Elsie's Girlhood by Martha Finley
What thou bidst, Unargued I obey; so God ordained. --MILTON.
"I hope you don't intend to hurry this child away from me, Horace?" remarked Miss Stanhope inquiringly, glancing from him to Elsie, as she poured out the tea.
"I'm afraid I must, Aunt Wealthy," he answered, taking his cup from her hand, "I can't do without her any longer, and mamma and little brother want her almost as badly."
"And what am I to do?" cried Miss Stanhope, setting down the teapot, and dropping her hands into her lap. "It just makes a baby of me to think how lonely the old house will seem when she's gone. You'd get her back soon, for 'tisn't likely I've got long to live, if you'd only give her to me, Horace."
"No, indeed, Aunt Wealthy; she's a treasure I can't spare to any one. She belongs to me, and I intend to keep her," turning upon his daughter a proud, fond look and smile, which was answered by one of sweet, confiding affection.
"Good-evening!" cried a gay, girlish voice. "Mr. Dinsmore, I'd be delighted to see you, if I didn't know you'd come to rob us of Elsie."
"What, you too ready to abuse me on that score, Miss Lottie?" he said laughingly, as he rose to shake hands with her. "I think I rather deserve thanks for leaving her with you so long."
"Well, I suppose you do. Aunt Wealthy, papa found some remarkably fine peaches in the orchard of one of his patients, and begs you will accept this little basketful."
"Why, they're beautiful, Lottie!" said the old lady, rising and taking the basket from her hand. "You must return my best thanks to your father. I'll set them on the table just so. Take off your hat, child, and sit down with us. There's your chair all ready to your plate, and Phillis's farmer's fresh fruit-cake, to tempt you, and the cream-biscuits that you are so fond of, both."
"Thank you," said Lottie, partly in acknowledgment of the invitation, partly of Mr. Travilla's attention, as he rose and gallantly handed her to her seat, "I can't find it in my heart to resist so many temptations."
"Shall I bring a dish for de peaches, mistis?" asked Chloe, who was waiting on the table.
"Oh, let us have them in that old-fashioned china fruit-basket I've always admired so much, Aunt Wealthy!" cried Lottie eagerly. "I don't believe Elsie has seen it at all."
"No, so she hasn't; but she shall now," said the old lady, hastening toward her china-closet. "There, Aunt Chloe, just stand on the dish, and hand down that chair from this top shelf. Or, if you would, Horace, you're taller, and can reach better. I'm always like the sycamore tree that was little of stature, and couldn't see Zaccheus till he climbed into it."
"Rather a new and improved version of the Bible narrative, aunt, isn't it?" asked Mr. Dinsmore, with an amused look, as he came toward her. "And I fear I'm rather heavy to stand on a dish; but will use the chair instead, if you like."
"Ah! I've put the horse before the cart as usual, I see;" she said, joining good-humoredly in the laugh the others found it impossible to suppress. "It's an old trick of my age, that increases with my advancing youth, till I sometimes wonder what I'm coming to; the words will tangle themselves up in the most troublesome fashion; but if you know what I mean, I suppose it's all the same."
"Why, Aunt Wealthy, this is really beautiful," said Mr. Dinsmore, stepping from the chair with the basket, in his hand.
"Yes, it belonged to your great-grandmother, Horace, and I prize it highly on that account. No, Aunt Chloe, I shall wipe it out and put the peaches into it myself; it will take but a moment, and it's too precious a relic to trust to any other hands than my own."
Lottie was apparently in the gayest spirits, enlivening the little party with many a merry jest and light, silvery laugh, enjoying the good things before her, and gratifying her hostess with praises of their excellence. Yet through it all she was furtively watching her friends, and grieved to notice the unwonted paleness of her cheek, the traces of tears about her eyes, that her cheerfulness was assumed, and that if she ate anything it was only from a desire to please her father, who seemed never to forget her for a moment, and to be a good deal troubled at her want of appetite. In all these signs Lottie read disappointment of Egerton's hopes, and of Elsie's, so far as he was concerned.
"So I suppose her father has commanded her to give him up," she said to herself. "Poor thing! I wonder if she means to be as submissive as she thought she would."
The two presently slipped away together into the garden, leaving the gentlemen conversing in the sitting-room, and Miss Stanhope busied with some household care.
"You poor dear, I am so sorry for you!" whispered Lottie, putting her arm about her friend. "Must you really quite give him up?"
"Papa says so," murmured Elsie, vainly struggling to restrain her tears.
"Is it that he believes Mr. Travilla was not mistaken?"
"Yes, and--and he has heard some other things against him, and thinks his explanation of Mr. Travilla's mistake quite absurd. Oh, Lottie, he will not even allow us one parting interview and says I am never to see Mr. Egerton again, or hold any communication with him in any way. If I should meet him in the street I am not to recognize him; must pass him by as a perfect stranger, not looking at him or permitting him to see my face, if I can avoid doing so."
"And will you really submit to all that? I don't believe I could be so good."
"I must; papa will always be obeyed."
"But don't you feel that it's very hard? doesn't it make you feel angry with your father and love him a little less?"
"I was angry for a little while this afternoon," Elsie acknowledged with a blush, "but I am sure I have no right to be; I know papa is acting for my good,--doing just what he believes will be most likely to secure my happiness. He says it is to save me from a life of misery, and certainly it would be that to be united to such a man as he believes Mr. Egerton is."
"But you don't believe it, Elsie?"
"No, no, indeed! I have not lost my faith in him yet, and I hope he may some day be able to prove to papa's entire satisfaction that he is really all that is good, noble, and honorable."
"That is right; hope on, hope ever."
"Ah, I don't know how we could live without hope," Elsie said, smiling faintly through her tears. "But I ought not to be wretched--oh, very far from it, with so many blessings, so many to love me! Papa's love alone would brighten life very much to me. And then," she added in a lower tone, "'that dearer Friend that sticketh closer than a brother,' and who has promised, 'I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.'"
"And He will keep His promise, child," said Aunt Wealthy, joining them in the arbor where they had seated themselves. "I have proved His faithfulness many times, and I know that it never fails. Elsie, dear, your old auntie would save you from every trial, but He is a far wiser and truer friend, and will cause all things to work together for your good, and never allow you to suffer one unneeded pang." She softly stroked her niece's sunny hair, as she spoke, and the kind old face was full of pitying tenderness.
"Come back to the house now, dears," she added, "I think the dew is beginning to fall, and I heard my nephew asking for his daughter."
"How much longer may we hope to keep you, Elsie?" Lottie asked as they wended their way toward the house.
"Papa has set Monday evening for the time of leaving."
"And this is Friday; so we shall have but two more rides together. Oh, dear! how I shall miss you when you're gone."
"And I you. I shall never forget what pleasant times we have had together; Aunt Wealthy and you and I. You musn't let her miss me too much, Lottie." And Elsie turned an affectionate look upon her aged relative.
"As if I could prevent it! But I'll do my best; you may rest assured of that."
"You are dear girls, both of you," said Miss Stanhope with a very perceptible tremble in her voice, "and you have brightened my home wonderfully; if I could only keep you!"
"Well, auntie, you're not likely to lose me altogether for some time yet," returned Lottie gayly, though the tears shone in her eyes.
Bromly Egerton went out from Mr. Dinsmore's presence with his temper at a white heat, for he had just been treated to some plain truths that were far from palatable; besides which it seemed evident that he had missed the prize he so coveted and had made such strenuous efforts to win. He had learned nothing new in regard to his own character, yet somehow it had never looked so black as now, when seen through the spectacles of an upright, honest, vice-detesting Christian gentleman. He writhed at the very recollection of the disgust, loathing, and contempt expressed in Mr. Dinsmore's voice and countenance as well as in his words.
He scarcely gave a thought to the loss of Elsie herself: he had no feeling for her at all worthy of the name of love; his base, selfish nature was, indeed, hardly capable of such a sentiment; especially toward one so refined, so guileless in her childlike innocence and purity that to be with her gave him an uncomfortable sense of his own moral inferiority.
No, the wounds under which he smarted were all stabs given to his self-love and cupidity. He had learned how honest men looked upon him; and he had failed in the cherished expectation of laying his hands upon a great fortune, which he had fondly hoped to have the opportunity of spending.
Rushing into the street, boiling with rage and shame, he hurried onward, scarcely knowing or caring whither he went; out into the open country, and on through woods and over hills he tramped, nor thought of turning back till the sun had set, and darkness began to creep about his path.
There was light in Miss Stanhope's parlor and strains of rich melody greeted his ear as he passed. He turned away with a muttered imprecation, crossed the street, and entered Mrs. Schilling's gate. She was sitting on her doorstep, resting after her day's work, and enjoying the cool evening air.
"Why, la me Mr. Egerton! is that you?" she cried, starting up, and stepping aside for him to pass in. "I'd really begun to think you was lost. The fire's been put and everything cleaned away this two hours. I kep' the table a-waitin' for you a right smart spell, but finally come to the conclusion that you must 'a' stayed to Miss Stanhope's or someone else, to tea."
"No, I've not had supper," he answered gruffly.
"You haint, eh? and I 'spose you're hungry, too. Well, sit down, and I'll hunt up something or 'nother. But I'm afraid you'll get the dyspepsy eatin' so late; why, it's nigh on to ten o'clock; and I was just a-thinking' about shutting' up and going off to bed."
"Well, you'll not be troubled with me long. I shall leave the place in a few days."
"Leave Lansdale, do you mean?"
"Why, what's up?"
"The time I had appropriated to rest and recreation. Business men can't play forever."
"Well, I shouldn't wonder. And Mr. Dinsmore's come after his daughter, too."
"What's that got to do with it?" he muttered. But she had left the room and was out of hearing.
Before closing his eyes in sleep that night, Egerton resolved to make a moving appeal to Elsie herself. He would write and find some means by which to get the letter into her hands. Directly after breakfast he sat down to his task, placing himself in a position to constantly overlook Miss Stanhope's house and grounds. He was hoping to get sight of Elsie, and anxious to watch Mr. Dinsmore's movements. Mrs. Schilling had informed him that "Miss Stanhope's friends didn't expect to leave till sometime a Monday; so she had learned from Phillis, through Lenwilla Ellawea, who had been sent over for a little of Phillis's light'ning, to raise some biscuits for breakfast," yet he had some fear that the information might prove unreliable, and Mr. Dinsmore slip away with his daughter that day.
That fear was presently relieved by seeing Simon bringing out the horses for the young ladies, and shortly after a livery-stable man leading up two fine steeds, evidently intended for the use of the gentlemen. He now laid down his pen, and kept close watch for a few moments, when he was rewarded by seeing the whole party come out, mount, and ride away; Mr. Dinsmore beside his daughter, Mr. Travilla with Lottie. Elsie, however, was so closely veiled that he could not so much as catch a glimpse of her face.
With a muttered oath, he took up his pen again, feeling more desirous than ever to outwit "that haughty Southerner," and secure the prize in spite of him.
Half an hour afterward Simon, who was at work gathering corn and tomatoes for dinner in the garden behind the house, heard some one calling softly to him from the other side of the fence. Turning his head, he saw Mr. Egerton standing there, motioning to him to draw near.
"Good-mornin', sah. What you want, sah?" inquired the lad, setting down his basket, and approaching the fence that separated them.
"Do you know what this is?" asked Egerton, holding up a small glittering object.
"Yes, sah; five-dollar gold piece, sah," replied the negro, bowing and chuckling. "What de gentleman want dis niggah do for to arn 'em?"
"To put this into Miss Dinsmore's hands," answered Egerton, showing a letter; "into her own hands, now, mind. If you do that, the five dollars are yours; and if you bring me an answer, I'll make it ten. But you are to manage it so that no one else shall see what you do. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sah, and I bet I do it up about right, sah."
Very anxious to win the coveted reward, Simon was careful to be on hand when the riding party returned. He stationed himself near Elsie's horse. Her father assisted her to alight, and as he turned to make a remark to Lottie, Simon, being on the alert, managed to slip the note into Elsie's hand, unperceived by Mr. Dinsmore, or the others.
She gave a start of surprise, turning her eyes inquiringly upon him, the rich color rushing all over her fair face and neck; as he could see, even through the folds of her thick veil.
Simon grinned broadly, as, by a nod and wink toward the opposite side of the street, he indicated whence the missive had come.
She turned and walked quickly toward the house, her heart beating very fast and loud, and her fingers tightly clasping the note underneath the folds of her long riding-skirt, as she held it up. She hurried to her room, shut and locked the door, and, throwing off her hat and veil, dropped into a seat, trembling in every limb with the agitation and excitement of her feelings. She longed intently to know what he had said to her; but she had never deceived or wilfully disobeyed her father, and should she begin now? The temptation was very great, and perhaps she would have yielded; but Mr. Dinsmore's step came quickly up the stairs, and the next moment he rapped lightly on the door.
She rose and opened it, at the same time slipping the note into her pocket.
"Why, my darling, what is the matter?" he asked, looking much concerned at the sight of her pale, agitated countenance.
"Oh, papa, if you would let me! if you only would!" she cried, bursting into tears, and putting her arms coaxingly about his neck.
"Let you do what, my child?" he asked, stroking her hair.
"Bead this," she said, in a choking voice, taking the note from her pocket. "Oh, if you knew how much I want to! Mayn't I, papa? do, dear papa, say yes."
"No, Elsie; it grieves me to deny you, but it must go back unopened. Give it to me."
She put it into his hand and turned away with a sob.
"How did it come into your hands?" he inquired, going to her writing-desk for an envelope, pen and ink.
"Must I tell you, papa?" she asked; in a tone that spoke reluctance to give the information he required.
"Simon gave it to me a few moments since."
He touched the bell, and, Chloe appearing in answer, bade her take that note to the house on the opposite side of the street.
"There is no message," he added; "it is directed to Mr. Egerton, and you have nothing to do but hand it in at the door."
"Yes, sah." And with a sorrowful, pitying glance at the wet eyes of her young mistress, the faithful old creature left the room.
"My poor little daughter, you feel now that your father is very cruel," Mr. Dinsmore said tenderly, taking Elsie in his arms again, "but some day you will thank me for all this."
She only laid her face down on his breast and cried bitterly, while he soothed her with caresses and words of fatherly endearment.
"Oh, papa, don't be vexed with me," she murmured at length. "I'm trying not to be rebellious, but it seems so like condemning him unheard."
"No, my child, it is not. I gave him the opportunity to refute the charges against him, but he has no proof to bring."
"Papa, he said it would break his heart to lose me," she cried with a fresh burst of grief.
"My dear child, he has no heart to break. If he could get possession of your property, he would care very little indeed what became of you."
Mr. Dinsmore spoke very decidedly, but, though silenced, Elsie was not convinced.
Egerton, watching through the half-closed blinds of his bed-room, had seen, with a chuckle of delight, the success of Simon's manoeuvre, and Elsie hurrying into the house; for the purpose--he had scarcely a doubt--of secretly reading and answering his note. He saw Chloe crossing the street, and thought that her young mistress had sent him a hasty line, perhaps to appoint the time and place of a clandestine meeting; for such confidence had he in his own powers of fascination for all the fair sex, that he could not think it possible she could give him up without a struggle.
Lenwilla went to the door, and in his eagerness to receive the message he ran out and met her on the landing. What was his disappointment and chagrin at sight of the bold, masculine characters on the outside, and only his own handwriting within!
"Sent back unopened! The girl must be a fool!" he cried, fairly gnashing his teeth with rage. "She could have managed it easily enough; she had the best chance in the world, for he didn't see her take it, I know."
He considered a moment, put on his hat, and, walking over to Dr. King's, inquired for Miss Lottie.
"Jist walk intil the parlor, sir," said Bridget, "an' I'll call the young lady."
Lottie came to him presently, with her kind face full of regret and sympathy.
He told his tale, produced his note, and begged her to be his messenger, saying he supposed Mr. Dinsmore had come upon Elsie before she had time to read it, and he thought it hard for both her and himself that she should not have the chance.
"Yes," said Lottie, "but I am very sure she would not read it without her father's permission, and you may depend upon it, she showed it to him of her own accord."
He shook his head with an incredulous smile. "Do you really think she has so little sense? Or is it that you believe she too has turned against me?"
"No, she has not turned against you, she believes in you still; nor is she wanting in sense; but she is extremely conscientious about obeying her father, and told me she meant to be entirely submissive, whatever it cost her."
"I can hardly think you are right," he said, with another of his incredulous smiles, "but even supposing she was silly enough to hand my note over to her father, I should like to give her an opportunity to retrieve her error, so won't you undertake"--
"Don't ask me to carry it to her," interrupted Lottie. "It would go against my conscience to tempt Elsie to do violence to hers, I do assure you, though I have no idea I should be successful. So you really must excuse me."
He tried argument and persuasion by turns, but Lottie stood firm in her refusal, and at length he went away, evidently very angry.
Lottie spent the evening with her friend, and when a fitting opportunity offered gave her an account of this interview with Egerton, Elsie telling her in return something of what had passed between her father and herself in regard to the note.
That Egerton had desired to tempt her to disobedience and deception did not tend to increase Elsie's esteem and admiration for him, but quite the reverse.
"I think he'll not prevent me from getting sight of her to-day," muttered Egerton, stationing himself at the front window the next morning, as the hour for church drew near.
He had not been there long, when he saw Miss Stanhope and Mr. Travilla, then Mr. Dinsmore and Elsie, come out of the house and cross the lawn. He made a hasty exit and was in the act of opening Mrs. Schilling's front gate as the latter couple reached the one opposite.
"Put down your veil, Elsie; take my arm; and don't look toward that man at all," commanded her father, and she obeyed.
Egerton kept opposite to them all the way to the church, but without accomplishing his object. He followed them in and placed himself in a pew on the other side of the aisle, and a little nearer the front than Miss Stanhope's, so that, by turning half way round, he could look into the faces of its occupants. But Elsie kept hers partly concealed by her veil, and never once turned her eyes in his direction.
She was seated next her father, who seemed to watch her almost constantly--not with the air of a jailer, but with a sort of tender, protecting care, as one keeping guard over something belonging to him, and which he esteemed very sweet and precious,--while now and then her soft eyes were lifted to his for an instant with a look of loving reverence.
"Poor Elsie was well watched to-day," remarked Nettie King to her sister as they walked home together; "her father scarcely took his eyes off her for five consecutive minutes, I should think; and Mr. Egerton stared at her from the time he came in till the benediction was pronounced."
"Yes, I thought he was decidedly rude."
"Isn't Mr. Dinsmore excessively strict and exacting?"
"Yes, I think so; yet he dotes on her, and she on him. I never saw a father and daughter so completely wrapped up in each other."
They were now within sight of their own home, and Miss Stanhope's.
"Just look!" cried Nettie, "I do believe Egerton means to force himself upon their notice and compel Elsie to speak to him."
He was crossing the street so as to meet them face to face, just at the gate, giving them no chance to avoid the rencontre.
"Good-morning, Miss Dinsmore," he said in a loud, cordial tone of greeting, as they neared each other.
Elsie started and tightened her grasp of her father's arm, but neither looked up nor spoke.
"My daughter acknowledges no acquaintance with you, sir," answered Mr. Dinsmore, haughtily, and Egerton turned and strode angrily away.
"There, Elsie, you see what he is; his behavior is anything but gentlemanly," remarked her father, opening the gate for her to pass in. "But you need not tremble so, child; there is nothing to fear."