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- From Jest to Earnest - 4/79 -
enter, Lottie was playing a waltz, and the others appeared as if they had been dancing. The lady of precedent smiled, whereas if she had come a moment earlier she would have been horrified.
But the glow from the hearth, uncertain enough for their innocent deeds of darkness, had now to fade before the chandelier, and Mrs. Marchmont, somewhat surprised at the rumpled plumage of the young ladies, and the fact that Mr. De Forrest's neck-tie was awry, suggested that they retire and prepare for supper, whereat they retreated in literal disorder. But without the door their old frenzy seized them, and they nearly ran over the dilatory Bel upon the stairs. With sallies of nonsense, smothered laughter, a breezy rustle of garments, and the rush of swift motion, they seemed to die away in the upper halls like a summer gust. To Mrs. Marchmont their departure had seemed like a suppressed whirlwind.
"The young people of my day were more decorous," soliloquized the lady, complacently. "But then the De Forrests have French blood in them, and what else could you expect? It's he that sets them off."
The sound of approaching sleigh-bells hastened the young people's toilets, and when they descended the stairs, this time like a funeral procession, a tall figure, with one side that had been to the windward well sifted over with snow, was just entering the hall.
Mrs. Marchmont welcomed him with as much warmth as she ever permitted herself to show. She was a good and kind lady at heart, only she insisted upon covering the natural bloom and beauty of her nature with the artificial enamel of mannerism and conventionality. During the unwrapping process the young people stood in the background, but Lottie watched the emergence from overcoat and muffler of the predestined victim of her wiles with more than ordinary curiosity.
The first thing that impressed her was his unusual height, and the next a certain awkwardness and angularity. When he came to be formally presented, his diffidence and lack of ease were quite marked. Bel greeted him with a distant inclination of her head, De Forrest also vouchsafed merely one of his slightest bows, while Harcourt stood so far away that he was scarcely introduced at all; but Lottie went demurely forward and put her warm hand in his great cold one, and said, looking up shyly, "I think we are sort of cousins, are we not?"
He blushed to the roots of his hair and stammered that he hoped so.
Indeed, this exquisite vision appearing from the shadows of the hall, and claiming kinship, might have disconcerted a polished society man; and the conspirators retired into the gloom to hide their merriment.
As the stranger, in his bashful confusion, did not seem to know for the moment what to do with her hand, and was inclined to keep it, for in fact it was warming, or, rather, electrifying him, she withdrew it, exclaiming, "How cold you are! You must come with me to the fire at once."
He followed her with a rather bewildered expression, but his large gray eyes were full of gratitude for her supposed kindness, even if his unready tongue was slow in making graceful acknowledgment.
"Supper will be ready in a few moments, Frank," said his aunt, approaching them and rather wondering at Lottie's friendliness. "Perhaps you had better go at once to your room and prepare. You will find it warm," and she glanced significantly at his rumpled hair and general appearance of disorder, the natural results of a long journey.
He started abruptly, blushed as if conscious of having forgotten something, and timidly said to Lottie, "Will you excuse me?"
"Yes," she replied sweetly, "for a little while."
He again blushed deeply and for a second indulged in a shy glance of curiosity at the "cousin" who spoke so kindly. Then, as if guilty of an impropriety, he seized a huge carpet-bag as if it were a lady's reticule. But remembering that her eyes were upon him, he tried to cross the hall and mount the stairs with dignity. The great leathern bag did not conduce to this, and he succeeded in appearing awkward in the extreme, and had a vague, uncomfortable impression that such was the case.
Mrs. Marchmont having disappeared into the dining-room, the young people went off into silent convulsions of laughter, in which even Bel joined, though she said she knew it was wrong.
"He is just the one of all the world on whom to play such a joke," said Lottie, pirouetting into the parlor.
"It was capital!" chimed in De Forrest. "Lottie, you would make a star actress."
"He has an intelligent eye," continued she, a little more thoughtfully. "He may be able to see more than we think. I insist that you all be very careful. Aunt will suspect something, if he doesn't, and may put him on his guard."
Mr. Hemstead soon returned, for it was plain that his toilets were exceedingly simple. The elegance wanting in his manners was still more clearly absent from his dress. The material was good, but had evidently been put together by a country tailor, who limped a long way behind the latest mode. What was worse, his garments were scarcely ample enough for his stalwart form. Altogether he made in some externals a marked contrast to the city exquisite, who rather enjoyed standing beside him that this contrast might be seen.
To Lottie he appeared excessively comical as he stalked in and around, trying vainly to appear at ease. And yet the thought occurred to her, "If he only knew what to do with his colossal proportions--knew how to manage them--he would make an imposing-looking man." And when De Forrest posed beside him just before they went out to tea, even this thought flashed across her, "Julian, seems like an elegant manikin beside a man." If De Forrest had only known it, the game of contrasts was not wholly in his favor.
But poor Mr. Hemstead came to grief on his way to the supper-room. Miss Marchmont tried to disguise her diminutive stature by a long trailing dress. Upon this he placed his by no means delicate foot, as she was sweeping out with Mr. Harcourt. There was an ominous sound of parting stitches, and an abrupt period in the young lady's graceful progress. In his eager haste to remedy his awkwardness, he bumped up against Mr. Dimmerly, who was advancing to speak to him, with a force that nearly overthrew that dapper gentleman, and rendered his greeting rather peculiar. Hemstead felt, to his intense annoyance, that the young people were at the point of exploding with merriment at his expense, and was in a state of indignation at himself and them. His aunt and Mr. Dimmerly, who soon recovered himself, were endeavoring to look serenely unconscious, with but partial success. All seemed to feel as if they were over a mine of discourteous laughter. The unfortunate object looked nervously around for the beautiful "cousin," and noted with a sigh of relief that she had disappeared.
"I hope she did not see my meeting with uncle," he thought. "I was always a gawk in society, and to-night seem possessed with the very genius of awkwardness. She is the only one who has shown me any real kindness, and I don't want her to think of me only as a blundering, tongue-tied fool."
He would not have been re-assured had he known that Lottie, having seen all, had darted back into the parlor and was leaning against the piano, a quivering, and for the moment a helpless subject of suppressed mirth. Mr. Dimmerly was always a rather comical object to her, and his flying arms and spectacles, as he tried to recover himself from the rude shock of his nephew's burly form, made a scene in which absurdity, which is said to be the chief cause of laughter, was pre-eminent.
But, the paroxysm passing, she followed them and took a seat opposite her victim, with a demure sweetness and repose of manner well-nigh fatal to the conspirators.
As Mr. Hemstead was regarded as a clergyman, though not quite through with his studies, his aunt looked to him for the saying of grace. It was a trying ordeal for the young fellow under the circumstances. He shot a quick glance at Lottie, which she returned with a look of serious expectation, then dropped her eyes and veiled a different expression under the long lashes. But he was sorely embarrassed, and stammered out he scarcely knew what. A suppressed titter from Addie Marchmont and the young men was the only response he heard, and it was not re-assuring. He heartily wished himself back in Michigan, but was comforted by seeing Lottie looking gravely and reproachfully at the irreverent gigglers.
"She is a good Christian girl," he thought, "and while the others ridicule my wretched embarrassment, she sympathizes."
Hemstead was himself as open as the day and equally unsuspicious of others. He believed just what he saw, and saw only what was clearly apparent. Therefore Lottie, by tolerably fair acting, would have no difficulty in deceiving him, and she was proving herself equal to very skilful feigning. Indeed she was one who could do anything fairly that she heartily attempted.
A moment after "grace" Harcourt made a poor witticism, at which the majority laughed with an immoderateness quite disproportionate. Mrs. Marchmont and her brother joined in the mirth, though evidently vexed with themselves that they did. Even Hemstead saw that Harcourt's remark was but the transparent excuse for the inevitable laugh at his expense. Lottie looked around with an expression of mingled surprise and displeasure, which nearly convulsed those in the secret. But her aunt and uncle felt themselves justly rebuked, while wondering greatly at Lottie's unwonted virtue. But there are times when to laugh is a dreadful necessity, whatever be the consequences.
"Mr. Hemstead," said Lottie, gravely, beginning, as she supposed, with the safe topic of the weather, "in journeying east have you come to a colder or warmer climate?"
"Decidedly into a colder one," he answered, significantly.
"Indeed, that rather surprises me!"
"Well, I believe that the thermometer has marked lower with us, but it has been said, and justly I think, that we do not feel the cold at the West as at the East."
"No matter," she said, sweetly. "At the East, as in the West, the cold is followed by thaws and spring."
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