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- From Jest to Earnest - 3/79 -


was almost equal to an engagement to the daughter. He welcomed this country visit with peculiar satisfaction, feeling that it would bring matters to a crisis. He was not mistaken.

By the time they were sipping their coffee after dessert, the promise of the leaden sky of the morning was fulfilled in a snow-storm, not consisting of feathery flakes that fluttered down as if undecided where to alight, but of sharp, fine crystals that slanted steadily from the north-east. The afternoon sleigh-ride must be given up, and even the children looked ruefully and hopelessly out, and then made the best of in-door amusements.

Miss Marchmont gathered her guests around the parlor fire, and fancy work and city gossip were in order. The quiet flow and ripple of small talk was suddenly interrupted by her petulant exclamation:

"Oh! I forgot to tell you a bit of unpleasant news. Mother, without consulting me, has invited a poor and poky cousin of ours to spend the holidays with us also. He is from the West, green as a gooseberry, and, what's far worse, he's studying for the ministry, and no doubt will want to preach at us all the time. I don't know when I've been more provoked, but mother said it was too late, she had invited him, and he was coming. I fear he will be a dreadful restraint, a sort of wet blanket on all our fun, for one must be polite, you know, in one's own house."

"I am under no special obligation to be polite," laughed Lottie. "Mark my words. I will shock your pious and proper cousin till he is ready to write a book on total depravity. It will be good sport till I am tired of it."

"No, Lottie, you shall not give such a false impression of yourself, even in a joke," said Bel. "I will tell him, if he can't see, that you are not a sinner above all in Galilee."

"No, my matter-of-fact cousin, you shall not tell him anything. Why should I care what he thinks? Already in fancy I see his face elongate, and his eyes dilate, in holy horror at my wickedness. If there is one thing I love to do more than another, it is to shock your eminently good and proper people."

"Why, Miss Lottie," chuckled De Forrest, "to hear you talk, one would think you were past praying for."

"No, not till I am married."

"In that sense I am always at my devotions."

"Perhaps you had better read the fable of the Frogs and King Stork."

"Thank you. I had never dared to hope that you regarded me as good enough to eat."

"No, only to peck at."

"But listen to Miss Addie's proposal. If I mistake not, there is no end of fun in it," said Mr. Harcourt.

"I've thought of something better than shocking him. These Western men are not easily shocked. They see all kinds out there. What I suggest would be a better joke, and give us all a chance to enjoy the sport. Suppose, Lottie, you assume to be the good and pious one of our party, and in this character form his acquaintance. He will soon be talking religion to you, and like enough, making love and wanting you to go with him as a missionary to the Cannibal Islands."

"If you go, O that I were king of them!" broke in De Forrest.

"You mean, you would have Lottie for dinner, I suppose," continued Miss Marchmont. "She would be served up properly as a tart."

"No," he retorted, "as sauce piquante. She could make a long life a highly seasoned feast."

"You evidently are an Epicurean philosopher; all your thoughts seem to run on eating," said Lottie, sharply.

"But what say you to my suggestion?" asked Addie Marchmont. "I think it would be one of the best practical jokes I ever knew. The very thought of such an incorrigible witch as you palming yourself off as a demure Puritan maiden is the climax of comical absurdity."

Even Lottie joined heartily in the general laugh at her expense, and the preposterous imposition she was asked to attempt, but said dubiously: "I fear I could not act successfully the role of Puritan maiden, when I have always been in reality just the opposite. And yet it would be grand sport to make the attempt, and a decided novelty. But surely your cousin cannot be so verdant but that he would soon see through our mischief and detect the fraud."

"Well," replied Addie, "Frank, as I remember him, is a singularly unsuspicious mortal. Even as a boy his head was always in the clouds. He has not seen much society save that of his mother and an old-maid sister. Moreover, he is so dreadfully pious, and life with him such a solemn thing, that unless we are very bungling he will not even imagine such frivolity, as he would call it, until the truth is forced upon him. Then there will be a scene. You will shock him then, Lottie, to your heart's content. He will probably tell you that he is dumbfounded, and that he would not believe that a young woman in this Christian land could trifle with such solemn realities,--that is, himself and his feelings."

"But I don't think it would be quite right," protested Bel, feebly.

Mr. Harcourt lifted his eyebrows.

"Nonsense! Suppose it is not," said Lottie, impatiently.

"But, Addie," persisted Bel, "he will be your guest."

"No he won't. He's mother's guest, and I feel like punishing them both."

"Very well," said Lottie, lightly; "if you have no scruples, I have none. It will be capital sport, and will do him good. It would be an excellent thing for his whole theological seminary if they could have a thorough shaking up by the wicked world, which to him, in this matter, I shall represent. They would then know what they were preaching about. What do you say, Julian?"

"When did I ever disagree with you?" he replied, gallantly. "But in this case I really think we owe Miss Addie a vote of thanks for having hit upon a joke that may enliven the greater part of our visit. This embryo parson seems a sort of a scriptural character; and why should he not blindly, like Samson, make sport for us all?"

"I fear you do not understand your own scriptural allusion," sneered Bel. "Like Samson, he may also pull everything down about our ears in a most uncomfortable manner."

"I hope you won't spoil everything by telling him or mother," said Addie, petulantly.

"Oh, no! Since you are determined upon it, I will look on and see the fun, if there is any. But, bah! He will find you all out in a day. As for Lottie palming herself off as a goodish young woman to whom any sane man would talk religion,--the very thought is preposterous!"

"Don't be too confident, Miss Bel," said Lottie, put upon her mettle. "If you all will only sustain me and not awaken his suspicions with your by-play and giggling, I will deceive the ingenuous youth in a way that will surprise you as well as him. Good acting must have proper support. This is something new,--out of the rut; and I am bound to make it a brilliant jest that we can laugh over all our lives. So remember, Julian, you will disconcert me at your peril."

"No fears of me. So long as your jest remains a jest, I will be the last one to spoil the sport."

With a chime of laughter that echoed to the attic of the old mansion, Lottie exclaimed, "The idea that I could ever become in earnest!"

"But the young clergyman may become dead in earnest," said Bel, who seemed the embodiment of a troublesome but weak conscience. "You know well, Mr. De Forrest, that Lottie's blandishments may be fatal to his peace."

"That is his affair," replied the confident youth, with a careless shrug.

Having arranged the details of the plot and been emphatically cautioned by Lottie, they awaited their victim.

CHAPTER II.

THE VICTIM.

Frank Hemstead was expected on the evening train from the north, so the conspirators would not have long to wait. To pass the brief intervening time Lottie went to the piano and gave them some music like herself, brilliant, dashing, off-hand, but devoid of sentiment and feeling. Then she sprang up and began playing the maddest pranks on languid Bel, and with Addie was soon engaged in a romp with De Forrest and Harcourt, that would have amazed the most festive Puritan that ever schooled or masked a frolicsome nature under the sombre deportment required. The young men took their cue from the ladies, and elegance and propriety were driven away in shreds before the gale of their wild spirits. Poor Bel, buffeted and helpless, half-enjoying, half-frightened, protested, cried, and laughed at the tempest around her.

"I mean," said Lottie, panting after a desperate chase among the furniture, "to have one more spree, like the topers before they reform."

Though these velvety creatures with their habits of grace and elegance could romp without roughness, and glide where others would tear around, they could not keep their revel so quiet but that hurrying steps were heard. Bel warned them, and, before Mrs. Marchmont could


From Jest to Earnest - 3/79

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