Chapter First.
 
    "Oh! there is one affection which no stain
       Of earth can ever darken;--when two find,
     The softer and the manlier, that a chain
       Of kindred taste has fastened mind to mind."
                                 --PERCIVAL'S POEMS.

In one of the cool green alleys at the Oaks, Rose and Adelaide Dinsmore were pacing slowly to and fro, each with an arm about the other's waist, in girlish fashion, while they conversed together in low, confidential tones.

At a little distance to one side, the young son and heir had thrown himself prone upon the grass in the shade of a magnificent oak, story-book in hand. Much interested he seemed in his book, yet occasionally his eye would wander from its fascinating pages to watch, with pride and delight, the tiny Rosebud steady herself against a tree, then run with eager, tottering steps and a crow of delight into her nurse's outstretched arms, to be hugged, kissed, praised, and coaxed to try it over again.

As Rose and Adelaide turned at one end of the alley, Mr. Horace Dinsmore entered it at the other. Hurriedly approaching the little toddler, he stooped and held out his hands, saying, in tender, half-tremulous tones, "Come, darling, come to papa."

She ran into his arms, crying, "Papa," in her sweet baby voice, and catching her up, he covered her face with kisses; then, holding her clasped fondly to his breast, walked on towards his wife and sister.

"What is it, Horace?" asked Rose anxiously, as they neared each other; for she saw that his face was pale and troubled.

"I bring you strange tidings, my Rose," he answered low and sadly, as she laid her hand upon his arm with an affectionate look up into his face.

Hers grew pale. "Bad news from home?" she almost gasped.

"No, no; I've had no word from our absent relatives or friends, and I'm not sure I ought to call it bad news either; though I cannot yet think of it with equanimity, it has come upon me so suddenly."

"What?" asked both ladies in a breath; "don't keep us in suspense."

"It has been going on for years--on his part--I can see it now--but, blind fool that I was, I never suspected it till to-day, when it came upon me like a thunderbolt."

"What? who?"

"Travilla; after years of patient waiting he has won her at last--our darling--and--and I've given her to him."

Both ladies stood dumb with astonishment, while young Horace, who had come running up in time to catch the last words, cried out with vehemence, "Papa! what! give our Elsie away? how could you? how can we ever do without her? But she shan't go, for she belongs to me too, and I'll never give consent!"

Mr. Dinsmore and the ladies smiled faintly.

"They seemed to think mine quite sufficient, Horace," replied his father, "and I'm afraid will hardly consider it necessary to ask yours."

"But, papa, we can't spare her--you know we can't--and why should you go and give her away to Mr. Travilla or anybody?"

"My son, had I refused, it would have caused her great unhappiness."

"Then she ought to be ashamed to go and love Mr. Travilla better than you and all of us."

"I was never more astonished in my life!" cried Adelaide.

"Nor I," said Rose. "And he's a great deal too old for her."

"That is an objection," replied her husband, "but if not insuperable to her, need not be to us."

"Think of your intimate friend addressing you as father!" laughed Adelaide; "it's really too ridiculous."

"That need not be--is not an inevitable consequence of the match," smiled Mr. Dinsmore, softly caressing the little one clinging about his neck.

Still conversing on the same subject, the minds of all being full of it to the exclusion of every other, they moved on as if by common consent towards the house.

"Do you think it can be possible that she is really and truly in love with him?" queried Rose; "a man so much older than herself, and so intimate in the family since her early childhood."

"Judge for yourself, my dear," said Mr. Dinsmore, as a turn in the path brought them within a few yards of the lovers, who were moving slowly in their direction so that the two parties must meet in another moment.

One glance at the beaming faces, the rich color coming and going in Elsie's cheek, the soft, glad light in her sweet brown eyes, was a sufficient reply to Rose's question. She looked at her husband with a satisfied smile, which he returned.

But little Horace, leaving his father's side, rushed up to Elsie, and catching her hand in his, cried, "I'll never give my consent! and you belong to me. Mr. Travilla, you can't have her."

To the child's surprise Elsie only blushed and smiled, while Mr. Travilla, without the slightest appearance of alarm or vexation, said, "Ah, my dear boy, you may just as well; for she is willing to be mine and your papa has given her to me."

But the others had come up, and inquiring looks, smiles and kindly greetings were exchanged.

"Mr. Travilla," said Rose, half playfully but with a tear trembling in her eye, "you have stolen a march upon us, and I can hardly forgive you just yet."

"I regret that exceedingly, my dear madam," he answered, with a smile that belied his words. "But Miss Adelaide, you will still stand my friend?"

"I don't know," she answered demurely; "there's only one serious objection in my mind (if Elsie is satisfied); that I don't quite fancy having a nephew some years older than myself."

"Ah! well, I shall be quite willing to be considered a brother-in-law."

"Company to dinner!" shouted Horace. "I see a carriage; don't you, papa?"

"It is your Uncle Edward's," said Mr. Travilla.

"Yes," said Adelaide, "Lora and her tribe are in it, no doubt; and probably Mrs. Bowles too (Carrie Howard you know, Elsie). They have been late in calling."

"Some good reason for it, and they are none the less welcome," remarked Rose, quickening her pace.

The one party reached the house just as the other two had fairly alighted, and a scene of joyous greeting ensued.

"You dear child! how good of you to come back to us again, and single too," exclaimed Mrs. Bowles, clasping Elsie in a warm embrace; "I'd almost given it up, and expected by every mail to hear you had become Lady or Countess this, or Duchess that."

Elsie smiled and blushed, and meeting the eye of her betrothed fixed for an instant upon her with an expression of unutterable content, thankfulness, love and pride, smiled and blushed again.

Carrie caught the look and its effect upon her friend, and almost breathless with astonishment, took the first opportunity, after all were seated in the drawing-room, to prefer a whispered request to be taken to Elsie's own private apartment for a moment, to see that her hair and dress were in proper order.

They had come to spend the day, and bonnets and shawls had already been carried away by the servants in attendance.

"Now girls, don't run off for an interminable chat by yourselves," said Mrs. Howard, as the two rose and crossed the room together.

"No, Aunt Lora, we'll not stay long," said Elsie; "for I want to improve every moment of your visit, in renewing my acquaintance with you and my young cousins."

"Your family has grown, Lora," remarked her brother.

"Yes, rather faster than yours," she said, looking round with pride upon her little group of four boys, and a girl yet in her nurse's arms. "Go and speak to your uncle, Ned, Walter, Horace, and Arthur. You see I have given you a namesake; and this little pet we call Rose Louise, for her two aunties. Yours is Rose, too! and what a darling! and how little Horace has grown!"

"Elsie, it can't be possible!" cried Carrie, the instant they found themselves alone.

"What can't?" and Elsie's blush and smile were charming.

"That you and Mr. Travilla are lovers! I saw it in your faces; but, 'tis too absurd! Why, he's your father's friend, and nearly as old."

"All the wiser and better for that, Carrie, dear. But he is young in heart, and far from looking old, I think. I have grown so sick of your silly, brainless fops, who expect women neither to talk sense nor understand it."

"Ah, I dare say! and Mr. Travilla is the most sensible and polished of men--always excepting my own spouse, of course. And you won't be taken away from us; so I give my consent."

Elsie's only answer was a mirthful, amused look.

"Oh, but I am glad to see you back!" Carrie ran on. "It seems an age since you went away."

"Thank you. And your husband? what is he like?"

"I was never good at description, but he is a fine specimen of a Kentucky planter, and very fond of his wife. By the way, you must blame me that Edward and Lora were so late in welcoming you home. I arrived only yesterday morning, quite fatigued with my journey, and begged them to wait till to-day, and bring me with them."

"That was right. We have not seen Enna yet, or Arthur. Grandpa and Mrs. Dinsmore and Walter called yesterday. But there is the dinner-bell. Let me conduct you to the dining-room."

They were just in time to sit down with the others.

Elsie quickly perceived by her Aunt Lora's look and manner, that she, too, had heard the news, but no remark was make on the subject till the ladies had retired to the drawing-room, leaving the gentlemen to the enjoyment of their after-dinner cigars.

Then Mrs. Howard, facing round upon her niece as they entered the room, exclaimed, "Elsie, you naughty child! are you not ashamed of yourself?"

"On account of what, auntie?"

"Such unconscious innocence!" cried Lora, throwing up the white and jeweled hands she had rested lightly for an instant upon the young girl's shoulder, while gazing steadily into the smiling, blushing, sparkling face. "You haven't been planning and promising to give Adelaide and me a nephew older than ourselves? I tell you, miss, I refuse my consent. Why, it's absurd! the very idea! I used to think him almost an elderly gentleman when you were a chit of eight or nine."

"I remember having had some such idea myself; but he must have been growing young since then," returned Elsie, demurely.

"He seems to have been standing still (waiting for you, I suppose); but I never was more astonished in my life!" said Lora, dropping into a chair.

"It has been a genuine surprise to us all," remarked Rose.

"To me as much as anyone, mamma," said Elsie. "I--had thought he was engaged to you, Aunt Adie."

"To me, child!"

"Why, my dear, I surely told you about her engagement to my brother Edward?" exclaimed Adelaide and Rose simultaneously.

"You tried, mamma, and it was all my own fault that I did not hear the whole truth. And, Aunt Adie, I cannot understand how he could ever fancy me, while he might have hoped there was a possibility of winning you."

"'Twould have been a much more suitable match," said Lora. "Though I'd have preferred the one in contemplation, except that in the other case, she would not be carried quite away from us. But suppose we proceed to business. We should have a double wedding, I think."

"Oh, don't talk of it yet," said Rose, with a slight tremble in her voice, and looking at Elsie's flushed, conscious face with eyes full of unshed tears. "Adelaide's is to be within the next two months, and--we cannot give up Elsie so suddenly."

"Of course not," said Adelaide; "and I should have serious objections to being used as a foil to Elsie's youth and beauty."

The Howards and Mr. Travilla stayed to tea, and shortly before that meal the party was increased by the arrival of Walter Dinsmore and Mrs. Dick Percival.

Enna had lost flesh and color; and long indulgence of a fretful, peevish temper had drawn down the corners of her mouth, lined her forehead, and left its ugly pencilings here and there over the once pretty face, so that it already began to look old and care-worn. She was very gayly dressed, in the height of the fashion, and rather overloaded with jewelry; but powder and rouge could not altogether conceal the ravages of discontent and passion. She was conscious of the fact, and inwardly dwelt with mortification and chagrin upon the contrast presented by her own faded face to that of Elsie, so fair and blooming, so almost childish in its sweet purity and innocence of expression.

"So you are single yet," Enna said, with a covert sneer; "and not likely to marry either, so far as I've been able to learn. They'll soon begin to call you an old maid."

"Will they?" said Mr. Dinsmore, with a laugh in which all present joined, Enna herself excepted; "well, if she is a fair specimen of that much-abused class, they are far more attractive than is generally supposed."

"You needn't laugh," said Enna; "I was four years younger than she is now, when I married. I wasn't going to wait till they began to call me an old maid."

"To bear that reproach is not the worst calamity that can befall a woman," replied Mr. Dinsmore gravely; then changed the subject by a kind inquiry in regard to Arthur.

"Slowly and steadily improving," answered Walter. "The doctors are now satisfied that he is not permanently crippled, though he still uses a crutch."