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- At Last - 1/47 -
NEW YORK: 1870
CHAPTER I. DEWLESS ROSES
CHAPTER II. AN EXCHANGE OF CONFIDENCES
CHAPTER III. UNWHOLESOME VAPORS
CHAPTER IV. "FOUNDED UPON A ROCK"
CHAPTER V. CLEAN HANDS
CHAPTER VI. CRAFT--OR DIPLOMACY?
CHAPTER VII. WASSIL
CHAPTER VIII. THE FACE AT THE WINDOW
CHAPTER IX. HE DEPARTETH IN DARKNESS
CHAPTER X. ROSA
CHAPTER XI. ON THE REBOUND
CHAPTER XII. AUNT RACHEL WAXES UNCHARITABLE
CHAPTER XIII. JULIUS LENNOX
CHAPTER XIV. "BORN DEAD"
CHAPTER XV. THE GOOD SAMARITAN
CHAPTER XVI. THE HONEST HOUR
CHAPTER XVII. AFTER FIFTEEN YEARS
CHAPTER XVIII. THUNDER IN THE AIR
CHAPTER XIX. NEMESIS
CHAPTER XX. INDIAN SUMMER
Mrs. Rachel Sutton was a born match maker, and she had cultivated the gift by diligent practice. As the sight of a tendrilled vine suggests the need and fitness of a trellis, and a stray glove invariably brings to mind the thought of its absent fellow, so every disengaged spinster of marriageable age was an appeal--pathetic and sure--to the dear woman's helpful sympathy, and her whole soul went out in compassion over such "nice" and an appropriated bachelors as crossed her orbit, like blind and dizzy comets.
Her propensity, and her conscientious indulgence of the same, were proverbial among her acquaintances, but no one--not even prudish and fearsome maidens of altogether uncertain age, and prudent mammas, equally alive to expediency and decorum--had ever labelled her "Dangerous," while with young people she was a universal favorite. Although, with an eye single to her hobby, she regarded a man as an uninteresting molecule of animated nature, unless circumstances warranted her in recognizing in him the possible lover of some waiting fair one, and it was notorious that she reprobated as worse than useless--positively demoralizing, in fact--such friendships between young persons of opposite sexes as held out no earnest of prospective betrothal, she was confidante-general to half the girls in the county, and a standing advisory committee of one upon all points relative to their associations with the beaux of the region. The latter, on their side, paid their court to the worthy and influential widow as punctiliously, if not so heartily, as did their gentle friends. Not that the task was disagreeable. At fifty years of age, Mrs. Button was plump and comely; her fair curls unfaded, and still full and glossy; her blue eyes capable of languishing into moist appreciation of a woful heart-history, or sparkling rapturously at the news of a triumphant wooing; her little fat hands were swift and graceful, and her complexion so infantine in its clear white and pink as to lead many to believe and some--I need not say of which gender--to practise clandestinely upon the story that she had bathed her face in warm milk, night and morning, for forty years. The more sagacious averred, however, that the secret of her continued youth lay in her kindly, unwithered heart, in her loving thoughtfulness for others' weal, and her avoidance, upon philosophical and religions grounds, of whatever approximated the discontented retrospection winch goes with the multitude by the name of self-examination.
Our bonnie widow had her foibles and vanities, but the first were amiable, the latter superficial and harmless, usually rather pleasant than objectionable. She was very proud, for instance, of her success in the profession she had taken up, and which she pursued con amore; very jealous for the reputation for connubial felicity of those she had aided to couple in the leash matrimonial, and more uncharitable toward malicious meddlers or thoughtless triflers with the course of true love; more implacable to match-breakers than to the most atrocious phases of schism, heresy, and sedition in church or state, against which she had, from her childhood, been taught to pray. The remotest allusion to a divorce case threw her into a cold perspiration, and apologies for such legal severance of the hallowed bond were commented upon as rank and noxious blasphemy, to which no Christian or virtuous woman should lend her ear for an instant. If she had ever entertained "opinions" hinting at the allegorical nature of the Mosaic account of the Fall, her theory would unquestionably have been that Satan's insidious whisper to the First Mother prated of the beauties of feminine individuality, and enlarged upon the feasibility of an elopement from Adam and a separate maintenance upon the knowledge-giving, forbidden fruit. Upon second marriages--supposing the otherwise indissoluble tie to have been cut by Death--she was a trifle less severe, but it was generally understood that she had grave doubts as to their propriety--unless in exceptional cases.
"When there is a family of motherless children, and the father is himself young, it seems hard to require him to live alone for the rest of his life," she would allow candidly. "Not that I pretend to say that a connection formed through prudential motives is a real marriage in the sight of Heaven. Only that there is no human law against it. And the odds are as eight to ten that an efficient hired housekeeper would render his home more comfortable, and his children happier than would a stepmother. As for a woman marrying twice"--her gentle tone and eyes growing sternly decisive--"it is difficult for one to tolerate the idea. That is, if she really loved her first husband. If not, she may plead this as some excuse for making the venture--poor thing! But whether, even then, she has the moral right to lessen some good girl's chances of getting a husband by taking two for herself, has ever been and must remain a mooted question in my mind."
Her conduct in this respect was thoroughly consistent with her avowed principles. She was but thirty when her husdand died, after living happily with her for ten years. Her only child had preceded him to the grave four years before, and the attractive relict of Frederic Sutton, comfortably jointured and without incumbrance of near relatives, would have become a toast with gay bachelors and enterprising widowers, but for the quiet propriety of her demeanor, and the steadiness with which she insisted--for the most part, tacitly--upon her right to be considered a married woman still.
"Once Frederic's wife--always his!" was the sole burden of her answer to a proposal of marriage received when she was forty-five, and the discomfited suitor filed it in his memory alongside of Caesar's hackneyed war dispatch.
She had laid off crape and bombazine at the close of the first lustrum of her widowhood as inconvenient and unwholesome wear, but never assumed colored apparel. On the morning on which our story opens, she took her seat at the breakfast-table in her nephew's house--of which she was matron and supervisor-in-chief--clad in a white cambric wrapper, belted with black; her collar fastened with a mourning-pin of Frederic's hair, and a lace cap, trimmed with black ribbon, set above her luxuriant tresses. She looked fresh and bright as the early September day, with her sunny face and in her daintily-neat attire, as she arranged cups and saucers for seven people upon the waiter before her, instructing the butler, at the same time, to ring the bell again for those she was to serve. She was very busy and happy at that date. The neighborhood was gay, after the open-hearted, open-handed style of hospitality that distinguished the brave old days of Virginia plantation-life. A merry troup of maidens and cavaliers visited by invitation one homestead after another, crowding bedrooms beyond the capacity of any chambers of equal size to be found in the land, excepting in a country house in the Old Dominion; surrounding bountiful tables with smiling visages and restless tongues; dancing, walking, driving, and singing away the long, warm days, that seemed all too short to the soberest and plainest of the company; which sped by like dream-hours to most of the number.
Winston Aylett, owner and tenant of the ancient mansion of Ridgeley--the great house of a neighborhood where small houses and men of narrow means were infrequent--had gone North about the first
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