The railway traveller, journeying between Springfield and Hartford along the banks of the fair Connecticut, sees from the car window, far away to the eastward, across the broad level of intervening plains, a chain of purple hills, whose undulating crest-line meets the bending sky and forms the distant horizon. Just beyond the loftiest hummock of this range a fertile valley lies concealed; and near its centre, upon the smooth summit of a gently swelling ridge, which, extending north and south for miles, divides the valley lengthwise, stands Belfield, the shire town of the rural county of Hillsdale. Its fourscore white dwellings, scattered unevenly along the shady margins of a straight and ample street, are mostly large, substantial granges, each with its little suburb of dependencies making a hamlet by itself. But where the broad avenue, at midway, spreads still wider, forming a spacious square, are thickly clustered the public buildings of the town and county, — together with the meeting-houses, the taverns, the bank, the shops, and a few handsome dwellings, whose large dimensions and ornate style show them to be the abodes of people of wealth and consideration.
The greensward in the middle of this square contains two or three elms of immemorial age, besides many thrifty trees of a later planting. The wooden barrier by which it is enclosed was once adorned with a coat of white paint, now nearly worn off. The topmost rails and post-heads of this fence have been so notched and gnawed by the jackknives of whittling idlers and the teeth of cribbing horses, that their original size and shape are matters concerning which the present generation are informed only by tradition.
This square was long ago named “The Green;” a pleasant title, by which, in course of time, the village itself came to be known and called. Instead of going “to town,” the farmers of the remote school districts talk of going “to the Green,” to meeting and to market; and in all that region the guide-boards point the way “To Belfield Green.” This spot was the site of the old blockhouse and stockaded fort, within whose rude but safe defences the early colonists of Belfield, with their wives, children, and cattle, used to huddle at night, through all the time of King Philip’s War. Here, with much labor, the settlers dug a deep well, fed by never-failing springs, to provide a sure supply of water, in case of siege, for all the garrison. And now, as if it were a monument raised to commemorate those dismal times, there stands, at a point where all the crossing footpaths meet, a huge town-pump, near ten feet high, carved and painted, with a great ball upon its top, and an iron ladle chained to its nose. In the torrid summer-days, from early morning till late at night, the old pump-handle has but little rest; for, though in a season of drought the neighboring wells are apt to run low, the ancient pump, like a steadfast friend, never fails at such a time of need.
Near at hand, in the centre of a footworn circle, a stout wooden post stands by itself which, in spite of its namely aspect, may well be termed a Pillar of the State. It is one of the institutions of the Commonwealth, established by an act of the General Assembly. Here, with torn corners fluttering in the wind, hang weather-stained probate notices, mildewed town-meeting warnings, and tattered placards of sheriff’s sales; for no estate can be settled, no land set off or chattel sold on execution, no legal meeting of the voters or freemen holden, without previous notice on the sign-post. It used to be known by another name, and marks the spot, where, whilom, petty thieves, shiftless vagrants, and other small offenders against the majesty of the law, were wont to suffer a shameful penalty for their vile misdeeds.
On the western side of the square, on the summit of the grassy slope, stands the Presbyterian meeting-house, flanked on one side by the academy, and on the other by the court-house. There are, besides, two other places of worship in the village; but neither is built upon the square; and when, at Belfield, the meeting-house is mentioned, the speaker is understood to indicate by that title the edifice which stands between the academy and the court-house, and not the plain, square structure, with neither steeple nor bell, in which the Baptists assemble for worship, nor the little white Methodist chapel in the lane, with green blinds to its windows, and a little toy of a turret, scarcely bigger than a martin-box, upon its shingled roof.
The quaint style and old-fashioned aspect of Belfield meeting-house attest its venerable age. For more than a hundred years its slender spire has glowed in the ruddy beams of early dawn, and cast at sunset its lengthening shadow across the village green. A century ago, the mellow tones of its Sabbath bell, echoing through the valley, summoned the pious congregation to their austere devotions. Before the worn threshold of the great double-leaved door, in the broadside of the building, lies a platform, which was once a solid shelf of red sandstone, but now is cracked in twain, and hollowed by the footsteps of six generations. In the very spot where it now lies it has lain ever since the first framed meeting-house was built in Belfield, in the reign of good King William III. There, gathered in a little knot, on Sundays and public. days, the forefathers of the settlement used to talk over the current news; how the first Port Royal expedition had failed; or how New England militia-men, without aid from home, had captured the great fortress of Louisburg, after a brief and glorious siege. There, still later, the sons of these men rejoiced at the news of Wolfe’s victory, and sorrowfully related the sad intelligence of Braddock’s shameful defeat. There stood their grandsons, a flushed, excited throng of hardy yeomen, clinching their fists unconsciously, and breathing hard and fast, as they listened to the tidings of the fight at Concord Bridge. Here, during the war that followed, when troops were mustered before marching off to camp, the roll used to be called upon this very stone. No town of its size in ail New England contributed a larger number to the ranks of the Continental army than did Belfield. One hot summer, all the unwonted tolls and unbefitting cares of haying and harvest fell upon the little boys and women and a few old gray-haired men, whose aged limbs had long before earned the right to rest. In all Belfield there was not a male able to bear arms who was not gone to camp. Some war-worn veterans lived to return; and many a Sunday noon, in later years, sitting here, upon the broad doorstone of the meeting-house, they used to tell over the stories of their battles and campaigns, until the sound from the belfry overhead, and the sight of the minister approaching from the parsonage, with stately pace and solemn aspect, would check the flowing current of their talk, and recall their thought to subjects more in keeping with the holy Sabbath-day. But some of the friends and comrades of these brave men never came home; their bones lie mouldering beneath the turf at White Plains, at Saratoga, at Brandywine, and at Princeton. Some perished with cold and hunger at Valley Forge; some died of fever in the horrible Old Sugar-house; some rotted alive in the Jersey prison-hulk; some lie buried under the gloomy walls of Dartmoor; and some there were whose fate was never known.
It was the custom, formerly, to hold all meetings for the transaction of public business in the sanctuary. None, not even the most piously fastidious parson or deacon, ever thought of being shocked at what in these degenerate times would seem like a gross desecration of the house of God. There were fewer Pharisees in Belfield a hundred years ago than now. To the Puritans, and to all their descendants, until of late, their places of worship were not churches, but meeting-houses merely; and by the stout-hearted men who used to dwell in New England it would have been deemed a heresy near akin to idolatry itself or at least savoring strongly of the damnable errors of the Romish Church, to hold that wood and stones, carved and fashioned by the hand of man, could be hallowed by an empty rite of consecration.
On these week-day occasions, therefore, no part of the house was kept sacred from the world. Even the pulpit itself would have been given up to secular uses, but that, being so lofty, it was found to be an inconvenient position for the moderator’s chair. So this important functionary was accustomed, from time immemorial, to take his place in the deacon’s seat, below, with the warning of the meeting, the statute-book, and the ballot-boxes arranged before him on the communion-table, which in course of time became so banged and battered, by dint of lusty gavel-strokes, that there was scarcely a place big enough to put one’s finger upon which was not bruised and dented. For, in the days of the fierce conflict between the Federalists and Democrats, the meetings were often noisy and disorderly; and once, even, at the memorable election of 1818, two hot-headed partisans from sharp words fell to blows, and others joining in the fray, the skirmish became at length a general engagement. The recurrence of a scene like this, upon the same stage, is never to be expected. The meeting-house has been set apart for religious uses exclusively, since its interior was thoroughly altered and remodelled, the tall pulpit replaced by one of modern style, the sounding-board removed, the aisles carpeted, and the square, old-fashioned pews changed for cushioned slips.
In the rear, a little way off, is a row of ugly sheds, yawning towards the street, where, on Sundays, the farmers who come from a distance tie their beasts, each in his separate stall. In hot days, in the summer time, when all the doors and windows of the meeting-house are set wide open, the hollow sound of horses’ stamping mingles with the preacher’s drowsy tones, and sometimes the congregation is startled from repose by the shrill squeal of some unlucky brute, complaining of the torture inflicted by the sharp teeth of its ill-natured mate or vicious neighbor; or, perhaps, the flutter of fans is suspended at the obstreperous neigh by which some anxious dam recalls the silly foal that has strayed from her side; or the dissonant creaking of a cramped wheel makes doleful interludes between the verses of the hymn. Here naughty boys, escaped from the confinement of the sanctuary, are wont to lounge in the wagons during prayer and sermon time, munching green pears and apples, devouring huge bunches of fennel, dill, and caraway, comparing and swapping jackknives, or striving, by means of cautious hems and whispers, and other sly signals, to attract the notice of their more decent fellows sitting near the open gallery-windows.
When the black doors of the little dingy building not far from the south end of the horse-sheds are seen standing open, it is a pretty sure sign that somebody lies dead in the parish. In this gloomy place the sexton keeps his dismal apparatus, — the hearse, with its curtains of rusty sable, the bier, the spades and shovels for digging graves; and in a corner lies a coil of soiled ropes, whose rasping sound, as they slipped through the coffin-handles, while the bearers lowered the corpse into the earth, has grated harshly on many a shuddering mourners ear. The leaves of the hearse-house door are fastened together by a hasp and pin, so that any one may enter at will. But there is no need of bolts and bars. The boys, at play, in the evening, at “I spy” or “hide and seek,” never go there for concealment, although their smothered whoops may be heard issuing from every other dark corner in the neighborhood.
The narrow space between the hearse-house and the sheds forms a short lane or passage-way, through which all the funeral processions pass from the street into the burying-ground, lying behind the sheds, on the western slope of the ridge upon which the village stands. This ancient cemetery was laid out by the early settlers, when they made the first allotments of land. It is a square area of two acres in extent, inclosed by a mossy picket paling, so rickety that the neighbors’ sheep sometimes leap through the gaps from the adjacent pastures, and feed among the graves upon the long grass and nettles.
The lower portion of the graveyard is set apart as a sort of potter’s-field, where negroes, Indians, and stranger-paupers are buried. This region is bordered by a little jungle of poke-berry and elder-bushes, sumachs and brambles, so dense and thrifty that they overtop and hide the fence; and there is a tradition among the school-boys, that somewhere in the copse there is a black-snake hole, the abode of an enormous monster, upon whom no one, however, has ever happened to set eyes. Here, with but few exceptions, the graves are marked only by low mounds of turf, overrun with matted wild-blackberry vines, where the lightest footstep, crushing through the crumbling sod, destroys the labors of whole colonies of ants. But farther up the hillside, headstones and monuments stand so close together, that, at a distance, there seems to be scarcely room for another grave.
Near the summit lie the early settlers of the town; and in a conspicuous place upon the brow of the acclivity stands a row of tombstones several rods in length. These mark the graves of an ancient and honorable family of townsfolk. At one end, a thick slab of red sandstone, of uncouth shape and rude appearance, leans aslant, partly buried in the mellow soil. The moss and lichens, with which its roughly cut back and edges are overgrown, have been removed from its face, and the quaint inscription is distinctly legible, whereby the curious idler is informed that “Here lies, in ye Hope of a Joyfull Resurrecion, ye Body of Majr Iohn Bugbee, an Assistant of ye Colony & A lustice of ye Peace. Born at Austerfield, in ye County of Lincoln, England. Dyed Feb. ye 9 AD. 1699 Æ. 72.” Close by the side of this venerable grave is another, which the stone at its head announces to be the resting-place of “Mistress Mindwell Bugbee—Consort of Majr Iohn Bugbee and youngest Daut: of Sir Roger Braxley, of Braxley Hall, Lincolnshire, England.” Then follow, in order of time, the headstones which mark the graves of successive generations descended from this worthy couple. Some of these are so defaced and weather-worn, that in aspect they seem even more venerable than the monuments of the founders of the race. Nearly all of those erected before the beginning of the present century bear quaint devices, — some of cherubs, all wings, and blank, staring faces; some of hour-glasses, some of masonic emblems, and upon one or two are rudely carved, ugly death’s heads and crossbones. Two thirds of the way down the line stands the first marble headstone. It is taller than its neighbors, and, though spotted with weather stains, it bears a deeply graven inscription, which seems as legible as the day it was cut, full forty years ago. In the grave at the foot of this stone lies buried another Major Bugbee, the great-great-grandson of the first Major. The commission of this gentleman, signed by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, still hangs in a frame against the wainscot, over the mantel, in the parlor of the great gambrel-roofed house, whose front-yard fence and garden palings form, for almost half the way, the eastern side of the village square. The late master of this dwelling, Doctor Bugbee, who was the eldest son of the Continental major, lies at the end of the long platoon of dead, in the newest grave of all the range, over which a marble obelisk has been erected, in memory of the name and many virtues of the deceased, who departed this life, as the inscription attests, on the 7th day of September, 1843, in the fifty-seventh year of his age.
Near by this spot, with its drooping boughs shading the monument I have just described, grows a weeping-willow tree, of such great size, that its top, from half way up, can be plainly discerned from almost every corner of the village green; and it is, withal, of such perfect symmetry of form, that on a moonlight night it resembles a fountain, as its leaves, fluttering in the breezy air, and turning their silver linings to the moon-beams, seem to sparkle like spray and drops of falling water. Behind this tree is placed a rustic bench, where, on a pleasant day in June, one may sit and look forth upon as pretty a landscape as can be seen in all Hillsdale County, or, for that matter, in all the State as well. Before you lies the declivity of the hill upon which the village stands. At its foot begins a verdant plain of interval meadows, dotted here and there with graceful elms and stately hickories, each standing alone in its ring of shadow, the turf everywhere bespangled with dandelions and buttercups, and changing its hue from shade to shade of vivid green, as the wind sweeps over the thick growing verdure. Through these meadows flows a sluggish brook, in broad meandering curves, crossed at each turn by rustic farm-bridges, with clumps of trees fringing the deeper pools. The plain is skirted by a country road, bordered with majestic trees, and with farm-houses standing all along its winding course. Beyond, the land rises, and the slope is checkered, to the foot of the hills, with arable fields. The view is bounded by the craggy sides of the great hills which separate this quiet vale from the broad valley of the Connecticut. Here, all is soft and tranquil beauty. But just beyond the rugged barrier of those western hills lies a grander landscape, of wide extent, through which flows New England’s greatest river, and crossed front end to end by New England’s busiest thoroughfares, dusty with the tread of commerce, and bordered with growing cities and thrifty, busting towns. Here, reclining on this rustic bench, in the shadow of the willow branches, among the tombstones of the silent dead, you may dream away the sultry afternoon, and hear no sounds but drowsy noises that dispose to rest and quiet; the whispering of the wind in the treetops, the droning pipe of grasshoppers and locusts, the distant cries of teamsters to their cattle, the shouts of children loitering home from school or gathering berries in the sunny fields, the whetting of a scythe in a far-off meadow, or the music of the blacksmith’s hammer upon his ringing anvil.
Four times a year, during the brief terms of court, the usual stillness that pervades the sober village is enlivened by the presence of a scanty crowd. Then, for a week, judges, jurors, suitors, and witnesses flock together; and sometimes, in the winter season, when farm work is not pressing, the neighbors throng by scores into the court-house, to hear the wordy harangues of the lawyers in some notable cause. Likewise on town-meeting days, the stores and tavern bar-rooms about the square are filled with a concourse of the sovereign people from the more rural districts; and at the annual cattle show and fair all Hillsdale comes up to Belfield. Then, I warrant you, if it chance to be a pleasant Indian-summer day, there is indeed a crowd, and for a while the little capital contains a greater number of living souls than all the county besides. From early twilight till sunset blazes on the western hills the square and street are densely thronged. A Babel of strange noises fills the dusty air: the lowing of cows and oxen; the bellowing of frightened calves; the plaintive bleating of bewildered lambs; the fierce neighing of excited horses; the yelping of curs; the crowing of imprisoned cocks, responding to each other’s defiant notes; the sing-song clamor of itinerant auctioneers, standing on their wagons and displaying their tempting wares to the little knots around them; the din and hubbub of the busy, moving, talking, jostling multitude, — shouts, laughs, cries, murmurs, all mingled together, till confusion harmonizes; and above all, the constant clanking of the iron handle of the old town-pump, which never ceases all the livelong day. At nightfall the uproar lessens, and as the evening wanes, the unaccustomed sounds diminish, though till midnight, ever and anon, the tired and sleepy citizens are startled from their dreams by whoops, hurrahs, snatches of songs, and outbursts of rude laughter ringing through the frosty air and mingling with the clattering of horses’ feet and the whirring rumble of swift-revolving wheels, as some party of roystering blades, excited by deep potations, drive shouting homewards from the village inns.
Excepting on these unfrequent occasions, Belfield Green is as free from bustle as if it were a hamlet whose name was never seen upon a map. The time has been, however, when it was a busy little mart, the centre of trade for an extensive district. In yonder low-roofed store that stands upon the square, near by the great gambrel-roofed house of which mention has already been made, the second Major Bugbee increased a handsome patrimony till it grew to be a great estate; the share of which that fell to his two eldest sons, the Doctor and his younger brother, James, they in time, by gainful traffic in the same old place, made more than equal to the entire estate, of which a quarter only came to them. Thousands and tens of thousands of tons of golden butter and cheese, hundreds of thousands of bushels of rye, oats, flaxseed, buckwheat, and corn, millions of eggs and skeins of linen and woollen yarn have been bartered at Belfield Green by the country folks, in exchange for rum, molasses, tea, coffee, salt, and codfish, enough to freight the royal navy. Time was when folks came twenty miles to Belfield post-office, and when a dusty miller and his men, at the old red mill standing on the brook at the foot of the valley, took toll from half the grists in Hillsdale County. But that was long ago, when people who lived twenty miles away from Hartford went to the city scarcely twice in a dozen years, — in the good old days of turnpikes, stage-coaches, and wayside taverns, before rail-roads were built to carry all the trade to great, overgrown towns and cities. Now-a-days, as I have said, it is hard to find a village of its size and rank in all the land, which is more quiet, at ordinary times, than Belfield Green.
Every community has its quota of great men; and in this respect a country village is often, in proportion to its numbers, as well endowed as the capital itself. So Belfield has her magnates whom she delights to honor. Chief among them used to be numbered the late Doctor John Bugbee, a worthy gentleman, now gathered to his fathers in the ancient burying-ground behind the meeting-house. He was not, to be sure, esteemed by all, especially the women, to be so great a man as the Reverend Jabez Jaynes, A. M., who, by virtue of his sacred office and academical honors, took formal precedence of every mere layman in the parish.
But with this notable exception, Doctor Bugbee was the peer of every other dignitary, whether civil, military, or ecclesiastical, within the borders of the town. But when I say the Doctor was a great man in Belfield, I do not mean to aver, or to be understood, that, in person, he was of colossal bulk or stature; neither is it true that his intellect was of a quality so far superior to the average of human minds as to make him n giant in that respect. It would be great presumption in so humble a penman as myself to choose, even for the hero of my tale, a man of eminent distinction. So I make haste to confess, that, doubtless, there were at least a score or two of his fellow-townsmen as well endowed by nature as the Doctor. But above many of these persons he was elevated by accidental circumstances and acquired advantages to a position which rendered him a man of greater mark and influence than they. He was descended from a most reputable ancestry, and, being a professional man, of polite address and handsome fortune, it would have been strange indeed, if he had not been highly esteemed in the community where he dwelt. Besides, he was a man of sense and taste, witty, jovial, talkative, and of such extremely easy good-nature, that, if it had not been for the tact and shrewdness of his brother and partner in trade, who managed the business of the firm, the Doctor’s income would have diminished, instead of increasing, as it did, year after year. As it was, his practice as a physician scarcely paid for his horsekeeping and the medicines he dispensed, though for a while he was a favorite physician in all that region; growing in the good-will of the people, until, as a mark of their esteem, he received a nomination to the General Assembly. At first there was such an outcry of dismay from the old ladies of the parish, that the Democrats came near defeating him, though the Whigs had a sure majority for every other name on the ticket. But having triumphed over this outburst of stubborn opposition, the Doctor speedily became the most popular politician in the county, if frequent election to office was a true test of public favor. For it turned out, that, instead of the mortality happening, which the Democrats, and their allies, the old women, had predicted would prevail, there never had been known a healthier season within the memory of man. And always afterwards, whenever the worthy Doctor was chosen to represent the town at Hartford or New Haven, there seemed to be a special interposition of providential mercy, inasmuch as in all his professional round, none ever sickened unto death during his absence; though it sometimes happened that the population of the town would be increased by one or two. In course of time, therefore, his fame as a statesman even rivalled his reputation as physician, and all parties were brought to join in voting for him with the most cordial unanimity.
In his youth the Doctor had been reckoned a handsome young fellow, and, to the day of his death, he preserved his good looks to a wonderful degree. A cheerful temper like his is a famous preventive of gray hairs and wrinkles. So the jovial Doctor never seemed to grow old; and at fifty, his erect form, smooth, ruddy cheeks, curly brown poll, and merry blue eyes made him look younger than many of his neighbors who were his juniors by a dozen years.
When a very young man, not quite twenty years of age, and before he had finished his course of professional study, the Doctor had taken to wife his cousin, Miss Naomi Bugbee, who had lived in his father’s house ever since he could remember; for the young lady was an orphan, with a good estate, and during her minority had been her uncle’s ward. The bride was not an uncomely damsel, neither was she distinguished for beauty; and between the ages of the happy young couple there was quite a difference; a circumstance by no means unusual, and which would not have been mentioned here, but for the fact that, in this case, it was the bride who was the senior of the pair. Some people said she was ten years older than the Doctor; and, for a wonder, these gossips had the evidence of the registry to back their statements. In fact, the youthful bridegroom had been very tenderly dry-nursed, in his infancy, by his bride; and a certain sound spanking which she gave him when he was just coming four, because he insisted upon crying and keeping awake, one evening, while his mother was gone to a wedding, instead of going to sleep in his trundle-bed like a good boy, — this chastisement, I say, had been one of the earliest and most vivid of the bridegroom’s recollections of his childhood. But though he had not forgotten this grievance, he had doubtless forgiven it with all his heart; thereby setting an example worthy of imitation by the fair Naomi, who, indeed, was doubly bound to exercise forgiveness and forbearance towards her lord; for, whatever might have been the faults and failings of the youth to whom she surrendered the ripened harvest of her charms, it certainly did not lie in the mouth of one to complain of them unduly, who had enjoyed such rare and excellent opportunities to train up for herself a husband in the way he should go.
There was not wanting at that time in Belfield a class of spiteful people, who, doubtless, being inspired by envy at beholding the felicity of the happy pair, affected to laugh and sneer a good deal at what they jeeringly called Jack Bugbee’s marrying his grandmother. But, as if it had been specially ordered on purpose to confound these ill-natured jokers, this union, the object of their ridicule, was most signally prospered, and in due time the Doctor himself put his wife to bed with a pair of nice little girls.
Not long after, the twins were christened at the meeting-house, a great crowd attending to witness the ceremony. To the elder girl was given the name of Amelia. Upon the other was bestowed the equally desirable appellative of Cornelia. While they were babies, both were considered remarkably pretty children; at least, so everybody told Mrs. Bugbee; but as they grew in years and stature, it became more and more apparent, that, although each resembled the other in figure, features, and expression, so strongly that you could not see one without being reminded of the other, none would ever be at a loss to distinguish between them; for Amelia promised to be as extremely handsome as her sister seemed likely to be homely. Indeed, Amelia was a beautiful counterpart of Cornelia, resembling her in the same wise that a flattered portrait, painted by some shrewd and skilful limner, will sometimes resemble the rich and ugly original, in which, while the likeness is faithfully portrayed, all the harsh lines are softened, and even blemishes are transformed into beauty-spots, or made to serve as foils.
Besides these twins, other children, from time to time, were born to the Doctor and his spouse, all of whom died in infancy. The love of the parents for their first-born seemed to redouble at each of these bereavements. The mother, especially, would scarcely suffer her darlings to be absent from her sight; and when, at last, after infinite persuasion, she was induced to let them go to the Misses Primber’s great boarding-school at Hartford, she used to ride over to see them as often as she could invent a pretext. It was with the greatest reluctance that she consented to this separation; but in those days it was indispensable that a young woman of good family should spend at least a twelve-month at the Misses Primber’s famous establishment, where all the rough hewing of less skilful teachers was shaped and polished, so to speak, according to the most fashionable models then in vogue. It was while the twins remained at this notable seminary that they executed those wonderful landscapes, in Reeves’s best water-colors, which used to decorate the walls of the parlors in the Bugbee mansion, and which, I dare say, still hang in tarnished gilt frames in some of the bedchambers. It was there they filled the copy-books of French exercises from Levizac’s Grammar, which Miss Cornelia still carefully preserves in a bureau drawer. There they learned to play and sing “Days of Absence,” “I’m A Merry Swiss Boy,” and many other delightful melodies, the which, even now, Miss Cornelia will sometimes hum softly to herself. Besides acquiring these and sundry other accomplishments, Miss Amelia found time to carry on a secret epistolary correspondence with a good-looking young law-student, (of whom more extended mention will presently be made,) and also to contrive many meetings and walks with him, of which nobody was cognizant but her sister and some five or six other bosom friends and faithful confidants. But Miss Cornelia, though as well inclined thereto as her sister, having, nevertheless, been able to find no lover to occupy her thoughts, and with whom to hold amatory interviews to fill her leisure, was fain to devote all her spare moments to the reading of romances and novels, of which, though rigorously interdicted, a great number were in the house, in possession of the Misses Primber’s pupils; and when this supply was exhausted, she had recourse to a circulating library near by; being often put as nearly to her wits’ end to devise expedients whereby to smuggle the contraband volumes into her chamber, as Amelia was to fulfil, at the time and place of tryst, the frequent engagements which she made to meet her lover.
Accordingly it came to pass, that Amelia’s heart became affected in such a way and to that degree that she was never heart-whole again so long as she lived; and Cornelia’s head was filled with such an accumulation of romantic rubbish, that, to this very day, a mighty heap of it remains, — mingled, to be sure, with ideas of a more solid and useful quality. For when a woman lives a maid during those years in which most of her sex are busy with the cares attendant upon the matronly estate, fantastic notions, such as I have mentioned, are not so apt to be excluded from the mind, and in this way many girls of good natural parts are spoiled, merely for lack of husbands. With the exception of this inordinate liking for the romantic and mysterious, — by which she was sometimes betrayed into follies and absurdities that provoked a little harmless scandal or ridicule, — Miss Cornelia has ever been held in good repute among her neighbors as a kind-hearted, obliging, sentimental little woman.
At last, at the end of a year, the young ladies came home from the seminary, having fully completed their education; an event which filled Mrs. Bugbee’s heart with ineffable satisfaction. When the loving mother reflected, that, for a long time, if it pleased God to spare their lives, she should now enjoy the pleasure of her children’s presence, her bosom overflowed with happiness. Though she looked forward to their being married as to something quite likely to happen in the course of time, yet such events are always uncertain, and they appeared to her to lie so far ahead in the vague distance of the future, that these anticipations caused her no serious disquiet. For the girls were but eighteen years of age, and it seemed hardly a twelvemonth since the time when they used to wear their hair curling in their necks, and to go hand in hand to the district school in pinafores and pantalets.
The good lady’s chagrin, therefore, was excessive, when, the next Saturday morning but one after her daughters’ return, Amelia came into her bedroom, where she sat darning a stocking by the window, and after so much hesitation that her mother began to wonder, suddenly put her arms about her neck, hid her blushing face upon her shoulder, and in that position softly whispered a confession, that a certain young gentleman, with whom she had become acquainted in Hartford, had told her he was very much attached to her indeed; that she was not wholly indifferent with respect to him, and that, in fact, she loved him. While Mrs. Bugbee remained speechless with surprise, Miss Amelia proceeded to say, that it was highly probable the young gentleman, would that very afternoon take it into his head to ride out from Hartford to Belfield; and perhaps he would also request permission to visit her regularly, with the ultimate purpose of asking her hand in marriage; in which case, she said, it was to be hoped her parents would not refuse his modest petition; for that the young gentleman was a very good and worthy young gentleman, a law-student of extraordinary promise, of as old and respectable a family as any other in the State, and, withal, a young gentleman in no wise given to bad habits of any kind whatsoever, but, on the contrary, distinguished for his exemplary morals and sober conduct. All this Amelia uttered very earnestly; but, strange to say, made no mention of the quality which, as much as all the rest, had attracted her regards; namely, the young gentleman’s good looks, for which he was somewhat noted, and of which he was not a little vain.
When the Doctor returned that day from his morning ride among his patients, his wife took him aside into their bedroom and related what has just been set forth. The Doctor listened with grave attention till his wife concluded her story; but when, at the end of it, she began to lament, he turned the thing off with a laugh, and giving her a hearty kiss, endeavored to soothe her disquiet. “Well, well, mother,” said he, “why, let him come, let him come. It’s only a year or two sooner than I expected, and may be it’ll be a flash in the pan after all. I think I must have seen the young fellow in at Squire Johnson’s; and at any rate, I’m pretty sure I know his father. When he comes, we’ll just invite him right over here to spend the Sabbath, and by the time he goes away on Monday we’ll know the twist of every thread in his jacket. If he’s the right one to make our girl happy, we ought to be glad she’s found him; and if he a’n’t, it’ll be all the harder to make her listen to reason, unless we show reason ourselves; and, surely, it would be unreasonable to be set against him, before we’ve even seen him or heard him say a word.”
When Mr. Edward Talcott (for that was the young gentleman’s name) came over from the tavern, where he had left his horse and portmanteau, and with much secret trepidation and assumed boldness had walked up the wide flagstones which led from the street to the green front door of Doctor Bugbee’s mansion, it was opened, at the summons of the brass knocker, by a little black girl, who vainly strove to hide a grin behind a corner of her long check apron. Before the visitor had time to utter a word, Amelia, blushing like a rose and looking handsomer than ever, came tripping into the hall, and after a whisper, which Dinah, who tried, failed to overhear, and the purport of which, therefore, I cannot relate, ushered him into the parlor, and presented him in due form to her mother, and also to her grandmother, Madam Major Bugbee, as she was styled by the townsfolk, — a stately old lady in black silk, who, being hard of hearing, and therefore incapable of mingling in the conversation that ensued, regarded the new comer through her gold-bowed spectacles, during the remainder of the afternoon, with a furtive, but earnest attention which was quite embarrassing to the object of it.
Presently a sulky came dashing up the drive, and soon afterwards the Doctor came in, who, being made acquainted with Mr. Talcott by the blushing Amelia, fell into a lively conversation with his visitor, which finally turning upon the subject of politics, both gentlemen agreed cordially in lauding the wisdom displayed in Mr. Adams’s administration, and congratulating each other and the country upon the defeat of General Jackson. After tea, the hired man was sent to fetch Mr. Talcott’s horse and luggage from the inn, and then, it being near sundown, the Doctor put on as solemn an expression as his merry visage was capable of assuming, took up the big quarto Bible from its place, on a stand in the corner of the room, and read a chapter from the New Testament. Then, standing up behind his arm-chair, he made a hurried prayer, which was evidently one he had got by heart; for when he endeavored to interpolate an apt allusion to the young stranger within his gates, he made such a piece of work of it, that everybody but the dowager had to bite his lips to keep from smiling. The brief remainder of the evening was spent in sober conversation. Soon after nine o’clock the little black girl showed Mr. Talcott up the broad stairway into the best front chamber, a spacious apartment directly over the parlor, where he went to bed under a lofty tester canopy, with embroidered curtains trimmed with lace. After a long reverie, coming to the conclusion that the downright courtship of a young lady in her father’s house was a much more serious affair than a mere clandestine flirtation with a pretty school-girl, the young gentleman turned over upon his side and went to sleep.
The next day, being Sunday, everybody went to meeting, except the Doctor, who was obliged to ride away upon his round of visits. Accordingly, Mr. Talcott walked twice to and fro across the green, with Miss Amelia tripping demurely by his side, and served as the target for a thousand eyeshots as he stood up at the head of the Doctor’s pew during the long prayers.
In the evening, after supper, the Doctor put off his grave Sabbath face and invited his young guest to walk over to the store, which stood in the corner of the yard, a little distance off. Presently, Miss Amelia, peeping from behind her bedroom window-curtain, beheld them sitting together upon the broad back-stoop of the store, talking and smoking in a most amicable manner, the fragrant incense of their cigars being wafted across the intervening space, which was quite too wide, however, to enable her to hear the words of their earnest conversation. But that night, as she and her lover sat together alone in the front parlor, after the family had gone to bed, he told her that her father had consented to his courtship.
But if I am so circumstantial in relating these events, which are merely introductory to my story, I shall have neither time nor space left for the story itself. So I will hasten to say, that the upshot of Mr. Edward Talcott’s frequent visits, as might have been expected, was a very splendid wedding, which took place in the front parlor of the Bugbee mansion, one evening during the winter after Amelia came nineteen, the bridegroom being then twenty-three, and just admitted to practice as an attorney-at-law. In pursuance of a condition which Mrs. Bugbee had proposed, in order to avoid the pangs of a separation from her child, the young couple remained members of the Doctor’s household; and Mr. Talcott, who, through the influence of his wife’s father, had been taken into partnership with a well-established attorney, commenced the practice of law at the Hillsdale bar. His partner, Squire Bramhall, had for many years been clerk of the courts, and was a sage and prudent counsellor, noted for the careful preparation bestowed upon his causes before they came to trial. But, in spite of his learning and industrious painstaking, he used to cut a poor figure at the bar; for being, though a lawyer, an exceedingly modest and bashful man, he failed to acquire the habit of addressing either court or jury with ease, fluency, or force. On the other hand, Squire Talcott, as he soon came to be called, was a young man of fine appearance and good address, in no wise troubled with an undue degree of doubt touching the excellence of his own abilities. His first argument before a jury was a showy and successful effort in behalf of a person for whom the sympathies of the public were already warmly enlisted. By this, of course, he won considerable applause. His subsequent attempts sustained the popular expectation. He began to acquire distinction as a fluent, persuasive, and even eloquent speaker. A lawyer haranguing a jury in a densely crowded court-room fills a much larger space in the public eye than when, in the solitude of his back-office, he is preparing a brief; and, as young Squire Talcott used to argue all the cases which his plodding partner elaborately prepared to his hand, his fame as a wonderfully smart young lawyer soon began to extend even beyond the limits of the county. The judges, in other places upon their circuit, spoke of his quick and brilliant parts, and his apparent learning and familiar acquaintance with authorities, so unusual at his age. These flattering commendations, returning to Belfield, came to young Talcott’s ears. It would have been strange if he had not been too much elated by his sudden success in the practice of a profession in which so very few win a speedy renown. Forgetful how much of the praise he received was due to his partner’s laborious researched and unobtrusive learning, he suffered his vanity to lead him astray; becoming discontented with his positon, and secretly repining at the necessity by which he was compelled to remain in an obscure country town, when, as he imagined, his talents were sufficient to win for him, unaided, an easy and rapid promotion even at the metropolitan bar.
The Doctor and his wife, as was to be expected, soon got to be proud of their clever son-in-law. In fact, after the birth of a little girl, an event by which the honors of grand-paternity were conferred upon the Doctor when he was but a year or two past forty, Mrs. Bugbee could scarcely tell which she loved best, her daughter, the baby, or its father.
When little Helen, as the child was named, was just coming three years old, Mrs. Talcott, being in childbed again, was taken with a fever, and, in spite of everything which was done to save her, died, and was buried with her infant on her bosom. I do not need to relate what a grievous stroke this sad event was to all the household, — nay, I might say to the whole village as well; for all who knew Amelia loved her, and the praise of the dead was in everybody’s mouth. As for poor Mrs. Bugbee, she sorrowed like one in despair. Even the worthy parson’s pious words, to which she appeared to listen with passive attention, fell unheeded upon her ear. People began to shake their heads when her name was mentioned, and to predict that ere long she would follow her daughter to the grave. At last, however, after many weeks of close seclusion, she grew more cheerful, and seemed to transfer all the affection she had borne the dead to the child who survived her.
Not long after Amelia’s death, the secret discontent existing in her husband’s mind, which, if she had lived, would in time, perhaps, have abated, began instead to increase, and at length he came to talk openly of departure. The Doctor, perceiving that hew as firmly resolved upon the step, did not seriously endeavor to dissuade him; and even Mrs. Bugbee could not withhold her consent, when the young widower said, with a trembling voice, he could not endure to stay in a spot endeared to him by no other associations than those which continually reminded him of his grievous loss. One stipulation only the good couple insisted on; namely, that Amelia’s child should be given to them, to be adopted as their own daughter. Knowing not whither he should go, the father yielded; reflecting that he could not better promote the welfare of his little girl than by consenting.
So, a few weeks afterwards, when Edward Talcott bade farewell to Belfield, the relation of parent and child between him and his little daughter was completely severed. For though since their first sorrowful parting they have met more than once, and though long after that mournful day she used to wear in her bosom a locket containing his miniature and a lock of his hair, which she used to kiss every night and morning, yet Helen seldom remembers that the distant stranger is her father, and he forgets to reckon his first-born among the number of his children.
When he was gone, the child was told that the name of Bugbee was thereafter to be appended to those she already bore; and being quite pleased with the notion, she forthwith adopted her new appellative, retaining it for several years, until (such is the fickle nature of women) she took a fancy to change it for another which she liked better still. She was also taught to call her grandparents papa and mamma; and though, while a child, she continued to address Miss Cornelia by the title of “Aunty,” this respectful custom, as the relative difference between her age and the elder spinster’s gradually diminished, was suffered, at the latter’s special request, to fall into disuse, and give place to the designation of sister. The few new-comers to Belfield, therefore, were never apt to suspect that Helen Bugbee was not really the Doctor’s own slaughter; and even the neighbors forgot that her name had ever been changed, except when the gossips sometimes put each other in mind of it.
The older she grew the more Helen resembled her mother, as the ladies always used to exclaim when they came to take tea with Mrs. Bugbee. Some of the village folks, who were in the habit, so common with old people, of thinking that the race is continually degenerating, I have heard express the opinion that Helen was never so handsome as her mother had been. But I have seen a portrait of Miss Amelia Bugbee, for which she sat just before her wedding, and which, I am assured, was, in the time of it, called a wonderful likeness; I also knew Miss Helen Talcott Bugbee when she was not far from her mother’s age at the time the picture was taken; and though Miss Amelia must have been a very sweet young lady, of extraordinarily good looks, I used to think, for my part, that Helen was much handsomer than the portrait; although people of a different taste might very properly have preferred the less haughty expression of the face depicted on the canvas.
It was not strange that Helen was petted and humored as much as was well for her. But her disposition being naturally docile and amiable, she was not to be easily spoiled. Be that as it may, however, when she had grown to be a woman, there were, I dare say, no less than fifty young men who knew her well, any one of whom would have jumped at the chance to get her for a wife, and made but little account of the risk of her turning out a shrew. To be sure, when I first knew her, she had rather a high and mighty way with her, at which some people took offence, calling her proud and disdainful; but those whom she wished to please never failed to like her; and I used to observe she seldom put on any of her lofty airs when she spoke to unpresuming people, especially if they were poor or in humble circumstances.
Though the indulgence of all her whims and fancies by her doting grandparents was a danger of no small magnitude, Helen encountered a still greater peril in the shape of a vast store of novels, poems, and romances, which Miss Cornelia had accumulated, and to which she was continually making additions. In that young lady’s bedchamber, where Helen slept, there was a large bookcase full of these seductive volumes; even the upper shelves of the wardrobe closet, and a cupboard over the mantel, were closely packed with them; and there was not one of them all which Helen had not read by the time she was fifteen. Thus, in spite of natural good sense, strengthened and educated by much wise and wholesome instruction, she grew up with an imagination quite disproportioned to her other mental faculties; so that, in some respects, she was almost as romantic in her notions as her Aunt Cornelia, who, at forty, used to prefer moonlight to good honest sunshine, and would have heard with an emotion of delight that the mountains between Belfield and Hartford were infested by a band of brigands, in picturesque attire, with a handsome chief like Rinaldo Rinaldini, or haunted by two or three dashing highwaymen, of the genteel Paul-Clifford style. Indeed, the ideal lover, to whom for many years Miss Cornelia’s heart was constant as the moon, was a tall, dark, mysterious man, with a heavy beard and glittering eyes, who, there is every reason to suspect, was either a corsair, a smuggler, or a bandit chief.
I am loath to have it supposed that Helen turned out a silly young woman. Indeed, it would be wrong to believe so; for she possessed many good parts and acquirements. But I must confess that her fancy, being naturally lively, was unduly stimulated by reading too many books of the kind I have mentioned; and that seeing but little of the world in her tender years, she learned from their pages to form false and extravagant notions concerning it. She used to build castles in the air, was subject to fits of tender melancholy, and, like Miss Cornelia, adored moonlight, pensive music, and sentimental poetry. But she would have shrunk from contact with a brigand, in a sugar-loaf hat, with a carbine slung across his shoulder, and a stiletto in his sash, with precisely the same kind and degree of horror and disgust that would have affected her in the presence of a vulgar footpad, in a greasy Scotch-cap, armed with a horse-pistol and a sheath-knife. Her romantic tastes differed in many respects from her Aunt Cornelia’s. She, too, had an ideal lover; (and for that matter the fickle little maid had several;) but the special favorite was a charming young fellow, of fair complexion, with blue eyes, and a light, elegant moustache, his long brown hair falling down his neck in wavy masses, — tall in stature, athletic, and yet slim and graceful, — gifted with many accomplishments, with a heart full of noble qualities, and a brain inspired by genius, — a poet, or an author, or an artist, perhaps a lawyer merely, but of rare talents, at any rate a man of superior intellect, — in a word, a paragon, who, when he should appear upon the earth, incarnate, she expected would conceive a violent passion for her, in which case, she should take it into consideration whether to marry him or not.
My inexperience in the art of story-telling must be manifest to everybody; for here I am talking of Helen, as of a young lady of sixteen or more, with shy notions of beaux and lovers in her head, whereas, in point of time, my story has not advanced by regular stages beyond the period of her childhood, when she thought more of a single doll in her baby-house, and held her in higher estimation, than the whole rising generation of the other sex. I shall resume the thread of my narrative by relating, that, some two or three years before Miss Cornelia Bugbee, in her journey across the sands of time, came to the thirtieth mile-stone, she arrived at an oasis in the desert of her existence; or, to be more explicit, she had the rare good-fortune to find a heart throbbing in unison with her own, — a tender bosom in whose fidelity she could safely confide even her most precious secret; namely, the passion she entertained for the aforementioned corsair, — a being of congenial soul, whose loving ears could hear and interpret her lowest whisper and most incoherent murmur, by means of the subtile instinct of spiritual sympathy, — in fine, a trusty, true, and confidential friend.
All this, and more, was Miss Laura Stebbins, the youngest sister of Mrs. Jaynes, who, being suddenly left an orphan, dependent on the charity of her kindred, came to reside at the parsonage in Belfield. An intimacy forthwith commenced between the Doctor’s daughter and the Parson’s sister-in-law, which ripened speedily into the enduring friendship of which mention has just been made. There were some who affected to wonder at the ardent attachment which sprung up between the two young ladies, because, forsooth, one was but sixteen, and the other eight-and-twenty; as if this slight disparity in years must necessarily engender a diversity of tastes, fatal to a budding friendship.
I would fain describe the person of Miss Laura Stebbins, if I could call to mind any similitudes, whereunto to liken her charms, which have not been worn out in the service of other people’s heroines. To use any but brand-new comparisons to illustrate graces like hers would be singularly inappropriate; for she herself always had a bright, fresh look, like some piece of handiwork just finished by the maker. Her hair was black, glossy, and abundant. She had large, hazel eyes, full of expression, shaded by long, black eyelashes, a clear, light-brown complexion, rosy cheeks, small, even teeth, as white as cocoanut meat, and lips whose color was like the tint of sealing-wax. There was not a straight line or an angle about her plump and well-proportioned figure. Her waist was round and full, and yet appeared so slim between the ravishing curves of her shapely form, above and below it, that it seemed as if it were fashioned so on purpose to be embraced.
If Laura had been as wise as she was handsome, some pen more worthy than mine would have celebrated her wit and beauty. But she was nothing more than a wild, merry, frolicsome girl, whom, if you knew her, it was very hard not to like; even her reverend brother-in-law, a very grave personage, of whom, at first, she stood in no little awe, learned to smile at some of her very giddiest nonsense, and Mrs. Bugbee’s sober reserve, which had been increased by her domestic afflictions, thawed in the sunshine of Laura’s presence, like snow in the warmth of a bright spring morning. Helen, also, grew to be extremely fond of Laura, who returned the child’s regard in twofold measure, at least, and yet had love enough to spare wherewith to answer the immense draughts upon her heart by which Miss Cornelia’s romantic affection was repaid.
It was more than even Miss Cornelia Bugbee could do to transform this gay creature into a lackadaisical young lady; though, as she tried her very best to do so, none ought to blame her because she failed of success. All her stock of novels she lent to Laura, who read them, every one, in secret, skipping only the dull and didactic pages. That she was not spoiled by this experiment was due less to the strength of Laura’s understanding than to the liveliness of her temper, which, in this strait, stood her in very good stead of more solid qualities and a wiser experience. As it was, she learned to talk in a romantic fashion, longed, above all things, to grow thin, pretended to sigh frequently, and affected, at times, an air of pensive thoughtfulness. Her imagination began to be haunted by the apparition of a brave, gallant, and exceedingly graceful and good-looking young officer, of rank and high renown, who, she confidently hoped, would some day appear before her, arrayed in full uniform, with a sword by his side, and, with all the impetuous ardor of a soldier, throw himself at her feet and pour forth a declaration of inextinguishable love.
Until Laura was nearly twenty, this phantom in regimentals held exclusive possession of her bosom, and reigned in that sweet domain without a rival; for, strange as it may appear, she never had a suitor of real flesh and blood, until a certain young divinity-student from East Windsor Seminary, who sometimes of a Sunday when Mr. Jaynes was absent came over to Belfield to try his hand at preaching, perceived, by sly and stealthy glances at Laura over the rim of his blue spectacles, how exceeding comely the damsel was, and firmly resolved to win her for a helpmeet. And even Mr. Elam Hunt (for that was the pious student’s name) seemed scarcely more substantial than a ghost, so very pale and bloodless was his meagre face, and so lean and spare his stooping, narrow-chested figure.
This youthful saint was well esteemed by Laura’s sister, Mrs. Jaynes, a sharp-visaged little woman, to whose energetic control her absent-minded, studious husband surrendered the parsonage and all it contained. Nay, she even shared his labors in the moral vineyard of his parish; for while he remained at home among his favorite volumes, she used to go about from house to house, collecting donations in aid of some one of the great eleëmosynary corporations, whose certificates attesting her life-membership, all framed and glazed, covered the walls of the parsonage parlor. Her zeal in this good work was untiring, and she levied tribute to her favorite charities upon all classes and conditions of her neighbors with strict impartiality. The poorest widow was not suffered to withhold her mite, and, wherever she went, the pouting children of the household were forced to open their money-boxes and tin savings-banks, and bring forth the hoarded pence with which they had hoped to purchase candy and toys at Christmas and New Year. The village folks reckoned the cost of her visits among their annual expenses, and, when she was seen approaching, made ready, as if a sturdy beggar or a tax-gatherer was at the door.
To have heard this estimable lady, when in private she sometimes rebuked the failings of her reverend spouse, one would not have supposed that she regarded him with awful veneration; nevertheless, she magnified his office greatly. The dignity conferred by ordination she held to be the highest honor to which a mortal man can possibly attain. Herself adorning the elevated station of a pastor’s wife, she resolved to secure for Laura a position of equal eminence. When, therefore, she perceived that her sister had found favor in the eyes of Mr. Elam Hunt, she gave the bashful student frequent opportunities to speak his mind; and when, at last, he ventured in private to tell her of the flame which warmed his breast with a gentle glow, quite unlike that fervent heat by which the hearts of more impassioned, worldly-minded swains are apt to be tortured and consumed, she assuaged his pangs of doubt by encouraging assurances of her countenance and favor. In the mean time she resolved to guard against every misadventure by which the successful termination of his suit might be prevented or imperilled.
This was by no means an easy thing to do; for Laura, at twenty, though an orphan, without a penny to buy even so much as a dozen teaspoons for a setting-out, was not a girl that would have been apt to lack for lovers, if she had had a fair chance to get them. As I have already told you, she was as sweet and as pretty as a pink full of dewdrops, and might have picked out a sweetheart from as many beaux as she had fingers and thumbs, but that her vigilant duenna, Mrs. Jaynes, kept the young fellows beyond courting distance. It was impossible, even for this shrewd and discreet lady, so to manage, without danger of giving offence, as to prevent Laura from associating with the other young folks of the parish; and indeed, to do her justice, she was not so austerely strict that she desired her sister to abstain from all social intercourse with those of her own age, sex, and condition. On the contrary, as the reader already knows, she was permitted to cherish a tender and devoted friendship for Miss Cornelia Bugbee; and there were several other young ladies, whose brothers were only little boys, with whom she was on the most amicable and familiar terms.
But by means of various arts and devices Mrs. Jaynes contrived to keep the young men from becoming too intimate with her pretty sister; although some of them had vainly endeavored to be more than neighborly. If one ventured to call at the parsonage, Mrs. Jaynes was always in the parlor, with Laura, to receive him, and sat there, grimly, on the sofa, as long as he staid; taking a part in the conversation, which she generally managed to turn upon the most grave and serious topics. The benighted condition of the heathen was a favorite subject of discourse with her, upon these occasions; and the visitor was a lucky youth, if he escaped without making, upon the spot, a cash contribution to the worthy cause of foreign missions. If Laura was invited to ride or to walk with a gentleman, Mrs. Jaynes always had a plausible pretext for objecting. It was either too hot, or too cold, or too damp, or too dusty, or there was sure to be some other reason, equally sufficient, for withholding her consent. As for balls and cotillon parties, the most enterprising and audacious youngster of them all would have quailed at the idea of facing the parson’s wife with a request to take her sister to such a place. At last the report got wind that Mrs. Jaynes was saving Laura for Mr. Elam Hunt, until such time as, having finished his course of study at East Windsor, he should be ordained and settled in a parish of his own, and ready to take to himself a wife. To be sure, it did not seem that Laura was of the right sort of temper for a minister’s sober helpmeet; nevertheless, this rumor gained credit, and very soon came to be believed by many of the neighbors. Mrs. Jaynes, it was noticed, would never contradict the story, though, to be sure, Laura herself always did, whenever she had a chance to do so. Indeed, she was often heard to declare, with great vehemence and apparent sincerity, that she would as lief be buried alive as marry that living skeleton, — by which scandalous epithet she designated the lean and reverend youth from East Windsor. Some people who heard these protestations let them go for naught, giving them all the less heed on account of their violence, or, perhaps, being even confirmed in the belief of what she so earnestly denied. For it is a very common artifice with young women to pretend a strong aversion for their most favored lovers, and to feign an utter dislike and abhorrence for the very persons whom they love most fondly. Others, however, gave credit to her passionate declarations, and believed that she recoiled from the idea of marrying the lank young student with unfeigned repugnance and disgust. Between people holding these diverse opinions discussions would sometimes arise, especially at meetings of the Dorcas Society, when neither Laura nor Mrs. Jaynes was present. But, just at this juncture, an event occurred which gave a new direction to the current of village gossip, setting every member of the Dorcas sisterhood all agape with wonder and surprise, and all agog with excitement and curiosity. Of this strange and memorable affair I will presently give a veritable account, and even show the reader how it came to pass. But in the mean time the fortunes of the Bugbee family demand my brief attention.
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