The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 5/Miss Wimple's Hoop
MISS WIMPLE'S HOOP.
"Believe in God and yourself, and do the best you can."
In Hendrik on the Hudson, fifty miles from New York, there was, winter before last, a certain "patent seamless."—
But a hooped skirt with a history, touching and teaching, is no theme for flippancy; so, by your leave, I will unwind my story tenderly, and with reverential regard for its smooth turns of sequence.
The Wimples, of whom Sally is the last, were among the oldest and most respectable of Hendrik families. Sally's father, Mr. Paul Wimple, had been a publisher in good standing, and formerly did a flourishing business in New York; but seven years ago he failed, and so, quite penniless, his health sadly broken, his cheerfulness and energy all gone with his fortunes, without heart for any new beginning, he returned to Hendrik, his native place.
There, the friends of his youth, stead-fast and generous, pitying his sad plight, and having perfect faith in his unimpeached integrity, purchased—principally at the sale in bankruptcy of his own effects—a modest stock of new and second-hand books and magazines, together with some stationery and a few fancy articles in that line, and reestablished him in the humble but peaceful calling of a country bookseller. They called his shop "The Hendrik Athenaeum and Circulating Library," and all the county subscribed; for, at first, the Wimples were the fashionable charity, "the Wimples were always so very respectable, you know," and Sally was such a sweet girl that really it was quite an interesting case. Mrs. Splurge forthwith began improving the minds of her girls to the extent of three full annual subscriptions for Josephine, Adelaide, and Madeline respectively; and that triplet of fair students, who, separately or conjointly, were at all times competent to the establishment of a precedent for the graceful charities of Hendrik good society, handsomely led off with a ten-dollar investment in "fountain" pens, "cream-laid assembly note," motto-wafers, Blessington envelopes "with crest and initial," ivory tablets, pencil-sharpeners, and ink-erasers.
But all their munificence came to nought. Mr. Paul Wimple's heart was broken,—as they say of any weary Sysiphus who lies down by his stone and sleeps forever;—so he died.
Poor little Sally! The first thing she did was to disappoint her friends, and shock the decencies of Hendrik; for it had been agreed on all sides that "the poor dear thing would take on dreadfully, or else fret herself into fits, or perhaps fall into one of them clay-cold, corpsy swoons, like old Miss Dunks has regular every 'revival.'" But when they came, with all their tedious commonplaces of a stupid condolence not wholly innocent of curiosity, Sally thanked them with dry eyes and prudent lips and quiet nerves, and only said she thought she should do very well after she had set the house to rights and slept awhile. The sewing-circle of that week was a coroner's inquest on Sally's character, and "ungrateful," "cold-blooded," "indecent," "worse than a hypocrite," were not the hardest epithets in the verdict of the jury.
But Sally set the place to rights, and bade her father's old friends to the funeral, and buried him with all the money that was in the house, neither asking nor accepting aid from any; and with the poor pittance that her severe conscience could afford her sorrow she procured some cheap material of the doleful sort and went into the most unbecoming of "full mourning." When she made her appearance in church,—which she did, as usual, the very first Sunday after the funeral,—that plainest of bonnets and straitest of black delaines, unadorned save by the old-fashioned and dingy lace-cape, descended through many shifts of saving from her long-ago-dead-and-gone mother, were so manifestly a condescending concession to the conventionalities or superstitions of Hendrik, and said so plainly, "This is for your 'decencies,'—it is all that I can honestly spare, and more than you should demand,—my life is mourning enough,"—that all the congregation bristled at the affront. Henceforth Miss Wimple—no longer dear Sally, or even Miss Sally, but sharp "Miss Wimple"—had that pew to herself.
Now I believe it was not generally known in Hendrik that Miss Wimple had narrowly escaped being a very pretty girl. She was but just in her nineteenth year when her father died. Her features were regular, her expression lovely, her complexion, before trouble nipped the roses of her cheeks, full of the country's freshness. She had tender eyes, profoundly overshadowed by long, pensive lashes; in the sweet lines of her very delicate mouth a trace of quiet pride was prettily blended with thoughtfulness, and a just-forming smile that was always melancholy. Her feet were little, and her hands were soft and white; nor had toil and sorrow, and the weariness, and indifference to self, that come of them, as yet impaired the symmetry of her well-turned shape, or the elasticity of her free and graceful carriage. Her deportment was frank and self-reliant, and her manners, though reserved, far from awkward; her complete presence, indeed, compelled consideration and invited confidence.
In her father's lifetime, she had sought, on occasions of unwonted cheerfulness, to please him with certain charming tricks of attire; and sometimes, with only a white rose-bud gleaming through the braided shadows of her hair, lighted herself up as with a star; then, not a carping churl, not an envious coquette in Hendrik, but confessed to the prettiness of Sally Wimple.
But now there was no longer a grateful life for her white rose-star to brighten; so she sat down, in her loneliness and sombre unbecomingness, between her forlorn counters with their pitiful shows of stock, and let her good looks go by, entertaining only brave thoughts of duty,—till she grew pale "and fell into the portion of weeds and outworn faces," so that "how anybody could see the least beauty in that distressing Miss Wimple" began to be with many a sincere and almost reasonable expression of surprise, instead of a malicious sin against knowledge. She waited for customers, but they seldom came,—often, from opening to window-barring, not one; for the unwilting little martyr of the Hendrik Athenaeum and Circulating Library had made herself a highly disapproved-of Miss Wimple by her ungrateful and contumacious behavior at her father's death, even if the hard and sharp black lines of that scrimped delaine had not sufficed to turn the current of admiration, interest, and custom. Besides, the attractions of her slender stock were all exhausted. She had not the means of refreshing it with pretty novelties and sentimental toys in that line,—with albums and valentines, fancy portfolios and pocket-secretaries, pearl paper-knives and tortoise-shell cardcases, Chinese puzzles and papier-maché checker-boards. Nor was the Library replenished "to keep up with the current literature of the day"; its last new novel was a superannuated dilapidation; not one of its yearly subscribers but had worked through the catalogue once and a half.
Since the funeral, and especially since the inauguration of the delaine, Mrs. Marmaduke Splurge had been less alive to the necessity of improving the minds of her girls; and that virginal ten-dollar investment had provided Josephine, Adelaide, and Madeline with supplies of small arms and ammunition enough for a protracted campaign of epistolary belligerence, interrupted by hair-strokes of coquettish diplomacy.
In the flaunting yellow house on the hill the widow and daughters of the late Marmaduke Splurge, Esq., railroad-director and real-estate broker, fondled and hated each other. Mrs. Marmaduke was a well-preserved woman, stylish, worldly-minded, and weak. Miss Josephine, her eldest, was handsome, patronizing, passée, and a sentimental fool; Miss Adelaide, who came next, was handsome, eccentric, malicious, and sly; and Miss Madeline, the youngest, was handsome, distinguished-looking, intellectual, passionate, and proud.
Mrs. Marmaduke's heart was set on marrying her daughters "advantageously," and she gave all of her narrow mind to that thankless department. Josephine insisted on a romantic attachment, and pursued a visionary spouse with all the ardor and obstinacy of first-rate stupidity. Adelaide had the weakness to hate Josephine, the shrewdness to fear Madeline, and the viciousness to despise her mother; she skilfully and diligently devoted herself to the thwarting of the family. Madeline waited, only waited,—with a fierceness so dangerously still that it looked like patience,—hated her insulting bondage, but waited, like Samson between the pillars upon which the house of Dagon stood, resolved to free herself, though she dragged down the edifice and were crushed among the wreck.
Mrs. Marmaduke talked tediously of the trials and responsibilities of conscientious mothers who have grown-up daughters to provide for, was given to frequent freshets of tears, consumed many "nervous pills" of the retired-clergyman-whose-sands-of-life-have-nearly-run-out sort, and netted bead purses for the Select Home for Poor Gentlemen's Daughters. Josephine let down her back hair dowdily, partook recklessly of poetry and pickles, read inordinately in bed,—leaning all night on her elbow,—and was threatened with spinal curvature and spiritualism. Adelaide set invisible little traps in every nook and cranny, every cupboard and drawer, from basement to attic, and with a cheerful, innocent smile sat watching them night and day. Madeline, fiercely calm, warned off the others, with pale lips and flashing eyes and bitter tongue, resenting en famille the devilish endearments she so sweetly suffered in company; but ever as she groped about in her soul's blindness she felt for the central props of that house of Dagon.
All the good society of Hendrik said the Splurges were a charming family, a most attached and happy family, lovely in their lives and in death not to be divided, and that they looked sweetly in hoops. And yet the Splurges had but few visitors; the young women of the neighborhood, when they called there, left always an essential part of their true selves behind them as they entered, and an ornamental part of their reputations when they took their departure; nor were the young men partial to the name,—for Josephine bored them, and Adelaide taunted them, and Madeline snubbed them, and Mrs. Marmaduke pumped them, and the combined family confounded them. Only Mr. Philip Withers was the intimate and encouraged habitué of the house.
Mr. Philip Withers was the very man for the looser principles of Hendrik,—a fine gentleman's fine son, and his only one, who, by the death of his father, had come, whilst he was yet very young, into a pretty property in the neighborhood,—a sort of idyllic man of the world, with considerable cleverness, a neat miscellaneous education, handsome person, effective clothes, plausible address, mischievous brilliancy of versatile talk, a deep voice, two or three accomplishments best adapted to the atmosphere of sentimental women, graceful self-possession, small feet, nice hands, striking attitudes, a subduing smile, magnetic whisper, Machiavellian tact, and French morals. He could sing you into tears, and dance you into love, and talk you into wonder; when he drew, you begged for his portrait by himself, and when he wrote, you solicited his autograph.
Mr. Philip Withers had taken his moustache to foreign parts, and done the Continent sophisticatedly. He was well-read in cities, and had brought home a budget of light, popular, and profusely illustrated articles of talk on an equivocal variety of urban life, which he prettily distributed among clovery pastorals, Wordsworthian ballads, De Coverly entertainments, Crayon sketches, and Sparrowgrass Papers, for the benefit of his country subscribers. From all of which you have no doubt gathered by this time that Mr. Philip Withers was a graceful scamp, and a friend of the Splurges,—who had money, which Mr. Philip Withers had not; for he had been a munificent patron of elegant pleasures abroad, and since his return had erected an addition to his father's house in the shape of a pair of handsome mortgages, as a proprietor of romantic tastes in architecture might flank his front door with mediæval donjons.
Mrs. Marmaduke made much of that good-looking and delightful Withers. Though not a pious man, in the formal sense of the term, she felt sure he was religious according to that stained-glass and fragrant religion of the tastes which is an essential attribute of every gentleman,—that is, of every well-born man of cultivated preferences and sensitive antipathies,—and she had no doubt that gentlemen's souls could be saved by that arrangement just as satisfactorily, and so much more gracefully. She only wished, my dear, you could hear Mr. Withers express himself on those subjects, —his ideas were so delightfully "your deal, my love"—clear, his illustrations so sweetly pretty, and his manner so earnest; really, he stirred her like—"hearts, did you say?—a trump."
Josephine Splurge contented herself with letting down her back hair for Mr. Withers and making eyes at him.
"Good-morrow to the guileless Genevieve!"—Withers delighted in dispensing equivocal nothings to the dowdy Muse of the sofa and back hair.—"Charming weather!"
"There, you bewildering Joseph Surface, you need not go on,—I know what you are going to say, and I will neither be flattered nor fascinated. Come, confess now, like a dear candid creature, throw off your irresistibly bewitching mask, and own that your sentiments are all rhetoric."
"Josy, dear," Adelaide would insinuate, "what a wonderful memory you have!—so well managed, too! Now whom did you hear say that?"
Josephine was wont to declare that the Admirable Crichton lived again in that kaleidoscopic creature; but he was so dazzling, so bewildering, so dangerous, that to converse with him was like having fireworks in one's boudoir.
With Madeline Withers was on strange terms, if any terms at all. She threatened to him in the middle of his best stories, smiled quietly when he preached, yawned to his poetical recitations, left the room when he sang, mistook the subjects of his sketches with a verisimilitude of innocence that often deceived even himself, was silent and sneered much whenever he was present. And all these rudenesses she performed with a successful air of genuine abstraction; they never failed of their intention by being overdone, or by being too directly directed at him.
Remarks seldom passed between these two; when they did, Withers spoke always first, and Madeline replied briefly and with politeness. And yet there were occasions when a sharp-sighted and suspicious observer might have detected a strange discomposure in Madeline's conduct in the presence of Withers,—when, indeed, she seemed to be laboring under irritability, and proneness to singular excitement, which began with his entrance and disappeared with his departure. At such times she would break her haughty quiet with fierce sallies upon her sisters; but Withers stung her back into silence with sharp and telling retorts,—as you may have seen a practised beast-tamer in a cage flog an angry tigress, when her eyes flashed, and her ears were set back, and she unsheathed her horrid claws, and lashed her sides, and growled with all the appalling fee-faw-fum of the jungle,—flog her back into her corner, with nought more formidable than a lady's riding-whip, dainty, slender, and sharp. But Withers administered the chastisement with such devilish grace that it was unperceived, save by the quick, shrewd Adelaide perhaps, who perceived everything,—but never saw, nor ever spoke. If you could have beheld the lips and the eyes of Madeline, on such occasions, you would have cursed this Philip Withers, or beaten him to her feet.
Between Withers and Adelaide the relations were plainer; indeed, before the small Splurge set they appeared as avowed lovers. Toward "Addy" Withers was all elegant devotion and gracious gallantry, knight-like in his chivalric and debonair devoir.
For Withers Addy was, openly, all deference and tenderly wistful solicitude, but in secret not all security and exultation. Even while it seemed high triumph in her heart's camp, her well-drilled eyes and ears were still on guard, and her hidden thoughts lay upon their arms.
Still it wore the aspect of a lyric match, and the hearts of humbler Hendrik lovers set it to music.
"For other guests," Withers seemed to say,
"I wile the hours with tale or song,
Or web of fancy, fringed with careless rhyme;
But how to find a fitting lay for thee,
Who hast the harmonies of every time?"
And Addy looked,
"Thou art to me most like a royal guest,
Whose travels bring him to some humble roof,
Where simple rustics spread their festal fare,
And, blushing, own it is not good enough.
"Bethink thee, then, whene'er thou com'st to me,
From high emprise and noble toil to rest,
My thoughts are weak and trivial, matched with thine,
But the poor mansion offers thee its best."
So Mrs. Marmaduke exalted her horn and exceedingly magnified her manoeuvring office. On the strength of it, she treated herself to profuse felicitations and fished among her neighbors for more.
And now I will let you into a secret, which, according to the received rules for story-construction, should be barred against you yet a little longer. I will fling it wide open at once, instead of holding it ajar and admitting you edgewise, as it were, one conjecture at a time.
Miss Wimple had a lover;—she had had him since six months before her father died, and the decayed publisher had never guessed of him nor Sally confessed him; for the good, thoughtful daughter knew it would but complicate the old man's perplexities and cares to no purpose. To be sure, his joyful consent was certain; but so long as he lived, "the thing was not to be thought of," she said, and it was not wise to plant in his mind a wish with which her duty could not accord. So Sally's lover was hushed up,—hidden in discretion as in a closet.
Simon Blount was his name, and he was a young farmer of five hundred acres in first-rate cultivation, with barns, stables, and offices in complete repair,—a well-stocked, well-watered place, with "all the modern improvements," and convenient to the Hendrik branch of the New York and Bunker Hill railroad.
The young man had inherited this very neat property from his father,—a thriving, intelligent farmer of the best class, Mr. Wimple's oldest friend, his playmate in boyhood, and his crony when he died. Simon's mother and Sally's had likewise been schoolmates, and intimates to the last, fondly attached to each other, and mutually confiding in each other's love and truth in times of pain and trouble.
But Mr. Blount and Mrs. Wimple had been dead these ten years;—they died in the same month. Simon and Sally were children when that happened, and since then they had grown up together in the closest family intimacy, interrupted only by Sally's winter schooling in New York, and renewed every summer by her regular seasons at Hendrik.
To the young man and the ripening maiden, then, their love came as naturally as violets and clover-blooms, and was as little likely to take their parents or the familiar country-folk by surprise.
When Simon took trips to New York, he "stopped" at Mr. Wimple's, and Sally's summer home in Hendrik was always "Aunt Phoebe's," as she had been taught to call Simon's mother.
You will wonder, then, that Mr. Paul Wimple should have blushed and struggled and died in the forlorn little "Athenaeum," and that Sally should sit down in her loneliness and "that fright of a delaine" to wait for customers that came not, when in their old friends' house were comfortable mansions, and in their old friends' hearts tearful kisses and welcome free as air. But you must remember that with sudden poverty comes, often, shrinking pride, and a degree of suspicion, and high scorn of those belittled pensioners who hang upon old ties; that old age, when it is sorely beset, is not always patient, clear-sighted, and just; that, when the heart of a young girl, in Sally's extremity, carries the helpless love that had been clad in purple, and couched in eider, and pampered with bonny cats, and served in gold, to Pride, and asks, "Stern master, what shall I do with this now?" the answer will be, "Strip it of its silken fooleries,—let it lie on the ground, the broad bosom of its honest, hearty mother,—teach it the wholesomeness of brown bread and cresses, fairly earned, and water from the spring,—and let it wait on itself, and wait for the rest!" Once, when the talk at the Splurge house descended for a moment from its lofty flights to describe a few eccentric mocking circles around the Hendrik Athenaeum and Miss Wimple, Madeline said, "If you have sense or decency, be silent;—the girl is true and brave, every way better taught than we, and prouder than she knows. If we were truly as scornful of her as she is indifferent to us, we would let her glorious insignificance alone."
So Miss Wimple waited in her shabby little shop and plied her needle for hire. Her lover was a handsome fellow, with a bright, frank face, and a vigorous, agile, and graceful form; there was more than common intellect in his clear, broad brow, overhung with close clusters of brown country curls; taste was on his lips and tenderness in his eyes; his soul was full of generosity, candor, and fidelity; his every movement and attitude denoted native refinement, and in his talk he displayed an excellent understanding and remarkable cultivation; for his father had bestowed on him superior advantages of education;—"as fine a young fellow, Sir," that estimable old Doctor Vandyke would say, "as ever you saw."
It was true, Simon's travels had never reached beyond New York; but, unlike Mr. Philip Withers, he had brought home solid comforts, useful facts, wholesome sentiments, natural manners, and sensible, but modest conversation,—instead of an astonishing variety of intellectual curiosities and intricate moral toys, whereat plain people marvelled—as in the case of a certain ingenious Chinese puzzle, ball within ball, all save the last elaborately carved—how the very diminutive plain one at the centre ever got in there, or ever could be got out.
In another respect the young farmer enjoyed a noticeable advantage over the man-of-the-world;—he was quite able to tear down those fancy donjon additions, and erect a plain, honest, substantial, very comfortable, and very cheerful Yankee porch on their site.
But Miss Wimple said to Simon,—"For a season you will keep aloof from this place and from me. I must see you no oftener than it would be allowable for an occasional customer of the better sort to drop in; and when you do come, state your business—let it always be business, or pass by—and take your leave, like any indifferent neighbor who came to change a book, or purchase a trifle, or engage work. On these terms our love must wait, until by my own unaided exertions—without help, mark you, Simon, from any man or woman on earth—I have discharged the debt of charity that is due to the good people of this place who helped my father in his utmost need, and gave him this shop and these things in trust. From you, of all men, Simon, I will accept no aid. Play no tricks of kindness upon me; nor let your love tempt you to experiment, with disguised charity, upon my purpose. You would only find that you had failed, and ruined all. The proceeds of this poor shop must belong to those whose money procured it, until I shall have paid its price; on no pretext shall that fund be touched for other purposes. I will sustain myself independently; you know that I ply a nimble needle, and that my handiwork will be in esteem among the richer folks of Hendrik. And now, dear Simon, let me have my way. You need no more earnest assurance of my love than the pains I would take, in this matter, to make you respect me more. When my task is done, I will deck myself as of old, and again light up the rose-star in my hair, and stand in the door and clap my hands to call you hither, and hold you fast; but not till then. Let me have my way till then."
And Simon said,—"You are wiser than I, Sally, and braver, and every way better. I will obey you in this, and wait,—the more cheerfully because I shall be always at hand, and, if your heart should fail you, I know you will not refuse my aid, nor prefer another's to mine."
And so they passed for mere acquaintances; and there were some who said—Philip Withers among them—that "that plausible Golden Farmer, young Blount, had treated the forlorn thing shabbily."
About that time hoops came in, and the Splurge girls flourished the first that appeared in Hendrik.
One day, as Miss Wimple sat in a low Yankee rocking-chair, sewing among her books, she was favored with the extraordinary apparition of Miss Madeline Splurge,—her first visitor that day, whether on business or curiosity.
"I wish to procure a small morocco pocket-book, Miss Wimple, if you keep such things."
Miss Wimple, with a slight bow of assent, took from a glass counter-case a paper box in which was a miscellaneous assortment of such articles; there were five or six of the pocket-books. Madeline selected one,—a small, flexible affair, of some dark-colored morocco lined with pink silk. She paid the trifle the shy, demure little librarian demanded, and was taking her leave in silence, without even a "Good-day," when, as she was passing the door, Miss Wimple espied on the counter, near where her customer had stood, a visiting-card; her eye fell on the engraved name,—"Mr. Philip Withers"; of course Miss Splurge had dropped it unawares. She hastened with it to the door,—Madeline had just stept into the street,—
"This card is yours, I presume, Miss Splurge?"
Madeline turned upon her with a surprised air, inquiringly,—looked in her own hands, and shook her handkerchief with the quick, nervous, alarmed movement of one who suddenly discovers a very particular loss,—became, in an instant, pale as death, stared for a moment at Miss Wimple with fixed eyes, and slightly shivered. Then, quickly and fiercely, she snatched the card from Miss Wimple's hand,—
"Where—where did you find this? Did—did I leave—drop—?"
"You left it on my counter," Miss Wimple quietly replied, with a considerate self-possession that admirably counterfeited unconsciousness of Madeline's consternation.
"Come hither, into the shop,—a word with you,"—and Madeline entered quickly, and closed the door behind her. For a moment she leaned with her elbow on the counter, and pressed her eyes with her fingers.
"Are you ill, Miss Splurge?" Miss Wimple gently inquired.
"No. Did you read what is on this card?"
"You—you—you read"———Madeline's hands were clenched, her face red and distorted; she gnashed her teeth, and seemed choking.
"Why, Miss Splurge, what is the matter with you? Yes, I read the name,—Mr. Philip Withers. The card lay on the counter,—I could not know it was yours,—I read the name, and immediately brought it to you. What excites you so? Sit down, and calm yourself; surely you are ill."
Madeline did not accept the stool Miss Wimple offered her, but, availing herself of the pause to assume a forced calmness which left her paler than at first, she fixed her flashing eyes steadily on the deep, still eyes of her companion, and asked,—
"You did not turn this card, then?—you did not look on the other side?"
"On my honor, I did not."
"On your honor! You are not lying, girl?"—Miss Splurge thrust the card into the newly-purchased pocket-book, and hid that in her bosom.
"Miss Splurge," said Miss Wimple, very simply, and with no excitement of tone or expression, "when you feel sufficiently recovered to appear on the street, without exposing yourself there as you have done in here, go out!"
And Miss Wimple turned from Madeline and would have resumed her sewing; but Madeline cried,—
"Stay, stay, Miss Wimple, I beseech you! I knew not what I said; forgive me, ah, forgive me!—for you are merciful, as you are pure and true. If you were aware of all, you would know that I could not insult you, if I would. Trouble, distraction, have made me coarse,—false, too, to myself as unjust and injurious to you; for I know your virtues, and believe in them as I believe in little else in this world or the next. If in my hour of agony and shame I could implore the help of any human being, I would come to you—dear, honest, brave girl!—before all others, to fling myself at your feet, and kiss your hands, and beseech you to pity me and save me from myself, to hold my hot head on your gentle bosom, and your soothing hand on my fierce heart. Good-by! Good-by! I need not ask your pardon again,—you have no anger for such as I. But if your blessed loneliness is ever disturbed by vulgar, chattering visitors, you will not name me to them, or confess that you have seen me." And ere Miss Wimple could utter the gentle words that were already on her lips, Madeline was gone.
For a while Miss Wimple remained standing on the spot, gazing anxiously, but vacantly, toward the door by which the half-mad lady had departed,—her soft, deep eyes full of painful apprehension. Then she resumed her little rocking-chair, and, as she gathered up her work from the floor where she had dropped it, tears trickled down her cheeks; she sighed and shook her head, in utter sorrow.
"They were always strange women," she thought, "those Splurges,—not a sound heart nor a healthy mind among them. Could their false, barren life have maddened this proud Madeline? Else what did she mean by her 'hot head' and her 'fierce heart'? And what had that Philip Withers to do with her trouble and her distraction? She recollected now that Simon had once said, in his odd, significant way, that Mr. Withers was a charming person to contemplate from a safe distance,—Simon, who never lent himself to idle detraction. She remembered, too, that she had often reproached herself for her irrational prejudice against the man,—that she was forever finding something false and sinister in the face that every one else said was eminently handsome, and ugly dissonance in the voice that all Hendrik praised for its music. Was he on both sides of that card?—Ah, well! it might be just nothing, after all; the poor lady might be ill, or vexed past endurance at home; or some unhappy love affair might have come to fret her proud, impatient, defiant temper. But not Withers,—oh, of course not Withers!—for was it not well known that Adelaide was his choice, that his assiduous and graceful attentions to her silenced even his loudest enemies, who could no longer accuse him of duplicity and disloyalty to women? But she would feel less disturbed, and sleep better, perhaps, if she knew that Madeline was safe at home, and tranquil again."
Thinking of sleep reminded Miss Wimple that she had a pious task to perform before she could betake her to her sweet little cot. A superannuated and bedridden woman, who had nursed her mother in her last illness, lived on the northern outskirts of the town; and she must cross the long covered bridge that spanned the Hendrik River to take a basket full of comforting trifles to old Hetty that night.
About nine o'clock Miss Wimple had done her charitable errand, and was on her way home again, with a light step and a happy heart, an empty basket and old Hetty's abundant blessings. She was alone, but feared nothing,—the streets of Hendrik at night were familiar to her and she to them; and although her shy and quiet traits were not sufficiently understood to make her universally beloved, not a loafing ruffian in town but knew her modest face, her odd attire, and her straightforward walk; and the rudest respected her.
As she approached the covered bridge, the moon was shining brightly at the entrance, making the gloom within profounder. It was a long, wooden structure, of a kind common enough on the turnpikes of the Atlantic States, where they cross the broader streams. Stout posts and cross-beams, and an arch that stretched from end to end, divided the bridge into two longitudinal compartments, for travellers going and coming respectively; there were small windows on each side, and at either end, on a conspicuous signboard, were the Company's "Rules,"—"Walk your Horses over this Bridge, or be subject to a Fine of not less than Five nor exceeding Twenty Dollars"—"Keep to the Right, as the Law directs."
As Miss Wimple entered the shadow of the bridge on the right hand, she was startled by hearing excited voices, which seemed to come from the other side of the central arch, and about the middle of the bridge, where the darkness was deepest:—
"Speak low, I say, or be silent! Some one will be coming presently;—I heard steps approaching even now"—Miss Wimple instinctively stopped, and stood motionless, almost holding her breath, at the end of the arch where the moonlight did not reach. She was no eavesdropper, mark you,—the meannesses she scorned included that character in a special clause. But she had recognised the voice, and with her own true delicacy would spare the speaker the shame of discovery and the dread of exposure.—"Speak low, or I will leave you. If you are indifferent for yourself, you shall not toss me to the geese of Hendrik."
"You are right";—it was a woman's voice; but, whatever her tone had been before, she spoke so low now, and with a voice so hoarse with suppressed emotion, so altered by a sort of choking whisper, that Miss Wimple, if she had ever heard it before, could not recognize it;—"You are right; the time for that has not come;—I could not stay to enjoy it;—I am going now, but we will meet again."
"What would you have? I have said I would marry you,—and leave you,—so soon as I can shake myself clear of that other stupid infatuation."
"Now, Philip Withers, what a weak, pusillanimous wretch you must be, having known me so long, and tried my temper so well, to hope to find me such a fool, after all,—that kind of fool, I mean! My deepest shame, in this unutterably shameful hour, is that I chose such a cowardly ass to besot myself with.—There, the subject sickens me, and I am going. Dare to follow me, and the geese of Hendrik shall have you. I go scot-free, fearing nothing, having nothing to lose; but I hold you, my exquisite Joseph Surface—oh, the wit of my sister! oh, the wisdom of fools!—by your fine sentiments; and when I want you I shall find you. I can take care of me and mine; but beware how you dare to claim lot or portion in what I choose to call my own, even though your brand be on it,—Joseph!"
She hissed the name, and, with hurried steps, and a low, scornful laugh, departed. As Miss Wimple, all aghast, leaned forward with quick breath and tumultuous heart, and peered through the gloom toward where the silver moonlight lay across the further end of the bridge, she saw a white dress flash across a bright space and disappear. Then Philip Withers stepped forth into the moonlight, stood there for a minute or two, and gazed in the direction of a branch road which made off from the turnpike close to the bridge, and led, at right angles to it, to the railroad station on the right; then slowly, and without once looking back, he followed the turnpike to the town.
All astonished, bewildered, full of strange, vague fears, Miss Wimple remained in the now awful gloom and stillness of the bridge till he had quite disappeared. Then gathering up her wits with an effort, she resumed her homeward way. As she emerged from the shadows into the same bright place which Withers and his mysterious companion had just passed, she spied something dark lying on the ground. She stooped and picked it up; it was a small morocco pocket-book lined with pink silk.
Good Heaven! She remembered,— the one she had sold to Miss Madeline Splurge that afternoon,—the very same! So, then, that was her voice, her dress; she had, indeed, dimly thought of Madeline more than once, while that woman was speaking so bitterly,—but had not recognized her tones, nor once fancied it might be she. Now she easily recalled her words, and understood some of her allusions. And her wild, distracted, incoherent speech in the shop, too,—ah! it was all too plain; that was surely she; but what might be the nature or degree of her trouble Miss Wimple dared not try to guess. This Philip Withers,—was he a villain, after all? "Had he—this poor lady—Oh, God forbid! No, no, no!"
She opened the pocket-book;—a visiting-card was all it contained. She drew it forth,—"Mr. Philip Withers,"—yes, she knew it by that broken corner, as though it had been marked so for a purpose. She held it up before her eyes where the moon was brightest, and—turned the other side.
"Ah, me!" exclaimed that Chevalier Bayard in shabby, skimped delaine, "what was I going to do?"
Blushing, she returned the card to its place, and hiding the pocket-book in her honorable bosom, hurried homeward. But her soul was troubled as she went; sometimes she sobbed aloud, and more than once she stood still and wrung her hands.
"Ah! if Simon Blount would but come now to advise me what is safest and best to do!"
Should she go to Mrs. Splurge and tell her all? No,—what right had she? That would but precipitate an exposure which might not be necessary. The case was not clear enough to justify so officious a step. Madeline was in no immediate danger. Perhaps she had only taken a different road to avoid the odious companionship of Withers. No doubt she was half-way home already. She would wait till morning, for clearer judgment and information. Till then she would hope for the best.
When Miss Wimple reached her humble little nest, she knelt beside her bed and prayed, tearfully, to the God who averts danger and forgives sin; but she did not sleep all night.
In the morning a gossiping neighbor came with the news;—"that little cooped-up Wimple never hears anything," she thought.
Miss Madeline Splurge had disappeared. Mr. Philip Withers was searching for her high and low. She had not been seen since yesterday afternoon,—had not returned home last night. It was feared she had drowned herself in the river for spite. She, the knowing neighbor, "had always said so,—had always said that Madeline Splurge was a quare girl,—sich high and mighty airs, and sich a temper. Now here it was, and what would people say,—specially them as had always turned up their nose at her opinion?"
Miss Wimple said nothing; but she treated Pity to two poor little lies;—one she told, and the other she looked:—She was not well, she said, which was the reason why she was so pale; and then she looked surprised at the news of Madeline's flitting.
Later in the day another report:—A letter left by Madeline had been found at home. She had taken offence at some sharp thing that sarcastic Mr. Withers, who always did hate her, had said; and had gone off in a miff, without even good-by or a carpet-bag, and taken the night train to New York, where she had an uncle on the mother's side.—And a good riddance! Now Miss Addy and Mr. Withers would have some peace of their time. Such a sweet couple, too!
Madeline had left a note:—"I was sick of you all, and I have escaped from you. You will be foolish to take any trouble about it."
[To be continued.]