The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Emma C. Embury/Two Faces under One Hood

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“The land hath bubbles as the water hath,
 And these are of them.”

Who is she?”

“Ay, that is precisely the question which everybody asks, and nobody can answer.”

“She is a splendid-looking creature, be she who she may.”

“And her manners are as lovely as her person. Come and dine with me to-morrow; I sit directly opposite her at table, so you can have a fair opportunity of gazing at this new star in our dingy firmament.”

“Agreed; I am about changing my lodgings, and if I like the company at your house, I may take a room there.

The speakers were two gay and fashionable men: one a student of law, the other a confidential clerk in a large commercial house. They belonged to that class of youths, so numerous in New York, who, while in reality labouring most industriously for a livelihood, yet take infinite pains to seem idle and useless members of society; fellows who at their outset in life try hard to repress a certain respectability of character, which after a while comes up in spite of them, and makes them very good sort of men in the end. The lady who attracted so much of their attention at that moment, had recently arrived in the city; and, as she wore the weeds of widowhood, her solitary position seemed sufficiently explained. But there was an attractiveness in her appearance and manners which excited a more than usual interest in the stranger’s history. She had that peculiar fascination which gentlemen regard as the most exquisite refinement of frank simplicity, but which ladies, better versed in the intricacies of female nature, always recognise as the perfection of art. None but an impulsive, warm-hearted woman, can retain her freshness of feeling and ready responsive sympathy after five-and-twenty; and such a woman never obtains sufficient command over her own sensitiveness to exhibit the perfect adaptability and uniform amiableness of deportment which are characteristics of the skilful fascinator.

Harry Maurice, the young lawyerling, failed not to fulfil his appointment with his friend; and at four o’clock on the following day, he found himself the vis-à-vis of the bewitching Mrs. Howard, gazing on her loveliness through the somewhat hazy atmosphere of a steaming dinner-table. If he was struck with her appearance when he saw her only stepping from a carriage, he was now completely bewildered by the whole battery of charms which were directed against him. A well-rounded and graceful figure, whose symmetry was set off by a close-fitting dress of black bombazine; superb arms gleaming through sleeves of the thinnest crape; a neck of dazzling whiteness, only half concealed beneath the folds of a fichu à la grand’mère; features not regularly beautiful, somewhat sharp in outline, but full of expression, and enlivened by the brightest of eyes and pearliest of teeth, were the most obvious of her attractions.

The ordinary civilities of the table, proffered with profound respect by Maurice, and accepted with quiet dignity by the lady, opened the way to conversation. Before the dessert came on, the first barriers to acquaintance had been removed, and, somewhat to his own surprise, Harry Maurice found himself perpetrating bad puns and uttering gay bon-mots in the full hearing, and evidently to the genuine amusement, of the lovely widow. When dinner was over, the trio found themselves in the midst of an animated discussion respecting the relative capacity for sentiment in men and women. The subject was too interesting to be speedily dropped, and the party adjourned to a convenient corner of the drawing-room. As usual, the peculiar character of the topic upon which they had fallen, led to the unguarded expression of individual opinions, and of course to the development of much implied experience. Nothing could have been better calculated to display Mrs. Howard as one of the most sensitive, as well as sensible of her sex. She had evidently been one of the victims to the false notions of society. A premature marriage, an uncongenial partner, and all the thousand-and-one ills attendant upon baffled sentiment, had probably entered largely into the lady’s bygone knowledge of life. Not that she deigned to confide any of her personal experience to her new friends, but they possessed active imaginations, and it was easy to make large inferences from small premises.

Midnight sounded ere the young men remembered that some thing was due to the ordinary forms of society, and that they had been virtually “talking love,” for seven hours, to a perfect stranger. The sudden reaction of feeling, the dread lest they had been exposing their peculiar habits of thought to the eye of ridicule, the frightful suspicion that they must have seemed most particularly “fresh” to the lady, struck both the gentlemen at the same moment. They attempted to apologize, but the womanly tact of Mrs. Howard spared them all the discomfort of such an awkward explanation. She reproached herself so sweetly for having suffered her impulsive nature to beguile her with such unwonted confidence,—she thanked them so gently for their momentary interest in her “melancholy recollections of blighted feelings,”—she so earnestly implored them to forget her indiscreet communings with persons “whose singular congeniality of soul had made her forget that they were strangers,” that she succeeded in restoring them to a comfortable sense of their own powers of attraction. Instead of thinking they had acted like men “afflicted with an extraordinary quantity of youngness,” they came to the conclusion that Mrs. Howard was one of the most discriminating of her sex; and the tear which swam in her soft eyes as she gave them her hand in parting, added the one irresistible charm to their previous bewilderment.

The acquaintance so auspiciously begun was not allowed to languish. Harry Maurice took lodgings in the same house; and thus, without exposing the fair widow to invidious remark, he was enabled to enjoy her society with less restraint. Unlike most of his sudden fancies, he found his liking for this lady “to grow by what it fed on.” She looked so very lovely in her simple white morning dress and pretty French cap, and her manners partook so agreeably of the simplicity and easy negligence of her breakfast attire, that she seemed more charming than ever. Indeed, almost every one in the house took a fancy to her. She won the hearts of the ladies by her unbounded fondness for their children, and her consummate tact in inventing new games for them; while her entire unconsciousness of her own attractions, and apparent indifference to admiration, silenced for a time all incipient jealousy. The gentlemen could not but be pleased with a pretty woman who was so sweet-tempered and so little exacting; while her peculiar talent for putting every one in good humour with themselves,—a talent, which in less skilful hands would have been merely an adroit power of flattery,—sufficiently accounted for her general influence.

There was only one person who seemed proof against Mrs. Howard’s spell. This was an old bank clerk, who for forty years had occupied the same post, and stood at the same desk, encountering no other changes than that of a new ledger for an old one, and hating every innovation in morals and manners with an intensity singularly at variance with his usual quietude, or rather stagnation of feeling. For nearly half his life he had occupied the same apartment, and nothing but a fire or an earthquake would have been sufficient to dislodge him. Many of the transient residents in the house knew him only by the sobriquet of “the Captain;” and the half-dictatorial, half-whimsical manner in which, with the usual privilege of a humourist, he ordered trifling matters about the house, was probably the origin of the title. When the ladies who presided at the head of the establishment first opened their house for the reception of boarders, he had taken up his quarters there, and they had all grown old together; so it was not to be wondered at if he had somewhat the manner of a master.

The Captain had looked with an evil eye upon Mrs. Howard from the morning after her arrival, when he had detected her French dressing-maid in the act of peeping into his boots, as they stood outside of the chamber-door. This instance of curiosity, which he could only attribute to an unjustifiable anxiety to be acquainted with the name of the owner of the said boots, was such a flagrant impropriety, besides being such a gross violation of his privilege of privacy, that he could not forgive it. He made a formal complaint of the matter to Mrs. Howard, and earnestly advised her to dismiss so prying a servant. The lady pleaded her attachment to a faithful attendant, who had left her native France for pure love of her, and besought him to forgive a first and venial error. The Captain had no faith in this being a first fault, and as for its veniality, if she had put out an “I,” and called it a venal affair, it would have better suited his ideas of her. He evidently suspected both the mistress and the maid; and a prejudice in his mind was like a thistle-seed,—it might wing its way on gossamer pinions, but once planted, it was sure to produce its crop of thorns.

In vain the lady attempted to conciliate him; in vain she tried to humour his whims, and pat and fondle his hobbies. He was proof against all her allurements, and whenever by some new or peculiar grace she won unequivocal expressions of admiration from the more susceptible persons around her, a peevish “Fudge!” would resound most emphatically from the Captain’s lips.

“Pray, sir, will you be so good as to inform me what you meant by the offensive monosyllable you chose to utter this morning, when I addressed a remark to Mrs. Howard?” said Harry Maurice to him, upon a certain occasion, when the old gentleman had seemed more than usually caustic and observing.

The Captain looked slowly up from his newspaper: “I am old enough, young man, to be allowed to talk to myself, if I please.” “I suppose you meant to imply that I was ‘green,’ and stood a fair chance of being ‘done brown,’” said Harry, mischievously, well knowing his horror of all modern slang.

“I am no judge of colours,” said he, drily, “but I can tell a fool from a knave when I see them contrasted. In old times it was the woman’s privilege to play the fool, but the order of things is reversed now-a-days.” So saying, he drew on his gloves, and walked out with his usual clock-like regularity.

Three months passed away, and Harry Maurice was “full five deep” in love with the beautiful stranger. Yet he knew no more of her personal history than on the day when they first met, and the old question of “Who is she?” was often in his mind, though the respect growing out of a genuine attachment checked it ere the words rose to his lips. He heard her speak of plantations at the South, and on more than one occasion he had been favoured with a commission to transact banking business for her. He had made several deposits in her name, and had drawn out several small sums for her use. He knew therefore that she had moneys at command, but of her family and connexions he was profoundly ignorant. He was too much in love, however, to hesitate long on this point. Young, ardent, and possessed of that pseudo-romance, which, like French gilding, so much resembles the real thing that many prefer it, as being cheaper and more durable, he was particularly pleased with the apparent disinterestedness of his affection. Too poor to marry unless he found a bride possessed of fortune, he was now precisely in the situation where alone he could feel himself on the same footing with a wealthy wife. He had an established position in society, his family were among the oldest and most respectable residents of the State, and the offer of his hand under such circumstances to a lone, unfriended stranger, took away all appearance of cupidity from the suitor, while it constituted a claim upon the lady s gratitude as well as affection. With all his assumed self-confidence, Maurice was in reality a very modest fellow, and he had many a secret misgiving as to her opinion of his merits; for he was one of those youths who use puppyism as a cloak for their diffidence. He wanted to assure himself of her preference before committing himself by a declaration, and to do this required a degree of skill in womancraft that far exceeded his powers.

In the mean time the prejudices of the Captain gained greater strength, and although there was no open war between him and the fair widow, there was perpetual skirmishing between them. Indeed it could not well be otherwise, considering the decided contrast between the two parties. The Captain was prejudiced, dogmatic, and full of old-fashioned notions. A steady adherent of ruffled shirts, well-starched collars, and shaven chins, he regarded with contempt the paltry subterfuges of modern fashion. At five-and-twenty he had formed his habits of thinking and acting, and at sixty he was only the same man grown older. A certain indolence of temper prevented him from investigating anything new, and he was therefore content to deny all that did not conform to his early notions. He hated fashionable slang, despised a new-modelled costume, scorned modern morality, and ranked the crime of wearing a moustache and imperial next to the seven deadly sins. His standard of female perfection was a certain “ladye-love” of his youth, who might have served as a second Harriet Byron to some new Sir Charles Grandison. After a courtship of ten years (during which time he never ventured upon a greater familiarity than that of pressing the tips of her fingers to his lips on a New Year’s day), the lady died, and the memory of his early attachment, though something like a rose encased in ice, was still the one flower of his life.

Of course, the freedom of modern manners was shocking to him, and in Mrs. Howard he beheld the impersonation of vanity, coquetry, and falsehood. Besides, she interfered with his privileges. She made suggestions about certain arrangements at table; she pointed out improvements in several minor household comforts; she asked for the liver-wing of the chicken, which had heretofore been his peculiar perquisite, as carver; she played the accordeon, and kept an Eolian harp in the window of her room, which unfortunately adjoined his; and, to crown all, she did not hesitate to ask him questions as coolly as if she was totally unconscious of his privileges of privacy. He certainly had a most decided grudge against the lady, and she, though apparently all gentleness and meekness, yet had so adroit a way of saying and doing disagreeable things to the old gentleman, that it was easy to infer a mutual dislike.

The Captain’s benevolence had been excited by seeing Harry Maurice on the highroad to being victimized, and he actually took some pains to make the young man see things in their true light.

“Pray, Mr. Maurice, do you spend all your mornings at your office?” said he one day.

“Certainly, sir.”

“Then you differ from most young lawyers,” was the gruff reply.

“Perhaps I have better reasons than many others for my close application. While completing my studies, I am enabled to earn a moderate salary by writing for Mr.——, and this is of some consequence to me.”

The old man looked inquiringly, and Maurice answered the silent question.

“You know enough of our family, sir, to be aware that my father’s income died with him. A few hundred dollars per annum are all that remains for the support of my mother and an invalid sister, who reside in Connecticut. Of course, if I would not encroach upon their small means, I must do something for my own maintenance.”

The Captain s look grew pleasanter as he replied, “I do not mean to be guilty of any impertinent intrusion into your affairs, but it seems to me that you share the weakness of your fellows, by thus working like a slave and spending like a prince.”

Maurice laughed. “Perhaps my princely expenditures would scarcely bear as close a scrutiny as my slavish toil. I really work, but it often happens that I only seem to spend.”

“I understand you, but you are worthy of better things; you should have courage to throw off the trammels of fashion, and live economically, like a man of sense, until fortune favours you.”

The young man was silent for a moment, then, as if to change the subject, asked, “What was your object in inquiring about my morning walks?”

“I merely wanted to know if you ever met Mrs. Howard in Broadway in the morning.”

“Never, sir; but I am so seldom there, that it would be strange if I should encounter an acquaintance among its throngs.”

“I am told she goes out every morning at nine o clock, and does not return until three.”

“I suppose she is fond of walking.”

“Humph! I rather suspect she has some regular business.”

“Quite likely,” said Maurice, laughing heartily, “perhaps she is a bank clerk,—occupied from nine to three, you say,—just banking hours.”

The Captain looked sternly in the young man’s face, then uttering his emphatic “Fudge!” turned upon his heel, and whistling “A Frog he would a wooing go,” sauntered out of the room, thoroughly disgusted with the whole race of modern young men.

The old gentleman’s methodical habits of business had won for him the confidence of every one, and as an almost necessary consequence had involved him in the responsibility of several trusteeships. There were sundry old ladies and orphans whose pecuniary affairs he had managed for years with the punctuality of a Dutch clock. Before noon, on the days when their interest moneys were due, he always had the satisfaction of paying them into the hands of the owners. It was only for some such purpose that he ever left his post during business hours; but the claims of the widow and the fatherless came before those of the ledger, and he some times stole an hour from his daily duties to attend to these private trusts.

Not long after he had sought to awaken his young friend’s suspicions respecting Mrs. Howard, one of these occasions occurred. At midday he found himself seated in a pleasant drawing-room, between an old lady and a young one, both of whom regarded him as the very best of men. He had transacted his business and was about taking leave, when he was detained to partake of a lunch; and, while he was engaged in washing down a biscuit with a glass of octogenarian Madeira, the young lady was called out of the room. She was absent about fifteen minutes, and when she returned, her eyes were full of years. A pile of gold lay on the table (the Captain would have thought it ungentlemanlike to offer dirty paper to ladies), and taking a five-dollar piece from the heap, she again vanished. This time she did not quite close the door behind her, and it was evident she was conversing with some claimant upon her charity. Her compassionate tones were distinctly heard in the drawing-room, and when she ceased speaking, a remarkably soft, clear, liquid voice responded to her kindness. There was something in these sounds which awakened the liveliest interest in the old gentleman. He started, fidgeted in his chair, and at length, fairly mastered by his curiosity, he stole on tiptoe to the door. He saw only a drooping figure, clad in mourning, and veiled from head to foot, who, repeating her thanks to her young benefactress, gathered up a roll of papers from the hall table, and withdrew before he could obtain a glimpse of her face.

“What impostor have you been feeing now?” he asked, as the young lady entered the room, holding in her hand several cheap French engravings.

“No impostor, my dear sir, but a most interesting woman.”

“Oh, I dare say she was very interesting and interested too, no doubt; but how do you know she was no swindler?”

“Because she shed tears, real tears.”

“Humph! I suppose she put her handkerchief to her eyes and snivelled.”

“No, indeed, I saw the big drops roll down her cheeks, and I never can doubt such an evidence of genuine sorrow; people can’t force tears.”

“What story could she tell which was worth five dollars?”

“Her husband, who was an importer of French stationary and engravings, has recently died insolvent, leaving her burdened with the support of two children and an infirm mother. His creditors have seized everything, excepting a few unsaleable prints, by the sale of which she is now endeavouring to maintain herself independently.”

“Are the prints worth anything?”

“Not much.”

“Then she is living upon charity quite as much as if she begged from door to door; it is only a new method of levying contributions upon people with more money than brains.”

“The truth of her statement is easily ascertained. I have promised to visit her, and if I find her what she seems, I shall supply her with employment as a seamstress.”

“Will you allow me to accompany you on your visit?”

“Certainly, my dear sir, upon condition that if you find her story true, you will pay the penalty of your mistrust in the shape of a goodly donation.”

“Agreed! I’ll pay if she turns out to be an object of charity. But that voice of hers,—I don’t believe there are two such voices in this great city.”

What notion had now got into the crotchety head of the Captain no one could tell; but he certainly was in wonderful spirits that day at dinner. He was in such good humour that he was even civil to Mrs. Howard, and sent his own bottle of wine to Harry Maurice. He looked a little confounded when Mrs. Howard, taking advantage of his “melting mood,” challenged him to a game at backgammon, and it was almost with his old gruffness that he refused her polite invitation. He waited long enough to see her deeply engaged in chess with her young admirer, and then hurried away to fulfil his engagement with the lady who had promised to let him share her errand of mercy.

He was doomed to be disappointed, however. They found the house inhabited by the unfortunate Mrs. Harley; it was a low one-story rear building, in —— Street, the entrance to which was through a covered alley leading from the street. It was a neat, comfortable dwelling, and the butcher’s shop in front of it screened it entirely from public view. But the person of whom they were in quest was not at home. Her mother and two rosy children, however, seemed to corroborate her story, and as the woman seemed disposed to be rather communicative, the old gentleman fancied he had now got upon a true trail. But an incautious question from him sealed the woman’s lips, and he found himself quite astray again. Finding nothing could be gained, he hurried away, and entering his own door, found Mrs. Howard still deeply engaged in her game of chess, though she did look up with a sweet smile when she saw him.

A few days afterwards his young friend informed him that she had been more successful, having found Mrs. Harley just preparing to go out on her daily round of charity-seeking.

When suspicions are once aroused in the mind of a man like the Captain, it is strange how industriously he puts together the minutest links in the chain of evidence, and how curiously he searches for such links, as if the unmasking of a rogue was really a matter of the highest importance. The Captain began to grow more reserved and incommunicative than ever. He uttered oracular apothegms and dogmatisms until he became positively disagreeable, and at last, as if to show an utter aberration of mind, he determined to obtain leave of absence for a week. It was a most remarkable event in his history, and as such excited much speculation. But the old gentleman’s lips were closely buttoned; he quietly packed a valise, and set out upon, what he called, a country excursion.

It was curious to notice how much he was missed in the house. Some missed his kindliness; some his quaint humorousness; some his punctuality, by which they set their watches; and Mrs. Howard seemed actually to feel the want of that sarcastic tone which made the sauce piquante of her dainty food. Where he actually went no one knew, but in four days he returned, looking more bilious and acting more crotchety than ever; but with an exhilaration of spirits that showed the marvellous effect of country air.

The day after his return, two men, wrapped in cloaks and wearing slouched hats, entered the butcher’s shop in —— Street. Giving a nod in passing to the man at the counter, the two proceeded up stairs, and took a seat at one of the back windows. The blinds were carefully drawn down, and they seated themselves as if to note all that passed in the low, one-story building, which opened upon a narrow paved alley directly beneath the window.

“Do you know that we shall have a fearful settlement to make if this turns out to be all humbug?” said the younger man, as they took their station.

“Any satisfaction which you are willing to claim, I am ready to make, in case I am mistaken; but—look there.”

As he spoke, a female wearing a large black cloak and thick veil entered the opposite house. Instantly a shout of joy burst from the children, and as the old woman rose to drop the blind at the window, they caught sight of the two merry little ones pulling at the veil and cloak of the mysterious lady.

“Did you see her face?” asked the old man.

“No, it was turned away from the window.”

“Then have patience for a while.”

Nearly an hour elapsed, and then the door again opened to admit the egress of a person, apparently less of stature than the woman who had so recently entered, more drooping in figure, and clad in rusty and shabby mourning.

“One more kiss, mamma, and don’t forget the sugar-plums when you come back,” cried one of the children.

The woman stooped to give the required kiss, lifting her veil as she did so, and revealing the whole of her countenance. A groan burst from the lips of one of the watchers, which was answered by a low chuckle from his companion; for both the Captain and Harry Maurice had recognised in the mysterious lady the features of the bewitching Mrs. Howard.

There is little more to tell. The question of “Who is she?” now needed no reply. Mrs. Howard, Mrs. Harley, and some dozen other aliases, were the names of an exceedingly genteel adventuress, who is yet vividly remembered by the charitable whom she victimized a few years since. She had resided in several large cities, and was drawing a very handsome income from her ingenuity. Her love of pleasure being as great as her taste for money-making, she devised a plan for living two lives at once, and her extreme mobility of feature, and exquisite adroitness, enabled her to carry out her schemes. How far she would have carried the affair with her young lover it is impossible to say, but the probability is that the “love affair” was only an agreeable episode “pour passer le tems,” and that whatever might have been the gentleman’s intentions, the lady was guiltless of ulterior views.

The Captain managed the affair his own way. He did not wish to injure the credit of the house, which he designed to call his home for the rest of his life, and therefore Mrs. Howard received a quiet intimation to quit, which she obeyed with her usual unruffled sweetness. Harry Maurice paid a visit to his mother and sister in the country, and on his return found it desirable to change his lodgings. The Captain kept the story to himself for several years, but after Maurice was married, and settled in his domestic habitudes, he felt himself privileged to use it as a warning to all gullible young men, against bewitching widows, and mysterious fellow-boarders.