Chapter XIV.
 
  Your noblest natures are most credulous.

  --CHAPMAN.

Bromly Egerton (we give him the name by which he had become known to our friends in Lansdale) considered it "a very lucky chance" that had provided him a boarding-place so near the temporary home of his intended victim. He felicitated himself greatly upon it, and lost no time in improving to the utmost all the advantages it conferred. It soon came to be a customary thing for him to drop in at Miss Stanhope's every day, or two or three times a day, and to join the young girls in their walks and drives, for, though at first paying court to no one but the mistress of the mansion, he gradually turned his attention more and more to her niece and Miss King.

As their ages were so much nearer his this seemed perfectly natural, and excited no suspicion or remark. Aunt Wealthy was quite willing to resign him to them; for--a very child in innocent trustfulness--she had no thought of any evil design on the part of the handsome, attractive young stranger so warmly recommended to her kindness and hospitality by an old and valued friend, and only rejoiced to see the young folks enjoying themselves so much together.

Before leaving Lansdale Mr. Dinsmore had provided his daughter with a gentle, but spirited and beautiful little pony, and bade her ride out every day when the weather was favorable, as was her custom at home. At the same time he cautioned her never to go alone; but always to have Simon riding in her rear, and, if possible, a lady friend at her side.

Dr. King was not wealthy, and having a large family to provide for, kept no horse except the one he used in his practice; but Elsie, with her well-filled purse, was more than content to furnish ponies for her friends Lottie and Nettie whenever they could accompany her; and matters were so arranged by their indulgent mother that one or both could do so every day.

It was not long before Mr. Egerton joined them in these excursions also, having made an arrangement with a livery-stable keeper for the daily use of a horse. And gradually his attention, in the beginning about equally divided between the two, or the three, were paid more and more exclusively to Elsie.

She was not pleased with him in their earlier interviews, she could scarcely have told why; but there was an intuitive feeling that he was not one to be trusted. That, however, gradually gave way under the fascinations of his fine person, agreeable manners, and intellectual conversation. He was very plausible and captivating, she full of charity and ready to believe the best of everybody, and so, little by little, he won her confidence and esteem so completely that at length she had almost forgotten that her first impression had not been favorable.

He went regularly to the church she, her aunt, and the Kings attended, appearing an interested listener, and devout worshipper; and that not on the Sabbath only, but also at the regular weekday evening service; he seemed also to choose his associates among good, Christian people. The natural inference from all this was that he too was a Christian, or at least a professor of religion; and thus all our friends soon came to look upon him as such, and to feel the greater friendship for, and confidence in him.

He found that Elsie's beauty would bear the closest scrutiny, that her graces of person and mind were the more apparent the more thoroughly she was known; that she was highly educated and accomplished, possessed of a keen intellect, and talents of no common order, and a wonderful sweetness of disposition. He acknowledged to himself that, even leaving money out of the question, she was a prize any man might covet; yet that if she were poor, he would never try to win her. A more voluptuous woman would have suited him better. Elsie's very purity made her distasteful to him, his own character seeming so much blackened by contrast that at times he could but loathe and despise himself.

But her fortune was an irresistible attraction, and he resolved more firmly than ever to leave no stone unturned to make himself master of it.

He soon perceived that he had many rivals, but he possessed one advantage over them all in his entire leisure from business, leaving him at liberty to devote himself to her entertainment during the day as well as the evening.

For a while he greatly feared that he had a more dangerous rival at a distance; for, watching from his windows, he saw that every morning Simon brought one or more letters from the post, and that Elsie was usually on the front porch awaiting his coming; that she would often come flying across the lawn, meet her messenger at the gate, and snatching her letter with eager, joyful haste, rush back to the house with it, and disappear within the doorway. Then frequently he would see her half an hour later looking so rosy and happy, that he could hardly hope her correspondent was other than an accepted lover.

For weeks he tormented himself with this idea; the more convinced that he was right in his conjecture, because she almost always posted her reply with her own hands, when going out for her daily walk, or sent it by her faithful Chloe; but one day, venturing a jest upon the subject, she answered him, with a merry laugh, "Ah, you are no Yankee, Mr. Egerton, to make such a guess as that! I have a number of correspondents, it is true; but the daily letter I am so eager for comes from my father."

"Is it possible, Miss Dinsmore! do you really receive and answer a letter from your father every day?"

"We write every day, and each receives a letter from the other every day but Sunday; on that day we never go or send to the post-office; and we write only on such subjects as are suited to the sacredness of its Sabbath rest. I give papa the text and a synopsis of the sermon I have heard, and he does the same by me."

"You must be extremely strict Sabbath-keepers."

"We are, but not more so than the Bible teaches that we should be."

"But isn't it very irksome? don't you find the day very long and tedious?"

"Not at all; I think no other day in the week is quite so short to me, none, I am sure, so delightful."

"Then it isn't only because your aunt is strict too, that you go on keeping your father's rules, while you are at a safe distance from him?" he queried in a half jesting tone.

Elsie turned her soft eyes full upon him, as she answered with gentle gravity: "I feel that the commands of both my earthly and my heavenly Father are binding upon me at all times, and in all places, and I hope I may ever be kept from becoming an eye-servant. Love makes it easy to obey, and God's commands are not grievous to those who love him."

"I beg your pardon," he said; "but to go back to the letters, how can you fill one every day to your father? I can imagine that lovers might, in writing to each other, but fathers and daughters would not be apt to indulge in that sort of nonsense."

"But Mr. Dinsmore and Elsie are no common father and daughter," remarked Lottie, who had not spoken for the last ten minutes.

"And can find plenty to say to each other," added Elsie, with a bright look and smile. "Papa likes to hear just how I am spending my time, what I see in my walks, what new plants and flowers I find, etc., etc.; what new acquaintances I make, what books I am reading, and what I think of them."

"The latter or the former?" he asked, resuming his jesting tone.

"Both. And I tell him almost everything. Papa is my confidant; more so than any other person in the world."

They were returning from a walk over the hills, and had just reached Miss Stanhope's gate. Mr. Egerton opened it for the ladies, closed it after them, bowed a good-morning and retired, wondering if he was mentioned in those letters to Mr. Dinsmore, and cautioning himself to be exceeding careful not to say or do a single thing which, if reported there, might be taken as a warning of danger to the heiress.

The girls ran into Miss Wealthy's room, and found her lamenting over a white muslin apron.

"What is it, auntie?" Elsie asked.

"Why, just look here, child, what a hole I have made in this! It had got an ink-stain on it, and Phillis had put one of Harry's new shirts into a tin basin, and iron-rusted it; so I thought I would try some citric acid on them both; and I did; but probably made it too strong, and this is how it served the apron."

"And the shirt?" asked Lottie, interested for the garment she had helped to make.

"Well, it's a comfort I handled it very gingerly, and it seems to be sound yet, after I saw what this has come to."

"It is quite a pity about the apron; for it really is a very pretty one," said Elsie, "the acid must have been very strong."

"Yes, and I am sorry to have the apron ruined, but after all, I shall not care so very much, if it only doesn't eat Harry's tail off, and it will make a little one for some child."

Both girls laughed. It was impossible to resist the inclination to do so.

"The shirt's tail I mean, of course, and a little apron," said Miss Wealthy, joining in the mirth; "that's where the spots all happen to be, which is a comfort in case a piece should have to be set in."

"There comes Lenwilla Ellawea; for some more light'ning, I suppose, as I see she carries a teacup in her hand," whispered Lottie, glancing from the window, as a step sounded upon the gravel walk. "Good-morning, little sixpence; what are you after now?" she added aloud, as the child appeared in the open doorway.

"Mother's out o' vinegar, and dinner's just ready, and the gentleman'll want some for his salad, and there aint no time to send to the grocery. And mother says, will you lend her a teacupful, Aunt Wealthy? And she's goin' to have some folks there to-night, and she says you're all to come over."

"Tell her we're obliged, and she's welcome to the vinegar," said Miss Stanhope, taking the cup and giving it to Chloe to fill. "But what sort of company is it to be?"

"I dunno; ladies and gentlemen, but no married folks, I heard her say. She's goin' to have nuts, and candies, and things to hand round, and you'd better come. I hope that pretty lady will," in a stage whisper, bending toward Miss Stanhope, as she spoke, and nodding at Elsie.

All three laughed.

"Well, I'll try to coax her," said Aunt Wealthy, as Chloe re-entered the room. "And here's your vinegar. You'd better hurry home with it."

"Aunt Wealthy, you can't want me to go there!" cried Elsie, as the child passed out of hearing. "Why, the woman is not a lady, and I am sure papa would be very unwilling to have me make an associate of her. He is very particular about such matters."

"She is not educated or very refined, it is true, my child; and I must acknowledge is a little silly, too; but she is a clever, kind-hearted woman, a member of the same church with myself, and a near neighbor whom I should feel sorry to hurt; and I am sure she would be much hurt if you should stay away, and deeply gratified by your attendance at her little party."

"I wouldn't miss it for anything!" cried Lottie, pirouetting about the room, laughing and clapping her hands; "she has such comical ways of talking and acting. I know it will be real fun. You won't think of staying away, Elsie?"

"I really do not believe your father would object, if he were here, my child," added Miss Stanhope, laying her hand on her niece's shoulder and looking at her with a kindly persuasive smile.

"Perhaps not, auntie; and he bade me obey you in his absence; so if you bid me, I will go," Elsie answered, returning the smile, and touching her ruby lips to the faded cheek.

"That's a dear," cried Lottie. "Hold her to her word, Aunt Wealthy. And now I must run home, and see if Nettie's had an invite, and what she's going to wear."

The ladies were just leaving the dinner-table, when Mrs. Schilling came rushing in. "Oh, excuse my informality in not waiting to ring, Miss Stanhope; but I'm in the biggest kind of a hurry. I've just put up my mind to make some sponge-cake for to-night, and I thought I'd best run over and get your prescription; you always have so much better luck than me. I don't know whether it's all in the luck though, or whether it's partly the difference in prescriptions--I know some follows one, and some another--and so, if you'll let me have yours, I'll be a thousand times obliged."

"Certainly, Mrs. Sixpence, you'll be as many times welcome," returned Aunt Wealthy, going for her receipt-book. "It's not to be a large party, is it?" she asked, coming back.

"No, ma'am, just a dozen or so of the young folks; such ladies and gentlemen which I thought would be agreeable to meet Miss Dinsmore. I hope you'll both be over and bright and early too; for I've heard say you don't never keep very late hours, Miss Dinsmore."

"No, papa does not approve of them; not for me at least. He is so careful of me, so anxious that I should keep my health."

"Well, I'm sure that's all right and kind. But you'll come, both of you, won't you?" And receiving an assurance that such was their intention, she hurried away as fast as she had come.

"I wonder she cares to make a party when she must do all the work of preparing for it herself," said Elsie, looking after her as she sped across the lawn.

"She is strong and healthy, and used to work; and doubtless feels that it will be some honor and glory to be able to boast of having entertained the Southern heiress who is visiting Lansdale," Miss Stanhope answered in a half-jesting tone.

Elsie looked amused, then grave, as she replied: "It is rather humbling to one's pride to be valued merely or principally on account of one's wealth."

"Yes; but, dearie, those who know you don't value you for that, but for your own dear, lovable self. My darling, your old aunt is growing very fond of you, and can hardly bear to think how soon your father will be coming to carry you away again," she added, twinkling away a tear, as she took the soft, white hand, and pressed it affectionately in both her own.

"And I shall be so sorry to leave you, auntie. I wish we could carry you away with us. I have so often thought how happy my friend Lucy Carrington ought to be in having such a nice grandma. I have never had one, you know; for papa's stepmother would never own me for her grandchild; but you seem to be the very one I have always longed for."

"Thank you, dear," and Miss Stanhope sighed, slightly. "Had your own grandmother, my sweet and dear sister Eva, been spared to this time, you would have had one to love and be proud of. Now, do you want to take a siesta? you must feel tired after this morning's long tramp, I should think, and I want you to be very bright and fresh to-night, that it may not harm you if you should happen to be kept up a little later than usual. You see I want to take such care of you, that when your father comes he can see only improvement in you, and feel willing to let me have you again some day."

"Thank you, you dear old auntie!" Elsie answered, giving her a hug. "I'm sure even he could hardly be more kindly careful of me than you are. But I am not very tired, and sitting in an easy-chair will give me all the rest I need. Haven't you some work for me? I've done nothing but enjoy myself in the most idle fashion all day."

"No, my sewing's all done now that the shirts are finished. But I must lie down whether you will or not. I can't do without my afternoon nap."

"Yes, do, auntie; and I shall begin to-morrow's letter to papa; finishing it in the morning with an account of the party."

She was busy with her writing when Lottie burst in upon her.

"I ran in," she said, "to propose that we all go over there together, and to ask you to come into our house when you're dressed. Nettie and I are going to try a new style of doing up our hair, and we want your opinion about its becomingness."

"I'll be happy to give it for what it is worth."

"By the way, I admire your style extremely; but of course no one could imitate it who was not blessed with a heavy suit of natural curls. You always wear it one way, don't you?"

"Yes, papa likes it so, but until within the last year, he would not let me have it in a comb at all."

She wore it now gathered into a loose knot behind, and falling over a comb, in a rich mass of shining curls, while in front it waved and rippled above her white forehead, or fell over it, in soft, tiny, golden brown rings.

"It is so beautiful!" continued Lottie, passing her hand caressingly over it; "and so is its wearer. Oh, if I were only a gentleman!"

"You don't wish it," said Elsie, laughing. "I don't believe a real, womanly woman ever does."

"You don't, hey? Well, I must go; for I've a lot to do to Lot King's wearing apparel. Adieu, mon cher. Nay, don't disturb yourself to come to the door."

Elsie came down to tea ready dressed for the evening, in simple white, with a white rose in her hair.

"I like your taste in dress, child," said Aunt Wealthy, regarding her with affectionate admiration. "The rose in your hair is lovely, and you seem to me like a fresh, fair, sweet flower, yourself."

"Ah, how pleasant it is to be loved, auntie, for love always sees through rose-colored spectacles," answered the young girl gayly.

"I promised Lottie to run in there for a moment to give my opinion about their appearance," she said, as they rose from the table. "I'll not be gone long; and they're to come in and go with us."

She found her friends in the midst of their hair-dressing.

"Isn't it a bore?" cried Lottie. "How fortunate you are in never having to do this for yourself."

"Why," said Elsie, "I was just admiring your independence, and feeling ashamed of my own helplessness."

"Did you ever try it," asked Nettie; "doing your own hair, I mean?"

"No, never."

"Did you ever dress yourself?"

"No, I own that I have never so much as put on my own shoes and stockings," Elsie answered with a blush, really mortified at the thought.

"Well, it is rather nice to be able to help yourself," remarked Lottie complacently. "There! mine's done; what do you think of it, Miss Dinsmore?"

"That it is very pretty and extremely becoming. Girls, mammy will dress your hair for you at any time, if you wish."

"Oh, a thousand thanks!" exclaimed Nettie. "Do you think she would be willing to come over and do mine now? I really can't get it to suit me, and I know Lot wants to put on her dress."

"Yes, I'll go back and send her."

"Oh, no; don't go yet; can't we send for her?"

"That would do; but I told Aunt Wealthy I wouldn't stay long; so I think I'd better go. Perhaps I can be of use to her."

"I don't believe she'll need any help with her toilet," said Lottie, "she does it all her own way; but I daresay she grudges every minute of your company. I know I should. Isn't she sweet and lovely, and good as she can be?" she added to her sister as Elsie left the room.

"Yes, and how tastefully she dresses; everything is rich and beautiful, yet so simply elegant; what magnificent lace she wears, and what jewelry; yet not a bit too much of either."

"And she knows all about harmony of colors, and what suits her style; though I believe she would look well in anything."

There was a communicating gate between Dr. King's grounds and Miss Stanhope's, and Elsie gained her aunt's house by crossing the two gardens. As she stepped upon the porch, she saw Mr. Egerton standing before the door.

"Good-evening, Miss Dinsmore," he said, bowing and smiling. "I was just about to ring; but I presume that is not necessary now."

"No, not at all. Walk into the parlor, and help yourself to a seat. And if you will please excuse me I shall be there in a moment."

"I came to ask if I might have the pleasure of escorting you to the party," he said laughingly, as she returned from giving Chloe her directions, and asking if her aunt needed any assistance.

"Thank you; but you are taking unnecessary trouble," she answered gayly, "since it is only across the street, and there are four of us to keep each other company."

"The Misses King are going with you?"

"Yes; they are not quite ready yet; but it is surely too early to think of going?"

"A little; but Mrs. Schilling is anxious to see you as soon as possible; particularly as she understands there is no hope of keeping you after ten o'clock. Do you really always observe such early hours?"

"As a rule, yes. I believe the medical authorities agree that it is the way to retain one's youth and health."

"And beauty," he added, with an admiring glance at her blooming face.

       *       *       *       *       *

"I do believe we shall be almost the first; very unfashionably early," remarked Nettie King, as their little party crossed the street.

"We are not the first, I have seen several go in," rejoined Aunt Wealthy, as Mr. Egerton held open the gate for them to pass in.

Mrs. Schilling in gay attire, streamers flying, cheeks glowing, and eyes beaming with delight, met them at the door, and invited them to enter.

"Oh, ladies, good-evening. How do you all do? I'm powerful glad you came so early. Walk right into the parlor."

She ushered them in as she spoke. Four or five young misses were standing about the centre-table, looking at prints, magazines, and photographs, while Lenwilla Ellawea, arrayed in her Sunday best, had ensconced herself in a large cushioned rocking-chair; she was leaning lazily back in it, and stretching out her feet in a way to show her shoes and stockings to full advantage. Mrs. Schilling had singular taste in dress. The child wore a Swiss muslin over a red flannel skirt, and her lower limbs were encased in black stockings and blue shoes.

"Daughter Lenwilla Ellawea, subside that chair!" exclaimed the mother, with a wave of her hand. "You should know better than to take the best seat, when ladies are standing. Miss Stanhope, do me the honor to take that chair. I assure you, you will find it most commodious. Take a seat on the sofy, Miss Dinsmore, and--ah, that is right, Mr. Egerton, you know how to attend to the ladies."

Greetings and introductions were exchanged; an uncomfortable pause followed, then a young lady, with a magazine open on the table before her, broke the silence by remarking: "What sweet verses these are!"

"Yes," said Mrs. Schilling, looking over her shoulder, "I quite agree in that sentiment. Indeed, she's my favorite author."

"Who?" asked Mr. Egerton.

"Anon."

"Ah! does she write much for that periodical?" he asked, with assumed gravity.

"Oh, yes, she has a piece in nearly every number; sometimes two of 'em."

"That's my pap, that is," said Lenwilla Ellawea, addressing a second young lady, who was slowly turning the leaves of a photograph album.

"Is it?"

"Yes, and we've got two or three other picters of him."

"Photographs, Lenwilla Ellawea," corrected her mother. "Yes, we've got several. Miss Stanhope, do you know there's a sculpture in town? and what do you think? He wants to make a basque relief out o' one o' them photographs of my 'Lijah. But I don't know as I'll let him. Would you?"

A smile trembled about the corners of Elsie's lips, and she carefully avoided the glance of Lottie's eyes, which she knew were dancing with fun, while there was a half-suppressed titter from the girls at the table.

"I really can't say I understand exactly what it is," said Aunt Wealthy dubiously.

"What sort of looking creature is a sculpture, Mrs. Schilling?" asked Mr. Egerton.

"Excuse me; there's some more company coming," she answered, hurrying from the room.

"My good landlady is really quite an amusing person," he observed in an aside to Elsie, near to whom he had seated himself.

She made no response. The newly-arrived guests were being ushered in, and there were fresh greetings and introductions to be gone through with. Then conversation became quite brisk, and after a little, it seeming to be understood that all invited, or expected, were present some one proposed playing games. They tried several of the quieter kind, then Lottie King proposed "Stage-coach."

"Lot likes that because she's a regular romp," said her sister.

"And because she tells the story so well; she's just splendid at it!" cried two or three voices. "Will you take that part if we agree to play it?"

"Yes, if no one else wants it."

"No danger of that. We'll play it. Miss Dinsmore, will you take part?"

"Thank you; I never heard of the game before, and should not know what to do."

"Oh, it's easy to understand. Each player--except the story-teller--takes the name of some part of the stage-coach, or something connected with it;--one is the wheels, another the window, another the whip, another the horses, driver, and so on, and so on. After all are named and seated--leaving one of their number out, and no vacancy in the circle--the one left out stands in the centre, and begins a story, in which he or she introduces the names chosen by the others as often as possible. Each must be on the qui vive, and the instant his name is pronounced, jump up, turn round once and sit down again. If he neglects to do so, he has to pay a forfeit. If the word stage-coach is pronounced, all spring up and change seats; the story-teller securing one, if he can and leaving some one else to try his hand at that."

Lottie acquitted herself well; Mr. Egerton followed, doing even better; then Aunt Wealthy was the one left out, and with her crooked sentences and backward or opposite rendering of names caused shouts of merriment. The selling of the forfeits which followed was no less mirth-provoking. Then the refreshments were brought in; first, several kinds of cake--the sponge and the farmers' fruit-cake, made after Miss Stanhope's prescription, as Mrs. Schilling informed her guests, and one or two other sorts. Elsie declined them all, saying that she never ate anything in the evening.

"Oh, now that's too bad, Miss Dinsmore! do take a little bit of something," urged her hostess; "I shall feel real hurt if you don't; it looks just as if you didn't think my victuals good enough for you to eat."

"Indeed you must not think that," replied Elsie, blushing deeply. "Your cake looks very nice, but I always decline evening refreshments; and that solely because of the injury it would be to my health to indulge in them."

"Why, you aint delicate, are you? You don't look so; you've as healthy a color as ever I see; not a bit like as though you had the dyspepsy."

"No, I have never had a touch of dyspepsia, and I think my freedom from it is largely owing to papa's care of me in regard to what I eat and when. He has never allowed me to eat cake in the evening."

"Well, I do say! you're the best girl to mind your pa that ever I see! But you're growed up now--'most of age, I should judge--and I reckon you've a sort o' right to decide such little matters for yourself. I don't believe a bit o' either of these would hurt you a mite; and if it should make you a little out o' sorts just you take a dose of spirits of pneumonia. That's my remedy for sick stomic, and it cures me right up, it does."

Elsie smiled, but again gently but firmly declined. "Please don't tempt me any more, Mrs. Schilling," she said; "for it is a temptation, I assure you."

"Well, p'raps you'll like the next course better," rejoined her hostess, moving on.

"She's a splendid cook and the cake is really nice," remarked Lottie King in a low tone, close at her friend's side.

"Yes, Miss Dinsmore, you'd better try a little of it; I don't believe it would hurt you, even so much as to call for the spirits of pneumonia," said Egerton, laughing.

"Oh, look!" whispered Lottie, her eyes twinkling with merriment, "here comes the second course served up in the most original style."

Mrs. Schilling had disappeared for a moment, to return bearing a wooden bucket filled with a mixture of candies, raisins and almonds, and was passing it around among her guests, inviting each to take a handful.

"Now, Miss Dinsmore, you won't refuse to try a few of these?" she said persuasively, as she neared their corner, "I shall be real disappointed if you do."

"I am very sorry to decline your kind offer, even more for my own sake than yours," returned Elsie, laughing and blushing; "for I am extremely fond of confectionery; but I must say no, thank you."

"Mr. Egerton, do you think 'twas because my cakes and things wasn't good enough for her that she wouldn't taste 'em?" asked his landlady, in an aggrieved tone, as the last of the guests departed.

Elsie had gone an hour before, he having had the pleasure of escorting her and Miss Stanhope across the street, leaving them at their own door; but he did not need to ask whom Mrs. Schilling meant.

"Oh, no, not at all, my good woman!" he answered. "It was nothing but filial obedience joined to the fear of losing her exuberant health. Very wise, too, though your refreshments were remarkably nice."

"Poor Mrs. Sixpence," Lottie King was saying to her sister at that moment, "she whispered to me that though her party had gone off so splendidly, she had had two great disappointments,--in Mr. Wert's absenting himself, and the refusal of the Southern heiress to so much as taste her carefully prepared dainties."