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Fiction August 1863

Debby's Debut

On a cheery June day Mrs. Penelope Carroll and her niece Debby Wilder were whizzing along on their way to a certain gay watering-place, both in the best of humors with each other and all the world beside. Aunt Pen was concocting sundry mild romances, and laying harmless plots for the pursuance of her favorite pastime, match-making; for she had invited her pretty relative to join her summer jaunt, ostensibly that the girl might see a little of fashionable life, but the good lady secretly proposed to herself to take her to the beach and get her a rich husband, very much as she would have proposed to take her to Broadway and get her a new bonnet, for both articles she considered necessary, but somewhat difficult for a poor girl to obtain.

Debby was slowly getting her poise, after the excitement of a first visit to New York; for ten days of bustle had introduced the young philosopher to a new existence, and the working-day world seemed to have vanished when she made her last pat of butter in the dairy at home. For an hour she sat thinking over the good-fortune which had befallen her, and the comforts of this life which she had suddenly acquired. Debby was a true girl,--with all a girl's love of ease and pleasure; and it must not be set down against her that she surveyed her pretty travelling-suit with much complacency, rejoicing inwardly that she could use her hands without exposing fractured gloves, that her bonnet was of the newest mode, needing no veil to hide a faded ribbon or a last year's shape, that her dress swept the ground with fashionable untidiness, and her boots were guiltless of a patch,--that she was the possessor of a mine of wealth in two of the eight trunks belonging to her aunt, that she was travelling like any lady of the land with man-and maid-servant at her command, and that she was leaving work and care behind her for a month or two of novelty and rest.

When these agreeable facts were fully realized, and Aunt Pen had fallen asleep behind her veil, Debby took out a book, and indulged in her favorite luxury, soon forgetting past, present, and future in the inimitable history of Martin Chuzzlewit. The sun blazed, the cars rattled, children cried, ladies nodded, gentlemen longed for the solace of prohibited cigars, and newspapers were converted into sun-shades, nightcaps, and fans; but Debby read on, unconscious of all about her, even of the pair of eyes that watched her from the opposite corner of the car. A gentleman with a frank, strong-featured face sat therein, and amused himself by scanning with thoughtful gaze the countenances of his fellow-travellers. Stout Aunt Pen, dignified even in her sleep, was a "model of deportment" to the rising generation; but the student of human nature found a more attractive subject in her companion, the girl with an apple-blossom face and merry brown eyes, who sat smiling into her book, never heeding that her bonnet was awry, and the wind taking unwarrantable liberties with her ribbons and her hair.

Innocent Debby turned her pages, unaware that her fate sat opposite in the likeness of a serious, black-bearded gentleman, who watched the smiles rippling from her lips to her eyes with an interest that deepened as the minutes passed. If his paper had been full of anything but "Bronchial Troches" and "Spalding's Prepared Glue," he would have found more profitable employment; but it wasn't, and with the usual readiness of idle souls he fell into evil ways, and permitted curiosity, that feminine sin, to enter in and take possession of his manly mind. A great desire seized him to discover what book so interested his pretty neighbor; but a cover hid the name, and he was too distant to catch it on the fluttering leaves. Presently a stout Emerald-Islander, with her wardrobe oozing out of sundry paper parcels, vacated the seat behind the two ladies; and it was soon quietly occupied by the individual for whom Satan was finding such indecorous employment. Peeping round the little gray bonnet, past a brown braid and a fresh cheek, the young man's eye fell upon the words the girl was reading, and forgot to look away again. Books were the desire of his life; but an honorable purpose and an indomitable will kept him steady at his ledgers till he could feel that he had earned the right to read. Like wine to many another was an open page to him; he read a line, and, longing for more, took a hasty sip from his neighbor's cup, forgetting that it was a stranger's also.

Down the page went the two pairs of eyes, and the merriment from Debby's seemed to light up the sombre ones behind her with a sudden shine that softened the whole face and made it very winning. No wonder they twinkled, for Elijah Pogram spoke, and "Mrs. Hominy, the mother of the modern Gracchi, in the classical blue cap and the red cotton picket-handkerchief, came down the room in a procession of one." A low laugh startled Debby, though it was smothered like the babes in the Tower; and, turning, she beheld the trespasser scarlet with confusion, and sobered with a tardy sense of his transgression. Debby was not a starched young lady of the "prune and prism" school, but a frank, free-hearted little body, quick to read the sincerity of others, and to take looks and words at their real value. Dickens was her idol; and for his sake she could have forgiven a greater offense than this. The stranger's contrite countenance and respectful apology won her good-will at once; and with a finer courtesy than any Aunt Pen would have taught, she smilingly bowed her pardon, and taking another book from her basket, opened it, saying, pleasantly,--

"Here is the first volume, if you like it, Sir. I can recommend it as an invaluable consolation for the discomforts of a summer day's journey, and it is heartily at your service."

As much surprised as gratified, the gentleman accepted the book, and retired behind it with the sudden discovery that wrong-doing has its compensation in the pleasurable sensation of being forgiven. Stolen delights are well known to be specially saccharine; and much as this pardoned sinner loved books, it seemed to him that the interest of the story flagged, and that the enjoyment of reading was much enhanced by the proximity of a gray bonnet and a girlish profile. But Dickens soon proved more powerful than Debby, and she was forgotten, till, pausing to turn a leaf, the young man met her shy glance, as she asked, with the pleased expression of a child who has shared an apple with a playmate,--

"Is it good?"

"Oh, very!"--and the man looked as honestly grateful for the book as the boy would have done for the apple.

Only five words in the conversation, but Aunt Pen woke, as if the watchful spirit of propriety had roused her to pluck her charge from the precipice on which she stood.

"Dora, I'm astonished at you! Speaking to strangers in that free manner is a most unladylike thing. How came you to forget what I have told you over and over again about a proper reserve?"

The energetic whisper reached the gentleman's ear, and he expected to be annihilated with a look when his offense was revealed; but he was spared that ordeal, for the young voice answered, softly,--

"Don't faint, Aunt Pen; I only did as I'd be done by; for I had two books, and the poor man looked so hungry for something to read that I couldn't resist sharing my 'goodies.' He will see that I'm a countrified little thing in spite of my fine feathers, and won't be shocked at my want of rigidity and frigidity; so don't look dismal, and I'll be prim and proper all the rest of the way,--if I don't forget it."

"I wonder who he is; may belong to some of our first families, and in that case it might be worth while to exert ourselves, you know. Did you learn his name, Dora?" whispered the elder lady.

Debby shook her head, and murmured, "Hush!"--but Aunt Pen had heard of matches being made in cars as well as in heaven; and as an experienced general, it became her to reconnoitre, when one of the enemy approached her camp. Slightly altering her position, she darted an all-comprehensive glance at the invader, who seemed entirely absorbed, for not an eyelash stirred during the scrutiny. It lasted but an instant, yet in that instant he was weighed and found wanting; for that experienced eye detected that his cravat was two inches wider than fashion ordained, that his coat was not of the latest style, that his gloves were mended, and his handkerchief neither cambric nor silk. That was enough, and sentence was passed forthwith,--"Some respectable clerk, good-looking, but poor, and not at all the thing for Dora"; and Aunt Pen turned to adjust a voluminous green veil over her niece's bonnet, "To shield it from the dust, dear," which process also shielded the face within from the eye of man.

A curious smile, half mirthful, half melancholy, passed over their neighbor's lips; but his peace of mind seemed undisturbed, and he remained buried in his book till they reached --------, at dusk. As he returned it, he offered his services in procuring a carriage or attending to luggage; but Mrs. Carroll, with much dignity of aspect, informed him that her servants would attend to those matters, and, bowing gravely, he vanished into the night.

As they rolled away to the hotel, Debby was wild to run down to the beach whence came the solemn music of the sea, making the twilight beautiful. But Aunt Pen was too tired to do anything but sup in her own apartment and go early to bed; and Debby might as soon have proposed to walk up the Great Pyramid as to make her first appearance without that sage matron to mount guard over her; so she resigned herself to pie and patience, and fell asleep, wishing it were to-morrow.

At five, A.M., a nightcapped head appeared at one of the myriad windows of the ------- Hotel, and remained there as if fascinated by the miracle of sunrise over the sea. Under her simplicity of character and girlish merriment Debby possessed a devout spirit and a nature full of the real poetry of life, two gifts that gave her dawning womanhood its sweetest charm, and made her what she was. As she looked out that summer dawn upon the royal marriage of the ocean and the sun, all petty hopes and longings faded out of sight, and her young face grew luminous with thoughts too deep for words. Her day was happier for that silent hour, her life richer for the aspirations that uplifted her like beautiful strong angels, and left a blessing when they went. The smile of the June sky touched her lips, the morning red seemed to linger on her cheek, and in her eye arose a light kindled by the shimmer of that broad sea of gold; for Nature rewarded her young votary well, and gave her beauty, when she offered love. How long she leaned there Debby did not know; steps from below roused her from her reverie, and led her back into the world again. Smiling at herself, she stole to bed, and lay wrapped in waking dreams as changeful as the shadows dancing on her chamber-wall.

The advent of her aunt's maid, Victorine, some two hours later, was the signal to be "up and doing"; and she meekly resigned herself into the hands of that functionary, who appeared to regard her in the light of an animated pin-cushion, as she performed the toilet-ceremonies with an absorbed aspect, which impressed her subject with a sense of the solemnity of the occasion.

"Now, Mademoiselle, regard yourself, and pronounce that you are ravishing," Victorine said at length, folding her hands with a sigh of satisfaction, as she fell back in an attitude of serene triumph.

Debby obeyed, and inspected herself with great interest and some astonishment; for there was a sweeping amplitude of array about the young lady whom she beheld in the much-befrilled gown and embroidered skirts, which somewhat alarmed her as to the navigation of a vessel "with such a spread of sail," while a curious sensation of being somebody else pervaded her from the crown of her head, with its shining coils of hair, to the soles of the French slippers, whose energies seemed to have been devoted to the production of marvellous rosettes.

"Yes, I look very nice, thank you; and yet I fell like a doll, helpless and fine, and fancy I was more of a woman in my fresh gingham, with a knot of clovers in my hair, than I am now. Aunt Pen was very kind to get me all these pretty things; but I'm afraid my mother would look horrified to see me in such a high state of flounce externally and so little room to breathe internally."

"Your mamma would not flatter me, Mademoiselle; but come now to Madame; she is waiting to behold you, and I have yet her toilet to make"; and, with a pitying shrug, Victorine followed Debby to her aunt's room.

"Charming! really elegant!" cried that lady, emerging from her towel with a rubicund visage. "Drop that braid half an inch lower, and pull the worked end of her handkerchief out of the right-hand pocket, Vic. There! Now, Dora, don't run about and get rumpled, but sit quietly down and practice repose till I am ready."

Debby obeyed, and sat mute, with the air of child in its Sunday-best on a week-day, pleased with the novelty, but somewhat oppressed with the responsibility of such unaccustomed splendor, and utterly unable to connect any ideas of repose with tight shoes and skirts in a rampant state of starch.

"Well, you see, I bet on Lady Gay against Cockadoodle, and if you'll believe me ------- Hullo! there's Mrs. Carroll, and deuse take me if she hasn't got a girl with her! Look, Seguin!"--and Joe Leavenworth, a "man of the world," aged twenty, paused in his account of an exciting race to make the announcement.

Mr. Seguin, his friend and Mentor, as much his senior in worldly wickedness as in years, tore himself from his breakfast long enough to survey the newcomers, and then returned to it, saying, briefly,--

"The old lady is worth cultivating,--gives good suppers, and thanks you for eating them. The girl is well got up, but has no style, and blushes like a milkmaid. Better fight shy of her, Joe."

"Do you think so? Well, now I rather fancy that kind of thing. She's new, you see, and I get on with that sort of girl the best, for the old ones are so deused knowing that a fellow has no chance of a ------- By the Lord Harry, she's eating bread and milk!"

Young Leavenworth whisked his glass into his eye, and Mr. Seguin put down his roll to behold the phenomenon. Poor Debby! her first step had been a wrong one.

All great minds have their weak points. Aunt Pen's was her breakfast, and the peace of her entire day depended upon the success of that meal. Therefore being down rather late, the worthy lady concentrated her energies upon the achievement of a copious repast, and, trusting to former lessons, left Debby to her own resources for a few fatal moments. After the flutter occasioned by being scooped into her seat by a severe-nosed waiter, Debby had only courage enough left to refuse tea and coffee and accept milk. That being done, she took the first familiar viand that appeared, and congratulated herself upon being able to get her usual breakfast. With returning composure, she looked about her and began to enjoy the buzz of voices, the clatter of knives and forks, and the long lines of faces all intent upon the business of the hour; but her peace was of short duration. Pausing for a fresh relay of toast, Aunt Pen glanced toward her niece with the comfortable conviction that her appearance was highly creditable; and her dismay can be imagined, when she beheld that young lady placidly devouring a great cup of brown-bread and milk before the eyes of the assembled multitude. The poor lady choked in her coffee, and between her gasps whispered irefully behind her napkin,--

"For Heaven's sake, Dora put away that mess! The Ellenboroughs are directly opposite, watching everything you do. Eat that omelet, or anything respectable, unless you want me to die of mortification."

Debby dropped her spoon, and, hastily helping herself from the dish her aunt pushed toward her, consumed the leathery compound with as much grace as she could assume, though unable to repress a laugh at Aunt Pen's disturbed countenance. There was a slight lull in the clatter, and the blithe sound caused several heads to turn toward the quarter whence it came, for it was as unexpected and pleasant a sound as a bobolink's song in a cage of shrill-voiced canaries.

"She's a jolly little thing and powerful pretty, so deuse take me if I don't make up to the old lady and find out who the girl is. I've been introduced to Mrs. Carroll at our house; but I suppose she won't remember me till I remind her."

The "deuse" declining to accept of his repeated offers, (probably because there was still too much honor and honesty in the boy,) young Leavenworth sought out Mrs. Carroll on the piazza, as she and Debby were strolling there an hour later.

"Joe Leavenworth, my dear, from one of our first families,--very wealthy,--fine match,--pray, be civil,--smooth your hair, hold back your shoulders, and put down your parasol," murmured Aunt Pen, as the gentleman approached with as much pleasure in his countenance as it was consistent with manly dignity to express upon meeting two of the inferior race.

"My niece, Miss Dora Wilder. This is her first season at the beach, and we must endeavor to make it pleasant for her, or she will be getting homesick and running away to mamma," said Aunt Pen, in her society-tone, after she had returned his greeting, and perpetrated a polite fiction, by declaring that she remembered him perfectly, for he was the image of his father.

Mr. Leavenworth brought the heels of his varnished boots together with a click, and executed the latest bow imported, then stuck his glass in his eye and stared till it fell out, (the glass, not the eye,) upon which he fell into step with them, remarking,--

"I shall be most happy to show the lions: they are deused tame ones, so you needn't be alarmed, Miss Wilder."

Debby was good-natured enough to laugh; and, elated with that success, he proceeded to pour forth his stores of wit and learning in true collegian style, quite unconscious that the "jolly little thing" was looking him through and through with the smiling eyes that were producing such pleasurable sensations under the mosaic studs. They strolled toward the beach, and, meeting an old acquaintance, Aunt Pen fell behind, and beamed upon the young pair as if her prophetic eye even at this early stage beheld them walking altarward in a proper state of blond white vest and bridal awkwardness.

"Can you skip a stone, Mr. Leavenworth?" asked Debby, possessed with a mischievous desire to shock the piece of elegance at her side.

"Eh? what's that?" he inquired, with his head on one side, like an inquisitive robin.

Debby repeated her question, and illustrated it by sending a stone skimming over the water in the most scientific manner. Mr. Joe was painfully aware that this was not at all "the thing," that his sisters never did so, and that Seguin would laugh confoundedly, if he caught him at it; but Debby looked so irresistibly fresh and pretty under her rose-lined parasol that he was moved to confess that he had done such a thing, and to sacrifice his gloves by poking in the sand, that he might indulge in a like unfashionable pastime.

"You'll be at the hop to-night, I hope, Miss Wilder," he observed, introducing a topic suited to a young lady's mental capacity.

"Yes, indeed; for dancing is one of the joys of my life, next to husking and making hay"; and Debby polked a few steps along the beach , much to the edification of a pair of old gentlemen, serenely taking their first "constitutional."

"Making what?" cried Mr. Joe, polking after her.

"Hay; ah, that is the pleasantest fun in the world,--and better exercise, my mother says, for soul and body, than dancing till dawn in crowded rooms, with everything in a state of unnatural excitement. If one wants real merriment, let him go into a new-mown field, where all the air is full of summer odors, where wild-flowers nod along the walls, where blackbirds make finer music than any band, and sun and wind and cheery voices do their part, while windrows rise, and great loads go rumbling through the lanes with merry brown faces atop. Yes, much as I like dancing, it is not to be compared with that; for in the one case we shut out the lovely world, and in the other we become a part of it, till by its magic labor turns to poetry, and we harvest something better than dried buttercups and grass."

As she spoke, Debby looked up, expecting to meet a glance of disapproval; but something in the simple earnestness of her manner had recalled certain boyish pleasures as innocent as they were hearty, which now contrasted very favorably with the later pastimes in which fast horses, and that lower class of animals, fast men, bore so large a part. Mr. Joe thoughtfully punched five holes in the sand, and for a moment Debby liked the expression of his face; then the old listlessness returned, and, looking up, he said, with an air of ennui that was half sad, half ludicrous, in one so young and so generously endowed with youth, health, and the good gifts of this life,--

"I used to fancy that sort of thing years ago, but I'm afraid I should find it a little slow now, though you describe it in such an inviting manner that I should be tempted to try it, if a hay-cock came in my way; for, upon my life, it's deused heavy work loafing about at these watering-places all summer. Between ourselves, there's a deal of humbug about this kind of life, as you will find, when you've tried it as long as I have."

"Yes, I begin to think so already; but perhaps you can give me a few friendly words of warning from the stores of your experience, that I may be spared the pain of saying what so many look,--'Grandma, the world is hollow; my doll is stuffed with sawdust; and I should like to go into a convent, if you please.'"

Debby's eyes were dancing with merriment; but they were demurely downcast, and her voice was perfectly serious.

The milk of human kindness had been slightly curdled for Mr. Joe by sundry College-tribulations; and having been "suspended," he very naturally vibrated between the inborn jollity of his temperament and the bitterness occasioned by his wrongs. He had lost at billiards the night before, had been hurried at breakfast, had mislaid his cigar-case, and splashed his boots; consequently the darker mood prevailed that morning, and when his counsel was asked, he gave it like one who had known the heaviest trials of this "Piljin Projiss of a wale."

"There's no justice in the world, no chance for us young people to enjoy ourselves, without some penalty to pay, some drawback to worry us like these confounded 'all-rounders.' Even here, where all seems free and easy, there's no end of gossips and spies who tattle and watch till you feel as if you lived in a lantern. 'Every one for himself, and the Devil take the hindmost': that's the principle they go on, and you have to keep your wits about you in the most exhausting manner, or you are done for before you know it. I've seen a good deal of this sort of thing, and hope you'll get on better than some do, when it's known that you are the rich Mrs. Carroll's niece; though you don't need that fact to enhance your charms,--upon my life, you don't."

Debby laughed behind her parasol at this burst of candor; but her independent nature prompted her to make a fair beginning, in spite of Aunt Pen's polite fictions and well-meant plans.

"Thank you for your warning, but I don't apprehend much annoyance of that kind," she said, demurely. "Do you know, I think, if young ladies were truthfully labelled when they went into society, it would be a charming fashion and save a world of trouble? Something in this style:--'Arabella Marabout, aged nineteen, fortune $100,000, temper warranted'; 'Laura Eau-de-Cologne, aged twenty-eight, fortune $30,000, temper slightly damaged'; 'Deborah Wilder, aged eighteen, fortune, one pair of hands, one head, indifferently well filled, one heart, (not in the market,) temper decided, and no expectations.' There, you see, that would do away with much of the humbug you lament, and we poor souls would know at once whether we were sought for our fortunes or ourselves, and that would be so comfortable!"

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