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- From Jest to Earnest - 2/79 -
They had hardly crossed the threshold into the hall before they were hospitably welcomed by a widowed lady, whose hair was slightly tinged with gray, and by her eldest daughter.
The greetings were so cordial as to indicate ties of blood, and the guests were shown to their rooms, and told to prepare for an early dinner.
In brief, Mrs. Marchmont, the mistress of the mansion, had gratified her daughter's wish (as she did all her fancies) by permitting her to invite a number of young friends for the Christmas holidays. Both mother and daughter were fond of society, and it required no hospitable effort to welcome visitors at a season when a majority of their friends had fled from the dreariness of winter to city homes. Indeed, they regarded it as almost an honor that so prominent a belle as Charlotte Marsden had consented to spend a few weeks with them at a time when country life is at a large discount with the fashionable. They surmised that the presence of Mr. De Forrest, a distant relative of both Miss Marsden and themselves, would be agreeable to all concerned, and were not mistaken; and to Miss Lottie the presence of a few admirers--she would not entertain the idea that they were lovers--had become an ordinary necessity of life. Mr. De Forrest was an unusually interesting specimen of the genus,--handsome, an adept in the mode and etiquette of the hour, attentive as her own shadow, and quite as subservient.
His love-making would equal his toilet in elegance. All would be delicately suggested by touch of hand or glance of eye, and yet he would keep pace with the wild and wayward beauty in as desperate a flirtation as she would permit.
Miss Lottie had left her city home with no self-sacrificing purpose to become a martyr for the sake of country relatives. She had wearied of the familiar round of metropolitan gayety; but life on the Hudson during midwinter was an entire novelty. Therefore, as her little brother had been included in the invitation, they had started on what was emphatically a frolic to both.
Bel Parton, her companion, was another city cousin of the Marchmonts, with whom they were in the habit of exchanging visits. She was also an intimate of Lottie's, the two being drawn together by the mysterious affinity of opposites.
She was indeed a very different girl from Lottie Marsden, and many would regard her as a better one. Her face and character were of a type only too familiar to close observers of society. She was the beginning of several desirable things, but the pattern was in no instance finished, and was always ravelling out on one side or the other. She had the features of a pretty girl, but ill health and the absence of a pleasing expression spoiled them. She had a fine education, but did not know what to do with it; considerable talent, but no energy; too much conscience, as she had not the resolution to obey it. Her life was passed mainly in easy chairs, chronic dyspepsia, and feeble protest against herself and all the world.
Lottie often half provoked but never roused her by saying: "Bel, you are the most negative creature I ever knew. Why don't you do something or be something out and out? Well, ''Tis an ill wind that blows nobody any good.' You make an excellent foil for me."
And gloriously rich and tropical did Lottie appear against the colorless background of her friend. Bel felt that she suffered by the comparison so frankly indicated, but was too indolent and irresolute to change for the better or avoid companionship with one whose positive and full-blooded nature seemed to supplement her own meagre life.
When all appeared in the dining-room the shades and contrasts in character became more evident. At the head of the table sat a gentleman as yet not introduced, Mr. Dimmerly by name, a bachelor brother of Mrs. Marchmont who resided with her. He was a quaint-appearing little man, who in a greater degree than his age required seemed to belong to a former generation. His manners were too stately for his stature, and he was embarrassed by his elaborate efforts at politeness as his movements might have been by too ample garments.
He and his sister were representatives of one of the "old families" of the State, and, like their mansion, reminded one of the past. Indeed, they seemed to cherish, as a matter of pride and choice, their savor of antiquity, instinctively recognizing that their claims upon society were inherited rather than earned.
Old families do not always appear to accumulate the elements of greatness to such a degree that there is an increasing and almost irresistible impetus of force and genius. Successive generations are not necessarily born to a richer dower of mind and morals. Too often it would seem that the great qualities that in the first place launched a family on a brilliant career expend themselves, until the latest scion, like a spent arrow, drops into insignificance.
Mrs. Marchmont was regarded by society as an elegant woman, and she was, in all externals. The controlling principle of her life was precedent. What had been customary, and still obtained among the "good old families," had a flavor of divine right in it.
Alas for the Marchmont family, for the young lady of the house seemed inclined to maintain and perpetuate nothing save her own will, and had no special development in any respect, save a passion for her own way. Still she was one of those girls whom society calls a "pretty little thing," and was predestined to marry some large, good-natured man who would imagine that she would make a nice little pet, a household fairy, but who might learn to his dismay that the fairy could be a tormenting elf. She would not marry the young gentleman with whom her name was at present associated by the gossips, and who had driven over that morning to help her entertain the expected guests. Mr. Harcourt and Miss Marchmont understood each other. He was a distant relative of her mother's, and so under the disguise of kinship could be very familiar. The tie between them was composed of one part friendship and two parts flirtation. He had recently begun the practice of law in a neighboring town, and found the Marchmont residence a very agreeable place at which to spend his leisure. It was Miss Marchmont's purpose that he should form one of the gay party that would make the holiday season a prolonged frolic. He, nothing loath, accepted the invitation, and appeared in time for dinner. To many he seemed to possess a dual nature. He had a quick, keen intellect, and, during business hours, gave an absorbed attention to his profession. At other times he was equally well known as a sporting man, with tendencies somewhat fast.
Mrs. Marchmont's well-appointed dining-room was peculiarly attractive that wintry day. Finished off in some dark wood on which the ruddy hickory fire glistened warmly, it made a pleasing contrast to the cold whiteness of the snow without. A portly colored waiter in dress coat seemed the appropriate presiding genius of the place, and in his ebon hands the polished silver and crystal were doubly luminous.
And yet the family, with its lack of original force, its fading traditions of past greatness, made rather a dim and neutral tint, against which such a girl as Charlotte Marsden appeared as the glowing embodiment of the vivid and intense spirit of the present age. Her naturally energetic and mercurial nature had been cradled among the excitements of the gayest and giddiest city on the continent. A phlegmatic uncle had remarked to her, in view of inherited and developed characteristics, "Lottie, what in ordinary girls is a soul, in you is a flame of fire."
As she sat at the table, doing ample justice to the substantial viands, she did appear as warm and glowing as the coals of hard-wood, which, ripened in the sunshine, lay upon the hearth opposite.
The bon-vivant, Julian De Forrest, found time for many admiring glances, of which Lottie was as agreeably conscious as of the other comforts and luxuries of the hour. They were all very much upon the same level in her estimation.
But De Forrest would ask no better destiny than to bask in the light and witchery of so glorious a creature. Little did he understand himself or her, or the life before him. It would have been a woful match for both. In a certain sense he would be like the ambitious mouse that espoused the lioness. The polished and selfish idler, with a career devoted to elegant nothings, would fret and chafe such a nature as hers into almost frenzy, had she no escape from him.
There would be fewer unhappy marriages if the young, instead of following impulses and passing fancies, would ask, How will our lives accord when our present tendencies and temperaments are fully developed? It would need no prophetic eye to foresee in many cases, not supplemental and helpful differences, but only hopeless discord. Yet it is hard for a romantic youth to realize that the smiling maiden before him, with a cheek of peach-bloom and eyes full of mirth and tenderness, can become as shrewish as Xantippe herself. And many a woman becomes stubborn and acid, rather than sweet, by allowing herself to be persuaded into marrying the wrong man, and then by not having the good sense to make the best of it.
Alas! experience also proves that, of all prosaic, selfish grumblers, your over-gallant lover makes the worst. And yet, while the world stands, multitudes will no doubt eagerly seek the privilege of becoming mutual tormentors.
Lottie thought Mr. De Forrest "very nice." She liked him better than any one else she had met and flirted with since her school-days, during which period of sincerity and immaturity she had had several acute attacks of what she imagined to be the "grand passion." But as the objects were as absurd as her emotions, and the malady soon ran, its course, she began to regard the whole subject as a jest, and think, with her fashionable mother, that the heart was the last organ to be consulted in the choice of a husband, as it was almost sure to lead to folly. While her heart slept, it was easy to agree with her mother's philosophy. But it would be a sad thing for Charlotte Marsden if her heart should become awakened when her will or duty was at variance with its cravings. She might act rightly, she might suffer in patience, but it would require ten times the effort that the majority of her sex would have to make.
Her mother thought that the elegant and wealthy Mr. De Forrest was the very one of all the city for her beautiful daughter, and Lottie gave a careless assent, for certainly he was "very nice." He would answer, as well as any one she had ever seen, for the inevitable adjunct of her life. He had always united agreeably the characters of cousin, playmate, and lover, and why might he not add that of husband? But for the latter relation she was in no haste. Time enough for that in the indefinite future. She loved the liberty and year-long frolic of her maiden life, though in truth she had no idea of settling down on becoming a matron. In the mean time, while she laughed at De Forrest's love-making, she did not discourage it, and the young man felt that his clear understanding with the mother
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