Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Malbone: an Oldport Romance online

. (page 1 of 11)
Online LibraryThomas Wentworth HigginsonMalbone: an Oldport Romance → online text (page 1 of 11)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Judy Boss



By Thomas Wentworth Higginson

"What is Nature unless there is an eventful human life
passing within her?

Many joys and many sorrows are the lights and shadows in
which she shows most beautiful."

- THOREAU, MS. Diary.





AS one wanders along this southwestern promontory of the Isle of Peace,
and looks down upon the green translucent water which forever bathes the
marble slopes of the Pirates' Cave, it is natural to think of the ten
wrecks with which the past winter has strewn this shore. Though almost
all trace of their presence is already gone, yet their mere memory lends
to these cliffs a human interest. Where a stranded vessel lies, thither
all steps converge, so long as one plank remains upon another. There
centres the emotion. All else is but the setting, and the eye sweeps
with indifference the line of unpeopled rocks. They are barren, till the
imagination has tenanted them with possibilities of danger and dismay.
The ocean provides the scenery and properties of a perpetual tragedy,
but the interest arrives with the performers. Till then the shores
remain vacant, like the great conventional armchairs of the French
drama, that wait for Rachel to come and die.

Yet as I ride along this fashionable avenue in August, and watch the
procession of the young and fair, - as I look at stately houses, from
each of which has gone forth almost within my memory a funeral or a
bride, - then every thoroughfare of human life becomes in fancy but an
ocean shore, with its ripples and its wrecks. One learns, in growing
older, that no fiction can be so strange nor appear so improbable as
would the simple truth; and that doubtless even Shakespeare did but
timidly transcribe a few of the deeds and passions he had personally
known. For no man of middle age can dare trust himself to portray
life in its full intensity, as he has studied or shared it; he must
resolutely set aside as indescribable the things most worth describing,
and must expect to be charged with exaggeration, even when he tells the


IT was one of the changing days of our Oldport midsummer. In the morning
it had rained in rather a dismal way, and Aunt Jane had said she should
put it in her diary. It was a very serious thing for the elements when
they got into Aunt Jane's diary. By noon the sun came out as clear and
sultry as if there had never been a cloud, the northeast wind died away,
the bay was motionless, the first locust of the summer shrilled from the
elms, and the robins seemed to be serving up butterflies hot for their
insatiable second brood, while nothing seemed desirable for a human
luncheon except ice-cream and fans. In the afternoon the southwest wind
came up the bay, with its line of dark-blue ripple and its delicious
coolness; while the hue of the water grew more and more intense, till we
seemed to be living in the heart of a sapphire.

The household sat beneath the large western doorway of the old Maxwell
House, - he rear door, which looks on the water. The house had just been
reoccupied by my Aunt Jane, whose great-grandfather had built it, though
it had for several generations been out of the family. I know no finer
specimen of those large colonial dwellings in which the genius of Sir
Christopher Wren bequeathed traditions of stateliness to our democratic
days. Its central hall has a carved archway; most of the rooms have
painted tiles and are wainscoted to the ceiling; the sashes are
red-cedar, the great staircase mahogany; there are pilasters with
delicate Corinthian capitals; there are cherubs' heads and wings that go
astray and lose themselves in closets and behind glass doors; there are
curling acanthus-leaves that cluster over shelves and ledges, and there
are those graceful shell-patterns which one often sees on old furniture,
but rarely in houses. The high front door still retains its Ionic
cornice; and the western entrance, looking on the bay, is surmounted
by carved fruit and flowers, and is crowned, as is the roof, with
that pineapple in whose symbolic wealth the rich merchants of the last
century delighted.

Like most of the statelier houses in that region of Oldport, this abode
had its rumors of a ghost and of secret chambers. The ghost had
never been properly lionized nor laid, for Aunt Jane, the neatest
of housekeepers, had discouraged all silly explorations, had at once
required all barred windows to be opened, all superfluous partitions to
be taken down, and several highly eligible dark-closets to be nailed up.
If there was anything she hated, it was nooks and odd corners. Yet there
had been times that year, when the household would have been glad to
find a few more such hiding-places; for during the first few weeks the
house had been crammed with guests so closely that the very mice had
been ill-accommodated and obliged to sit up all night, which had caused
them much discomfort and many audible disagreements.

But this first tumult had passed away; and now there remained only the
various nephews and nieces of the house, including a due proportion of
small children. Two final guests were to arrive that day, bringing
the latest breath of Europe on their wings, - Philip Malbone, Hope's
betrothed; and little Emilia, Hope's half-sister.

None of the family had seen Emilia since her wandering mother had taken
her abroad, a fascinating spoiled child of four, and they were all eager
to see in how many ways the succeeding twelve years had completed or
corrected the spoiling. As for Philip, he had been spoiled, as Aunt Jane
declared, from the day of his birth, by the joint effort of all friends
and neighbors. Everybody had conspired to carry on the process except
Aunt Jane herself, who directed toward him one of her honest, steady,
immovable dislikes, which may be said to have dated back to the time
when his father and mother were married, some years before he personally
entered on the scene.

The New York steamer, detained by the heavy fog of the night before, now
came in unwonted daylight up the bay. At the first glimpse, Harry and
the boys pushed off in the row-boat; for, as one of the children said,
anybody who had been to Venice would naturally wish to come to the very
house in a gondola. In another half-hour there was a great entanglement
of embraces at the water-side, for the guests had landed.

Malbone's self-poised easy grace was the same as ever; his
chestnut-brown eyes were as winning, his features as handsome; his
complexion, too clearly pink for a man, had a sea bronze upon it: he was
the same Philip who had left home, though with some added lines of care.
But in the brilliant little fairy beside him all looked in vain for the
Emilia they remembered as a child. Her eyes were more beautiful than
ever, - the darkest violet eyes, that grew luminous with thought and
almost black with sorrow. Her gypsy taste, as everybody used to call it,
still showed itself in the scarlet and dark blue of her dress; but the
clouded gypsy tint had gone from her cheek, and in its place shone a
deep carnation, so hard and brilliant that it appeared to be enamelled
on the surface, yet so firm and deep-dyed that it seemed as if not even
death could ever blanch it. There is a kind of beauty that seems made to
be painted on ivory, and such was hers. Only the microscopic pencil of
a miniature-painter could portray those slender eyebrows, that arched
caressingly over the beautiful eyes, - or the silky hair of darkest
chestnut that crept in a wavy line along the temples, as if longing to
meet the brows, - or those unequalled lashes! "Unnecessarily long," Aunt
Jane afterwards pronounced them; while Kate had to admit that they did
indeed give Emilia an overdressed look at breakfast, and that she ought
to have a less showy set to match her morning costume.

But what was most irresistible about Emilia, - that which we all noticed
in this interview, and which haunted us all thenceforward, - was a
certain wild, entangled look she wore, as of some untamed out-door
thing, and a kind of pathetic lost sweetness in her voice, which made
her at once and forever a heroine of romance with the children. Yet
she scarcely seemed to heed their existence, and only submitted to the
kisses of Hope and Kate as if that were a part of the price of coming
home, and she must pay it.

Had she been alone, there might have been an awkward pause; for if you
expect a cousin, and there alights a butterfly of the tropics, what
hospitality can you offer? But no sense of embarrassment ever came near
Malbone, especially with the children to swarm over him and claim him
for their own. Moreover, little Helen got in the first remark in the way
of serious conversation.

"Let me tell him something!" said the child. "Philip! that doll of mine
that you used to know, only think! she was sick and died last summer,
and went into the rag-bag. And the other split down the back, so there
was an end of her."

Polar ice would have been thawed by this reopening of communication.
Philip soon had the little maid on his shoulder, - the natural throne of
all children, - and they went in together to greet Aunt Jane.

Aunt Jane was the head of the house, - a lady who had spent more than
fifty years in educating her brains and battling with her ailments. She
had received from her parents a considerable inheritance in the way of
whims, and had nursed it up into a handsome fortune. Being one of
the most impulsive of human beings, she was naturally one of the most
entertaining; and behind all her eccentricities there was a fund of the
soundest sense and the tenderest affection. She had seen much and varied
society, had been greatly admired in her youth, but had chosen to remain
unmarried. Obliged by her physical condition to make herself the first
object, she was saved from utter selfishness by sympathies as democratic
as her personal habits were exclusive. Unexpected and commonly fantastic
in her doings, often dismayed by small difficulties, but never by large
ones, she sagaciously administered the affairs of all those around
her, - planned their dinners and their marriages, fought out their
bargains and their feuds.

She hated everything irresolute or vague; people might play at
cat's-cradle or study Spinoza, just as they pleased; but, whatever
they did, they must give their minds to it. She kept house from an
easy-chair, and ruled her dependants with severity tempered by wit, and
by the very sweetest voice in which reproof was ever uttered. She never
praised them, but if they did anything particularly well, rebuked them
retrospectively, asking why they had never done it well before? But she
treated them munificently, made all manner of plans for their comfort,
and they all thought her the wisest and wittiest of the human race. So
did the youths and maidens of her large circle; they all came to see
her, and she counselled, admired, scolded, and petted them all. She had
the gayest spirits, and an unerring eye for the ludicrous, and she spoke
her mind with absolute plainness to all comers. Her intuitions were
instantaneous as lightning, and, like that, struck very often in
the wrong place. She was thus extremely unreasonable and altogether

Such was the lady whom Emilia and Malbone went up to greet, - the one
shyly, the other with an easy assurance, such as she always disliked.
Emilia submitted to another kiss, while Philip pressed Aunt Jane's hand,
as he pressed all women's, and they sat down.

"Now begin to tell your adventures," said Kate. "People always tell
their adventures till tea is ready."

"Who can have any adventures left," said Philip, "after such letters as
I wrote you all?"

"Of which we got precisely one!" said Kate. "That made it such an event,
after we had wondered in what part of the globe you might be looking
for the post-office! It was like finding a letter in a bottle, or
disentangling a person from the Dark Ages."

"I was at Neuchatel two months; but I had no adventures. I lodged with a
good Pasteur, who taught me geology and German."

"That is suspicious," said Kate. "Had he a daughter passing fair?"

"Indeed he had."

"And you taught her English? That is what these beguiling youths always
do in novels."


"What was her name?"


"What a pretty name! How old was she?"

"She was six."

"O Philip!" cried Kate; "but I might have known it. Did she love you
very much?"

Hope looked up, her eyes full of mild reproach at the possibility of
doubting any child's love for Philip. He had been her betrothed for more
than a year, during which time she had habitually seen him wooing every
child he had met as if it were a woman, - which, for Philip, was saying
a great deal. Happily they had in common the one trait of perfect
amiability, and she knew no more how to be jealous than he to be

"Lili was easily won," he said. "Other things being equal, people of six
prefer that man who is tallest."

"Philip is not so very tall," said the eldest of the boys, who was
listening eagerly, and growing rapidly.

"No," said Philip, meekly. "But then the Pasteur was short, and his
brother was a dwarf."

"When Lili found that she could reach the ceiling from Mr. Malbone's
shoulder," said Emilia, "she asked no more."

"Then you knew the pastor's family also, my child," said Aunt Jane,
looking at her kindly and a little keenly.

"I was allowed to go there sometimes," she began, timidly.

"To meet her American Cousin," interrupted Philip. "I got some
relaxation in the rules of the school. But, Aunt Jane, you have told us
nothing about your health."

"There is nothing to tell," she answered. "I should like, if it were
convenient, to be a little better. But in this life, if one can walk
across the floor, and not be an idiot, it is something. That is all I
aim at."

"Isn't it rather tiresome?" said Emilia, as the elder lady happened to
look at her.

"Not at all," said Aunt Jane, composedly. "I naturally fall back into
happiness, when left to myself."

"So you have returned to the house of your fathers," said Philip. "I
hope you like it."

"It is commonplace in one respect," said Aunt Jane. "General Washington
once slept here."

"Oh!" said Philip. "It is one of that class of houses?"

"Yes," said she. "There is not a village in America that has not half
a dozen of them, not counting those where he only breakfasted. Did
ever man sleep like that man? What else could he ever have done? Who
governed, I wonder, while he was asleep? How he must have travelled! The
swiftest horse could scarcely have carried him from one of these houses
to another."

"I never was attached to the memory of Washington," meditated Philip;
"but I always thought it was the pear-tree. It must have been that he
was such a very unsettled person."

"He certainly was not what is called a domestic character," said Aunt

"I suppose you are, Miss Maxwell," said Philip. "Do you often go out?"

"Sometimes, to drive," said Aunt Jane. "Yesterday I went shopping with
Kate, and sat in the carriage while she bought under-sleeves enough
for a centipede. It is always so with that child. People talk about the
trouble of getting a daughter ready to be married; but it is like being
married once a month to live with her."

"I wonder that you take her to drive with you," suggested Philip,

"It is a great deal worse to drive without her," said the impetuous
lady. "She is the only person who lets me enjoy things, and now I
cannot enjoy them in her absence. Yesterday I drove alone over the three
beaches, and left her at home with a dress-maker. Never did I see so
many lines of surf; but they only seemed to me like some of Kate's
ball-dresses, with the prevailing flounces, six deep. I was so enraged
that she was not there, I wished to cover my face with my handkerchief.
By the third beach I was ready for the madhouse."

"Is Oldport a pleasant place to live in?" asked Emilia, eagerly.

"It is amusing in the summer," said Aunt Jane, "though the society is
nothing but a pack of visiting-cards. In winter it is too dull for young
people, and only suits quiet old women like me, who merely live here to
keep the Ten Commandments and darn their stockings."

Meantime the children were aiming at Emilia, whose butterfly looks
amazed and charmed them, but who evidently did not know what to do with
their eager affection.

"I know about you," said little Helen; "I know what you said when you
were little."

"Did I say anything?" asked Emilia, carelessly.

"Yes," replied the child, and began to repeat the oft-told domestic
tradition in an accurate way, as if it were a school lesson. "Once you
had been naughty, and your papa thought it his duty to slap you, and you
cried; and he told you in French, because he always spoke French with
you, that he did not punish you for his own pleasure. Then you stopped
crying, and asked, 'Pour le plaisir de qui alors?' That means 'For whose
pleasure then?' Hope said it was a droll question for a little girl to

"I do not think it was Emilia who asked that remarkable question, little
girl," said Kate.

"I dare say it was," said Emilia; "I have been asking it all my life."
Her eyes grew very moist, what with fatigue and excitement. But just
then, as is apt to happen in this world, they were all suddenly recalled
from tears to tea, and the children smothered their curiosity in
strawberries and cream.

They sat again beside the western door, after tea. The young moon came
from a cloud and dropped a broad path of glory upon the bay; a black
yacht glided noiselessly in, and anchored amid this tract of splendor.
The shadow of its masts was on the luminous surface, while their
reflection lay at a different angle, and seemed to penetrate far below.
Then the departing steamer went flashing across this bright realm with
gorgeous lustre; its red and green lights were doubled in the paler
waves, its four reflected chimneys chased each other among the reflected
masts. This jewelled wonder passing, a single fishing-boat drifted
silently by, with its one dark sail; and then the moon and the anchored
yacht were left alone.

Presently some of the luggage came from the wharf. Malbone brought
out presents for everybody; then all the family went to Europe in
photographs, and with some reluctance came back to America for bed.


IN every town there is one young maiden who is the universal favorite,
who belongs to all sets and is made an exception to all family feuds,
who is the confidante of all girls and the adopted sister of all young
men, up to the time when they respectively offer themselves to her, and
again after they are rejected. This post was filled in Oldport, in those
days, by my cousin Kate.

Born into the world with many other gifts, this last and least definable
gift of popularity was added to complete them all. Nobody criticised
her, nobody was jealous of her, her very rivals lent her their new music
and their lovers; and her own discarded wooers always sought her to be a
bridesmaid when they married somebody else.

She was one of those persons who seem to have come into the world
well-dressed. There was an atmosphere of elegance around her, like a
costume; every attitude implied a presence-chamber or a ball-room. The
girls complained that in private theatricals no combination of disguises
could reduce Kate to the ranks, nor give her the "make-up" of a
waiting-maid. Yet as her father was a New York merchant of the
precarious or spasmodic description, she had been used from childhood
to the wildest fluctuations of wardrobe; - a year of Paris dresses, - then
another year spent in making over ancient finery, that never looked like
either finery or antiquity when it came from her magic hands. Without
a particle of vanity or fear, secure in health and good-nature and
invariable prettiness, she cared little whether the appointed means of
grace were ancient silk or modern muslin. In her periods of poverty,
she made no secret of the necessary devices; the other girls, of course,
guessed them, but her lovers never did, because she always told them.
There was one particular tarlatan dress of hers which was a sort of
local institution. It was known to all her companions, like the State
House. There was a report that she had first worn it at her christening;
the report originated with herself. The young men knew that she was
going to the party if she could turn that pink tarlatan once more; but
they had only the vaguest impression what a tarlatan was, and cared
little on which side it was worn, so long as Kate was inside.

During these epochs of privation her life, in respect to dress, was a
perpetual Christmas-tree of second-hand gifts. Wealthy aunts supplied
her with cast-off shoes of all sizes, from two and a half up to five,
and she used them all. She was reported to have worn one straw hat
through five changes of fashion. It was averred that, when square crowns
were in vogue, she flattened it over a tin pan, and that, when round
crowns returned, she bent it on the bedpost. There was such a charm in
her way of adapting these treasures, that the other girls liked to
test her with new problems in the way of millinery and dress-making;
millionnaire friends implored her to trim their hats, and lent her their
own things in order to learn how to wear them. This applied especially
to certain rich cousins, shy and studious girls, who adored her, and
to whom society only ceased to be alarming when the brilliant Kate
took them under her wing, and graciously accepted a few of their newest
feathers. Well might they acquiesce, for she stood by them superbly, and
her most favored partners found no way to her hand so sure as to dance
systematically through that staid sisterhood. Dear, sunshiny, gracious,
generous Kate! - who has ever done justice to the charm given to this
grave old world by the presence of one free-hearted and joyous girl?

At the time now to be described, however, Kate's purse was well filled;
and if she wore only second-best finery, it was because she had lent her
very best to somebody else. All that her doting father asked was to pay
for her dresses, and to see her wear them; and if her friends wore a
part of them, it only made necessary a larger wardrobe, and more varied
and pleasurable shopping. She was as good a manager in wealth as in
poverty, wasted nothing, took exquisite care of everything, and saved
faithfully for some one else all that was not needed for her own pretty

Pretty she was throughout, from the parting of her jet-black hair to the
high instep of her slender foot; a glancing, brilliant, brunette beauty,
with the piquant charm of perpetual spirits, and the equipoise of a
perfectly healthy nature. She was altogether graceful, yet she had not
the fresh, free grace of her cousin Hope, who was lithe and strong as a
hawthorne spray: Kate's was the narrower grace of culture grown
hereditary, an in-door elegance that was born in her, and of which
dancing-school was but the natural development. You could not picture
Hope to your mind in one position more than in another; she had an
endless variety of easy motion. When you thought of Kate, you remembered
precisely how she sat, how she stood, and how she walked. That was all,
and it was always the same. But is not that enough? We do not ask of
Mary Stuart's portrait that it should represent her in more than one
attitude, and why should a living beauty need more than two or three?

Kate was betrothed to her cousin Harry, Hope's brother, and, though she
was barely twenty, they had seemed to appertain to each other for a time
so long that the memory of man or maiden aunt ran not to the contrary.
She always declared, indeed, that they were born married, and that

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Online LibraryThomas Wentworth HigginsonMalbone: an Oldport Romance → online text (page 1 of 11)