The girl liked his manner, and, entering into the spirit of the thing, swept as grand a curtsy as her limited drapery would allow, saying, merrily,--
"I am Debby Wilder, or Dora, as aunt prefers to call me; and instead of laughing, I ought be four feet under water, looking for something we have lost; but I can't dive, and my distress is dreadful as you see."
"What have you lost? I will look for it, and bring it back in spite of the kelpies, if it is a human possibility," replied Mr. Evan, pushing his wet locks out of his eyes, and regarding the ocean with a determined aspect.
Debby leaned toward him, whispering with solemn countenance,--
"It is a set of teeth, Sir."
Mr. Evan was more a man of deeds than words, therefore he disappeared at once with a mighty splash, and after repeated divings and much laughter appeared bearing the chief ornament of Mrs. Penelope Carroll's comely countenance. Debby looked very pretty and grateful as she returned her thanks, and Mr. Evan was guilty of a secret wish that all the worthy lady's features were at the bottom of the sea, that he might have the satisfaction of restoring them to her attractive niece; but curbing this unnatural desire, he bowed, saying, gravely,--
"Tell your aunt, if you please, that this little accident will remain a dead secret, so far as I am concerned, and I am very glad to have been of service at such a critical moment."
Whereupon Mr. Evan marched again into the briny deep, and Debby trotted away to her aunt, whom she found a clammy heap of blue flannel and despair. Mrs. Carroll's temper was ruffled, and though she joyfully rattled in her teeth, she said, somewhat testily, when Debby's story was done,--
"Now that man will have a sort of claim on us, and we must be civil, whoever he is. Dear! dear! I wish it had been Joe Leavenworth instead. Evan--I don't remember any of our first families with connections of that name, and I dislike to be under obligations to a person of that sort, for there's no knowing how far he may presume; so, pray, be careful, Dora."
"I think you are very ungrateful, Aunt Pen; and if Mr. Evan should happen to be poor, it does not become me to turn up my nose at him, for I'm nothing but a make-believe myself just now. I don't wish to go down upon my knees to him, but I do intend to be as kind to him as I should to that conceited Leavenworth boy; yes, kinder even; for poor people value such things more, as I know very well."
Mrs. Carroll instantly recovered her temper, changed the subject, and privately resolved to confine her prejudices to her own bosom, as they seemed to have an aggravating effect upon the youthful person whom she had set her heart on disposing of to the best advantage.
Debby took her swimming-lesson with much success, and would have achieved her dinner with composure, if white-aproned gentleman had not effectually taken away her appetite by whisking bills-of-fare into her hands, and awaiting her orders with a fatherly interest, which induced them to congregate mysterious dishes before her, and blandly rectify her frequent mistakes. She survived the ordeal, however, and at four P.M. went to drive with "that Leavenworth boy" in the finest turnout ------- could produce. Aunt Pen then came off guard, and with a sigh of satisfaction subsided into a peaceful doze, still murmuring, even in her sleep,--
"Propinquity, my love, propinquity works wonders."
"Aunt Pen, are you a modest woman?" asked the young crusader against established absurdities, as she came into the presence-chamber that evening ready for the hop.
"Bless the child, what does she mean?" cried Mrs. Carroll, with a start that twitched her back-hair out of Victorine's hands.
"Would you like to have a daughter of yours go to a party looking as I look?" continued her niece, spreading her airy dress, and standing very erect before her astonished relative.
"Why, of course I should, and be proud to own such a charming creature," regarding the slender white shape with much approbation,--adding, with a smile, as she met the girl's eye,--
"Ah, I see the difficulty, now; you are disturbed because there is not a bit of lace over these pretty shoulders of yours. Now don't be absurd, Dora; the dress is perfectly proper, or Madam Tiphany never would have sent it home. It is the fashion, child; and many a girl with such a figure would go twice as decolletee, and think nothing of it, I assure you."
Debby shook her head with an energy that set the pink heather-bells a-tremble in her hair, and her color deepened beautifully as she said, with reproachful eyes,--
"Aunt Pen, I think there is a better fashion in every young girls' heart than any Madame Tiphany can teach. I am very grateful for all you have done for me, but I cannot go into public in such an undress as this; my mother would never allow it, and father never forgive it. Please don't ask me to, for indeed I cannot do it even for you."
Debby looked so pathetic that both mistress and maid broke into a laugh which somewhat reassured the young lady, who allowed her determined features to relax into a smile, as she said,--
"Now, Aunt Pen, you want me to look pretty and be a credit to you; but how would you like to see my face the color of those geraniums all evening?"
"Why, Dora, you are out of your mind to ask such a thing, when you know it's the desire of my life to keep your color down and make you look more delicate," said her aunt, alarmed at the fearful prospect of a peony-faced protegee.
"Well, I should be anything but that, if I wore this gown in its present waistless condition; so here is a remedy which will prevent such a calamity and ease my mind."
As she spoke, Debby tied on her little blonde fichu with a gesture which left nothing more to be said.
Victorine scolded, and clasped her hands; but Mrs. Carroll, fearing to push her authority too far, made a virtue of necessity, saying, resignedly,--
"Have your own way, Dora, but in return oblige me by being agreeable to such persons as I may introduce to you; and some day, when I ask a favor remember how much I hope to do for you, and grant it cheerfully."
"Indeed I will, Aunt Pen, if it is anything I can do without disobeying mother's 'notions,' as you call them. Ask me to wear an orange-colored gown, or dance with the plainest, poorest man in the room, and I'll do it; for there never was a kinder aunt than mine in all the world," cried Debby, eager to atone for her seeming wilfulness, and really grateful for her escape from what seemed to her benighted mind a very imminent peril.
Like a clover-blossom in a vase of camellias little Debby looked that night among the dashing or languid women who surrounded her; for she possessed the charm they had lost,--the freshness of her youth. Innocent gayety sat smiling in her eyes, healthful roses bloomed upon her cheek, and maiden modesty crowned her like a garland. She was the creature that she seemed, and, yielding to the influence of the hour, danced to the music of her own blithe heart. Many felt the spell whose secret they had lost the power to divine, and watched the girlish figure as if it were symbol of their early aspirations dawning freshly from the dimness of their past. More than one old man thought again of some little maid whose love made his boyish days a pleasant memory to him now. More than one smiling fop felt the emptiness of his smooth speech, when the truthful eyes looked up into his own; and more than one pale woman sighed regretfully within herself, "I, too, was a happy-hearted creature once!"
"That Mr. Evan does not seem very anxious to claim our acquaintance, after all, and I think better of him on that account. Has he spoken to you to-night, Dora?" asked Mrs. Carroll, as Debby dropped down beside her after a "splendid polka."
"No, Ma'am, he only bowed. You see some people are not so presuming as other people thought they were; for we are not the most attractive beings on the planet; therefore a gentleman can be polite and then forget us without breaking any of the Ten Commandments. Don't be offended with him yet, for he may prove to be some great creature with a finer pedigree than any of 'our fist families.' Mr. Leavenworth, as you know everybody, perhaps you can relieve Aunt Pen's mind, by telling her something about the tall, brown man standing behind the lady with salmon-colored hair."