Debby’s Debut By Louisa May Alcott
On a cheery June day Mrs. Penelope Carrolland her niece Debby Wilder, were whizzing alongon their way to a certain gay watering-place, bothin the best of humors with each other and all theworld beside. Aunt Pen was concocting sundrymild romances, and laying harmless plots for thepursuance of her favorite pastime, match-making;for she had invited her pretty relative to join hersummer jaunt, ostensibly that the girl might see alittle of fashionable life, but the good lady secretlyproposed to herself to take her to the beach andget her a rich husband, very much as she wouldhave proposed to take her to Broadway and get hera new bonnet: for both articles she considerednecessary, but somewhat difficult for a poor girlto obtain.
Debby was slowly getting her poise, after theexcitement of a first visit to New York; for tendays of bustle had introduced the young philosopherto a new existence, and the working-dayworld seemed to have vanished when she made herlast pat of butter in the dairy at home. For anhour she sat thinking over the good-fortune whichhad befallen her, and the comforts of this life whichshe had suddenly acquired. Debby was a truegirl, with all a girl’s love of ease and pleasure;it must not be set down against her that shesurveyed her pretty travelling-suit with muchcomplacency, rejoicing inwardly that she could useher hands without exposing fractured gloves, thather bonnet was of the newest mode, needing noveil to hide a faded ribbon or a last year’s shape,that her dress swept the ground with fashionableuntidiness, and her boots were guiltless of a patch,–that she was the possessor of a mine of wealthin two of the eight trunks belonging to her aunt,that she was travelling like any lady of the landwith man- and maid-servant at her command, andthat she was leaving work and care behind her fora month or two of novelty and rest.
When these agreeable facts were fully realized,and Aunt Pen had fallen asleep behind her veil,Debby took out a book, and indulged in her favoriteluxury, soon forgetting past, present, and futurein the inimitable history of Martin Chuzzlewit.The sun blazed, the cars rattled, childrencried, ladies nodded, gentlemen longed for thesolace of prohibited cigars, and newspapers wereconverted into sun-shades, nightcaps, and fans;but Debby read on, unconscious of all about her,even of the pair of eves that watched her from theOpposite corner of the car. A Gentleman with afrank, strong-featured face sat therin, and amusedhimself by scanning with thoughtful gaze thecountenances of his fellow-travellers. Stout Aunt Pen,dignified even in her sleep, was a “model of deportment”to the rising generation; but the studentof human nature found a more attractive subject inher companion, the girl with an apple-blossom faceand merry brown eyes, who sat smiling into herbook, never heeding that her bonnet was awry,and the wind taking unwarrantable liberties withher ribbons and her hair.
Innocent Debby turned her pages, unaware thather fate sat opposite in the likeness of a serious,black-bearded gentleman, who watched the smilesrippling from her lips to her eyes with an interestthat deepened as the minutes passed. If his paperhad been full of anything but “BronchialTroches” and “Spalding’s Prepared Glue,” hewould have found more profitable employment;but it wasn’t, and with the usual readiness of idlesouls he fell into evil ways, and permitted curiosity,that feminine sin, to enter in and take possessionof his manly mind. A great desire seized him todiscover what book his pretty neighbor;but a cover hid the name, and he was toodistant to catch it on the fluttering leaves. Presentlya stout Emerald-Islander, with her wardrobeoozing out of sundry paper parcels, vacated theseat behind the two ladies; and it was soon quietlyoccupied by the individual for whom Satan wasfinding such indecorous employment. Peepinground the little gray bonnet, past a brown braidand a fresh cheek, the young man’s eye fell uponthe words the girl was reading, and forgot to lookaway again. Books were the desire of his life;but an honorable purpose and an indomitable willkept him steady at his ledgers till he could feelthat he had earned the right to read. Like wine tomany another was an open page to his; he read aline, and, longing for more, took a hasty sip fromhis neighbor’s cup, forgetting that it was astranger’s also.
Down the page went the two pairs of eyes,and the merriment from Debby’s seemed to lightup the sombre ones behind her with a sudden shinethat softened the whole face and made it verywinning. No wonder they twinkled, for ElijahPogram spoke, and “Mrs. Hominy, the motherof the modern Gracchi, in the classical blue capand the red cotton pocket-handkerchief, camedown the room in a procession of one.” A lowlaugh startled Debby, though it was smotheredlike the babes in the Tower; and, turning, shebeheld the trespasser scarlet with confusion, andsobered with a tardy sense of his transgression.Debby was not a starched young lady of the”prune and prism” school, but a frank, free-hearted little body, quick to read the sincerity ofothers, and to take looks and words at their realvalue. Dickens was her idol; and for his sake shecould have forgiven a greater offence than this.
The stranger’s contrite countenance and respecttulapology won her good-will at once; and witha finer courtesy than any Aunt Pen would havetaught, she smilingly bowed her pardon, and,taking another book from her basket, opened it,saying, pleasantly,–
“Here is the first volume if you like it, Sir. Ican recommend it as an invaluable consolation forthe discomforts of a summer day’s journey, and itis heartily at your service.”
As much surprised as gratified, the gentlemanaccepted the book, and retired behind it with thesudden discovery that wrongdoing has its compensationin the pleasurable sensation of being forgiven.Stolen delights are well known to be speciallysaccharine: and much as this pardoned sinner lovedbooks, it seemed to him that the interestof the story flagged, and that the enjoyment ofreading was much enhanced by the proximity of agray bonnet and a girlish profile. But Dickenssoon proved more powerful than Debby, and she wasforgotten, till, pausing to turn a leaf, the youngman met her shy glance, as she asked, with thepleased expression of a child who has shared anapple with a playmate,–
“Is it good?”
“Oh, very!”–and the man looked as honestlygrateful for the book as the boy would have donefor the apple.
Only five words in the conversation, but AuntPen woke, as if the watchful spirit of propriety hadroused her to pluck her charge from the precipiceon which she stood.
“Dora, I’m astonished at you! Speaking tostrangers in that free manner is a most unladylikething. How came you to forget what I have toldyou over and over again about a proper reserve?”The energetic whisper reached the gentleman’sear, and he expected to be annihilated with a lookwhen his offence was revealed; but he was sparedthat ordeal, for the young voice answered,softly,–
“Don’t faint, Aunt Pen: I only did as I’d bedone by; for I had two books, and the poor manlooked so hungry for something to read that Icouldn’t resist sharing my ‘goodies.’ He will seethat I’m a countrified little thing in spite of myfine feathers, and won’t be shocked at my want ofrigidity and frigidity; so don’t look dismal, and I’llbe prim and proper all the rest of the way,–if Idon’t forget it.”
“I wonder who he is; may belong to some of ourfirst families, and in that case it might be worthwhile to exert ourselves, you know. Did youlearn his name, Dora? ” whispered the elder lady.
Debby shook her head, and murmured, “Hush!”–butAunt Pen had heard of matches being made in cars aswell as in heaven; and as an experienced general,it became her to reconnoitre, when one of the enemyapproached her camp. Slightly altering her position,she darted an all-comprehensive glance at the invader,who seemed entirely absorbed, for not an eyelash stirredduring the scrutiny. It lasted but an instant, yet inthat instant he was weighed and found wanting; forthat experienced eye detected that his cravat wastwo inches wider than fashion ordained, that hiscoat was not of the latest style, that his gloveswere mended, and his handkerchief neither cambricnor silk. That was enough, and sentence waspassed forthwith,–“Some respectable clerk,good-looking, but poor, and not at all the thingfor Dora”; and Aunt Pen turned to adjust avoluminous green veil over her niece’s bonnet,”To shield it from the dust, dear,” which processalso shielded the face within from the eye of man.
A curious smile, half mirthful, half melancholy,passed over their neighbor’s lips; but his peace ofmind seemed undisturbed, and he remained buriedin his book Till they reached —–, at dusk. As hereturned it, he offered his services in procuring acarriage or attending to luggage; but Mrs. Carroll,with much dignity of aspect, informed him that herservants would attend to those matters, and, bowinggravely, he vanished into the night.
As they rolled away to the hotel, Debby waswild to run down to the beach whence came thesolemn music of the sea, making the twilightbeautiful. But Aunt Pen was too tired to doanything but sup in her own apartment and goearly to bed; and Debby might as soon haveproposed to walk up the great Pyramid as to makeher first appearance without that sage matron tomount guard over her; so she resigned herself topie and patience, and fell asleep, wishing it wereto-morrow.
At five, a. m., a nightcapped head appearedat one of the myriad windows of the —– Hotel,and remained there as if fascinated by the miracleof sunrise over the sea. Under her simplicity ofcharacter and girlish merriment Debby possessed adevout spirit and a nature full of the real poetry oflife, two gifts that gave her dawning womanhoodits sweetest charm, and made her what she was.As she looked out that summer dawn upon theroyal marriage of the ocean and the sun, all pettyhopes and longings faded out of sight, and heryoung face grew luminous with thoughts too deepfor words. Her day was happier for that silenthour, her life richer for the aspirations that upliftedher like beautiful strong angels, and left a blessingwhen they went. The smile of the June skytouched her lips, the morning red seemed to lingeron her cheek, and in her eye arose a light kindledby the shimmer of that broad sea of gold; forNature rewarded her young votary well, and gaveher beauty, when she offered love. How long sheleaned there Debby did not know; steps from belowroused her from her reverie, and led her backinto the world again. Smiling at herself, She stoleto bed, and lay wrapped in waking dreams aschangeful as the shadows. ancing on her charnber-wall.
The advent of her aunt’s maid, Victorine, sometwo hours later, was the signal to be “up anddoing”; and she meekly resigned herself into thehands of that functionary, who appeared to regardher in the light of an animated pin-cushion, as sheperformed the toilet-ceremonies with an absorbedaspect, which impressed her subject with a senseof the solemnity of the occasion.
“Now, Mademoiselle, regard yourself, andpronounce that you are ravishing” Victorine saidat length, folding her hands with a sigh ofsatisfaction, as she fell back in an attitude ofserene triumph.
Debby robeyed, and inspected herself with greatinterest and some astonishment; for there was asweeping amplitude of array about the younglady whom she beheld in the much-befrilled gownand embroidered skirts, which somewhat alarmedher as to the navigation of a vessel “with such aspread of sail,” while a curious sensation of beingsomebody else pervaded her from the crown ofher head, with its shining coils of hair, to the solesof the French slippers, whose energies seemed tohave been devoted to the production of marvellousrosettes.
“Yes, I look very nice, thank you; and yet Ifeel like a doll, helpless and fine, and fancy I wasmore of a woman in my fresh gingham, with a knotof clovers in my hair, than I am now. Aunt Penwas very kind to get me all these pretty things;but I’m afraid my mother would look horrified tosee me in such a high state of flounce externallyand so little room to breath internally.”
“Your mamma would not flatter me, Mademoiselle;but come now to Madame; she is waiting to beholdyou, and I have yet her toilet to make “; and,with a pitying shrug, Victorine followed Debbyto her aunt’s room.
“Charming! really elegant!” cried that lady,emerging from her towel with a rubicund visage.
“Drop that braid half an inch lower, and pull theworked end of her handkerchief out of the right-handpocket, Vic. There! Now, Dora, don’t run about andget rumpled, but sit quietly down and practice reposetill I am ready.”
Debby obeyed, and sat mute, with the air ofa child in its Sunday-best on a week-day, pleasedwith the novelty, but somewhat oppressed with theresponsibility of such unaccustomed splendor, anduttefly unable to connect any ideas of repose withtight shoes and skirts in a rampant state of starch.
“Well, you see, I bet on Lady Gay againstCockadoodle, and if you’ll believe me — Hullo!there’s Mrs. Carroll, and deuse take me if shehasn’t got a girl with her! Look, Seguin!”–and Joe Leavenworth, a “man of the world,”aged twenty, paused in his account of an excitingrace to make the announcement.
Mr. Seguin, his friend and Mentor, as much his,senior in worldly wickedness as in years, tore himselffrom his breakfast long enough to survey thenew-comers, and then returned to it, saying,briefly,–
“The old lady is worth cultivating,–givesgood suppers, and thanks you for eating them.The girl is well got up, but has no style, andblushes like a milkmaid. Better fight shy of her,Joe.”
“Do you think so? Well, now I rather fancythat kind of thing. She’s new, you,see, and I geton with that sort of girl the best, for the old onesare so deused knowing that a fellow has no chanceof a — By the Lord Harry, she’s eating breadand milk!”
Young Leavenworth whisked his glass into hiseye, and Mr. Seguin put down his roll to beholdthe phenomenon. Poor Debby! her first step hadbeen a wrong one.
All great minds have their weak points. AuntPen’s was her breakfast, and the peace of herentire day depended upon the success of that meal.Therefore, being down rather late, the worthylady concentrated her energies upon the achievementof a copious repast, and, trusting to formerlessons, left Debby to her own resources for a fewfatal moments. After the flutter occasioned bybeing scooped into her seat by a severe-nosedwaiter, Debby had only courage enough left torefuse tea and coffee and accept milk. That beingdone, she took the first familiar viand that appeared,and congratulated herself upon being ableto get her usual breakfast. With returning composure,she looked about her and began to enjoythe buzz of voices, the clatter of knives and forks,and the long lines of faces all intent upon the businessof the hour; but her peace was of short duration.Pausing for a fresh relay of toast, AuntPen glanced toward her niece with the comfortableconviction that her appearance was highly creditable;and her dismay can be imagined, when shebeheld that young lady placidly devouring a greatcup of brown-bread and milk before the eyes of theassembled multitude. The poor lady chokedin her coffee, and between her gasps whisperedirefully behind her napkin,–
“For Heaven’s sake, Dora, put away thatmess! The Ellenboroughs are directly opposite,watching everything you do. Eat that omelet, oranything respectable, unless you want me to die ofmortification.”
Debby dropped her spoon, and, hastily helpingherself from the dish her aunt pushed toward her,consumed the leathery compound with as muchgrace as she could assume, though unable torepress a laugh at Aunt Pen’s disturbed countenance.There was a slight lull in the clatter, and the blithesound caused several heads to turn toward thequarter whence it came, for it was as unexpectedand pleasant a sound as a bobolink’s song in a cageof shrill-voiced canaries.
“She’s a jolly little thing and powerful pretty,so deuse take me if I don’t make up to the old ladyand find out who the girl is. I’ve been introducedto Mrs. Carroll at our house: but I suppose shewon’t remember me till I remind her.”
The “deuse” declining to accept of his repeatedoffers (probably because there was still toomuch honor and honesty in the boy,) youngLeavenworth sought out Mrs. Carroll on thePiazza, as she and Debby were strolling there anhour later.
“Joe Leavenworth, my dear, from one of ourfirst families,–very wealthy,–fine match,–pray,be civil,–smooth your hair, hold back your shoulders,and put down your parasol,” murmuredAunt Pen, as the gentleman approached with asmuch pleasure in his countenance as it was consistentwith manly dignity to express upon meetingtwo of the inferior race.
“My niece, Miss Dora Wilder. This is herfirst season at the beach, and we must endeavor tomake it pleasant for her, or she will be gettinghomesick and running away to mamma,” said Aunt Pen,in her society-tone, after she had returned hisgreeting, and perpetrated a polite fiction,by declaring that she remembered him perfectly,for he was the image of his father.
Mr. Leavenworth brought the heels of his varnishedboots together with a click, and executed the latestbow imported, then stuck his glass in his eye and staredtill it fell out, (the glass, not the eye,) upon whichhe fell into step with them, remarking,–
“I shall be most happy to show the lions: theyare deused tame ones, so you needn’t be alarmed.Miss Wilder.”
Debby was good-natured enough to laugh; and,elated with that success, he proceeded to pourforth his stores of wit and learning in true collegianstyle, quite unconscious that the “jolly little thing”was looking him through and through with thesmiling eyes that were producing such pleasurablesensations under the mosaic studs. They strolledtoward the beach, and, meeting an old acquaintance,Aunt Pen fell behind, and beamed upon theyoung pair as if her prophetic eye even at this earlystage beheld them walking altarward in a properstate of blond white vest and bridal awkwardness.
“Can you skip a stone, Mr. Leavenworth?asked Debby, possessed with a mischievous desireto shock the piece of elegance at her side.
“Eh? what’s that? ” he inquired, with hishead on one side, like an inquisitive robin.
Debby repeated her question, and illustrated itby sending a stone skimming over the water in themost scientific manner. Mr. Joe was painfullyaware that this was not at all “the thing,” that hissisters never did so, and that Seguin would laughconfoundedly, if he caught him at it; but Debbylooked so irresistibly fresh and pretty under herrose-lined parasol that he was moved to confessthat he had done such a thing, and to sacrifice hisgloves by poking in the sand, that he might indulgein a like unfashionable pastime.
“You’ll be at the hop to-night, I hope, MissWilder,” he observed, introducing a topic suitedto a young lady’s mental capacity.
“Yes, indeed; for dancing is one of the joys ofmy life, next to husking and making hay”; andDebby polked a few steps along the beach, muchto the edification of a pair of old gentlemen,serenely taking their first constitutional.”
“Making what? ” cried Mr. Joe, poking afterher.
“Hay; ah, that is the pleasantest fun in theworld,–and better exercise, my mother says, forsoul and body, than dancing till dawn in crowdedrooms, with everything in a state of unnaturalexcitement. If one wants real merriment, let him gointo a new-mown field, where all the air is full ofsummer odors, where wild-flowers nod along thewalls, where blackbirds make finer music than anyband, and sun and wind and cheery voices do theirpart, while windrows rise, and great loads gorumbling through the lanes with merry brown facesatop. Yes, much as I like dancing, it is not to becompared with that; for in the one case we shutout the lovely world, and in the other we becomea part of it, till by its magic labor turns to poetry,and we harvest something better than dried buttercupsand grass.”
As she spoke, Debby looked up, expecting tomeet a glance of disapproval; but something in thesimple earnestness of her manner had recalledcertain boyish pleasures as innocent as they werehearty, which now contrasted very favorably withthe later pastimes in which fast horses, and thatlower class of animals, fast men, bore so large apart. Mr. Joe thoughtfully punched five holes inthe sand, and for a moment Debby liked the expressionof his face; then the old listlessness returned,and, looking up, he said, with an air ofennui that was half sad, half ludicrous, in one soyoung and so generously endowed with youth,health, and the good gifts of this life,–
“I used to fancy that sort of thing years ago,but I’m afraid I should find it a little slow now,though you describe it in such an inviting mannerthat I would be tempted to try it, if a hay-cockcame in my way; for, upon my life, it’s deusedheavy work loafing about at these watering-placesall summer. Between ourselves, there’s a deal ofhumbug about this kind of life, as you will find,when you’ve tried it as long as I have.”
“Yes, I begin to think so already; but perhapsyou can give me a few friendly words of warningfrom the stones of your experience, that I may bespared the pain of saying what so many look,–‘Grandma, the world is hollow; my doll is stuffedwith sawdust; and I should ‘like to go into aconvent, if you please.'”
Debby’s eyes were dancing with merriment;but they were demurely down-cast, and her voicewas perfectly serious.
The milk of human kindness had been slightlycurdled for Mr. Joe by sundry college-tribulations;and having been “suspended,” he very naturallyvibrated between the inborn jollity of histemperament and the bitterness occasioned by his wrongs.
He had lost at billiards the night before, had beenhurried at breakfast, had mislaid his cigar-case,and splashed his boots; consequently the darkermood prevailed that morning, and when his counselwas asked, he gave it like one who bad knownthe heaviest trials of this “Piljin Projiss of awale.”
“There’s no justice in the world, no chancefor us young people to enjoy ourselves, withoutsome penalty to pay, some drawback to worry uslike these confounded ‘all-rounders.’ Even here,where all seems free and easy, there’s no end ofgossips and spies who tattle and watch till you feelas if you lived in a lantern. ‘Every one for himself,and the Devil take the hindmost’; that’s theprinciple they go on, and you have to keep yourwits about you in the most exhausting manner, oryou are done for before you know it. I’ve seen agood deal of this sort of thing, and hope you’ll geton better than some do, when it’s known that youare the rich Mrs. Carroll’s niece; though you don’tneed that fact to enhance your charms,–upon mylife, you don’t.”
Debby laughed behind her parasol at this burstof candor; but her independent nature promptedher to make a fair beginning, in spite of AuntPen’s polite fictions and well-meant plans.
” Thank you for your warning, but I don’tapprehend much annoyance of that kind,” she said,demurely. “Do you know, I think, if youngladies were truthfully labelled when they went intosociety, it would be a charming fashion, and save aworld of trouble? Something in this style:–‘Arabella Marabout, aged nineteen, fortune$100,000, temper warranted’; ‘Laura Eau-de-Cologne,aged twenty-eight, fortune $30,000,temper slightly damaged’; Deborah Wilder,aged eighteen, fortune, one pair of hands, one head,indifferently well filled, one heart, (not in themarket,) temper decided, and no expectations.’There, you see, that would do away with much ofthe humbug you lament, and we poor souls wouldknow at once whether we were sought for our fortunesor ourselves, and that would be so comfortable!”
Mr. Leavenworth turned away, with a convicted sortof expression, as she spoke, and, makinga spyglass of his hand, seemed to be watchingsomething out at sea with absorbing interest. Hehad been guilty of a strong desire to discoverwhether Debby was an heiress, but had not expectedto be so entirely satisfied on that importantsubject, and was dimly conscious that a keen eyehad seen his anxiety, and a quick wit devised ameans of setting it at rest forever. Somewhatdisconcerted, he suddenly changed the conversation,and, like many another distressed creature, took tothe water, saying briskly,–
“By-the-by, Miss Wilder, as I’ve engaged todo the honors, shall I have the pleasure of bathingwith you when the fun begins? As you are fondof hay-making, I suppose you intend to pay yourrespects to the old gentleman with the three-pronged pitchfork?”
“Yes, Aunt Pen means to put me through a courseof salt water, and any instructions in the artof navigation will be gratefully received; for Inever saw the ocean before, and labor under afirm conviction, that, once in, I never shall comeout again till I am brought, like Mr. Mantilini, a’damp, moist, unpleasant body.'”
As Debby spoke, Mrs. Carroll hove in sight,coming down before the wind with all sails set, andsignals of distress visible long before she droppedanchor and came along-side. The devoted womanhad been strolling slowly for the girl’s sake, thoughoppressed with a mournful certainty that her mostprominent feature was fast becoming a fine copper-color; yet she had sustained herself like a Spartanmatron, till it suddenly occurred to her that hercharge might be suffering a like
“sea-changeInto something rich and strange.”
Her fears, however, were groundless, for Debbymet her without a freckle, looking all the betterfor her walk; and though her feet were wet withchasing the waves, and her pretty gown the worsefor salt water, Aunt Pen never chid her for thedestruction of her raiment, nor uttered a warningword against an unladylike exuberance of spirits,but replied to her inquiry most graciously,–
“Certainly, my love, we shall bathe at eleven,and there will be just time to get Victorine and ourdresses; so run on to the house, and I will join youas soon as I have finished what I am saying toMrs. Earl,”–then added, in a stage-aside, as sheput a fallen lock off the girl’s forehead, “You aredoing beautifully! He is evidently struck; makeyourself interesting, and don’t burn your nose, Ibeg of you.”
Debby’s bright face clouded over, and shewakked on with so much stateliness that her escortwondered ” what the deuse the old lady had doneto her,” and exerted himself to the utmost to recallher merry mood, but with indifferent success.
“Now I begin to feel more like myself, for thisis getting back to first principles, though I fancy Ilook like the little old woman who fell asleep onthe king’s highway and woke up with abbreviateddrapery; and you look funnier still, Aunt Pen,”said Debby, as she tied on her pagoda-hat, andfollowed Mrs. Carroll, who walked out of herdressing-room an animated bale of blue clothsurmounted by a gigantic sun-bonnet.
Mr. Leavenworth was in waiting, and so like ablond-headed lobster in his scarlet suit that Debbycould hardly keep her countenance as they joinedthe groups of bathers gathering along the breezyshore.
For an hour each day the actors and actresseswho played their different roles at the —– Hotelwith such precision and success put off their masksand dared to be themselves. The ocean wroughtthe change, for it took old and young into its arms,and for a little while they played like children intheir mother’s lap. No falsehood could withstandits rough sincerity; for the waves washed paint andpowder from worn faces, and left a fresh bloomthere. No ailment could entirely resist its vigorouscure; for every wind brought healing on its wings,endowing many a meagre life with another yearof health. No gloomy spirit could refuse to listento its lullaby, and the spray baptized it with thesubtile benediction of a cheerier mood. No rankheld place there; for the democratic sea toppleddown the greatest statesman in the land, anddashed over the bald pate of a millionnaire withthe same white-crested wave that stranded a poorparson on the beach and filled a fierce reformer’smouth with brine. No fashion ruled, but thatwhich is as old as Eden,–the beautiful fashion ofsimplicity. Belles dropped their affectations withtheir hoops, and ran about the shore blithe-heartedgirls again. Young men forgot their vices andtheir follies, and were not ashamed of the realcourage, strength, and skill they had tried to leavebehind them with their boyish plays. Old mengathered shells with the little Cupids dancing onthe sand, and were better for that innocentcompanionship; and young mothers never looked sobeautiful as when they rocked their babies on thebosom of the sea.
Debby vaguely felt this charm, and, yieldingto it, splashed and sang like any beach-bird, whileAunt Pen bobbed placidly up and down in aretired corner, and Mr. Leavenworth swam to andfro, expressing his firm belief in mermaids, sirens,and the rest of the aquatic sisterhood, whose warblingno manly ear can resist.
” Miss Wilder, you must learn to swim. I’vetaught quantities of young ladies, and shall bedelighted to launch the ‘Dora,’ if you’ll accept meas a pilot. Stop a bit; I’ll get a life-preserverand leaving Debby to flirt with the waves, the scarletyouth departed like a flame of fire.
A dismal shriek interrupted his pupil’s play, andlooking up, she saw her aunt beckoning wildly withone hand, while she was groping in the water withthe other. Debby ran to her, alarmed at hertragic expression, and Mrs. Carroll, drawing thegirl’s face into the privacy of her big bonnet,whispered one awful word, adding, distractedly,–
“Dive for them! oh, dive for them! I shall beperfectly helpless, if they are lost!”
“I can’t dive, Aunt Pen; but there is a man,let us ask him,” said Debby, as a black headappeared to windward.
But Mrs. Carroll’s “nerves” had received ashock, and, gathering up her dripping garments,she fled precipitately along the shore and vanishedinto her dressing-room.
Debby’s keen sense of the ludicrous got the betterof her respect, and peal after peal of laughterbroke from her lips, till a splash behind her put anend to her merriment, and, turning, she found thatthis friend in need was her acquaintance of the daybefore. The gentleman seemed pausing for permissionto approach, with much the appearance of a sagaciousNewfoundland, wistful and wet.
“Oh, I’m very glad it’s you, Sir!” was Debby’scordial greeting, as she shook a drop off the end ofher nose, and nodded, smiling.
The new-comer immediately beamed upon herlike an amiable Triton, saying, as they turnedshoreward,–
“Our first interview opened with a laugh on myside, and our second with one on yours. I acceptthe fact as a good omen. Your friend seemed introuble; allow me to atone for my past misdemeanorsby offering my services now. But first let me introducemyself; and as I believe in the fitness of things, letme present you with an appropriate card”; and, stooping,the young man wrote “Frank Evan” on the hard sand atDebby’s feet.
The girl liked his manner, and, entering into thespirit of the thing, swept as grand a curtsy as herlimited drapery would allow saying, merrily,–“I am Debby Wilder, or Dora, as aunt prefersto call me; and instead of laughing, I ought to befour feet under water, looking for something wehave lost; but I can’t dive, and my distress isdreadful, as you see.”
“What have you lost? I will look for it, andbring it back in spite of the kelpies, if it is a humanpossibility,” replied Mr. Evan, pushing his wetlocks out of his eyes, and regarding the ocean witha determined aspect.
Debby leaned toward him, whispering withsolemn countenance,–
“It is a set of teeth, Sir.”
Mr. Evan was more a man of deeds than words,therefore he disappeared at once with a mightysplash, and after repeated divings and muchlaughter appeared bearing the chief ornament of Mrs.Penelope Carroll’s comely countenance. Debbylooked very pretty and grateful as she returned herthanks, and Mr. Evan was guilty of a secret wishthat all the worthy lady’s features were at thebottom of the sea, that he might have the satisfactionof restoring them to her attractive niece;but curbing this unnatural desire, he bowed, saying,gravely,–
“Tell your aunt, if you please, that this littleaccident will remain a dead secret, so far as I amconcerned, and I am very glad to have been ofservice at such a critical moment.”
Whereupon Mr. Evan marched again into thebriny deep, and Debby trotted away to her aunt,whom she found a clammy heap of blue flanneland despair. Mrs. Carroll’s temper was ruffled,and though she joyfully rattled in her teeth, shesaid, somewhat testily, when Debby’s story wasdone,–
“Now that man will have a sort of claim on us,and we must be civil, whoever he is. Dear! dear!I wish it had been Joe Leavenworth instead.Evan,–I don’t remember any of our first familieswith connections of that name, and I dislike to beunder obligations to a person of that sort, forthere’s no knowing how far he may presume; so,pray, be careful, Dora.”
“I think you are very ungrateful, Aunt Pen;and if Mr. Evan should happen to be poor, it doesnot become me to turn up my nose at him, for I’mnothing but a make-believe myself just now. Idon’t wish to go down upon my knees to him, butI do intend to be as kind to him as I should to thatconceited Leavenworth boy; yes, kinder even; forpoor people value such things more, as I know verywell.”
Mrs. Carroll instantly recovered her temper,changed the subject, and privately resolved toconfine her prejudices to her own bosom, as theyseerned to have an aggravating effect upon theyouthful person whom she had set her heart ondisposing of to the best advantage.
Debby took her swimming-lesson with muchsuccess, and would have achieved her dinner withcomposure, if white-aproned gentlemen had noteffectually taken away her appetite by whiskingbills-of-fare into her hands, and awaiting her orderswith a fatherly interest, which induced them tocongregate mysterious dishes before her, andblandly rectify her frequent mistakes. She survivedthe ordeal, however, and at four p.m. went to drivewith “that Leavenworth boy” in the finest turnout—– could produce. Aunt Pen then came off guard,and with a sigh of satisfaction subsided into a peacefuldoze, still murmuring, even in her sleep,-
“Propinquity, my love, propinquity workswonders.”
“Aunt Pen, are you a modest woman?” askedthe young cruisader against established absurdities,as she came into the presence-chamber that eveningready for the hop.
“Bless the child, what does she mean? ” criedMrs. Carroll, with a start that twitched herback-hair out of Victorine’s hands.
“Would you like to have a daughter of yoursgo to a party looking as I look?” continued herniece, spreading her airy dress, and standingvery erect before her astonished relative.
“Why, of course I should, and be proud to ownsuch a charming creature,” regarding the slenderwhite shape with much approbation,–adding,with a smile, as she met the girl’s eye,–
“Ah, I see the difficulty, now; you are disturbedbecause there is not a bit of lace overthese pretty shoulders of yours. Now don’t beabsurd, Dora; the dress is perfectly proper, orMadame Tiphany never would have sent it home.It is the fashion, child; and many a girl with sucha figure would go twice as decolletee, and thinknothing of it, I assure you.”
Debby shook her head with an energy that setthe pink heather-bells a-tremble in her hair, andher color deepened beautifully as she said, withreproachful eyes,–
“Aunt Pen, I think there is a better fashionin every young girl’s heart than any MadameTiphany can teach. I am very grateful for allyou have done for me, but I cannot go into publicin such an undress as this; my mother would neverallow it, and father never forgive it. Please don’task me to, for indeed I cannot do it even for you.”
Debby looked so pathetic that both mistressand maid broke into a laugh which somewhatreassured the young lady, who allowed herdetermined features to relax into a smile,as she said,–
“Now, Aunt Pen, you want me to look prettyand be a credit to you; but how would you like tosee my face the color of those geraniums all theevening?”
“Why, Dora, you are out of your mind to asksuch a thing, when you know it’s the desire ofmy life to keep your color down and make youlook more delicate,” said her aunt, alarmed at thefearful prospect of a peony-faced protegee.
Well, I should be anything but that, if I worethis gown in its present waistless condition; so hereis a remedy which will prevent such a calamityand ease my mind.”
As she spoke, Debby tied on her little blondefichu with a gesture which left nothing more to besaid.
Victorine scolded, and clasped her hands; butMrs. Carroll, fearing to push her authority too far,made a virtue of necessity, saying, resignedly,–
“Have your own way, Dora, but in returnoblige me by being agreeable to such persons as Imay introduce to you; and some day, when I aska favor, remember how much I hope to do for you,and grant it cheerfully.”
“Indeed I will, Aunt Pen, if it is anything Ican do without disobeying mother’s ‘notions’ asyou call them. Ask me to wear an orange-coloredgown, or dance with the plainest, poorest man inthe room, and I’ll do it; for there never was akinder aunt than mine in all the world,” criedDebby, eager to atone for her seeming wilfulness,and really grateful for her escape from what seemedto her benighted mind a very imminent peril.
Like a clover-blossom in a vase of camellias littleDebby looked that night among the dashing orlanguid women who surrounded her; for she possessedthe charm they had lost,–the freshness ofher youth. Innocent gayety sat smiling in her eyes,healthful roses bloomed upon her cheek, andmaiden modesty crowned her like a garland. Shewas the creature that she seemed, and, yielding tothe influence of the hour, danced to the music ofher own blithe heart. Many felt the spell whosesecret they had lost the power to divine, andwatched the girlish figure as if it were a symbolof their early aspirations dawning freshly from thedimness of their past. More than one old manthought again of some little maid whose love madehis boyish days a pleasant memory to him now.More than one smiling fop felt the emptiness of hissmooth speech, when the truthful eyes looked upinto his own; and more than one pale womansighed regretfully with herself, “I, too, was ahappy-hearted creature once!”
“That Mr. Evan does not seem very anxiousto claim our acquaintance, after all, and I thinkbetter of him on that account. Has he spoken toyou to-night, Dora?” asked Mrs. Carroll, asDebby dropped down beside her after a “splendidpolka.”
“No, ma’am, he only bowed. You see somepeople are not so presuming as other peoplethought they were; for we are not the mostattractive beings on the planet; therefore a gentlemancan be polite and then forget us without breakingany of the Ten Commandments. Don’t be offendedwith him yet, for he may prove to be somegreat creature with a finer pedigree than any ofyour first families.’ Mr. Leavenworth, as youknow everybody, perhaps you can relieve AuntPen’s mind, by telling her something about thetall, brown man standing behind the lady withsalmon-colored hair.”
Mr. Joe, who was fanning the top of Debby’shead with the best intentions in life, took a survey,and answered readily,–
“Why, that’s Frank Evan. I know him, anda deused good fellow he is,–though he don’tbelong to our set, you know.”
“Indeed! pray, tell us something about him,Mr. Leavenworth. We met in the cars, and hedid us a favor or two. Who and what is theman?” asked Mrs. Carroll, relenting at oncetoward a person who was favorably spoken of byone who did belong to her “set.”
“Well, let me see,” began Mr. Joe, whosenarrative powers were not great.” He is abookkeeper in my Uncle Josh Loring’s importingconcern, and a powerful smart man, they say. There’ssome kind of clever story about his father’s leavinga load of debts, and Frank’s working a deusednumber of years till they were paid. Good of him,wasn’t it? Then, just as he was going to takethings easier and enjoy life a bit, his mother died,and that rather knocked him up, you see. He fellsick, and came to grief generally, Uncle Josh said;so he was ordered off to get righted, and here heis, looking like a tombstone. I’ve a regard forFrank, for he took care of me through the smallpoxa year ago, and I don’t forget things of thatsort; so, if you wish to be introduced, Mrs. Carroll,I’ll trot him out with pleasure, and make a proudman of him.”
Mrs. Carroll glanced at Debby, and as thatyoung lady was regarding Mr. Joe with a friendlyaspect, owing to the warmth of his words, shegraciously assented, and the youth departed on hiserrand. Mr. Evan went through the ceremonywith a calmness wonderful to behold, consideringthe position of one lady and the charms of theother, and soon glided into the conversation withthe ease of a most accomplished courtier.
“Now I must tear myself away, for I’m engagedto that stout Miss Bandoline for this dance.She’s a friend of my sisLer’s, and I must do thecivil, you know; powerful slow work it is, too, butI pity the poor soul,–upon my life, I do;” andMr. Joe assumed the air of a martyr.
Debby looked up with a wicked smile in hereyes, as she said,–
“Ah, that sounds very amiable here; but in fiveminutes you’ll be murmuring in Miss Bandoline’searm–‘I’ve been pining to come to you this halfhour, but I was obliged to take out that MissWilder, you see–countrified little thing enough,but not bad-looking, and has a rich aunt; so I’vedone my duty to her, but deuse take me if I canstand it any longer.”
Mr. Evan joined in Debby’s merriment; butMr. Joe was so appalled at the sudden attack thathe could only stammer a remonstrance and beat ahasty retreat, wondering how on earth she cameto know that his favorite style of making himselfagreeable to one young lady was by decryinganother.
“Dora, my love, that is very rude, and ‘Deuse’is not a proper expression for a woman’s lips.Pray, restrain your lively tongue, for strangers maynot understand that it is nothing but the sprightlinessof your disposition which sometimes runs away with you.”
“It was only a quotation, and I thought youwould admire anything Mr. Leavenworth said,Aunt Pen,” replied Debby, demurely.
Mrs. Carroll trod on her foot, and abruptlychanged the conversation, by saying, with anappearance of deep interest,–
“Mr. Evan, you are doubtless connected withthe Malcoms of Georgia; for they, I believe, aredescended from the ancient Evans of Scotland.They are a very wealthy and aristocratic family,and I remember seeing their coat-of-arms once:three bannocks and a thistle.”
Mr. Evan had been standing before them witha composure which impressed Mrs. Carroll with abelief in his gentle blood, for she remembered herown fussy, plebeian husband, whose fortune hadnever been able to purchase him the manners of agentleman. Mr. Evan only grew a little moreerect, as he replied, with an untroubled mien,–
“I cannot claim relationship with the Malcomsof Georgia or the Evans of Scotland, I believe,Madam. My father was a farmer, my grandfathera blacksmith, and beyond that my ancestorsmay have been street-sweepers, for anything Iknow; but whatever they were, I fancy they werehonest men, for that has always been our boast,though, like President Jackson’s, our coat-of-armsis nothing but ‘a pair of shirt-sleeves.'”
From Debby’s eyes there shot a bright glanceof admiration for the young man who could looktwo comely women in the face and serenely ownthat he was poor. Mrs. Carroll tried to appear atease, and, gliding out of personalities, expatiatedon the comfort of “living in a land where fameand fortune were attainable by all who chose toearn them,” and the contempt she felt for those”who had no sympathy with the humbler classes,no interest in the welfare of the race,” and manymore moral reflections as new and original as theMultiplication-Table or the Westminster Catechism.To all of which Mr. Evan listened withpolite deference, though there was something inthe keen intelligence of his eye that made Debbyblush for shallow Aunt Pen, and rejoice when thegood lady got out of her depth and seized upon anew subject as a drowning mariner would a hen-coop.
“Dora, Mr. Ellenborough is coming this way;you have danced with him but once, and he is avery desirable partner; so, pray, accept, if he asksyou,” said Mrs. Carroll, watching a far-off individualwho seemed steering his zigzag course toward them.
“I never intend to dance with Mr. Ellenboroughagain, so please don’t urge me, Aunt Pen; “and Debby knit her brows with a somewhat irateexpression.
“My love, you astonish me! He is a most agreeable and accomplished young man,–spent three years inParis, moves in the first circles, and is consideredan ornament to fashionable society.
“What can be your objection, Dora?” cried Mrs.Carroll, looking as alarmed as if her niece hadsuddenly announced her belief in the Koran.
“One of his accomplishments consists in drinkingchampagne till he is not a ‘desirable partner’for any young lady with a prejudice in favor ofdecency. His moving in ‘circles’ is just what Icomplain of; and if he is an ornament, I prefermy society undecorated. Aunt Pen, I cannotmake the nice distinctions you would have me,and a sot in broadcloth is as odious as one in rags.Forgive me, but I cannot dance with that silver-labelled decanter again.”
Debby was a genuine little piece of womanhood;and though she tried to speak lightly, hercolor deepened, as she remembered looks that hadwounded her like insults, and her indignant eyessilenced the excuses rising to her aunt’s lips. Mrs.Carroll began to rue the hour she ever undertookthe guidance of Sister Deborah’s headstrong child,and for an instant heartily wished she had left herto bloom unseen in the shadow of the parsonage;but she concealed her annoyance, still hoping toovercome the girl’s absurd resolve, by saying,mildly,–
“As you please, dear; but if you refuse Mr.Ellenborough, you will be obliged to sit throughthe dance, which is your favorite, you know.”
Debby’s countenance fell, for she had forgottenthat, and the Lancers was to her the crowningrapture of the night. She paused a moment, andAunt Pen brightened; but Debby made her littlesacrifice to principle as heroically as many a greaterone had been made, and, with a wistful look downthe long room, answered steadily, though her footkept time to the first strains as she spoke,–
“Then I will sit, Aunt Pen; for that is preferableto staggering about the room with a partnerwho has no idea of the laws of gravitation.”
“Shall I have the honor of averting either calamity?”said Mr. Evan, coming to the rescue witha devotion beautiful to see; for dancing was nearlya lost art with him, and the Lancers to a novice isequal to a second Labyrinth of Crete.
“Oh, thank you!” cried Debby, tumbling fan,bouquet, and handkerchief into Mrs. Carroll’s lap,with a look of relief that repaid him fourfold forthe trials he was about to undergo. They wentmerrily away together, leaving Aunt Pen to wishthat it was according to the laws of etiquette torap officious gentlemen over the knuckles, whenthey introduce their fingers into private pieswithout permission from the chief cook. How thedance went Debby hardly knew, for the conversationfell upon books, and in the interest of herfavorite theme she found even the “grand square”an impertinent interruption, while her own deficiencesbecame almost as great as her partner’s;yet, when the music ended with a flourish, and herlast curtsy was successfully achieved, she longedto begin all over again, and secretly regretted thatshe was engaged four deep.
“How do you like our new acquaintance, Dora?” askedAunt Pen, following Joe Leavenworth with her eye,as the “yellow-haired laddie” whirled by with theponderous Miss Flora.
“Very much; and I’m glad we met as we did,for it makes things free and easy, and that is soagreeable in this ceremonious place,” repliedDebby, looking in quite an opposite direction.
“Well, I’m delighted to hear you say so, dear,for I was afraid you had taken a dislike to him,and he is really a very charming young man, justthe sort of person to make a pleasant companionfor a few weeks. These little friendships are partof the summer’s amusement, and do no harm; sosmile away. Dora, and enjoy yourself while youmay.”
“Yes, Aunt, I certainly will, and all the morebecause I have found a sensible soul to talk to.Do you know, he is very witty and well informed,though he says he never had much time for self-cultivation? But I think trouble makes peoplewise, and he seems to have had a good deal,though he leaves it for others to tell of. I amglad you are willing I should know him, for Ishall enjoy talking about my pet heroes with himas a relief from the silly chatter I must keep upmost of the time.”
Mrs. Carroll was a woman of one idea; andthough a slightly puzzled expression appeared inher face, she listened approvingly, and answered,with a gracious smile,–
“Of course, I should not object to your knowingsuch a person, my love; but I’d no idea JoeLeavenworth was a literary man, or had knownmuch trouble, except his father’s death and hissister Clementina’s runaway-marriage with herdrawing-master.”
Debby opened her brown eyes very wide, andhastily picked at the down on her fan, but hadno time to correct her aunt’s mistake, for the realsubject of her commendations appeared at thatmoment, and Mrs. Caroll was immediately absorbedin the consumption of a large pink ice.
“That girl is what I call a surprise-party, now,”remarked Mr. Joe confidentially to his cigar, ashe pulled off his coat and stuck his feet up in theprivacy of his own apartment. “She looks as mildas strawberries and cream till you come to thecomplimentary, then she turns on a fellow withthat deused satirical look of hers, and makes himfeel like a fool. I’ll try the moral dodge to-morrowand see what effect that will have; for she ismighty taking, and I must amuse myself somehow,you know.”
“How many years will it take to change thatfresh-hearted little girl into a fashionable belle,I wonder?” thought Frank Evan, as he climbedthe four flights that led to his “sky-parlor.”
“What a curious world this is!” musedDebby, with her nightcap in her hand. “Theright seems odd and rude, the wrong respectableand easy, and this sort of life a merry-go-round,with no higher aim than pleasure. Well, I havemade my Declaration of Independence, and AuntPen must be ready for a Revolution if she taxesme too heavily.”
As she leaned her hot cheek on her arm,Debby’s eye fell on the quaint little cap madeby the motherly hands that never were tired ofworking for her. She touched it tenderly, andlove’s simple magic swept the gathering shadowsfrom her face, and left it clear again, as herthoughts flew home like birds into the shelter oftheir nest.
“Good night, mother! I’ll face temptation steadily.I’ll try to take life cheerily, and do nothing thatshall make your dear face a reproach, when it looksinto my own again.”
Then Debby said her prayers like any piouschild, and lay down to dream of pullingbuttercups with Baby Bess, and singing in thetwilight on her father’s knee.
The history of Debby’s first day might serveas a sample of most that followed, as week afterweek went by with varying pleasures and increasinginterest to more than one young debutante.
Mrs. Carroll did her best, but Debby was toosimple for a belle, too honest for a flirt, tooindependent for a fine lady; she would be nothingbut her sturdy little self, open as daylight, gay asa lark, and blunt as any Puritan. Poor AuntPen was in despair, till she observed that the girloften “took” with the very peculiarities whichshe was lamenting; this somewhat consoled her,and she tried to make the best of the pretty bitof homespun which would not and could not becomevelvet or brocade. Seguin, Ellenborough,& Co. looked with lordly scorn upon her, as aworm blind to their attractions. Miss MacRimsyand her “set” quizzed her unmercifully behindher back, after being worsted in several passagesof arms; and more than one successful mammacondoled with Aunt Pen upon the terribly defectiveeducation of her charge, till that stout matroncould have found it in her heart to tweak off theircaps and walk on them, like the irascible BetseyTrotwood.
But Debby had a circle of admirers who lovedher with a sincerity few summer queens couldboast; for they were real friends, won by gentlearts, and retained by the gracious sweetness of hernature. Moon-faced babies crowed and clappedtheir chubby hands when she passed by theirwicker-thrones; story-loving children clusteredround her knee, and never were denied; pale invalidsfound wild-flowers on their pillows; andforlorn papas forgot the state of the moneymarketwhen she sang for them the homely airs theirdaughters had no time to learn. Certain plainyoung ladies poured their woes into her friendlyear, and were comforted; several smart Sophomoresfell into a state of chronic stammer, blush,and adoration, when she took a motherly interestin their affairs; and a melancholy old Frenchmanblessed her with the enthusiasm of his nation, becauseshe put a posy in the button-hole of hisrusty coat, and never failed to smile and bow ashe passed by. Yet Debby was no Edgworth heroinepreternaturally prudent, wise, and untemptable;she had a fine crop of piques, vanities, anddislikes growing up under this new style of cultivation.She loved admiration, enjoyed her purpleand fine linen, hid new-born envy, disappointedhope, and wounded pride behind a smiling face,and often thought with a sigh of the humdrumduties that awaited her at home. But under theairs and graces Aunt Pen cherished with suchsedulous care, under the flounces and furbelowsVictorine daily adjusted with groans, under thepolish which she acquired with feminine ease, thegirl’s heart still beat steadfast and strong, andconscience kept watch and ward that no traitor shouldenter in to surprise the citadel which mother-lovehad tried to garrison so well.
In pursuance of his sage resolve, Mr. Joe triedthe “moral dodge,” as he elegantly expressed it,and, failing in that, followed it up with the tragic,religious, negligent, and devoted ditto; but actingwas not his forte, so Debby routed him in all; andat last, when he was at his wit’s end for an idea,she suggested one, and completed her victory bysaying pleasantly,–
“You took me behind the curtain too soon, andnow the paste-diamonds and cotton-velvet don’timpose upon me a bit. Just be your natural self,and we shall get on nicely, Mr. Leavenworth.”
The novelty of the proposal struck his fancy,and after a few relapses it was carried into effectand thenceforth, with Debby, he became thesimple, good-humored lad Nature designed himto be, and, as a proof of it, soon fell very sincerelyin love.
Frank Evan, seated in the parquet of society,surveyed the dress-circle with much the sameexpression that Debby had seen during Aunt Pen’soration; but he soon neglected that amusementto watch several actors in the drama going onbefore his eyes, while a strong desire to perform apart therein slowly took possession of his mind.
Debby always had a look of welcome when hecame, always treated him with the kindness of agenerous woman who has had an opportunity toforgive, and always watched the serious, solitaryman with a great compassion for his loss, a growingadmiration for his upright life. More thanonce the beach-birds saw two figures pacing thesands at sunrise with the peace of early day upontheir faces and the light of a kindred mood shiningin their eyes. More than once the friendly oceanmade a third in the pleasant conversation, and itslow undertone came and went between the mellowbass and silvery treble of the human voiceswith a melody that lent another charm to interviewswhich soon grew wondrous sweet to manand maid. Aunt Pen seldom saw the twain together,seldom spoke of Evan; and Debby heldher peace, for, when she planned to make herinnocent confessions, she found that what seemedmuch to her was nothing to another ear andscarcely worth the telling; so, unconscious as yetwhither the green path led, she went on her way,leading two lives, one rich and earnest, hoardeddeep within herself, the other frivolous and gayfor all the world to criticize. But those venerablespinsters, the Fates, took the matter into their ownhands, and soon got the better of those short-sightedmatrons, Mesdames Grundy and Carroll;for, long before they knew it, Frank and Debbyhad begun to read together a book greater thanDickens ever wrote, and when they had come tothe fairest part of the sweet story Adam first toldEve, they looked for the name upon the title-page,and found that it was “Love.”
Fight weeks came and went,–eight wonderfullyhappy weeks to Debby and her friend; for”propinquity” had worked more wonders than poorMrs. Carroll knew, as the only one she saw or guessedwas the utter captivation of Joe Leavenworth.He had become “himself” to such an extent that achange of identity would have been a relief; forthe object of his adoration showed nosigns of relenting, and he began to fear, that, asDebby said, her heart was “not in the market.”She was always friendly, but never made thoseinteresting betrayals of regard which are soencouraging to youthful gentlemen “who fain wouldclimb, yet fear to fall.” She never blushed whenhe pressed her hand, never fainted or grew palewhen he appeared with a smashed trotting-wagonand black eye, and actually slept through aserenade that would have won any other woman’ssoul out of her body with its despairing quavers.Matters were getting desperate; for horses losttheir charms, “flowing bowls” palled upon hislips, ruffled shirt-bosoms no longer delighted him,and hops possessed no soothing power to allaythe anguish of his mind. Mr. Seguin, afterunavailing ridicule and pity, took compassion onhim, and from his large experience suggested aremedy, just as he was departing for a morecongenial sphere.
“Now don’t be an idiot, Joe, but, if you wantto keep your hand in and go through a regularchapter of flirtation, just right about face, anddevote yourself to some one else. Nothing likejealousy to teach womankind their own minds,and a touch of it will bring little Wilder round ina jiffy. Try it, my boy, and good luck to you!”–with which Christian advice Mr. Seguin slappedhis pupil on the shoulder, and disappeared, likea modern Mephistopheles, in a cloud of cigar-smoke.
“I’m glad he’s gone, for in my present state ofmind he’s not up to my mark at all. I’ll try hisplan, though, and flirt with Clara West; she’sengaged, so it won’t damage her affections; herlover isn’t here, so it won’t disturb his; and, byJove! I must do something, for I can’t stand thissuspense.”
Debby was infinitely relieved by this new move,and infinitely amused as she guessed the motivethat prompted it; but the more contented sheseemed, the more violently Mr. Joe flirted with herrival, till at last weak-minded Miss Clara began tothink her absent George the most undesirable oflovers, and to mourn that she ever said “Yes”to a merchant’s clerk, when she might have said itto a merchant’s son. Aunt Pen watched and approvedthis stratagem, hoped for the best results,and believed the day won when Debby grew paleand silent, and followed with her eyes the youngcouple who were playing battledoor and shuttle-cockwith each other’s hearts, as if she took someinterest in the game. But Aunt Pen clashedher cymbals too soon; for Debby’s trouble had abetter source than jealousy, and in the silence of
the sleepless nights that stole her bloom she wastaking counsel of her own full heart, and resolvingto serve another woman as she would herself beserved in a like peril, though etiquette was outragedand the customs of polite society turned upside down.
“Look, Aunt Pen! what lovely shells and mossI’ve got! Such a splendid scramble over the rocksas I’ve had with Mrs. Duncan’s boys! It seemedso like home to run and sing with a troop oftopsy-turvy children that it did me good; and I wish youhad all been there to see.” cried Debby, runninginto the drawing-room, one day, where Mrs. Carrolland a circle of ladies sat enjoying a dish ofhighly flavored scandal, as they exercised theireyesight over fancy-work.
“My dear Dora, spare my nerves; and if youhave any regard for the proprieties of life, don’t goromping in the sun with a parcel of noisy boys. Ifyou could see what an object you are, I think youwould try to imitate Miss Clara, who is always amodel of elegant repose.”
Miss West primmed up her lips, and settled afold in her ninth flounce, as Mrs. Carroll spoke,while the whole group fixed their eyes withdignified disapproval on the invader of their refinedsociety. Debby had come like a fresh wind intoa sultry room; but no one welcomed the healthfulvisitant, no one saw a pleasant picture in thebright-faced girl with windtossed hair and rustichat heaped with moss and many-tinted shells; theyonly saw that her gown was wet, her gloves forgotten,and her scarf trailing at her waist in a manner nowell-bred lady could approve. The sunshine faded outof Debby’s face, and there was a touch of bitternessin her tone, as she glanced at the circle of fashion-plates,saying with an earnestness which caused Miss West toopen her pale eyes to their widest extent,–
“Aunt Pen, don’t freeze me yet,–don’t takeaway my faith in simple things, but let me be achild a little longer,–let me play and sing and keepmy spirit blithe among the dandelions and therobins while I can; for trouble comes soon enough,and all my life will be the richer and the better fora happy youth.”
Mrs. Carroll had nothing at hand to offer inreply to this appeal, and four ladies dropped theirwork to stare; but Frank Evan looked in fromthe piazza, saying, as he beckoned like a boy,–
“I’ll play with you, Miss Dora; come and makesand pies upon the shore. Please let her, Mrs.Carroll; we’ll be very good, and not wet ourpinafores or feet.”
Without waiting for permission, Debby pouredher treasures into the lap of a certain lame Freddy,and went away to a kind of play she had neverknown before. Quiet as a chidden child, shewalked beside her companion, who looked downat the little figure, longing to take it on his kneeand call the sunshine back again. That he darednot do; but accident, the lover’s friend, performedthe work, and did him a good turn beside. Theold Frenchman was slowly approaching, when afrolicsome wind whisked off his hat and sent itskimming along the beach. In spite of her latelecture, away went Debby, and caught the truantchapeau just as a wave was hurrying up to claimit. This restored her cheerfulness, and when shereturned, she was herself again.
“A thousand thanks; but does Mademoiselleremember the forfeit I might demand to add to thefavor she has already done me?” asked the gallantold gentleman, as Debby took the hat offher own head, and presented it with a martialsalute.
“Ah, I had forgotten that; but you may claim[text missing in original copy]do something more to give you pleasure;” andDebby looked up into the withered face whichhad grown familiar to her, with kind eyes, fullof pity and respect.
Her manner touched the old man very much;he bent his gray head before her, saying,gratefully,–
“My child, I am not good enough to salutethese blooming checks; but I shall pray the Virginto reward you for the compassion you bestow onthe poor exile, and I shall keep your memory verygreen through all my life.”
He kissed her hand, as if it were a queen’s,and went on his way, thinking of the little daughterwhose death left him childless in a foreign land.
Debby softly began to sing, “Oh, come untothe yellow sands! ” but stopped in the middle ofa line, to say,–
“Shall I tell you why I did what Aunt Penwould call a very unladylike and improper thing,Mr. Evans? ”
“If you will be so kind;” and her companionlooked delighted at the confidence about to bereposed in him.
“Somewhere across this great wide sea I hopeI have a brother,” Debby said, with softened voiceand a wistful look into the dim horizon.” Fiveyears ago he left us, and we have never heardfrom him since, except to know that he landedsafely in Australia. People tell us he is dead; butI believe he will yet come home; and so I love tohelp and pity any man who needs it, rich or poor,young or old, hoping that as I do by them sometender-hearted woman far away will do by BrotherWill.”
As Debby spoke, across Frank Evan’s facethere passed the look that seldom comes but onceto any young man’s countenance; for suddenlythe moment dawned when love asserted its supremacy,and putting pride, doubt, and fear underneathits feet, ruled the strong heart royally and bent itto its will. Debby’s thoughts had floated acrossthe sea; but they came swiftly back when hercompanion spoke again, steadily and slow, butwith a subtile change in tone and manner whicharrested them at once.
“Miss Dora, if you should meet a man whohad known a laborious youth, a solitary manhood,who had no sweet domestic ties to make homebeautiful and keep his nature warm, who longedmost ardently to be so blessed, and made it the aimof his life to grow more worthy the good gift,should it ever come,–if you should learn that youpossessed the power to make this fellow-creature’shappiness, could you find it in your gentle heartto take compassion on him for the love of ‘BrotherWill’?”
Debby was silent, wondering why heart andnerves and brain were stirred by such a suddenthrill, why she dared not look up, and why, whenshe desired so much to speak, she could onlyanswer, in a voice that sounded strange to her ownears,–
“I cannot tell.”
Still, steadily and slow, with strong emotiondeepening and softening his voice, the lover at herside went on,–
“Will you ask yourself this question in some quiethour? For such a man has lived in the sunshine ofyour presence for eight happy weeks, andnow, when his holiday is done, he finds that theold solitude will be more sorrowful than ever,unless he can discover whether his summer dreamwill change into a beautiful reality. Miss Dora,I have very little to offer you; a faithful heart tocherish you, a strong arm to work for you, anhonest name to give into your keeping,–these areall; but if they have any worth in your eyes, theyare most truly yours forever.”
Debby was steadying her voice to reply, whena troop of bathers came shouting down the bank,and she took flight into her dressing-room, thereto sit staring at the wall, till the advent of AuntPen forced her to resume the business of the hourby assuming her aquatic attire and stealing shylydown into the surf.
Frank Evan, still pacing in the footprints theyhad lately made, watched the lithe figure trippingto and fro, and, as he looked, murmured to himselfthe last line of a ballad Debby sometimes sang,–
“Dance light! for my heart it lies under your feet, love!”
Presently a great wave swept Debby up, andstranded her very near him, much to her confusionand his satisfaction. Shaking the spray out of hereyes, she was hurrying away, when Frank said,–
“You will trip, Miss Dora; let me tie thesestrings for you;” and, suiting the action to theword, he knelt down and began to fasten the cordsof her bathing shoe.
Debby stood Looking down at the tall head bentbefore her, with a curious sense of wonder that alook from her could make a strong man flush andpale, as he had done; and she was trying to concoctsome friendly speech, when Frank, still fumblingat the knots, said, very earnestly and low,–
“Forgive me, if I am selfish in pressing for ananswer; but I must go to-morrow, and a singleword will change my whole future for the betteror the worse. Won’t you speak it, Dora?”
If they had been alone, Debby would have puther arms about his neck, and said it with all herheart; but she had a presentiment that she shouldcry, if her love found vent; and here forty pairsof eyes were on them, and salt water seemedsuperfluous. Besides, Debby had not breathed the airof coquetry so long without a touch of the infection;and the love of power, that lies dormant inthe meekest woman’s breast, suddenly awoke andtempted her.
“If you catch me before I reach that rock,perhaps I will say ‘Yes,'” was her unexpectedanswer; and before her lover caught her meaning,she was floating leisurely away.
Frank was not in bathing-costume, and Debbynever dreamed that he would take her at herword; but she did not know the man she had todeal with; for, taking no second thought, he flunghat and coat away, and dashed into the sea. Thisgave a serious aspect to Debby’s foolish jest. Afeeling of dismay seized her, when she saw aresolute face dividing the waves behind her, andthought of the rash challenge she had given; butshe had a spirit of her own, and had profited wellby Mr. Joe’s instructions: so she drew a longbreath, and swam as if for life, instead of love.Evan was incumbered by his clothing, and Debbyhad much the start of him; but, like a secondLeander, he hoped to win his Hero, and, lendingevery muscle to the work, gained rapidly uponthe little hat which was his beacon through thefoam. Debby heard the deep breathing drawingnearer and nearer, as her pursuer’s strong armscleft the water and sent it rippling past her lips,something like terror took possession of her; forthe strength seemed going out of her limbs, andthe rock appeared to recede before her; but theunconquerable blood of the Pilgrims was in herveins, and “Nil desperandum” her motto; so,setting her teeth, she muttered, defiantly,–
“I’ll not be beaten, if I go to the bottom!”
A great splashing arose, and when Evan recoveredthe use of his eyes, the pagoda-hat hadtaken a sudden turn, and seemed making for thefarthest point of the goal. “I am sure of hernow,” thought Frank; and, like a gallant seagod,he bore down upon his prize, clutching it with ashout of triumph. But the hat was empty, and likea mocking echo came Debby’s laugh, as sheclimbed, exhausted, to a cranny in the rock.
“A very neat thing, by Jove! Deuse take meif you a’n’t ‘an honor to your teacher, and a terrorto the foe,’ Miss Wilder,” cried Mr. Joe, as hecame up from a solitary cruise and dropped anchorat her side. “Here, bring along the hat, Evan;I’m going to crown the victor with apropriatewhat-d’ye-call-’ems,” he continued, pulling a handfulof sea-weed that looked like well-boiled greens.
Frank came up, smiling; but his lips were white,and in his eye a look Debby could not meet; so,being full of remorse, she naturally assumed an airof gayety, and began to sing the merriest air sheknew, merely because she longed to throw herselfupon the stones and cry violently.
“It was ‘most as exciting as a regatta, and youpulled well, Evan; but you had too much ballastaboard, and Miss Wilder ran up false colors justin time to save her ship. What was the wager?”asked the lively Joseph, complacently surveyinghis marine millinery, which would have scandalizeda fashionable mermaid.
“Only a trifle,” answered Debby, knotting upher braids with a revengeful jerk.
“It’s taken the wind out of your sails, I fancy,Evan, for you look immensely Byronic with thestarch minus in your collar and your hair in apoetic toss. Come, I’ll try a race with you; andMiss Wilder will dance all the evening with thewinner. Bless the man, what’s he doing downthere? Burying sunfish, hey?”
Frank had been sitting below them on a narrowstrip of sand, absently piling up a little moundthat bore some likeness to a grave. As hiscompanion spoke, he looked at it, and a sudden flushof feeling swept across his face, as he replied,–
“No, only a dead hope.”
“Deuse take it, yes, a good many of that sortof craft founder in these waters, as I know to mysorrow;” and, sighing tragically. Mr. Joe turnedto help Debby from her perch, but she had glidedsilently into the sea, and was gone.
For the next four hours the poor girl sufferedthe sharpest pain she had ever known; for nowshe clearly saw the strait her folly had betrayedher into. Frank Evan was a proud man, andwould not ask her love again, believing she hadtacitly refused it; and how could she tell him thatshe had trifled with the heart she wholly loved andlonged to make her own? She could not confidein Aunt Pen, for that worldly lady would haveno sympathy to bestow. She longed for hermother; but there was no time to write, for Frankwas going on the morrow, –might even then begone; and as this fear came over her, she coveredup her face and wished that she were dead. PoorDebby! her last mistake was sadder than her first,and she was reaping a bitter harvest from her summer’ssowing. She sat and thought till her cheeksburned and her temples throbbed; but she darednot ease her pain with tears. The gong soundedlike a Judgment-Day trump of doom, and shetrembled at the idea of confronting many eyes withsuch a telltale face; but she could not stay behind,for Aunt Pen must know the cause. She tried toplay her hard part well; but wherever she looked,some fresh anxiety appeared, as if every fault andfolly of those months had blossomed suddenlywithin the hour. She saw Frank Evan moresombre and more solitary than when she met himfirst, and cried regretfully within herself, “Howcould I so forget the truth I owed him? — Shesaw Clara West watching with eager eyes for thecoming of young Leavenworth, and sighed, — “Thisis the fruit of my wicked vanity!” She saw AuntPen regarded her with an anxious face, and longedto say, “Forgive me, for I have not been sincere!”
At last, as her trouble grew, she resolved to goaway and have a quiet “think,”–a remedy whichhad served her in many a lesser perplexity; so,stealing out, she went to a grove of cedars usuallydeserted at that hour. But in ten minutes JoeLeavenworth appeared at the door of the summerhouse, and, looking in, said, with a well-actedstart of pleasure and surprise,–
“Beg pardon, I thought there was no one here,My dear Miss Wilder, you look contemplative;but I fancy it wouldn’t do to ask the subject ofyour meditations, would it?”
He paused with such an evident intention ofremaining that Debby resolved to make use of themoment, and ease her conscience of one care thatburdened it; therefore she answered his questionwith her usual directness,–
“My meditations were partly about you.”
Mr. Joe was guilty of the weakness of blushingviolently and looking immensely gratified; buthis rapture was of short duration, for Debby wenton very earnestly,–
“I believe I am going to do what you mayconsider a very impertinent thing; but I wouldrather be unmannerly than unjust to others oruntrue to my own sense of right. Mr. Leavenworth,if you were an older man, I should not dare to saythis to you; but I have brothers of my own, and,remembering how many unkind things they do forwant of thought, I venture to remind you that awoman’s heart is a perilous plaything, and too tenderto be used for a selfish purpose or an hour’spleasure. I know this kind of amusement is notconsidered wrong; but it is wrong, and I cannotshut my eyes to the fact, or sit silent while anotherwoman is allowed to deceive herself and woundthe heart that trusts her. Oh, if you love yourown sisters, be generous, be just, and do notdestroy that poor girl’s happiness, but go awaybefore your sport becomes a bitter pain to her!”
Joe Leavenworth had stood staring at Debbywith a troubled countenance, feeling as if all themisdemeanors of his life were about to be paradedbefore him; but, as he listened to her plea, thewomanly spirit that prompted it appealed moreloudly than her words, and in his really generousheart he felt regret for what had never seemeda fault before. Shallow as he was, nature wasstronger than education, and he admired andaccepted what many a wiser, worldlier man wouldhave resented with anger or contempt. He lovedDebby with all his little might; he meant to tellher so, and graciously present his fortune andhimself for her acceptance; but now, when themoment came, the well-turned speech he had preparedvanished from his memory, and with thebetter eloquence of feeling he blundered out hispassion like a very boy.
“Miss Dora, I never meant to make trouble betweenClara and her lover; upon my soul, I didn’t,and wish Seguin had not put the notion into myhead, since it has given you pain. I only tried topique you into showing some regret, when Ineglected you; but you didn’t, and then I gotdesperate and didn’t care what became of any one.Oh, Dora, if you knew how much I loved you, Iam sure you’d forgive it, and let me prove myrepentance by giving up everything that you dislike.I mean what I say; upon my life I do; and I’llkeep my word, if you will only let me hope.”
If Debby had wanted a proof of her love forFrank Evan, she might have found it in the factthat she had words enough at her command now,and no difficulty in being sisterly pitiful towardher second suitor.
“Please get up,” she said; for Mr. Joe, feelingvery humble and very earnest, had gone downupon his knees, and sat there entirely regardlessof his personal apearance.
He obeyed; and Debby stood looking up athim with her kindest aspect, as she said, moretenderly than she had ever spoken to him before,–
“Thank you for the affection you offer me, butI cannot accept it, for I have nothing to give youin return but the friendliest regard, the most sinceregood-will. I know you will forgive me, and dofor your own sake the good things you would havedone for mine, that I may add to my esteem a realrespect for one who has been very kind to me.”
“I’ll try,–indeed, I will, Miss Dora, thoughit will be powerful hard without yourself for ahelp and a reward.”
Poor Joe choked a little, but called up anunexpected manliness, and added, stoutly,–
“Don’t think I shall be offended at your speakingso or saying ‘No’ to me,–not a bit; it’s allright, and I’m much obliged to you. I might haveknown you couldn’t care for such a fellow as I am,and don’t blame you, for nobody in the worldis good enough for you. I’ll go away at once,I’ll try to keep my promise, and I hope you’ll bevery happy all your life.”
He shook Debby’s bands heartily, and hurrieddown the steps, but at the bottom paused andlooked back. Debby stood upon the thresholdwith sunshine dancing on her winsome face, andkind words trembling on her lips; for the momentit seemed impossible to part, and, with animpetuous gesture, he cried to her,–
“Oh, Dora, let me stay and try to win you!for everything is possible to love, and I neverknew how dear you were to me till now!”
There were sudden tears in the young man’seyes, the flush of a genuine emotion on his cheek,the tremor of an ardent longing in his voice, and,for the first time, a very true affection strengthenedhis whole countenance. Debby’s heart was full ofpenitence; she had given so much pain to more thanone that she longed to atone for it–longed to dosome very friendly thing, and soothe some troublesuch as she herself had known. She looked intothe eager face uplifted to her own and thoughtof Will, then stooped and touched her lover’sforehead with the lips that softly whispered, “No.”
If she had cared for him, she never wouldhave done it; poor Joe knew that, and murmuringan incoherent “Thank you!” he rushed away,feeling very much as he remembered to have feltwhen his baby sister died and he wept his griefaway upon his mother’s neck. He began hispreparations for departure at once, in a burst ofvirtuous energy quite refreshing to behold, thinkingwithin himself, as he flung his cigar-case into thegrate, kicked a billiard-ball into a corner, andsuppressed his favorite allusion to the Devil,–
“This is a new sort of thing to me, but I canbear it, and upon my life I think I feel the betterfor it already.”
And so he did; for though he was no Augustineto turn in an hour from worldly hopes and climbto sainthood through long years of inward strife,yet in aftertimes no one knew how many falsesteps had been saved, how many small sins repentedof, through the power of the memory thatfar away a generous woman waited to respect him,and in his secret soul he owned that one of the bestmoments of his life was that in which little DebbyWilder whispered “No,” and kissed him.
As he passed from sight, the girl leaned herhead upon her hand, thinking sorrowfully to herself,–
“What right had I to censure him, when myown actions are so far from true? I have done awicked thing, and as an honest girl I should undoit, if I can. I have broken through the rules of afalse propriety for Clara’s sake; can I not do asmuch for Frank’s? I will. I’ll find him, if Isearch the house,–and tell him all, though I neverdare to look him in the face again, and Aunt Pensends me home to-morrow.”
Full of zeal and courage, Debby caught up herhat and ran down the steps, but, as she saw FrankEvan coming up the path, a sudden panic fellupon her, and she could only stand mutely waitinghis approach.
It is asserted that Love is blind; and on thestrength of that popular delusion novel heroes andheroines go blundering through three volumes ofdespair with the plain truth directly under theirabsurd noses: but in real life this theory is notsupported; for to a living man the countenance of aloving woman is more eloquent than any language,more trustworthy than a world of proverbs, morebeautiful than the sweetest love-lay ever sung.
Frank looked at Debby, and “all her heartstood up in her eyes,” as she stretched her handsto him, though her lips only whispered verylow,–
“Forgive me, and let me say the ‘Yes’ Ishould have said so long ago.”
Had she required any assurance of her lover’struth, or any reward for her own, she would havefound it in the change that dawned so swiftly inhis face, smoothing the lines upon his forehead,lighting the gloom of his eye, stirring his firm lipswith a sudden tremor, and making his touch as softas it was strong. For a moment both stood verystill, while Debby’s tears streamed down likesummer rain; then Frank drew her into the greenshadow of the grove, and its peace soothed herlike a mother’s voice, till she looked up smilingwith a shy delight her glance had never knownbefore. The slant sunbeams dropped a benedictionon their heads, the robins peeped, and thecedars whispered, but no rumor of what furtherpassed ever went beyond the precincts of thewood; for such hours are sacred, and Natureguards the first blossoms of a human love astenderly as she nurses May-flowers underneaththe leaves.
Mrs. Carroll had retired to her bed with anervous headache, leaving Debby to the watchand ward of friendly Mrs. Earle, who performedher office finely by letting her charge entirely alone.In her dreams Aunt Pen was just imbibing a copiousdraught of champagne at the wedding-breakfast ofher niece, “Mrs. Joseph Leavenworth,”when she was roused by the bride elect, whopassed through the room with a lamp and a shawlin her hand.
“What time is it, and where are you going,dear?” she asked, dozily wondering if the carriagefor the wedding-tour was at the door so soon.
“It’s only nine, and I am going for a sail, AuntPen.”
As Debby spoke, the light flashed full into herface, and a sudden thought into Mrs. Carroll’smind. She rose up from her pillow, looking asstately in her night-cap as Maria Theresa is saidto have done in like unassuming head-gear.
“Something has happened, Dora! What haveyou done? What have you said? I insist uponknowing immediately,” she demanded, with somewhatstartling brevity.
“I have said ‘No’ to Mr. Leavenworth and ‘Yes’ toMr. Evan; and I should like to go home to-morrow,if you please,” was the equally concise reply.
Mrs. Carroll fell flat in her bed, and laythere stiff and rigid as Morlena Kenwigs. Debbygently drew the curtains, and stole away leavingAunt Pen’s wrath to effervesce before morning.
The moon was hanging luminous and large onthe horizon’s edge, sending shafts of light beforeher till the melancholy ocean seemed to smile, andalong that shining pathway happy Debby and herlover floated into that new world where all things seem divine.