Edward Eggleston.

The Mystery of Metropolisville online

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running, pushed back his long light hair, and looked side-wise at the
white forehead and the delicate but fresh cheeks below.

"So you like Cecropias and bright-green beetles, do you?" he said, and he
gallantly unpinned the wide-winged moth from his hat-crown and stuck it
on the cover of Miss Minorkey's portfolio, and then added the green
beetle. Helen thanked him in her quiet way, but with pleased eyes.

"Excuse me, Miss Minorkey," said Albert, blushing, as they approached the
hotel, "I should like very much to accompany you to the parlor of the
hotel, but people generally see nothing but the ludicrous side of
scientific pursuits, and I should only make you ridiculous."

"I should be very glad to have you come," said Helen. "I don't mind being
laughed at in good company, and it is such a relief to meet a gentleman
who can talk about something besides corner lots and five per cent a
month, and," with a wicked look at the figure of her father in the
distance, "and mortgages with waivers in them!"

Our cynic philosopher found his cynicism melting away like an iceberg in
the Gulf-stream. An hour before he would have told you that a woman's
flattery could have no effect on an intellectual man; now he felt a
tremor of pleasure, an indescribable something, as he shortened his steps
to keep time with the little boots with which Miss Minorkey trod down the
prairie grass, and he who had laughed at awkward boys for seeking the aid
of dancing-masters to improve their gait, wished himself less awkward,
and actually blushed with pleasure when this self-possessed young lady
praised his conversation. He walked with her to the hotel, though he took
the precaution to take his hat off his head and hang it on his finger,
and twirl it round, as if laughing at it himself - back-firing against the
ridicule of others. He who thought himself sublimely indifferent to the
laughter of ignoramuses, now fencing against it!

The parlor of the huge pine hotel (a huge unfinished pine hotel is the
starting point of speculative cities), the parlor of the Metropolisville
City Hotel was a large room, the floor of which was covered with a very
cheap but bright-colored ingrain carpet; the furniture consisted of six
wooden-bottomed chairs, very bright and new, with a very yellow rose
painted on the upper slat of the back of each, a badly tattered
hair-cloth sofa, of a very antiquated pattern, and a small old piano,
whose tinny tones were only matched by its entire lack of tune. The last
two valuable articles had been bought at auction, and some of the keys of
the piano had been permanently silenced by its ride in an ox-cart from
Red Owl to Metropolisville.

But intellect and culture are always superior to external circumstances,
and Mr. Charlton was soon sublimely oblivious to the tattered hair-cloth
of the sofa on which he sat, and he utterly failed to notice the stiff
wooden chair on which Miss Minorkey reposed. Both were too much
interested in science to observe furniture; She admired the wonders of
his dragon-flies, always in her quiet and intelligent fashion; he
returned the compliment by praising her flowers in his eager, hearty,
enthusiastic way. Her coolness made her seem to him very superior; his
enthusiasm made him very piquant and delightful to her. And when he got
upon his hobby and told her how grand a vocation the teacher's
profession was, and recited stories of the self-denial of Pestalozzi and
Froebel, and the great schemes of Basedow, and told how he meant here
in this new country to build a great Institute on rational principles,
Helen Minorkey found him more interesting than ever. Like you and me,
she loved philanthropy at other people's expense. She admired great
reformers, though she herself never dreamed of putting a little finger
to anybody's burden.

It took so long to explain fully this great project that Albert staid
until nearly supper-time, forgetting the burden of his sister's unhappy
future in the interest of science and philanthropy. And even when he rose
to go, Charlton turned back to look again at a "prairie sun-flower" which
Helen Minorkey had dissected while he spoke, and, finding something
curious, perhaps in the fiber, he proposed to bring his microscope over
in the evening and examine it - a proposition very grateful to Helen, who
had nothing but _ennui_ to expect in Metropolisville, and who was
therefore delighted. Delighted is a strong word for one so cool: perhaps
it would be better to say that she was relieved and pleased at the
prospect of passing an evening with so curious and interesting a
companion. For Charlton was both curious and interesting to her. She
sympathized with his intellectual activity, and she was full of wonder at
his intense moral earnestness.

As for Albert, botany suddenly took on a new interest in his eyes. He had
hitherto regarded it as a science for girls. But now he was so profoundly
desirous of discovering the true character of the tissue in the plant
which Miss Minorkey had dissected, that it seemed to him of the utmost
importance to settle it that very evening. His mother for the first time
complained of his going out, and seemed not very well satisfied about
something. He found that he was likely to have a good opportunity, after
supper, to speak to Isabel Marlay in regard to his sister and her lover,
but somehow the matter did not seem so exigent as it had. The night
before, he had determined that it was needful to check the intimacy
before it went farther, that every day of delay increased the peril; but
things often look differently under different circumstances, and now the
most important duty in life for Albert Charlton was the immediate
settlement of a question in structural botany by means of microscopic
investigation. Albert was at this moment a curious illustration of the
influence of scientific enthusiasm, for he hurriedly relieved his hat of
its little museum, ate his supper, got out his microscope, and returned
to the hotel. He placed the instrument on the old piano, adjusted the
object, and pedagogically expounded to Miss Minorkey the true method of
observing. Microscopy proved very entertaining to both. Albert did not
feel sure that it might not become a life-work with him. It would be a
delightful thing to study microscopic botany forever, if he could have
Helen Minorkey to listen to his enthusiastic expositions. From her
science the transition to his was easy, and they studied under every
combination of glasses the beautiful lace of a dragon-fly's wing, and the
irregular spots on a drab grasshopper which ran by chance half-across one
of his eyes. The thrifty landlord had twice looked in at the door in hope
of finding the parlor empty, intending in which case to put out the lamp.
But I can not tell how long this enthusiastic pursuit of scientific
knowledge might have lasted had not Mr. Minorkey been seized with one of
his dying spells. When the message was brought by a Norwegian
servant-girl, whose white hair fairly stood up with fright, Mr. Charlton
was very much shocked, but Miss Minorkey did not for a moment lose her
self-possession. Besides having the advantage of quiet nerves, she had
become inured to the presence of Death in all his protean forms - it was
impossible that her father should be threatened in a way with which she
was not already familiar.

Emotions may be suspended by being superseded for a time by stronger
ones. In such case, they are likely to return with great force, when
revived by some association. Charlton stepped out on the piazza with his
microscope in his hand and stopped a moment to take in the scene - the
rawness and newness and flimsiness of the mushroom village, with its
hundred unpainted bass-wood houses, the sweetness, peacefulness, and
freshness of the unfurrowed prairie beyond, the calmness and immutability
of the clear, star-lit sky above - when he heard a voice round the corner
of the building that put out his eyes and opened his ears, if I may so
speak. Somebody was reproaching somebody else with being "spooney on the
little girl."

"He! he!" - the reply began with that hateful giggle - "I know my business,
gentlemen. Not such a fool as you think." Here there was a shuffling of
feet, and Charlton's imagination easily supplied the image of Smith
Westcott cutting a "pigeon-wing."

"Don't I know the ways of this wicked world? Haven't I had all the silly
sentiment took out of me? He! he! I've seen the world," and then he
danced again and sang:

"Can't you come out to-night,
Can't you come out to-night,
And dance by the light of the moon?"

"Now, boys," he began, again rattling his coins and keys, "I learnt too
much about New York. I had to leave. They didn't want a man there that
knew all the ropes so well, and so I called a meeting of the mayor and
told him good-by. He! he! By George! 'S a fack! I drank too much and I
lived two-forty on the plank-road, till the devil sent me word he didn't
want to lose his best friend, and he wished I'd just put out from New
York. 'Twas leave New York or die. That's what brought me here. It I'd
lived in New York I wouldn't never 've married. Not much, Mary Ann or
Sukey Jane. He! he!" And then he sang again:

[Illustration: "BY GEORGE! HE! HE! HE!"]

"If I was young and in my prime,
I'd lead a different life,
I'd spend my money -

"but I'd be hanged if I'd marry a wife to save her from the Tower of
London, you know. As long as I could live at the Elysian Club, didn'
want a wife. But this country! Psha! this is a-going to be a land of
Sunday-schools and sewing-societies. A fellow can't live here
without a wife:

"'Den lay down de shubble and de hoe,
Den hang up de fiddle and de bow -
For poor old Ned - '

"Yah! Can't sing! Out of practice! Got a cold! Instrument needs tuning!
Excuse me! He! he!"

There was some other talk, in a voice too low for Albert to hear, though
he listened with both ears, waiving all sense of delicacy about
eavesdropping in his anger and his desire to rescue Katy. Then Westcott,
who had evidently been drinking and was vinously frank, burst out with:

"Think I'd marry an old girl! Think I'd marry a smart one! I want a sweet
little thing that would love me and worship me and believe everything I
said. I know! By George! He! he! That Miss Minorkey at the table! She'd
see through a fellow! Now, looky here, boys, I'm goin' to be serious for
once. I want a girl that'll exert a moral influence over me, you know!
But I'll be confounded if I want too much moral influence, by George, he!
he! A little spree now and then all smoothed over! I need moral
influence, but in small doses. Weak constitution, you know! Can't stand
too much moral influence. Head's level. A little girl! Educate her
yourself, you know! He! he! By George! And do as you please.

"'O Jinny! git yer hoe-cake done, my dear!
O Jinny! git yer hoe-cake done!'

"Yah! yah! He! he! he!"

It is not strange that Charlton did not sleep that night, that he was a
prey to conflicting emotions, blessing the cool, intellectual,
self-possessed face of Miss Minorkey, who knew botany, and inwardly
cursing the fate that had handed little Katy over to be the prey of such
a man as Smith Westcott.




CHAPTER VIII.

ISABEL MARLAY.


Isabel Marlay was not the niece of our friend Squire Plausaby, but of his
first wife. Plausaby, Esq., had been the guardian of her small
inheritance in her childhood, and the property had quite mysteriously
suffered from a series of curious misfortunes: the investments were
unlucky; those who borrowed of the guardian proved worthless, and so did
their securities. Of course the guardian was not to blame, and of course
he handled the money honestly. But people will be suspicious even of the
kindest and most smoothly-speaking men; and the bland manner and
innocent, open countenance of Plausaby, Esq., could not save him from the
reproaches of uncharitable people. As he could not prove his innocence,
he had no consolation but that which is ever to be derived from a
conscience void of offense.

Isabel Marlay found herself at an early age without means. But she had
never seen a day of dependence. Deft hands, infallible taste in matters
of dress, invincible cheerfulness, and swift industry made her always
valuable. She had not been content to live in the house of her aunt, the
first Mrs. Plausaby, as a dependent, and she even refused to remain in
the undefined relation of a member of the family whose general utility,
in some sort, roughly squares the account of board and clothes at the
year's end. Whether or not she had any suspicions in regard to the
transactions of Plausaby, Esq., in the matter of her patrimony, I do not
know. She may have been actuated by nothing but a desire to have her
independence apparent. Or, she may have enjoyed - as who would
not? - having her own money to spend. At any rate, she made a definite
bargain with her uncle-in-law, by which she took charge of the sewing in
his house, and received each year a hundred dollars in cash and her
board. It was not large pay for such service as she rendered, but then
she preferred the house of a relative to that of a stranger. When the
second Mrs. Plausaby had come into the house, Mr. Plausaby had been glad
to continue the arrangement, in the hope, perhaps, that Isa's good taste
might modify that lady's love for discordant gauds.

To Albert Charlton, Isa's life seemed not to be on a very high key. She
had only a common-school education, and the leisure she had been able to
command for general reading was not very great, nor had the library in
the house of Plausaby been very extensive. She had read a good deal of
Matthew Henry, the "Life and Labors of Mary Lyon" and the "Life of
Isabella Graham," the "Works of Josephus," "Hume's History of England,"
and Milton's "Paradise Lost." She had tried to read Mrs. Sigourney's
"Poems" and Pollok's "Course of Time," but had not enjoyed them much. She
was not imaginative. She had plenty of feeling, but no sentiment, for
sentiment is feeling that has been thought over; and her life was too
entirely objective to allow her to think of her own feelings. Her
highest qualities, as Albert inventoried them, were good sense, good
taste, and absolute truthfulness and simplicity of character. These were
the qualities that he saw in her after a brief acquaintance. They were
not striking, and yet they were qualities that commanded respect. But he
looked in vain for those high ideals of a vocation and a goal that so
filled his own soul. If she read of Mary Lyon, she had no aspiration to
imitate her. Her whole mind seemed full of the ordinary cares of life.
Albert could not abide that anybody should expend even such abilities as
Isa possessed on affairs of raiment and domestic economy. The very tokens
of good taste and refined feeling in her dress were to him evidences of
over-careful vanity.

But when his mother and Katy had gone out on the morning after he had
overheard Smith Westcott expound his views on the matter of marriage,
Charlton sought Isa Marlay. She sat sewing in the parlor, as it was
called - the common sitting-room of the house - by the west window. The
whole arrangement of the room was hers; and though Albert was neither an
artist nor a critic in matters of taste, he was, as I have already
indicated, a man of fine susceptibility. He rejoiced in this
susceptibility when it enabled him to appreciate nature. He repressed it
when he found himself vibrating in sympathy with those arts that had, as
he thought, relations with human weakness and vanity; as, for instance,
the arts of music and dress. But, resist as one may, a man can not fight
against his susceptibilities. And those who can feel the effect of any
art are very many more than those who can practice it or criticise it. It
does not matter that my Bohemian friend's musical abilities are slender.
No man in the great Boston Jubilee got more out of Johann Strauss, in
his "Kunstleben," that inimitable expression of inspired vagabondage,
than he did. And so, though Albert Charlton could not have told you what
colors would "go together," as the ladies say, he could, none the less,
always feel the discord of his mother's dress, as now he felt the beauty
of the room and appreciated the genius of Isa, that had made so much out
of resources so slender. For there were only a few touch-me-nots in the
two vases on the mantel-piece; there were wild-flowers and
prairie-grasses over the picture-frames; there were asparagus-stalks in
the fireplace; there was - well, there was a _tout-ensemble_ of coolness
and delightfulness, of freshness and repose. There was the graceful
figure of Isabel by the window, with the yet dewy grass and the distant
rolling, boundless meadow for a background. And there was in Isabel's
brown calico dress a faultlessness of fit, and a suitableness of color - a
perfect harmony, like that of music. There was real art, pure and
refined, in her dress, as in the arrangement of the room. Albert was
angry with it, while he felt its effect; it was as though she had set
herself there to be admired. But nothing was further from her thought.
The artist works not for the eyes of others, but for his own, and Isabel
Marlay would have taken not one whit less of pains if she could have been
assured that no eye in the universe would look in upon that
frontier-village parlor.

I said that Charlton was vexed. He was vexed because he felt a weakness
in himself that admired such "gewgaws," as he called everything relating
to dress or artistic housekeeping. He rejoiced mentally in the
superiority of Helen Minorkey, who gave her talents to higher themes. And
yet he felt a sense of restfulness in this cool room, where every color
was tuned to harmony with every other. He was struck, too, with the
gracefulness of Isa's figure. Her face was not handsome, but the good
genius that gave her the feeling of an artist must have molded her own
form, and every lithe motion was full of poetry. You have seen some
people who made upon you the impression that they were beautiful, and yet
the beauty was all in a statuesque figure and a graceful carriage. For it
makes every difference how a face is carried.

The conversation between Charlton and Miss Marlay had not gone far in the
matter of Katy and Smith Westcott until Albert found that her instincts
had set more against the man than even his convictions. A woman like
Isabel Marlay is never so fine as in her indignation, and there never was
any indignation finer than Isa Marlay's when she spoke of the sacrifice
of such a girl as Katy to such a man as Westcott. In his admiration of
her thorough-going earnestness, Albert forgave her devotion to domestic
pursuits and the arts of dress and ornamentation. He found sailing with
her earnestness much pleasanter than he had found rowing against it on
the occasion of his battle about the clergy.

"What can I do, Miss Marlay?" Albert did not ask her what she could do.
A self-reliant man at his time of life always asks first what he
himself can do.

"I can not think of anything that anybody can do, with any hope of
success." Isa's good sense penetrated entirely through the subject, she
saw all the difficulties, she had not imagination or sentiment enough to
delude her practical faculty with false lights.

"Can not _you_ do something?" asked Charlton, almost begging.

"I have tried everything. I have spoken to your mother. I have spoken to
Uncle Plausaby. I have begged Katy to listen to me, but Katy would only
feel sorry for him if she believed he was bad. She can love, but she
can't think, and if she knew him to be the worst man in the Territory she
would marry him to reform him. I did hope that you would have some
influence over her."

"But Katy is such a child. She won't listen if I talk to her. Any
opposition would only hurry the matter. I wish it were right to blow out
his brains, if he has any, and I suppose the monkey has."

"It is a great deal better, Mr. Charlton, to trust in Providence where we
can't do anything without doing wrong."

"Well, Miss Marlay, I didn't look for cant from you. I don't believe that
God cares. Everything goes on by the almanac and natural law. The sun
sets when the time comes, no matter who is belated. Girls that are sweet
and loving and trusting, like Katy, have always been and will always be
victims of rakish fools like Smith Westcott. I wish I were an Indian, and
then I could be my own Providence. I would cut short his career, and make
what David said about wicked men being cut off come true in this case, in
the same way as I suppose David did in the case of the wicked of his day,
by cutting them off himself."

Isabel was thoroughly shocked with this speech. What good religious girl
would not have been? She told Mr. Charlton with much plainness of speech
that she thought common modesty might keep him from making such
criticisms on God. She for her part doubted whether all the facts of the
case were known to him. She intimated that there were many things in
God's administration not set down in almanacs, and she thought that,
whatever God might be, a _young_ man should not be in too great a hurry
about arraigning Him for neglect of duty. I fear it would not contribute
much to the settlement of the very ancient controversy if I should record
all the arguments, which were not fresh or profound. It is enough that
Albert replied sturdily, and that he went away presently with his vanity
piqued by her censures. Not that he could not answer her reasoning, if it
were worthy to be called reasoning. But he had lost ground in the
estimation of a person whose good sense he could not help respecting, and
the consciousness of this wounded his vanity. And whilst all she said was
courteous, it was vehement as any defense of the faith is likely to be;
he felt, besides, that he had spoken with rather more of the _ex
cathedra_ tone than was proper. A young man of opinions generally finds
it so much easier to impress people with his tone than with his
arguments! But he consoled himself with the reflection that the _average_
woman - that word average was a balm for every wound - that the average
woman is always tied to her religion, and intolerant of any doubts. He
was pleased to think that Helen Minorkey was not intolerant. Of that he
felt sure. He did not carry the analysis any farther, however; he did not
ask why Helen was not intolerant, nor ask whether even intolerance may
not sometimes be more tolerable than indifference. And in spite of his
unpleasant irritation at finding this "average" woman not overawed by his
oracular utterances, nor easily beaten in a controversy, Albert had a
respect for her deeper than ever. There was something in her anger at
Westcott that for a moment had seemed finer than anything he had seen in
the self-possessed Miss Minorkey. But then she was so weak as to allow
her intellectual conclusions to be influenced by her feelings, and to be
intolerant.

I have said that this thing of falling in love is a very complex
catastrophe. I might say that it is also a very uncertain one. Since we
all of us "rub clothes with fate along the street," who knows whether
Charlton would not, by this time, have been in love with Miss Marlay if
he had not seen Miss Minorkey in the stage? If he had not run against
her, while madly chasing a grasshopper? If he had not had a great
curiosity about a question in botany which he could only settle in her
company? And even yet, if he had not had collision with Isa on the
question of Divine Providence? And even after that collision I will not
be sure that the scale might not have been turned, had it not been that
while he was holding this conversation with Isa Marlay, his mother and
sister had come into the next room. For when he went out they showed
unmistakable pleasure in their faces, and Mrs. Plausaby even ventured to
ask: "Don't you like her, Albert?"

And when the mother tried to persuade him to forego his visit to the
hotel in the evening, he put this and that together. And when this and
that were put together, they combined to produce a soliloquy:

"Mother and Katy want to make a match for me. As if _they_ understood
_me_! They want me to marry an _average_ woman, of course. Pshaw! Isabel
Marlay only understands the 'culinary use' of things. My mother knows
that she has a 'knack,' and thinks it would be nice for me to have a wife
with a knack. But mother can't judge for _me_. I ought to have a wife
with ideas. And I don't doubt Plausaby has a hand in trying to marry off
his ward to somebody that won't make too much fuss about his accounts."



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Online LibraryEdward EgglestonThe Mystery of Metropolisville → online text (page 4 of 19)