Elsie's Womanhood by Martha Finley
"A mighty pain to love it is And 'tis a pain that pain to miss; But of all pains, the greatest pain It is to love, but love in vain." --COWLEY.
One lovely afternoon in the second week of their stay at Viamede, Mr. Dinsmore and his daughter were seated in the shade of the trees on the lawn, she busied with some fancy-work while her father read aloud to her.
As he paused to turn a leaf, "Papa," she said, glancing off down the bayou, "there is a steamer coming, the same that brought us, I think; and see, it is rounding to at our landing. Can it be bringing us a guest?"
"Yes, a gentleman is stepping ashore. Why, daughter, it is Harold Allison."
"Harold! oh, how delightful!" And rising they hastened to meet and welcome him with truly Southern warmth of hospitality.
"Harold! how good of you!" cried Elsie. "Mamma wrote us that you were somewhere in this region, and if I'd had your address, I should have sent you an invitation to come and stay as long as possible."
"And you have done well and kindly by us to come without waiting for that," Mr. Dinsmore said, shaking the hand of his young brother-in-law with a warmth of cordiality that said more than his words.
"Many thanks to you both," he answered gayly. "I was conceited enough to feel sure of a welcome, and did not wait, as a more modest fellow might, to be invited. But what a lovely place! a paradise upon earth! And, Elsie, you, in those dainty white robes, look the fit presiding genius."
Elsie laughed and shook her head. "Don't turn flatterer, Harold; though I do not object to praise of Viamede."
"I have not heard from Rose in a long time," he said, addressing Mr. Dinsmore. "She and the little folks are well, I hope?"
"I had a letter this morning, and they were all in good health when it was written."
The servants had come trooping down from the house, and seizing Harold's baggage had it all ready in the guest-chamber to which Aunt Phillis ordered it. Aunt Chloe now drew near to pay her respects to "Massa Harold," and tell him that his room was ready.
"Will you go to it at once? or sit down here and have a little chat with papa and me first?" asked Elsie.
"Thank you; I think I shall defer the pleasure of the chat till I have first made myself presentable for the evening."
"Then let me conduct you to your room," said Mr. Dinsmore, leading the way to the house.
Elsie had come in the course of years to look upon the older brothers of her stepmother as in some sort her uncles, but for Harold, who was so much nearer her own age, she entertained a sincere sisterly regard. And he was worthy of it and of the warm place his many noble qualities had won for him in Mr. Dinsmore's heart.
They did all they could to make his visit to Viamede a pleasant one; there were daily rides and walks, moonlight and early morning excursions on the bayou, rowing parties; oftenest of the three alone, but sometimes in company with gallant chivalrous men and refined, cultivated women and charming young girls from the neighboring plantations.
One of these last, a beautiful brunette, Elsie had selected in her own mind for Harold, and she contrived to throw them together frequently.
"Don't you admire Miss Durand?" she asked, after they had met several times. "I think she is lovely; as good, too, as she is beautiful; and would make you a charming wife."
He flushed hotly. "She is very handsome, very fascinating and talented," he said; "but would never suit me. Nor do I suppose I could win her if I wished."
"Indeed! if you are so hard to please, I fear there will be nothing for you but old bachelorhood," laughed Elsie. "I have picked her out for you, and I believe you could win her if you tried, Harold; but I shall not try to become a match-maker."
"No, I must select for myself; I couldn't let even you choose for me."
"Choose what?" asked Mr. Dinsmore, stepping out upon the veranda, where Harold stood leaning against a vine-wreathed pillar, his blue eyes fixed with a sort of wistful, longing look upon Elsie's graceful figure and fair face, as she sat in a half-reclining posture on a low couch but a few feet from him.
"A wife," he answered, compelling himself to speak lightly.
"Don't let her do it," said Mr. Dinsmore, taking a seat by his daughter's side; "I've warned her more than once not to meddle with match-making." And he shook his head at her with mock gravity.
"I won't any more, papa; I'll leave him to his own devices, since he shows himself so ungrateful for my interest in his welfare," Elsie said, looking first at her father and then at Harold with a merry twinkle in her eye.
"I don't think I've asked how you like your new home and prospects, Harold," said Mr. Dinsmore, changing the subject.
"Very much, thank you; except that they take me so far from the rest of the family."
A few months before this Harold had met with a piece of rare good fortune, looked at from a worldly point of view, in being adopted as his sole heir by a rich and childless Louisiana planter, a distant relative of Mrs. Allison.
"Ah, that is an objection," returned Mr. Dinsmore; "but you will be forming new and closer ties, that will doubtless go far to compensate for the partial loss of the old. I hope you are enjoying yourself here?"
"I am indeed, thank you." This answer was true, yet Harold felt himself flush as he spoke, for there was one serious drawback upon his felicity; he could seldom get a word alone with Elsie; she and her father were so inseparable that he scarcely saw the one without the other. And Harold strongly coveted an occasional monopoly of the sweet girl's society. He had come to Viamede with a purpose entirely unsuspected by her or her apparently vigilant guardian.
He should perhaps, have confided his secret to Mr. Dinsmore first, but his heart failed him; and "what would be the use?" he asked himself, "if Elsie is not willing? Ah, if I could but be alone with her for an hour!"
The coveted opportunity offered itself at last, quite unexpectedly. Coming out upon the veranda one afternoon, he saw Elsie sitting alone under a tree far down on the lawn. He hastened towards her.
"I am glad to see you," she said, looking up with a smile and making room for him on the seat by her side. "You see I am 'lone and lorn,' Mr. Durand having carried off papa to look at some new improvement in his sugar-house machinery."
"Ah! and when will your father return?"
"In about an hour, I presume. Shall you attend Aunt Adie's wedding?" she asked.
"Yes, I think so. Don't you sometimes feel as if you'd like to stay here altogether?"
"Yes, and no; it's very lovely, and the more charming I believe, because it is my own; but--there is so much more to bind me to the Oaks, and I could never live far away from papa."
"Couldn't you? I hoped---- Oh, Elsie, couldn't you possibly love some one else better even than you love him? You're more to me than father, mother, and all the world beside. I have wanted to tell you so for years, but while I was comparatively poor your fortune sealed my lips. Now I am rich, and I lay all I have at your feet; myself included; and----"
"Oh, Harold, hush!" she cried in trembling tones, flushing and paling by turns, and putting up her hand as if to stop the torrent of words he was pouring forth so unexpectedly that astonishment had struck her dumb for an instant; "oh! don't say any more, I--I thought you surely knew that--that I am already engaged."
"No. To whom?" he asked hoarsely, his face pale as death, and lips quivering so that he could scarcely speak.
"To Mr. Travilla. It has been only for a few weeks, though we have loved each other for years. Oh, Harold, Harold, do not look so wretched! you break my heart, for I love you as a very dear brother."
He turned away with a groan, and without another word hastened back to the house, while Elsie, covering her face with her hands, shed some very bitter tears.
Heart-broken, stunned, feeling as if every good thing in life had suddenly slipped from his grasp, Harold sought his room, mechanically gathered up his few effects, packed them into his valise, then sat down by the open window and leant his head upon his hand.
He couldn't think, he could only feel that all was lost, and that he must go away at once, if he would not have everybody know it, and make the idol of his heart miserable with the sight of his wretchedness.
Why had he not known of her engagement? Why had no one told him? Why had he been such a fool as to suppose he could win so great a prize? He was not worthy of her. How plainly he saw it now, how sorely repented of the conceit that had led him on to the avowal of his passion.
He had a vague recollection that a boat was to pass that afternoon. He would take passage in that, and he hoped Mr. Dinsmore's return might be delayed till he was gone. He would away without another word to Elsie; she should not be disturbed by any further unmanly manifestation of his bitter grief and despair.
The hour of the passing of the boat drew near, and valise in hand, he left his room and passed down the stairs. But Elsie was coming in from the lawn, and they met in the lower hall.
"Harold," she cried, "you are not going? You must not leave us so suddenly."
"I must," he said in icy tones, the stony eyes gazing into vacancy; "all places are alike to me now, and I cannot stay here to trouble you and Horace with the sight of a wretchedness I cannot hide."
Trembling so that she could scarcely stand, Elsie leaned against the wall for support, the hot tears coursing down her cheeks. "Oh, Harold!" she sobbed, "what an unhappy creature I am to have been the cause of such sorrow to you! Oh why should you ever have thought of me so?"
Dropping his valise, his whole manner changing, he turned to her with passionate vehemence. "Because I couldn't help it! Even as a boy I gave up my whole heart to you, and I cannot call it back. Oh, Elsie, why did I ever see you?" and he seized both her hands in a grasp that almost forced a cry of pain from her white, quivering lips. "Life is worthless without you. I'd rather die knowing that you loved me than live to see you in the possession of another."
"Harold, Harold, a sister's love I can, I do give you; and can you not be content with that?"
"A sister's love!" he repeated scornfully. "Offer a cup with a drop of water in it, to a man perishing, dying with thirst. Yes, I'm going away, I care not whither; all places are alike to him who has lost all interest in life."
He threw her hands from him almost with violence, half turned away, then suddenly catching her in his arms, held her close to his heart, kissing passionately, forehead, cheek, and lips. "Oh, Elsie, Elsie, light of my eyes, core of my heart, why did we ever meet to part like this? I don't blame you. I have been a fool. Good-bye, darling." And releasing her, he was gone ere she could recover breath to speak. It had all been so sudden she had had no power, perhaps no will, to resist, so sore was the tender, loving heart for him.
He was barely in time to hail the boat as it passed, and at the instant he was about to step aboard, Mr. Dinsmore rode up, and springing from the saddle, throwing the reins to his servant, cried out in astonishment, "Harold! you are not leaving us? Come, come, what has happened to hurry you away? Must you go?"
"Yes, I must," he answered with half-averted face. "Don't call me a scoundrel for making such a return for your hospitality. I couldn't help it. Good-bye. Try to forget that I've been here at all; for Rose's sake, you know."
He sprang into the boat; it pushed off, and was presently lost to sight among the trees shading the bayou on either hand.
Mr. Dinsmore stood for a moment as if spellbound; then turned and walked thoughtfully towards the house. "What did it all mean?" he asked himself; "of what unkind return of his or Elsie's hospitality could the lad have been guilty? Elsie! ha! can it be possible?" and quickened his pace, glancing from side to side in search of her as he hurried on.
Entering the hall, the sound of a half-smothered sob guided him to a little parlor or reception-room seldom used. Softly he opened the door. She was there half-reclining upon a sofa, her face buried in the cushions. In a moment he had her in his arms, the weary, aching head on his breast, while he tenderly wiped away the fast-falling tears.
"My poor darling, my poor little pet, don't take it so to heart. It is nothing; he will probably get over it before he is a month older."
"Papa, is it my fault? did I give him undue encouragement? am I a coquette?" she sobbed.
"Far from it! did he dare to call you that?"
"No, no, oh, no; he said he did not blame me; it was all his own folly."
"Ah! I think the better of him for that; though 'twas no more than just."
"I thought he knew of my engagement."
"So did I. And the absurdity of the thing! Such a mixture of relationships as it would have been! I should never have entertained the thought for a moment. And he ought to have spoken to me first, and spared you all this. No, you needn't fret; he deserves all he suffers, for what he has inflicted upon you, my precious one."
"I hardly think that, papa; he was very generous to take all the blame to himself; but oh, you have eased my heart of half its load. What should I ever do without you, my own dear, dear father!"
The pleasure of our friends, during the rest of their stay at Viamede, was somewhat dampened by this unfortunate episode, though Elsie, for her father's sake, did her best to rally from its effect on her spirits, and to be cheerful and gay as before.
Long, bright, loving letters from home, and Ion coming the next day, were a great help. Then the next day brought a chaplain, who seemed in all respects so well suited to his place as to entirely relieve her mind in regard to the future welfare of her people. He entered into all her plans for them, and promised to carry them out to the best of his ability.
So it was with a light heart, though not without some lingering regrets for the sad ones and the loveliness left behind, that she and her father set out on their homeward way.
Mr. Dinsmore's man John, Aunt Chloe, and Uncle Joe, went with them; and it was a continual feast for master and mistress to see the happiness of the poor old couple, especially when their grandchild Dinah, their only living descendant so far as they could learn, was added to the party; Elsie purchasing her, according to promise, as they passed through New Orleans on their return trip.
Dinah was very grateful to find herself installed as assistant to her grandmother, who, Elsie said, must begin to take life more easily now in her old age. Yet that Aunt Chloe found it hard to do, for she was very jealous of having any hands but her own busied about the person of her idolized young mistress.
A glad welcome awaited them at home, where they arrived in due season for Adelaide's wedding.
Sophie and Harry Carrington had returned from their wedding trip, and were making their home with his parents, at Ashlands; Richard, Fred, and May Allison, came with their brother Edward; but Harold, who was to meet them at Roselands, was not there. He had engaged to act as second groomsman, Richard being first, and there was much wondering over his absence; many regrets were expressed, and some anxiety was felt.
But Elsie and her father kept their own counsel, and breathed no word of the episode at Viamede, which would have explained all.
Harold's coming was still hoped for by the others until the last moment, when Fred took his place, and the ceremony passed off as satisfactorily as if there had been no failure on the part of any expected, to participate in it.
It took place in the drawing-room at Roselands, in presence of a crowd of aristocratic guests, and was considered a very grand affair. A round of parties followed for the next two weeks, and then the happy pair set sail for Europe.