Elsie's Womanhood by Martha Finley
"Grace was in all her steps, heaven in her eye, In ev'ry gesture, dignity and love." --MILTON'S PARADISE LOST.
"But, Elsie, what of Mr. Travilla?" asked her father, as he handed her into the saddle.
"He will not be here till evening, sir," she answered, the rose on her cheek deepening slightly.
"Then I can have undisturbed possession for to-day at least," replied Mr. Dinsmore, mounting. "We couldn't have a lovelier day for a ride."
"Nor better company," added Elsie, archly, keeping her horse's head on a line with that of her father's larger Steed, as they followed the winding carriage road at a brisk canter.
"Why, you conceited little puss?" returned Mr. Dinsmore laughing.
Elsie blushed more deeply this time. "Why, papa, you are the company to-day, are you not? I wished to go, and you kindly arranged to accompany me."
"Ah! and that is how you look at it? Well, I recall my rebuke, and thank you for your--what shall I say--pretty compliment, or appreciation of my society?"
"Both, if you like. Oh, how nice it is to be at home again in our own dear native land."
"And what do you call your own dear native land?"
"What a strange question, papa! The great, grand old Union to be sure--North and South, East and West--is it not all mine? Have you not taught me so yourself?"
"Yes," he said musingly.
They rode on in silence for some minutes, and when he spoke again, it was upon a subject entirely foreign to the last.
"The place looks natural," he remarked, as they turned into the avenue leading to the fine old dwelling of the Carringtons.
"How kind, how very kind, to come so soon!" was Mrs. Carrington's cordial, joyful salutation. "Mr. Dinsmore, I owe you a thousand thanks for not only permitting your daughter to come, but bringing her yourself."
"You are very welcome, my dear madam," he answered courteously; "and, indeed, I should like to see Mrs. Rose myself, when she is well enough and feels that it will be agreeable to her."
A few moments' chat in the drawing-room, and Mr. Dinsmore drew out his watch. "How long a talk do you want with your friend to-day, Elsie?" he asked.
"Oh, just as long as I can be allowed, papa!" she cried, with much of the old childish eagerness.
"Then the sooner you begin, the better, I think, for we ought to be on our way to Roselands in an hour, or an hour and a quarter at the farthest."
Upon that the gentlemen retired to the library to talk over business matters, and Mrs. Carrington led the way for Elsie to Lucy's room. But pausing in the upper hall, she took the young girl in her arms, folding her in a close, loving embrace, and heaping upon her tearful, tender, silent caresses.
"My poor boy! my poor dear Herbert," she murmured at length, as she released her hold. "Darling, I can never forget that you might have been my daughter. But there--I will leave you. Lucy occupies her old rooms, and yonder is her door; you know the way."
"But come in with me, dear Mrs. Carrington," urged Elsie, the tears shining in her eyes.
"No, dear, not just yet. Lucy would prefer to see you quite alone at first, I know." And she glided away in the opposite direction.
A soft, cooing sound came to Elsie's ear, mingled with fondling words, in a negro voice, as she stood an instant waiting admittance. Lucy, a good deal paler and thinner than the Lucy of old, lay back in an easy chair, languidly turning the leaves of a new magazine.
"Open the door, mammy," she said, "I thought I heard a rap." Then at sight of Elsie, the magazine was hastily tossed aside, and with a cry of joy, "Oh, you darling! I thought I'd never see you again," she sprang forward, caught her friend in a close embrace, and wept upon her neck.
Elsie soothed her with caresses and words of endearment, and presently she calmed down, made her friend take a seat, and sinking back into her own, wiped away the tears still welling up in her eyes, and with a little hysterical laugh said, "Please don't look so concerned, or think I'm unhappy with my dear old Phil, or going to die, or any such nonsense: it's just my nerves; hateful, torturing things! I wish I'd never found out I had any."
"You poor dear, I'm so sorry for your lost health," said Elsie, exchanging her chair for a low ottoman at Lucy's feet, and taking the small thin hands in hers, stroking and patting them caressingly; "I know nerves won't be reasoned with, and that tears are often a great relief."
"And I've everything to make me happy," sobbed Lucy--"the best husband in the world, and the darlingest of babies, to say nothing of mamma and papa, and the rest, and really almost everything one could desire."
"Oh, the baby, yes!" cried Elsie, turning towards it with eager interest; "the sweet, pretty darling. May I take him a moment, Lucy?"
"Certainly, if he's not too heavy--bring him here, mammy. I remember your father would not allow you to lift or carry little Horace."
"Ah, but that was years ago! Ah, how lovely he is!" as the babe accepted her mute invitation to come to her. "You are rich indeed, with this treasure added to all your others. And you and your Phil don't quarrel yet?"
"No indeed! not the first cross word yet. Mamma calls us her turtle-doves: says we're always billing and cooing. Ah, Elsie, how beautiful you are! I've always thought you just as lovely as possible, yet there's an added something--I can't divine what--that increases even your peerless attractions."
"O Lucy, Lucy, still a flatterer!" laughed her friend.
"Yet you've come back to us single," Lucy went on, ignoring the interruption, "though we all know you had ever so many good offers. Pray, do you intend to remain single all your days?"
At that, Elsie's face dimpled all over with blushes and smiles.
Lucy signed to the nurse to take the babe, and as the woman walked away with it in her arms, turned eagerly to her friend.
"Now do tell me; for I'm sure you are not going to live single. Shall we have the pleasure of hailing you as duchess yet?"
"No, Lucy; I intend to marry; am actually engaged, but not to a foreigner."
"Dear me! I don't believe I could have resisted the title. That is," she added, hastily, "if I'd been heart-whole like you: but after seeing my Phil, of course I wouldn't give him up for all the nobles in Europe, Asia, and Africa. But do tell me who is the fortunate man?"
"Suppose you try your skill at guessing."
"Perfectly useless, never had any. It must be somebody I don't know."
"My good little woman, you know him well."
"Either of Harry's brothers-in-law? Richard? Harold?"
"No, no, no; you are wide of the mark! Could you suppose papa would ever consent to such a mixture of relationships? Why, it would make papa my brother and mamma's brother her son-in-law."
"So it would. Well, I give it up and beg of you to put a speedy end to my suspense."
Lucy bent her head to listen, and Elsie murmured the name low and softly, the rose deepening on her cheek as she spoke. For a moment Lucy seemed struck dumb with astonishment. Then, "Elsie!" she exclaimed, "I can't believe it; you are only jesting."
Elsie shook her head with a low, musical, happy laugh.
"He's splendid, I don't deny that; but then--only think--your father's most intimate friend from boyhood up; and almost as old."
"Some people seem like wine--to improve with age. But Mr. Travilla is not old to me now. He has been standing still, I believe, while I have grown up to him."
"And you really are in love with him?"
"He has all my heart, all the love I could give to any one, and I respect, honor, and trust him as I do no one else but my father."
"And that reminds me; I was so afraid your father would not let you come to see me. But--you are your own mistress now, of course."
"Papa tells me so sometimes," laughed Elsie, "and yet I know he would be greatly surprised should I take the liberty of doing anything he would not approve. I asked his permission to come, and he not only gave consent but brought me himself."
"That was good in him; but I hope he won't hurry you away. I want to hear about your European conquests, and have ever so much to say besides."
"No, he has kindly promised me time for a long talk. Besides, I can ride over any day and supplement it with another."
Mr. Dinsmore was as good as his word; their chat had lasted more than an hour when his summons came, yet Lucy declared it had not been half long enough, and would not be satisfied to let Elsie go without a promise to come again very soon.
* * * * *
"Roselands, too, looks very natural, and very homelike," remarked Mr. Dinsmore, as they rode up its avenue.
"Yes, papa; and yet, do you know, it seems to me it has grown smaller and less grand since I lived here as a child."
"Ah! did you think it very grand then, daughter?" he asked, turning to her with a smile.
"I believe so, papa; but it is beautiful yet, even after all the fine places we have seen in our own country and Europe."
Adelaide met them at the door. "Just in time," she said, "for there is the dressing-bell. Your own old room, Elsie dear: you know the way and will find Aunt Chloe in waiting. Horace, you will make yourself at home of course."
It was strictly a family party, sociable and informal. Elsie had not met Arthur since their return, and at the first moment scarcely recognized him in the moustached and bewhiskered young man who rose and came forward, with a slight limp, to meet her as she entered the drawing-room.
"How do you do?" he said, holding out his right hand, while steadying himself with a cane held in the left. "I hope you're glad to get back to America?"
"Arthur, is it? Yes; thank you: and I'm very glad your injuries have proved less serious than was at first feared," she said, kindly meeting his advances half-way.
"Oh yes," he replied, with attempted nonchalance, "I shall be all right by and by."
Then retreating to the seat from which he had just risen, the corner of a sofa by the side of his sister Adelaide, his eye following Elsie as she crossed the room to pay her respects to her grandfather and others. "What on earth you call that girl little for, I can't imagine," he remarked in an undertone; "why she's quite above the average height; graceful as a young fawn, too; splendid figure, and actually the most beautiful face I ever saw. I don't wonder she turned the heads of lords and dukes on the other side of the water. But what do you call her little for?"
"I hardly know, Art; with me it's a term of endearment more than anything else, I believe," replied his sister; "but there is something in the expression of her face--something that has always been there, a sweet simplicity and innocence--that moves one to a sort of protecting love as to a little one who has not yet attained sufficient worldly wisdom to take care of herself."
Old Mr. Dinsmore greeted his lovely granddaughter almost affectionately, holding her hand in his for a moment, and looking from her to her father. "Really, she's a girl to be proud of, Horace," he said with a paternal smile. "But I've no need to tell you that."
"No, she is not bad looking," observed his wife with a slight sneer; "few girls would be in such elegant attire; but it surprises me to see that, with all her advantages and opportunities for improvement, she has not yet lost that baby expression she always had. She'll never be half the woman Enna is."
The days were past in which the lady mother had gloried in the fact that anywhere Enna would have been taken for the elder of the two; and now the contrast between her faded, fretful face and Elsie's fresh bloom was a sore trial to madam's love, and pride in her household pet.
But no one deemed it necessary to reply to the unpleasant remark. Elsie only smiled up into her father's face as he came forward and stood at her side, and meeting his look of loving content and pride in her, just as she was, and calling to mind how fully satisfied with her was another, whose loving approbation was no less precious, turned away with a half-breathed sigh of heartfelt happiness, finished her greetings, and, the dinner-bell ringing at that moment, accepted Walter's offered arm to the dining-room.
Arthur was more and more charmed with his niece as he noted the modest ease and grace of her manners, both at the table, and afterwards in the drawing-room; listened to her music--greatly improved under the instructions of some of the first masters of Europe--and her conversation with his father and others, in which she almost unconsciously revealed rich stores of varied information gathered from books, the discourse of the wise and learned met in her travels, and her own keen yet kindly observations of men and things. These, with the elegance of her diction, and the ready play of wit and fancy, made her a fascinating talker.
Contrary to Elsie's expectations, it was decided by the elders of the party that all should remain to tea.
As the others returned to the drawing-room on leaving the table, she stole out upon the moonlighted veranda. Gazing wistfully down the avenue, was she thinking of one probably even then on his way to the Oaks--thinking of him and his disappointment at not finding her here?
"It's a nice night, this," remarked Arthur's voice at her side, "I say, Elsie, suppose we bury the hatchet, you and I."
"I never had any enmity towards you, Arthur," she answered, still gazing straight before her.
"Well, it's odd if you hadn't; I gave you cause enough, as you did me by your niggardly refusal to lend me a small sum, on occasions when I was hard up. But I'm willing to let by-gones be by-gones, if you are."
"Certainly; I should be glad to forget all that has been unpleasant in the past."
"You have improved wonderfully since I saw you last: you were a pretty girl then, but now you are without exception the most superbly beautiful, graceful, accomplished, and intelligent woman I ever saw."
"I do not like flattery, Arthur," she answered, turning coldly away.
"Pooh! the truth's never flattery; I declare if we were not so nearly related, I'd marry you myself."
"You forget," she said, half scornfully, "that it takes two to make a bargain; three in this case; and two of us would never consent."
"Nonsense! I'd soon manage it by clever courting. A man can always get the woman he wants if he's only sufficiently determined."
"In that you are mistaken. But why broach so disagreeable a subject, since we are so nearly related that the very thought seems almost a sin and a crime?"
"And so you're going to throw yourself away on old Travilla?"
Elsie faced him with flashing eyes. "No; it will be no throwing away of myself, nor will I allow him to be spoken of in such disrespectful terms, in my presence."
"Humph!" laughed Arthur. "Well, I've found out how to make you angry, at all events. And I'm free to confess I don't like Travilla, or forgive him all old scores."
Elsie scarcely seemed to hear. A horse was coming at a quiet canter up the avenue. Both the steed and his rider wore a familiar aspect, and the young girl's heart gave a joyous bound as the latter dismounted, throwing the reins to a servant, and came up the steps into the veranda.
She glided towards him; there was an earnest, tender clasping of hands, a word or two of cordial greeting, and they passed into the house and entered the drawing room.
"Humph! not much sentiment there; act towards each other pretty much as they always have," said Arthur to himself, taking a cigar from his pocket and lighting it with a match. "I wonder now what's the attraction to her for an old codger like that," he added watching the smoke as it curled lazily up from the end of his Havana.
There was indeed nothing sentimental in the conduct of Mr. Travilla or Elsie: deep, true, heartfelt happiness there was on both sides, but calm and quiet, indulging in little demonstration, except when they were quite alone with each other. There was no secret made of the engagement, and it was soon known to all their friends and acquaintance. Mr. Travilla had always been in the habit of visiting the Oaks daily, and finding himself very much at home there; and he continued to come and go as formerly, all welcoming him with great cordiality, making him, if possible, more one of themselves than ever, while there was little change in Elsie's manner, except that all her late reserve had fled, and given place to the old ease and freedom, the sweet, affectionate confidences of earlier days.
Mr. Dinsmore's determination to delay the marriage for a year was decidedly a keen disappointment to the middle-aged lover, who had already endured so long and patient a waiting for his prize; yet so thankful and joyous was he that he had at last won her for his own, that, finding remonstrance and entreaties alike unavailing, he presently accepted the conditions with a very good grace, comforting himself with the certainty of the permanence of her love. Elsie had no coquettish arts, was simple-hearted, straightforward, and true, as in her childhood, and their confidence in each other was unbounded.