The designs of Mr. Elam Hunt upon the hand of Laura Stebbins have already been mentioned, in a former chapter of this history, as well as the fact that his hopes were encouraged by Mrs. Jaynes, who (to make no secret of the matter) had pledged her word to the enamored Elam, that when he should be settled in a parish of his own, Laura should be added to complete the sum of his felicity.
To this agreement Laura herself was not a party; nay, her consent had never been so much as asked; for though Elam knew that marriage by proxy was impossible, and, indeed, would doubtless have preferred to be the bridegroom at his own wedding, he bad no objection whatever to a vicarious courtship; for he was not a forward suitor, delighting to prattle of his pains to his fair tormentor, as the way of many is. But touching all the terms and conditions of this contract Laura was informed by Mrs. Jaynes, who, when the other protested with tears and sobs against this disposition of her person without even asking her leave thereto, replied, with a quiet voice and manner, that she had the right.to make the promise in Laura’s name, and had done so upon due consideration.
This ominous reserve frightened Laura far more than an angry reply would have done; for when her sister spoke with such brief decision, it was a sign that her mind was made up; and Laura knew full well the resolute purpose with which Mrs. Jaynes was wont to pursue any design that she had once formed. She distrusted her own ability to withstand her sister’s inflexible will, and felt a secret misgiving, that, in spite of herself, she would by some means he forced or persuaded to yield at last. This very lack of faith in her own power of resistance caused her more distress and terror than all her other fears. Sometimes she almost fancied a spell of enchantment had been put upon her, which would render all her efforts to escape her fate as unavailing as the struggles of a gnat in a spider’s web.
A friend in time of trouble is like a staff to one that is lame or weary. But when Laura, in these straits, leaned upon her dearest friend, Cornelia, for aid and comfort, she found but a broken reed; for, instead of words of consolation and encouragement, Cornelia uttered only dismal prophecies that Laura was surely doomed to be the young parson’s bride.
“If you only had another lover to run away with, now,” said she, “why, then it would be delightful to have your sister act as she does; but, as it is, I’m sure I don’t see any way to avoid it.”
“Nor I,” cried Laura, sinking still deeper in despair. “Oh, dear! what shall I do?”
“In novels, you know,” pursued Cornelia, “where there’s a cruel, tyrannical father, like your sister, there’s always a hero in love with the heroine——”
“I’m sure I wish there was a hero in love with me,” said Laura, thinking of her own hero in regimentals. “I’d run away with him,” she added, with animation, “if—if both his legs were shot off,” — not considering duly, I dare say, how greatly such a dreadful mutilation, however glorious in itself, would conflict with the rapid locomotion essential to her plan of elopement.
But when Tim Blake came to be told of Laura’s trouble, and the reasons of it, that sage and prudent friend gave counsel that cheered her like a cordial, telling her it would be sinful to marry a man whom she disliked so heartily, and that in such a matter no one had the right to demand or enforce obedience.
“It’s bad enough to be married when you’re willin’,” said she; “but when you a’n’t willin’, there’s no law nor no gospel to make you.”
“But if Maria should compel me, what should I do?” cried Laura, to whom her sisters will seemed more mighty than both law and gospel.
“She can’t,” replied Statira, sententiously; “she can’t. Her ‘yes,’ in such a case, is only good for herself; it can’t make you any man’s wife. — What shall you do? Why, nothin’, — nothin’ in the world. If they should bring bridegroom and parson, and stand you up side of him by main force, (which of course is foolish to think of their doing so, only I suppose it just to show you what I mean,) even in such a case you needn’t do anything. Keep your mouth shut and your head from bobbin’, and there a’n’t lawyers, nor squires, nor parsons, nor parsons’ wives either for that matter, enough in all Connecticut to marry you to a mouse, let alone a man. Humph!” added Miss Blake, with scornful accent, “I should like to see ’em set out to marry me to anybody I didn’t want to have!”
There was nothing in all that Tira said which Laura did not know before; but it was uttered in such a way that it sounded in her ears like a new revelation, filling her heart with peace and comfort, and inspiring her with hope and courage. The magic spell that had enthralled her spirit was broken by the power of a few cheery, confident, assuring words. A heavy weight seemed lifted from her heart, and, relieved from the pressure, her spirits rose, joyous and elastic. The shadow was dispelled which had darkened her future, and the sun seemed to shine brighter and the birds to sing more sweetly. She herself was changed, — or at least it was hard to believe she was the same Laura Stebbins who, the night before, had cried herself to sleep, and whose doleful visage, that very morning, had looked out at her from the mirror. She flew at Tim in a transport, and, without asking her leave, kissed her twenty times in less than a minute, after a fashion that (I say it with reverence) would have tantalized even a deacon. She clapped her hands, she laughed, she danced, she went swaying on tiptoe around the room with a jaunty step, singing and keeping time to a waltz-tone; and finally, pausing near the window, she doubled a tiny fist, as white as a snowball, bringing it down into the rosy palm of her other hand with a gesture of resolute determination, at the same time uttering, through closed teeth and with compressed and puckered lips, an oft-repeated vow, that, never, never, the longest day she lived, would she marry Elam Hunt, to please anybody, — as her sister Maria (said she, with a saucy toss of the head) would find, if she tried to make her!
I doubt greatly, whether, if Laura had known what I am now going to tell my reader, she would have indulged in such vivacious pranks, and bold, defiant words: namely, that Mrs. Jaynes was hearing everything she said, and, in fact, had listened to and taken special heed of nearly the whole conversation, a part of which has been set forth above. Coming through the wicket in the garden fence, on an errand to the Bugbee kitchen, the sound of her own name, in Laura’s excited tones, struck Mrs. Jaynes’s ear and excited her curiosity. Walking nearer to the house, and concealing herself behind a little thicket of lilac bushes, near the open window of Statira’s bedroom, she was enabled to hear with distinctness almost every word uttered by the unconscious conspirators, who were plotting against the fulfilment of her cherished project.
There is good reason for believing that what Mrs. Jaynes overheard, while lying in ambush, as has been related, excited in her heart emotions of indignation and resentment. Be that as it may, no trace of displeasure was visible upon her face or in her voice or manner, when, a few minutes afterwards, she stood by the side of the unsuspicious Tira, in the hack veranda of the house, holding in her hand a plate containing a pat of butter she had just borrowed from the Doctor’s housekeeper, while the latter, peeping through the curtain of vine-leaves, gazed at as pretty a spectacle as just then could have been seen anywhere in Belfield. On the grassplot, in the shade of a great cherry-tree, Laura and Helen were playing at graces. Both were full of frolicsome glee; the former, with spirits in their first glad rebound from recent despondency, being wild with gayety, enjoying the sport no less than the merry child, her playmate. Laura’s glowing face was fairly radiant with beauty, and her figure was unconsciously displayed in such a variety of bewitching attitudes and dainty postures, that even a pair of frisky kittens, that had been chasing each other round the grassplot and up and down the stems of the cherry-trees, ceased their gambols and lay still, crouching in the grass, and watching her graceful motions, as if taking heed for future imitation. If Kit and Tabby really did regard Laura with admiration and complacency, it was more than I can say for Mrs. Jaynes, in whose heart a secret rage was burning, though her aspect and demeanor were as placid and demure as if the butter she held in her hand would not have melted in her pursed-up mouth.
Mrs. Jaynes, for reasons of her own, thought proper to keep her temper in control, abstaining from any manifestation of displeasure for a much longer time than while she remained standing in the back veranda of Doctor Bugbee’s house. She did not think it prudent to apprise Laura that her rebellious conference with Statira had been discovered, nor to forbid her from holding further communication with her evil counsellors; but contented herself, for the present, with keeping a stricter watch over her sister’s conduct, by practising with increased rigor and vigilance that efficient system of tactics hereinbefore commemorated, by which the ardor of Laura’s chance admirers was repressed and their advances repelled, and by alluding, from time to time, to Laura’s prospective nuptials, as to an event predestined and inevitable, or, at least, no less sure to come to pass than if Laura herself had engaged her hand to Mr. Hunt of her own free will and accord, and was only waiting to be asked to name the wedding-day.
It was many months after Elam left the shady height of East Windsor Hill before he received a call to settle; for though he preached in different parts on trial, before many congregations that were destitute of pastors, none of these fastidious flocks would listen to his voice a second time, or agree to choose him for its shepherd. At last, however, the people of Walbury, a town in Windham County, lying nearly twenty miles from Belfield, made choice of Mr. Hunt to be their spiritual guide, and accordingly extended to him an invitation to be ordained and installed as the settled minister over their ancient parish. Upon receiving this proposal, Elam at once despatched a letter to his friend and ally, Mrs. Jaynes, informing her of his good fortune, and suggesting that Laura should at once bestir herself in preparations for their wedding, in order that this blissful event might precede his ordination. Then, after waiting for the lapse of that period of decorous delay which immemorial usage has prescribed in such cases, he indited an epistle to the church in Walbury, stating, in proper and accustomed form, that his native humility inclined him to refuse their request; but that, after a wrestle with his inclinations, he had got the better of them, and had resolved to sacrifice his own wishes and feelings, and to enter the field of labor to which the Israel in Walbury had invited him.
A year and more had elapsed since Laura, encouraged by Tira Blake’s assuring words, had begun to hope that a better fate was in store for her than to become the wife of a man she detested. Meanwhile, Elam had often come to Belfield, sometimes preaching a sermon for Mr. Jaynes, and going away again, after a brief sojourn, without having opened his mouth to Laura to speak of love or marriage. At his later visits it was evident that he was inclined to despond about his prospects of getting a settlement, and Laura began to entertain strong hopes that he never would be successful; for she would have given up all the chances of beholding her military hero in person, and would have been content to live a maid forever, continually waiting for Elam, if she could have been assured the time would never come for him to claim her.
But, one morning, after breakfast, having made her bed and arranged her chamber, singing blithely all the while, she was just going to sit down by the window with her sewing, when Mrs. Jaynes came in with a letter in her hand. Laura guessed at once that the letter was from Elam, and that it contained the news of which the reader has been apprised already. Though she did not need to read the letter in order to inform herself of its contents she took it in her hand, when her sister bade her read it, and made a pretence of obedience, shuddering, meanwhile, with disgust and terror. At last she came to the conclusion of the epistle, where Elam had mentioned his desire to be married before being ordained, and had subscribed himself as united in gospel bonds to the worthy lady to whom the letter was addressed. Then, folding up the paper with trembling hands, she held it towards her sister, without daring to look up, or to say a word.
“Now, Laura,” asked Mrs. Jaynes, in a quiet tone, “when can you be ready to be married?”
Laura tried to speak, and looked up, with a pale, frightened face, into her sister’s impassive countenance. Her white lips failed to form the words she strove to utter.
“When shall the wedding be?” said Mrs. Jaynes, with a smile of affected sportiveness. “Name the happy day, my love.”
“Happy day!” repeated poor Laura. “Oh, Maria!”
“Why, what’s the matter, child?” said Mrs. Jaynes; “what are you crying for?”
“Oh, dear, dear sister!” sobbed Laura, falling on her knees at Mrs. Jaynes’s feet, “do hear me! You are my mother, for you fill her place.”
“I have endeavored to do so,” said Mrs. Jaynes.
“Then, for God’s sake, don’t make me marry this horrid man!” pursued Laura. “Don’t tell me that I must! Don’t force me to such a fate!” And with many passionate words, like these, Laura implored her sister not to lay any command upon her to marry Elam Hunt.
“Hush, Laura! hush, my dear child!” said Mrs. Jaynes, who bad anticipated this scene, and was well prepared with her replies. “Be calm; you behave absurdly. I have no power to force you to marry any man. I don’t expect to compel you to accept Mr. Hunt for a husband. For at least two years past I had supposed, however, that it was your intention to do so. If you have changed your mind, and if you wish to break an engagement that has subsisted so long, whether for or without cause, I cannot prevent it. You have read so many foolish romances, that your head is turned, and you fancy yourself a heroine in distress. But let me tell you, my dear, that in real life, here, in New England, a woman cannot be forced to marry. So calm your transports, wipe your eyes, and get up from your knees. I’m not to be kneeled to, pray remember.”
Laura did as she was told, — so much abashed that she dared not look up. To increase her confusion; her sister began to laugh.
“I beg your pardon, dear,” said she, “but, ha, ha, ha! it was so funny! — like a scene in a play, I should think.”
“I know I’ve been silly, Maria,” said Laura, weeping again, — with shame, this time.
“Never mind, dear,” said her sister, in a kind tone, “we’re all silly sometimes. You’ll never be guilty of the folly again, at any rate, of supposing that girls can be married, in spite of themselves, by cruel sisters; eh, Laura?”
“Oh, Maria, do forgive me!” cried Laura, blushing crimson. “I was so very silly!”
“Well, let it all go,” said Mrs. Jaynes, kissing her. “Now we’ll talk about this letter. Tell me why you don’t wish to marry Mr. Hunt. If you have any good reason against it, I’m sure I don’t desire it; though, I confess, having supposed so long it was a settled thing, I had set my heart upon it. Perhaps this disappointment has been sent to me for some wise purpose,” added Mrs. Jaynes, with a pious sigh.
Thus encouraged, Laura opened her heart and began to talk, saying that she didn’t like Mr. Hunt, that she didn’t love him, that she disliked him, and hated him, and that he was hateful, and horrid, and awful, and dreadful, and so homely, and pale, and pimpled, and, ugh! she should never like him, nor love him, but always dislike him, and hate him. And on she went in this manner, till her fervor was cooled, and she had exhausted, by frequent repetition, every form of speech capable of expressing her great repugnance to a union with Elam Hunt. In conclusion, she said she was willing never to marry, but would remain with her sister and work for her and the children all her life.
“Thank you, dear,” said Mrs. Jaynes. “We’ll talk of your kind offer presently; and you will see, I think, that I have no desire that you should live and die an old maid, even in ease you do not marry Mr. Hunt.”
“I’m sure I’d rather than not,” said Laura, with a twinge of conscience at the thought of her hero.
“Have you said all that you’ve got to say?” asked Mrs. Jaynes, very quietly.
Laura looked up into her sister’s grave, sober face, and felt a chill of vague apprehension begin to take the place of the hopeful glow in her heart.
“Eh?” said Mrs. Jaynes, inquiringly.
“Y—yes,” faltered Laura, “only this, I don’t like him, and he’s such a horrid, disgusting man, — and—and—that’s all, I believe, except that I don’t like him, and think he’s so disagreeable, — and—oh, yes! there’s another thing, — he wears blue spectacles, — ugh! blue spectacles!
“Is there anything more?” said Mrs. Jaynes, still speaking with the same even, quiet voice.
“N—no,” said Laura, “only I——” and here she paused.
“Don’t like him,” added Mrs. Jaynes, supplying the words.
“Yes, that’s it,” said Laura. “I know I’m foolish, but——”
“It’s much to confess it,” said Mrs. Jaynes. “Now that I’ve patiently heard all that you have to say, I wish to be heard a few words in favor of a dear and worthy friend of mine, against whom you appear to entertain a groundless antipathy.”
“No, not groundless,” interposed Laura.
“Well, I’ll agree that a pale, studious face and blue spectacles are good reasons for hating a man. Now let me say a word or two in his favor, notwithstanding, and also in favor of a plan which I had supposed was agreed upon, and which I dislike extremely to see abandoned. You have reasons against it, which you have stated. I have reasons for it, which I will state. But first answer me two or three simple questions, ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ — will you, dear?”
And Laura assenting, she went on to ask if Mr. Hunt was not good, and pious, and of blameless life and reputation; extorting from Laura an affirmative reply to each separate inquiry.
“He’s all these good qualities, then, to offset the complexion of his face and spectacles,” resumed Mrs. Jaynes. “Now let us look at the matter in a worldly point of view. He is able to give you not only a place, but the very highest position in society; he can offer you, not wealth, but competence, which is better than either poverty or riches. Why, my dear, there are a hundred girls in this town, many of whom excel you in everything which men think desirable in a wife, except, perhaps, the poor, perishable quality of beauty, — girls of good family, rich, or likely to be so, intelligent, well educated, some of them, to say the least, almost as pretty as you, any one of whom would think herself honored by this offer which you despise; for most people are aware that to be a minister’s wife, in New England, is, my dear, to occupy, as I have just said, the very summit of the social structure.”
Here Mrs. Jaynes made a period, and watched the effect of her words. After a pause she resumed by alluding to Laura’s offer to remain with her always, without marrying; and while poor Laura listened with a feeling as if the very earth was sinking beneath her feet, Mrs. Jaynes reminded her that she was a penniless orphan, who had been maintained for years by the bounty of one upon whom she had no claim, except that she was the sister of his wife.
“I have no right, you know, my dear,” continued Mrs. Jaynes, “to tell you that you may stay here longer. Jabez, doubtless, would bid you remain and welcome, as he told you to come and welcome. But young women are usually expected to marry, at or near your age. It is probable, indeed I know, that, at the time you came, this event was thought of and taken into account. Mr. Jaynes is Mr. Hunt’s warm friend and admirer. He expects that you are going to marry this good friend. What will be his reflections when he learns that you prefer to remain here, a pensioner upon his income, rather than to marry such a man as Mr. Hunt, whose only demerits are his blue spectacles and pale complexion?”
Here Laura turned so white, and looked so woful, that her tormentor paused, in apprehension that the poor girl was going to swoon.
“Oh, my God! what shall I do?” cried Laura, beating her palms together, in sore distress.
“You know,” resumed Mrs. Jaynes, watching her sister carefully, and speaking softly, you know that Mr. Jaynes’s salary is not large. It used to be more than sufficient for our wants, but the children are getting to be more expensive every year. Their clothes cost more, and the boys, at least, ought soon to go away to school, and Jabez has set his heart upon sending Newton to college. If—well, never mind, dear, I’ll say no more; but when I think of this offer of Mr. Hunt, — such a good offer, especially to one in your circumstances, from such a worthy, talented, pious young clergyman, whose preference Julia Bramhall or Cornelia Bugbee, with their thousands, would be glad to win, — who is going to be settled in a good old parish, like Walbury, and receive at once a salary almost as large, I dare say, as Mr. Jaynes’s, — I do say, Laura, that you ought to give better reasons for refusing him, nay, for jilting him, after a two-years’ engagement, than that his cheeks are pale and his spectacles blue. We love you, Laura, and are willing to give you a home and the best we can afford to eat and drink and wear, but Mr. Hunt loves you as well, or better, and offers you more than we have it in our power to bestow. Take the day for reflection. To-morrow Mr. Hunt will be here. Think, my child, whether you will be justified in rejecting this offer. Your refusal, bear in mind, imposes upon others a sacrifice of something more than childish whims and silly prejudices. In order that you may have time and opportunity to give this important matter due consideration, you had better remain in your chamber. But don’t fancy yourself a prisoner. If you choose to see any one that calls, you can do so. But, my dear, I cannot permit you to go and seek those who, from spite and malice against me, would take delight in giving you evil counsel.”
With this sharp innuendo against Tira Blake, in which she thought she might now safely indulge, Mrs. Jaynes concluded her speech and went out softly, leaving poor Laura in a stupor of despair, sitting with her hands clasped in her lap and her head drooping on her bosom.
At last, looking up with a glance so woful that one would scarcely have known her, Laura perceived she was alone. She rose, went to the door and locked it, standing for a moment trembling, until of a sudden she fell a-crying piteously, and began to walk to and fro across her chamber, wringing her hands like one distraught, and sometimes throwing herself upon the bed, wailing and moaning all the while as if her heart would break indeed. And, truly, she had some reason for the violence of her grief. Not being a thoughtful person, nor given to meditation, she had never before duly considered that her maintenance was a matter of cost and calculation to those who provided it, nor reflected that she had no rightful claim upon those who gave her shelter, food, and clothing. She had been thankful to her protectors for their kindness, but the sentiment she entertained for them was more like filial love than gratitude. For the first time she realized that she was a pensioner on another’s bounty, and felt the sharp sting of conscious dependence.
At length, growing more calm after the first passionate outbreak of frantic sorrow had subsided, she dried her eyes and sat down on purpose to think. Poor child! Serious deliberation was a new exercise to her mind. Besides, her head ached, her brain seemed in a whirl, and her heart was so full and heavy she wanted to do nothing but cry with all her might till the burden was gone. But think she must, and knitting her brows and stifling her sobs, she tried to think. What could she do? Oh, if she could but ask Tira! But what good could Tira do? What could she tell her? It was not her sister that was forcing her, hut Fate itself! All that her sister had told her was true, every word. The tone of her voice, her manner, had been unusually kind and gentle. There was nothing she had said that she could he blamed for saying. Tira herself must admit that it was all true and reasonable, — but, oh, how very dreadful! Then she conjured up to view the image of Elam Hunt, — his lank, slim figure, arrayed in sombre black, — his pale, cadaverous visage, spotted with pimples and blue blotches of close-shaven beard, — his spectral glance of admiration through those detestable blue spectacles. She imagined that she felt the clammy touch of his long, skinny fingers, and cold, flabby palm. She reflected upon the probability, nay, the certainty, that she must marry this man, for whom she felt such an invincible repugnance, and in a frenzy of dismay and terror she screamed aloud and started up as if to fly. Then, recollecting herself, she sank down moaning. — Oh, heavens! she thought, there was no escape, no help! how wretched she was! how utterly miserable! all alone, alone, in such a dreary, lonesome world, with no home, nor father, nor mother, nor brother, — with only a sister who had a husband and children, whom she loved, as she ought, far better than she did her. There was nobody to whom she was the dearest of all, — nobody, except Elam Hunt, whom she hated and loathed with all her heart, and the very thought of whose love made her shudder. What could she do? To stay and be a burden for her friends to support was worse than anything. That, at least, she was resolved to do no longer. If she were only strong enough, she would go where nobody knew her and work at housework, or in a factory, or anywhere. Oh, if she only knew enough to teach school! She should like that. It would be so pleasant to have the children love her, and bring her flowers to put upon her desk! But, oh, dear! she didn’t know enough, she feared. For all that she had graduated at the Academy, she never dared to write a letter without looking up all the hard words of it in the dictionary, to see how they were spelt; — and parsing! and doing sums! — oh, gracious! she never could teach school, — that was out of the question!
At last, after a long fit of silent musing, during which she had bit her lips, and frowned, and gazed abstractedly at the wall, a gleam of hope lit up her face, soon brightening into a smile. She had hit upon a plan! She could learn the milliners trade! She had always been handy with her needle, and liked nothing better than to arrange laces and ribbons and flowers. She could easily learn to make and trim a bonnet, she thought; at least, she could try. At first it would come hard to sit cooped up in those, little back shops, sewing and stitching from morning till night; but it was better than marrying Elam Hunt, or than eating other people’s bread. Then she began to build castles in the air, as her custom was. She fancied herself a milliners apprentice, working away at bonnets and caps, among a group of other girls, — sometimes rising to attend upon a customer, or peeping out between the folds of a curtain at people in the front shop. She wondered whether Cornelia and Helen would be ashamed of knowing a milliner’s apprentice, if they should chance to see her in Hartford. What would her schoolmates say? and would her hero despise a girl that worked for a livelihood? Then she whimpered a little, thinking how lonesome she would be, for a while, among strangers; but it was a kind of lamentation that differed widely from the frantic weeping of the morning. Then, all at once, a doubt began to depress her new-born hopes. Could she get a place? She was a stranger in Hartford, and beyond that city she dared not send her thoughts. Could Tira get a place for her? She feared not, for Tira herself seldom went to the city. But there was Doctor Bugbee, who knew a great many people there, and who was so rich and powerful, that even in Hartford, though it was a city, his word must have great influence. Besides, the firm of Bugbee Brothers purchased large quantities of goods at some of the great millinery shops. The Doctor’s own private custom was not small, for Cornelia dressed as became her condition, and even little Helen scorned to wear a bonnet unless it came from Hartford. Doctor Bugbee could help her to find a place. Doubtless he would be willing, nay, even glad, to assist her in her trouble. At any rate, she would ask him. But how was she to see him? He was not likely to call upon her, unless she feigned sickness, and sent for him; for her sister would not permit her to go to his house, where she would be sure to see Tira. Besides, the Doctor’s manner had of late grown so distant and forbidding, that she was a little fearful of obtruding herself upon his notice. Though sorry for this change, she had never laid it so much to heart as to be grieved or affronted; for even his children complained of his altered behavior, and all his friends had noticed the gloomy expression which his face sometimes wore. But now she troubled herself with wondering whether she had given him any cause to be offended with her. Perhaps her giddy nonsense and thoughtless gayety, which when he himself was cheerful and happy he had listened to without displeasure, had vexed and annoyed him in his moods of sadness and dejection. But what else could she do than solicit his aid? The favor, though small for him to grant, would be of immense benefit to her, and the good-hearted Doctor would not be likely to refuse. She would tell him how friend- less she was, and beg him to help the fatherless in her distress. She knew that he would not turn her away. At all events, she could try.
Coming at last to this conclusion, and wonderfully cheered and strengthened by the purpose she had formed, she washed her face, arranged her disheveled hair, and smoothed her rumpled dress. Then sitting down behind the window-curtain, she began to watch for Cornelia, hoping her friend would not long delay her accustomed visit to the parsonage. But it happened that Cornelia had that very day begun a novel, in three volumes, the heroine of which was represented to be a young lady whose extreme beauty and amiable temper made her deserving of better treatment than she received at the hands of the hard-hearted author, who suffered her to be cheated and bullied by a scheming and brutal guardian, to be slandered by his envious daughter, persecuted by a dissolute nobleman, haunted by a spectre, shut up in a tower, exposed to manifold dangers, beset by robbers, abducted, assaulted, barely rescued, and, finally, even teased and tormented by the chosen lover of her heart, a jealous-pated fellow, who was always making her miserable and himself ridiculous by his absurd suspicions and fractious behavior.
Sympathizing deeply with this distressed young woman, whose unexampled misfortunes and troubles would have touched the heart of even a marble statue, Cornelia was weeping dolefully over a page near the end of the second volume, where the lady’s lover, in a fit of senseless jealousy, tears her miniature from his bosom, renounces her affection, and leaves her swooning upon the floor. Just then Helen rushed into her chamber, with a summons from Laura to hasten at once to her side. For Laura, after long watching, had caught sight of Helen jumping the rope on the grassplot, and by means of coughing and waving her handkerchief from the window had attracted the notice of the child, who, coming to the paling, had received the message she forthwith bore to Cornelia, adding to it the information that Laura’s eyes appeared to be almost as red as Cornelia’s own.
Staying only to finish the volume, Cornelia repaired to comfort and console her friend, to whose chamber she found ready access in spite .of some vague misgivings in Mrs. Jaynes’s mind. But, shrewd as this lady was by nature, and apprehensive as she felt that some untoward accident would prevent the accomplishment of her cherished plans, she never dreamed of the momentous results that were to follow this interview, apparently so harmless, between Laura and her friend; nor would it be fitting to suffer an account of so important a conference to appear at the end of a chapter.