard to the stranger and his intentions.
Elsie was amusing herself with Thomas, trying to cajole him to return to the frolicsomeness of his long-forgotten kittenhood, and did not seem to hear or heed. What interest for her had this stranger, or his doings?
"Young and handsome, you say, Aunt Wealthy? and going to stay in Lansdale all summer? Would you advise me to set my cap for him?"
"No, Lottie; not I."
"You were not smitten with the gentleman, eh?"
"Not enough to spare him to you anyhow, but he may improve upon acquaintance."
"I don't approve of marrying, though, do you, auntie? Your practice certainly seems to speak disapproval."
"Perhaps every one does not have the opportunity, my dear," answered the old lady, with a quiet smile.
"Oh, but you must have had plenty of them. Isn't that so? and why did you never accept?"
Elsie dropped the string she had been waving before the eyes of the cat, and looked up with eager interest.
"Yes, I had offers, and one of them I accepted," replied Aunt Wealthy, with a slight sigh, while a shade of sadness stole over her usually happy face, "but my friends interfered and the match was broken off. Don't follow my example, children, but marry if the right one comes along."
"Surely you don't mean if our parents refuse their consent, auntie?" Elsie's tone spoke both surprise and disapproval.
"No, no, child! It is to those who keep the fifth commandment God promises long life and prosperity."
"And love makes it so easy and pleasant to keep it," murmured Elsie, softly, and with a sweet, glad smile on her lips and in her eyes, thinking of her absent father, and almost unconsciously thinking aloud.
"Ah, child, it can sometimes make it very hard," said Miss Stanhope, with another little sigh, and shaking her head rather sadly.
"Elsie, you must have had lots of lovers before this, I am sure!" exclaimed Lottie, stopping her machine, and facing suddenly round upon her friend. "No girl as rich and beautiful as you are could have lived eighteen years without such an experience."
Elsie only smiled and blushed.
"Come now, am I not right?" persisted Lottie.
"I do assure you that I have actually lived to this mature age quite heart-whole," laughed Elsie. "If I have an idol, it is papa, and I don't believe anybody can ever succeed in displacing him."
"You have quite misunderstood me, wilfully or innocently--I asked of your worshippers, not of your idols. Haven't you had offers?"
"Several; money has strong attractions for most men, papa tells me."
"May the Lord preserve you from the sad fate of a woman married for her money, dear child!" ejaculated Aunt Wealthy, with a glance of anxious affection at her lovely niece. "I'm sometimes tempted to think a large amount of it altogether a curse and an affliction."
"It is a great responsibility, auntie," replied Elsie, with a look of gravity beyond her years. Then after a moment's pause, her expression changing to one of gayety and joy, "Now, if you and Lottie will excuse me for a little, I'll run up to my room, and answer papa's letter," she said, rising to her feet. "After which I shall be ready to make myself useful in the capacity of seamstress. Au revoir." And she tripped away with a light, free step, every movement as graceful as those of a young gazelle.
Mr. Bromly Egerton, alias Tom Jackson, was fortunate enough to find Mrs. Schilling at home. It was she who answered his knock.
"Good-day, sir," she said. "Will you walk in? Just step into the parlor here, and take a seat."
He accepted the invitation and stated his business without preface, or waiting to be questioned at all.
She seemed to be considering for a moment. "Well, yes, I can't say as I'd object to taking a few gentlemen boarders, but--I'd want to know who you be, and all about you."
"Certainly, ma'am, that's all right. I'm from the East; rather broken down with hard work--a business man, you see--and want to spend the summer here to recruit. Pitched upon your town because it strikes me as an uncommonly pretty place. I brought a letter of introduction to your neighbor, Miss Stanhope, and she recommended me to come here in search of board, saying you'd make a capital landlady."
"Well, if she recommends you, it's all right. Would you like to look at the rooms?"
She had two to dispose of--one at the back and the other in the front of the house, both cheerful, airy, of reasonable size, and neatly furnished. He preferred the latter, because it overlooked Miss Stanhope's house and grounds.
As he stood at the window, taking note of this, a young girl appeared at the one opposite. For one minute he had a distinct view of her face as she stood there and put out her hand to gather a blossom from the vine that had festooned itself so gracefully over the window.
He uttered an exclamation of delighted surprise, and turning to his companion asked, "Who is she?"
"Miss Dinsmore, Miss Stanhope's niece. She's here on a visit to her aunt. She's from the South, and worth a mint of money, they say. Aint she handsome though? handsome as a picture?"
"Posh! handsome doesn't begin to express it! Why, she's angelic! But there! she's gone!" And he drew a long breath as he turned away.
"You'd better conclude to take this room if you like to look at her," artfully suggested Mrs. Schilling. "That's her bedroom window, and she's often at it. Besides, you can see the whole front of Miss Stanhope's place from here, and watch all the comings and goings o' the girls--Miss Dinsmore, and Miss Nettie and Lottie King."
"Who are they?"
"Kind o' fur-off cousins to Miss Stanhope. They live in that next house to hern, and are amazin' thick with her, runnin' in and out all times o' day. Nice, spry, likely girls they be too, not bad-lookin' neither, but hardly fit to hold a candle to Miss Dinsmore, as fur as beauty's concerned. Well, what do you say to the room, Mr. Egerton?"
"That I will take it, and would like to have immediate possession."
"All right, sir; fetch your traps whenever you've a mind; right away, if you like."
There was no lack of good society in Lansdale. It had even more than the usual proportion of well-to-do, intelligent, educated, and refined people to be found in American villages of its size. They were hospitable folks, too, disposed to be kind to strangers tarrying in their midst, and, Miss Stanhope being an old resident, well known and highly esteemed, spite of her eccentricities, her friends had received a good deal of attention. Elsie had already become slightly acquainted with a number of pleasant families; a good many young girls, and also several young gentlemen had called upon her, and Lottie assured her there were many more to come.
"Some of the very nicest are apt to be slow about calling--we're such busy folks here," she said, laughing. "I've a notion, too, that several of the beaux stood rather in awe of your papa."
They were talking together over their sewing, after Elsie had come down from finishing her letter, and sent Chloe to the post-office with it.
"I don't wonder," she answered, looking up with a smile; "there was a time, a long while ago, when I was very much afraid of him myself; and even now I have such a wholesome dread of his displeasure as would keep me from any act of disobedience, if love was not sufficient to do that without help from any other motive."
"You are very fond of him, and he of you?"
"Yes, indeed! how could it be otherwise when for so many years each was all the other had? But I'm sure, quite sure that neither of us loves the other less because now we have mamma and darling little Horace."
"I should like to know them both," said Miss Stanhope. "I hope your father will bring them with him when he comes back for you."
"Oh, I hope he will! I want so much to have you know them. Mamma is so dear and sweet, almost as dear as papa himself. And Horace--well, I can't believe there ever was quite such another darling to be found," Elsie continued, with a light, joyous laugh.
"Ah!" said Aunt Wealthy with a sigh and a smile, "it is a good and pleasant thing to be young and full of life and gayety, and to have kind, wise parents to look to for help and guidance. You will realize that when you grow old and have to be a prop for others to lean upon instead."
"Yes, dear auntie," Elsie answered, giving her a look of loving reverence, "but surely the passing years must have brought you so much wisdom and self-reliance that that can be no such very hard task to you."
"Ah, child!" replied the old lady, shaking her head, "I often feel that my stock of those is very small. But then how sweet it is to remember that I have a Father to whom I never shall grow old; never cease to be His little child, in constant need of His tender, watchful care to guard and guide. Though the gray hairs are on my head, the wrinkles of time, sorrow, and care upon my brow, He does not think me old enough to be left to take care of myself. No; He takes my hand in His and leads me tenderly and lovingly along, choosing each step for me, protecting me from harm, and providing for all my needs. What does He say? 'Even to your old age I am He; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you'!"
"Such sweet words! They almost reconcile one to growing old," murmured Lottie, and Aunt Wealthy answered, with a subdued gladness in her tones, "You need not dread it, child, for does not every year bring us nearer home?"
The needles flew briskly until the dinner-bell sounded its welcome summons.
"We shall finish two at least this afternoon, I think," said Lottie, folding up her work.
"No, we've had sewing enough for to-day," replied Miss Stanhope. "I have ordered the carriage at two. We will have a drive this afternoon, and music this evening; if you and Elsie do not consider it too much of a task to play and sing for your old auntie."
"A task, Aunt Wealthy! It would be a double delight--giving you pleasure and ourselves enjoying the delicious tones of that splendid piano. Its fame has already spread over the whole town," she added, turning to Elsie, "and between its attractions and those of its owner, I know there'll be a great influx of visitors here."
Elsie was a very fine musician, and for her benefit during her stay in Lansdale, Mr. Dinsmore had had a grand piano sent on from the East, ordering it in season to have it arrive almost as soon as they themselves.
"Yes, Lottie is quite right about it, Aunt Wealthy, and you shall call for all the tunes you want," Elsie said, noticing her friend's prediction merely by a quiet smile.
"You don't know how I enjoy that piano," Lottie rattled on as they began their meal. "It must be vastly pleasant to have plenty of money and such an indulgent father as yours, Elsie. Not that I would depreciate my own at all--I wouldn't exchange him even for yours--but he, you see, has more children and less money."
"Yes, I think we are both blessed in our fathers," answered Elsie. "I admire yours very much; and mine is, indeed, very indulgent, though at the same time very strict; he never spares expense or trouble to give me pleasure. But the most delightful thing of all is to know that he loves me so very, very dearly;" and the soft eyes shone with the light of love and joy.
It was nearly tea time when they returned from their drive, some lady callers having prevented them from setting out at the early hour intended.
"Now I must run right home," said Lottie, as they alighted. "Mother complains that she gets no good of me at all of late."
"Well, she has Nettie," returned Miss Stanhope, "and she told me Elsie and I might have all we wanted of you till the poor child gets a little used to her father's absence."
"Did she, Aunt Wealthy? There, I'll remind her of that, and also of the fact that Nettie is worth two of me any day."
"And you'll come back to spend the evening? Indeed you must, or how is Elsie to learn her visitors' names? You know I could never get them straight. But there's the tea-bell, so come in with us. No need to go home till bed-time, or till to-morrow, that I can see."
"Thank you, but of course, auntie, I want to primp a bit, just as you did in your young days, when the beaux were coming. So good-bye for the present," she cried, skipping away with a merry laugh, Miss Stanhope calling after her to bring Nettie along when she returned.
"We have so many odd names in this town, and I such an odd sort of memory, that I make a great many mistakes," said the old lady, leading the way to the house.
Elsie thought that was all very true, when in the course of the evening she was introduced to Mr. Comings, Mr. Tizard, Mr. Stop, Miss Lock, and Miss Over, and afterward heard her aunt address them variously as "Mr. In-and-out," "Mr. Wizard," "Mr. Lizard," "Mr. Quit," "Miss Under," and "Miss Key."
But the old lady's peculiarity was so well known that no one thought of taking offence; and her mistakes caused only mirth and amusement.
Lottie's prediction was so fully verified that Elsie seemed to be holding a sort of levee.
"What faultless features, exquisitely beautiful complexion, and sweet expression she has." "What a graceful form, what pleasant, affable manners, so entirely free from affectation or hauteur; no patronizing airs about her either, but perfect simplicity and kindliness." "And such a sweet, happy, intelligent face." "Such beautiful hair too; did you notice that? so abundant, soft and glossy, and such a lovely color." "Yes, and what simple elegance of dress." "She's an accomplished musician, too, and has a voice as sweet, rich, and full as a nightingale's," remarked one and another as they went away. The unanimous verdict seemed to be, that the young stranger was altogether charming.
Across the street, Mrs. Schilling's boarder paced to and fro, watching the coming and going, listening to the merry salutations, and gay adieux, the light laughter, and the sweet strains of music and song, till the desire to make one of the happy throng grew so strong upon him that it was no longer to be resisted..
"I will go in with those," he muttered, crossing over just in time to enter directly in the rear of a lady and gentleman, whom he saw coming up the street. "Miss Stanhope invited me to call again, without particularizing how soon, and I can turn my speedy acceptance into a compliment to their music, without even a white lie, for it does sound extremely attractive to a lonely, idle fellow like me."
Miss Stanhope met him at the door, would scarce listen to his apology--insisting that "none was needed; one who had come to her with such an introduction from so valued a friend as Mrs. Waters, must always be a welcome guest in her house"--and ushering him into the parlor, introduced him to her niece, and all others present.
A nearer and more critical view of Elsie only increased his admiration; he thought her the loveliest creature he had ever seen. But it did not suit his tactics to show immediately any strong attraction toward her, or desire to win her regard. For this evening he devoted himself almost exclusively to Miss Stanhope, exerting all his powers to make a favorable impression upon her.
In this he was entirely successful. He had, when he chose, most agreeable and polished manners. Also he had seen much of the world, possessed a large fund of general information, and knew exactly how to use it to the best advantage. With these gifts, very fine, expressive eyes, regular features, and handsome person, no wonder he could boast himself "a woman-killer."
Aunt Wealthy, though old enough to be invulnerable to Cupid's arrows, showed by her warm praises, after he had left that evening, that she was not proof against his fascinations.