Elsie Venner/Chapter VIII

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Colonel Sprowle's family arose late the next morning. The fatigues and excitements of the evening and the preparation for it were followed by a natural collapse, of which somnolence was a leading symptom. The sun shone into the window at a pretty well opened angle when the Colonel first found himself sufficiently awake to address his yet slumbering spouse.

"Sally!" said the Colonel, in a voice that was a little husky,--for he had finished off the evening with an extra glass or two of "Madary," and had a somewhat rusty and headachy sense of renewed existence, on greeting the rather advanced dawn,--"Sally!"

"Take care o' them custard-cups! There they go!"

Poor Mrs. Sprowle was fighting the party over in her dream; and as the visionary custard-cups crashed down through one lobe of her brain into another, she gave a start as if an inch of lightning from a quart Leyden jar had jumped into one of her knuckles with its sudden and lively poonk!

"Sally!" said the Colonel,--"wake up, wake up. What 'r' y' dreamin' abaout?"

Mrs. Sprowle raised herself, by a sort of spasm, sur son seant, as they say in France,--up on end, as we have it in New England. She looked first to the left, then to the right, then straight before her, apparently without seeing anything, and at last slowly settled down, with her two eyes, blank of any particular meaning, directed upon the Colonel.

"What time is 't?" she said.

"Ten o'clock. What y' been dreamin' abaout? Y' giv a jump like a hopper-grass. Wake up, wake UP! Th' party 's over, and y' been asleep all the mornin'. The party's over, I tell ye! Wake up!"

"Over!" said Mrs. Sprowle, who began to define her position at last,--"over! I should think 't was time 't was over! It's lasted a hundud year. I've been workin' for that party longer 'n Methuselah's lifetime, sence I been asleep. The pies would n' bake, and the blo'monje would n' set, and the ice-cream would n' freeze, and all the folks kep' comin' 'n' comin' 'n' comin',--everybody I ever knew in all my life,--some of 'em 's been dead this twenty year 'n' more,--'n' nothin' for 'em to eat nor drink. The fire would n' burn to cook anything, all we could do. We blowed with the belluses, 'n' we stuffed in paper 'n' pitch-pine kindlin's, but nothin' could make that fire burn; 'n' all the time the folks kep' comin', as if they'd never stop,--'n' nothin' for 'em but empty dishes, 'n' all the borrowed chaney slippin' round on the waiters 'n' chippin' 'n' crackin',--I would n' go through what I been through t'-night for all th' money in th' Bank,--I do believe it's harder t' have a party than t'"--

Mrs. Sprowle stated the case strongly.

The Colonel said he did n't know how that might be. She was a better judge than he was. It was bother enough, anyhow, and he was glad that it was over. After this, the worthy pair commenced preparations for rejoining the waking world, and in due time proceeded downstairs.

Everybody was late that morning, and nothing had got put to rights. The house looked as if a small army had been quartered in it over night. The tables were of course in huge disorder, after the protracted assault they had undergone. There had been a great battle evidently, and it had gone against the provisions. Some points had been stormed, and all their defences annihilated, but here and there were centres of resistance which had held out against all attacks,--large rounds of beef, and solid loaves of cake, against which the inexperienced had wasted their energies in the enthusiasm of youth or uninformed maturity, while the longer-headed guests were making discoveries of "shell-oysters" and "patridges" and similar delicacies.

The breakfast was naturally of a somewhat fragmentary character. A chicken that had lost his legs in the service of the preceding campaign was once more put on duty. A great ham stuck with cloves, as Saint Sebastian was with arrows, was again offered for martyrdom. It would have been a pleasant sight for a medical man of a speculative turn to have seen the prospect before the Colonel's family of the next week's breakfasts, dinners, and suppers. The trail that one of these great rural parties leaves after it is one of its most formidable considerations. Every door-handle in the house is suggestive of sweetmeats for the next week, at least. The most unnatural articles of diet displace the frugal but nutritious food of unconvulsed periods of existence. If there is a walking infant about the house, it will certainly have a more or less fatal fit from overmuch of some indigestible delicacy. Before the week is out, everybody will be tired to death of sugary forms of nourishment and long to see the last of the remnants of the festival.

The family had not yet arrived at this condition. On the contrary, the first inspection of the tables suggested the prospect of days of unstinted luxury; and the younger portion of the household, especially, were in a state of great excitement as the account of stock was taken with reference to future internal investments. Some curious facts came to light during these researches.

"Where's all the oranges gone to?" said Mrs. Sprowle. "I expected there'd be ever so many of 'em left. I did n't see many of the folks eatin' oranges. Where's the skins of 'em? There ought to be six dozen orange-skins round on the plates, and there a'n't one dozen. And all the small cakes, too, and all the sugar things that was stuck on the big cakes. Has anybody counted the spoons? Some of 'em got swallered, perhaps. I hope they was plated ones, if they did!"

The failure of the morning's orange-crop and the deficit in other expected residual delicacies were not very difficult to account for. In many of the two-story Rockland families, and in those favored households of the neighboring villages whose members had been invited to the great party, there was a very general excitement among the younger people on the morning after the great event. "Did y' bring home somethin' from the party? What is it? What is it? Is it frut-cake? Is it nuts and oranges and apples? Give me some! Give me some!" Such a concert of treble voices uttering accents like these had not been heard since the great Temperance Festival with the celebrated "colation" in the open air under the trees of the Parnassian Grove,--as the place was christened by the young ladies of the Institute. The cry of the children was not in vain. From the pockets of demure fathers, from the bags of sharp-eyed spinsters, from the folded handkerchiefs of light-fingered sisters, from the tall hats of sly-winking brothers, there was a resurrection of the missing oranges and cakes and sugar-things in many a rejoicing family-circle, enough to astonish the most hardened "caterer" that ever contracted to feed a thousand people under canvas.

The tender recollections of those dear little ones whom extreme youth or other pressing considerations detain from scenes of festivity--a trait of affection by no means uncommon among our thoughtful people--dignifies those social meetings where it is manifested, and sheds a ray of sunshine on our common nature. It is "an oasis in the desert,"--to use the striking expression of the last year's "Valedictorian" of the Apollinean Institute. In the midst of so much that is purely selfish, it is delightful to meet such disinterested care for others. When a large family of children are expecting a parent's return from an entertainment, it will often require great exertions on his part to freight himself so as to meet their reasonable expectations. A few rules are worth remembering by all who attend anniversary dinners in Faneuil Hall or elsewhere. Thus: Lobsters' claws are always acceptable to children of all ages. Oranges and apples are to be taken one at a time, until the coat-pockets begin to become inconveniently heavy. Cakes are injured by sitting upon them; it is, therefore, well to carry a stout tin box of a size to hold as many pieces as there are children in the domestic circle. A very pleasant amusement, at the close of one of these banquets, is grabbing for the flowers with which the table is embellished. These will please the ladies at home very greatly, and, if the children are at the same time abundantly supplied with fruits, nuts, cakes, and any little ornamental articles of confectionery which are of a nature to be unostentatiously removed, the kind-hearted parent will make a whole household happy, without any additional expense beyond the outlay for his ticket.

There were fragmentary delicacies enough left, of one kind and another, at any rate, to make all the Colonel's family uncomfortable for the next week. It bid fair to take as long to get rid of the remains of the great party as it had taken to make ready for it.

In the mean time Mr. Bernard had been dreaming, as young men dream, of gliding shapes with bright eyes and burning cheeks, strangely blended with red planets and hissing meteors, and, shining over all, the white, un-wandering star of the North, girt with its tethered constellations.

After breakfast he walked into the parlor, where he found Miss Darley. She was alone, and, holding a school-book in her hand, was at work with one of the morning's lessons. She hardly noticed him as he entered, being very busy with her book,--and he paused a moment before speaking, and looked at her with a kind of reverence. It would not have been strictly true to call her beautiful. For years,--since her earliest womanhood,--those slender hands had taken the bread which repaid the toil of heart and brain from the coarse palms which offered it in the world's rude market. It was not for herself alone that she had bartered away the life of her youth, that she had breathed the hot air of schoolrooms, that she had forced her intelligence to posture before her will, as the exigencies of her place required,--waking to mental labor,--sleeping to dream of problems,--rolling up the stone of education for an endless twelvemonth's term, to find it at the bottom of the hill again when another year called her to its renewed duties, schooling her temper in unending inward and outward conflicts, until neither dulness nor obstinacy nor ingratitude nor insolence could reach her serene self-possession. Not for herself alone. Poorly as her prodigal labors were repaid in proportion to the waste of life they cost, her value was too well established to leave her without what, under other circumstances, would have been a more than sufficient compensation. But there were others who looked to her in their need, and so the modest fountain which might have been filled to its brim was continually drained through silent-flowing, hidden sluices.

Out of such a life, inherited from a race which had lived in conditions not unlike her own, beauty, in the common sense of the term, could hardly find leisure to develop and shape itself. For it must be remembered, that symmetry and elegance of features and figure, like perfectly formed crystals in the mineral world, are reached only by insuring a certain necessary repose to individuals and to generations. Human beauty is an agricultural product in the country, growing up in men and women as in corn and cattle, where the soil is good. It is a luxury almost monopolized by the rich in cities, bred under glass like their forced pine-apples and peaches. Both in city and country, the evolution of the physical harmonies which make music to our eyes requires a combination of favorable circumstances, of which alternations of unburdened tranquillity with intervals of varied excitement of mind and body are among the most important. Where sufficient excitement is wanting, as often happens in the country, the features, however rich in red and white, get heavy, and the movements sluggish; where excitement is furnished in excess, as is frequently the case in cities, the contours and colors are impoverished, and the nerves begin to make their existence known to the consciousness, as the face very soon informs us.

Helen Darley could not, in the nature of things, have possessed the kind of beauty which pleases the common taste. Her eye was calm, sad-looking, her features very still, except when her pleasant smile changed them for a moment, all her outlines were delicate, her voice was very gentle, but somewhat subdued by years of thoughtful labor, and on her smooth forehead one little hinted line whispered already that Care was beginning to mark the trace which Time sooner or later would make a furrow. She could not be a beauty; if she had been, it would have been much harder for many persons to be interested in her. For, although in the abstract we all love beauty, and although, if we were sent naked souls into some ultramundane warehouse of soulless bodies and told to select one to our liking, we should each choose a handsome one, and never think of the consequences,--it is quite certain that beauty carries an atmosphere of repulsion as well as of attraction with it, alike in both sexes. We may be well assured that there are many persons who no more think of specializing their love of the other sex upon one endowed with signal beauty, than they think of wanting great diamonds or thousand-dollar horses. No man or woman can appropriate beauty without paying for it,--in endowments, in fortune, in position, in self-surrender, or other valuable stock; and there are a great many who are too poor, too ordinary, too humble, too busy, too proud, to pay any of these prices for it. So the unbeautiful get many more lovers than the beauties; only, as there are more of them, their lovers are spread thinner and do not make so much show.

The young master stood looking at Helen Darley with a kind of tender admiration. She was such a picture of the martyr by the slow social combustive process, that it almost seemed to him he could see a pale lambent nimbus round her head.

"I did not see you at the great party last evening," he said, presently.

She looked up and answered, "No. I have not much taste for such large companies. Besides, I do not feel as if my time belonged to me after it has been paid for. There is always something to do, some lesson or exercise,--and it so happened, I was very busy last night with the new problems in geometry. I hope you had a good time."

"Very. Two or three of our girls were there. Rosa Milburn. What a beauty she is! I wonder what she feeds on! Wine and musk and chloroform and coals of fire, I believe; I didn't think there was such color and flavor in a woman outside the tropics."

Miss Darley smiled rather faintly; the imagery was not just to her taste: femineity often finds it very hard to accept the fact of muliebrity.


She stopped short; but her question had asked itself.

"Elsie there? She was, for an hour or so. She looked frightfully handsome. I meant to have spoken to her, but she slipped away before I knew it."

"I thought she meant to go to the party," said Miss Darley. "Did she look at you?"

"She did. Why?"

"And you did not speak to her?"

"No. I should have spoken to her, but she was gone when I looked for her. A strange creature! Is n't there an odd sort of fascination about her? You have not explained all the mystery about the girl. What does she come to this school for? She seems to do pretty much as she likes about studying."

Miss Darley answered in very low tones. "It was a fancy of hers to come, and they let her have her way. I don't know what there is about her, except that she seems to take my life out of me when she looks at me. I don't like to ask other people about our girls. She says very little to anybody, and studies, or makes believe to study, almost what she likes. I don't know what she is," (Miss Darley laid her hand, trembling, on the young master's sleeve,) "but I can tell when she is in the room without seeing or hearing her. Oh, Mr. Langdon, I am weak and nervous, and no doubt foolish,--but--if there were women now, as in the days of our Saviour, possessed of devils, I should think there was something not human looking out of Elsie Venner's eyes!"

The poor girl's breast rose and fell tumultuously as she spoke, and her voice labored, as if some obstruction were rising in her throat.

A scene might possibly have come of it, but the door opened. Mr. Silas Peckham. Miss Darley got away as soon as she well could.

"Why did not Miss Darley go to the party last evening?" said Mr. Bernard.

"Well, the fact is," answered Mr. Silas Peckham, "Miss Darley, she's pooty much took up with the school. She's an industris young. woman,--yis, she is industris,--but perhaps she a'n't quite so spry a worker as some. Maybe, considerin' she's paid for her time, she is n't fur out o' the way in occoopyin' herself evenin's,--that--is, if so be she a'n't smart enough to finish up all her work in the daytime. Edoocation is the great business of the Institoot. Amoosements are objec's of a secondary natur', accordin' to my v'oo." [The unspellable pronunciation of this word is the touchstone of New England Brahminism.]

Mr. Bernard drew a deep breath, his thin nostrils dilating, as if the air did not rush in fast enough to cool his blood, while Silas Peckham was speaking. The Head of the Apollinean Institute delivered himself of these judicious sentiments in that peculiar acid, penetrating tone, thickened with a nasal twang, which not rarely becomes hereditary after three or four generations raised upon east winds, salt fish, and large, white-bellied, pickled cucumbers. He spoke deliberately, as if weighing his words well, so that, during his few remarks, Mr. Bernard had time for a mental accompaniment with variations, accented by certain bodily changes, which escaped Mr. Peckham's observation. First there was a feeling of disgust and shame at hearing Helen Darley spoken of like a dumb working animal. That sent the blood up into his cheeks. Then the slur upon her probable want of force--her incapacity, who made the character of the school and left this man to pocket its profits--sent a thrill of the old Wentworth fire through him, so that his muscles hardened, his hands closed, and he took the measure of Mr. Silas Peckham, to see if his head would strike the wall in case he went over backwards all of a sudden. This would not do, of course, and so the thrill passed off and the muscles softened again. Then came that state of tenderness in the heart, overlying wrath in the stomach, in which the eyes grow moist like a woman's, and there is also a great boiling-up of objectionable terms out of the deep-water vocabulary, so that Prudence and Propriety and all the other pious P's have to jump upon the lid of speech to keep them from boiling over into fierce articulation. All this was internal, chiefly, and of course not recognized by Mr. Silas Peckham. The idea, that any full-grown, sensible man should have any other notion than that of getting the most work for the least money out of his assistants, had never suggested itself to him.

Mr. Bernard had gone through this paroxysm, and cooled down, in the period while Mr. Peckham was uttering these words in his thin, shallow whine, twanging up into the frontal sinuses. What was the use of losing his temper and throwing away his place, and so, among the consequences which would necessarily follow, leaving the poor lady-teacher without a friend to stand by her ready to lay his hand on the grand-inquisitor before the windlass of his rack had taken one turn too many?

"No doubt, Mr. Peckham," he said, in a grave, calm voice, "there is a great deal of work to be done in the school; but perhaps we can distribute the duties a little more evenly after a time. I shall look over the girls' themes myself, after this week. Perhaps there will be some other parts of her labor that I can take on myself. We can arrange a new programme of studies and recitations."

"We can do that," said Mr. Silas Peckham. "But I don't propose mater'lly alterin' Miss Darley's dooties. I don't think she works to hurt herself. Some of the Trustees have proposed interdoosin' new branches of study, and I expect you will be pooty much occoopied with the dooties that belong to your place. On the Sahbath you will be able to attend divine service three times, which is expected of our teachers. I shall continoo myself to give Sahbath Scriptur' readin's to the young ladies. That is a solemn dooty I can't make up my mind to commit to other people. My teachers enjoy the Lord's day as a day of rest. In it they do no manner of work, except in cases of necessity or mercy, such as fillin' out diplomas, or when we git crowded jest at the end of a term, or when there is an extry number of p'oopils, or other Providential call to dispense with the ordinance."

Mr. Bernard had a fine glow in his cheeks by this time,--doubtless kindled by the thought of the kind consideration Mr. Peckham showed for his subordinates in allowing them the between meeting-time on Sundays except for some special reason. But the morning was wearing away; so he went to the schoolroom, taking leave very properly of his respected principal, who soon took his hat and departed.

Mr. Peckham visited certain "stores" or shops, where he made inquiries after various articles in the provision-line, and effected a purchase or two. Two or three barrels of potatoes, which had sprouted in a promising way, he secured at a bargain. A side of feminine beef was also obtained at a low figure. He was entirely satisfied with a couple of barrels of flour, which, being invoiced "slightly damaged," were to be had at a reasonable price.

After this, Silas Peckham felt in good spirits. He had done a pretty stroke of business. It came into his head whether he might not follow it up with a still more brilliant speculation. So he turned his steps in the direction of Colonel Sprowle's.

It was now eleven o'clock, and the battle-field of last evening was as we left it. Mr. Peckham's visit was unexpected, perhaps not very well timed, but the Colonel received him civilly.

"Beautifully lighted,--these rooms last night!" said Mr. Peckham. "Winter-strained?"

The Colonel nodded.

"How much do you pay for your winter-strained?"

The Colonel told him the price.

"Very hahnsome supper,--very hahnsome. Nothin' ever seen like it in Rockland. Must have been a great heap of things leftover."

The compliment was not ungrateful, and the Colonel acknowledged it by smiling and saying, "I should think the' was a trifle? Come and look."

When Silas Peckham saw how many delicacies had survived the evening's conflict, his commercial spirit rose at once to the point of a proposal.

"Colonel Sprowle," said he, "there's 'meat and cakes and pies and pickles enough on that table to spread a hahnsome colation. If you'd like to trade reasonable, I think perhaps I should be willin' to take 'em off your hands. There's been a talk about our havin' a celebration in the Parnassian Grove, and I think I could work in what your folks don't want and make myself whole by chargin' a small sum for tickets. Broken meats, of course, a'n't of the same valoo as fresh provisions; so I think you might be willin' to trade reasonable."

Mr. Peckham paused and rested on his proposal. It would not, perhaps, have been very extraordinary, if Colonel Sprowle had entertained the proposition. There is no telling beforehand how such things will strike people. It didn't happen to strike the Colonel favorably. He had a little red-blooded manhood in him.

"Sell you them things to make a colation out of?" the Colonel replied. "Walk up to that table, Mr. Peckham, and help yourself! Fill your pockets; Mr. Peckham! Fetch a basket, and our hired folks shall fill it full for ye! Send a cart, if y' like, 'n' carry off them leavin's to make a celebration for your pupils with! Only let me tell ye this:--as sure 's my name's Hezekiah Spraowle, you 'll be known through the taown 'n' through the caounty, from that day forrard, as the Principal of the Broken-Victuals Institoot!"

Even provincial human-nature sometimes has a touch of sublimity about it. Mr. Silas Peckham had gone a little deeper than he meant, and come upon the "hard pan," as the well-diggers call it, of the Colonel's character, before he thought of it. A militia-colonel standing on his sentiments is not to be despised. That was shown pretty well in New England two or three generations ago. There were a good many plain officers that talked about their "rigiment" and their "caounty" who knew very well how to say "Make ready!" "Take aim!" "Fire!"--in the face of a line of grenadiers with bullets in their guns and bayonets on them. And though a rustic uniform is not always unexceptionable in its cut and trimmings, yet there was many an ill-made coat in those old times that was good enough to be shown to the enemy's front rank too often to be left on the field with a round hole in its left lapel that matched another going right through the brave heart of the plain country captain or major or colonel who was buried in it under the crimson turf.

Mr. Silas Peckham said little or nothing. His sensibilities were not acute, but he perceived that he had made a miscalculation. He hoped that there was no offence,--thought it might have been mutooally agreeable, conclooded he would give up the idee of a colation, and backed himself out as if unwilling to expose the less guarded aspect of his person to the risk of accelerating impulses.

The Colonel shut the door,--cast his eye on the toe of his right boot, as if it had had a strong temptation,--looked at his watch, then round the room, and, going to a cupboard, swallowed a glass of deep-red brandy and water to compose his feelings.