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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAn Original Belle - Chapter 10. Willard Merwyn
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An Original Belle - Chapter 10. Willard Merwyn Post by :srinivasraju Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Payson Roe Date :May 2012 Read :2583

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An Original Belle - Chapter 10. Willard Merwyn


DURING her drives Marian had often passed the entrance to one of the finest old places in the vicinity, and, although aware that the family was absent in Europe, she had observed that the fact made no difference in the scrupulous care of that portion of the grounds which was visible. The vista from the road, however, was soon lost among the boles and branches of immense overshadowing oaks. Even to the passer-by an impression of seclusion and exclusion was given, and Marian at last noted that no reference was made to the family in the social exchanges of her little drawing-room. The dwelling to which the rather stiff and stately entrance led was not visible from the car-windows as she passed to and from the city, so abrupt was the intervening bluff, but upon one occasion from the deck of a steamboat she had caught glimpses through the trees of a large and substantial brick edifice.

Before Strahan had disappeared for a time, as we have related, her slight curiosity had so far asserted itself that she had asked for information concerning the people who left their beautiful home untenanted in June.

"I fancy I can tell you more about them than most people in this vicinity, but that is not so very much. The place adjoins ours, and as a boy I fished and hunted with Willard Merwyn a good deal. Mrs. Merwyn is a widow and a Southern-bred woman. A Northern man of large wealth married her, and then she took her revenge on the rest of the North by having as little to do with it as possible. She was said to own a large property in the South,--plantation, negroes, and all that. The place on the Hudson belonged to the Merwyn side of the house, and the family have only spent a few summers here and have been exclusive and unpopular. My mother made their acquaintance abroad, and they knew it would be absurd to put on airs with us; so the ladies of the two families have exchanged more or less formal visits, but in the main they have little to do with the society of this region. As boys Willard and myself did not care a fig for these things, and became very good friends. I have not seen him for several years; they have all been abroad; and I hear that he has become an awful swell."

"Why then, if he ever returns, you and he will be good friends again," Marian had laughingly replied and had at once dismissed the exclusive Merwyns from her mind.

On the morning of the 4th of July Strahan had come over to have a quiet talk with Marian, and had found Mr. Lane there before him. By feminine tactics peculiarly her own, Marian had given them to understand that both were on much the same footing, and that their united presence did not form "a crowd;" and the young men, having a common ground of purpose and motive, were soon at ease together, and talked over personal and military matters with entire freedom, amusing the young girl with accounts of their awkwardness in drill and of the scenes they had witnessed. She was proud indeed of her two knights, as she mentally characterized them,--so different, yet both now inspiring a genuine liking and respect. She saw that her honest goodwill and admiration were evoking their best manhood and giving them as much happiness as she would ever have the power to bestow, and she felt that her scheme of life was not a false one. They understood her fully, and knew that the time had passed forever when she would amuse herself at their expense. She had become an inspiration of manly endeavor, and had ceased to be the object of a lover's pursuit. If half-recognized hopes lurked in their hearts, the fulfilment of these must be left to time.

"By the way," remarked Strahan, as he was taking his leave, "I hear that these long-absent Merwyns have deigned to return to their native land,--for their own rather than their country's good though, I fancy. I suppose Mrs. Merwyn feels that it is time she looked after her property and maintained at least the semblance of loyalty. I also hear that they have been hob-nobbing with the English aristocracy, who look upon us Yankees as a 'blasted lot of cads, you know.' Shall I bring young Merwyn over to see you after he arrives?"

"As you please," she replied, with an indifferent shrug.

Strahan had a half-formed scheme in his mind, but when he called upon young Merwyn he was at first inclined to hesitate. Great as was his confidence in Marian, he had some vaguely jealous fears, more for the young girl than for himself, in subjecting her to the influence of the man that his boyhood's friend had become.

Willard Merwyn was a "swell" in Strahan's vernacular, but even in the early part of their interview he gave the impression of being something more, or rather such a superior type of the "swell" genus, that Marian's friend was conscious of a fear that the young girl might be dazzled and interested, perhaps to her sorrow.

Merwyn had developed into a broad-shouldered man, nearly six feet in height. His quiet, courteous elegance did not disguise from one who had known him so well in boyhood an imperious, self-pleasing nature, and a tenacity of purpose in carrying out his own desires. He accepted of his quondam friend's uniform without remark. That was Strahan's affair and not his, and by a polite reserve, he made the mercurial fellow feel that his affairs were his own. Strahan chafed under this polished reticence, this absence of all curiosity.

"Blast him!" thought the young officer, "he acts like a superior being, who has deigned to visit America to look after his rents, and intimates that the country has no further concern with him or he with it. Jove! I'd give all the pay I ever expect to get to see him a rejected suitor of my plucky little American girl;" and he regarded his host with an ill-disposed eye. At last he resolved to take the initiative boldly.

"How long do you expect to remain here, Merwyn?"

"I scarcely know. It depends somewhat on my mother's plans."

"Thunder! It's time you had plans of your own, especially when a man has your length of limb and breadth of chest."

"I have not denied the possession of plans," Merwyn quietly remarked, his dark eye following the curling, upward flight of smoke from his cigar.

"You certainly used to be decided enough sometimes, when I wanted you to pull an oar."

"And you so good-naturedly let me off," was the reply, with a slight laugh.

"I didn't let you off good-naturedly, nor do I intend to now. Good heavens, Merwyn! don't you read the papers? There's a chance now to take an oar to some purpose. You were brave enough as a boy."

Merwyn's eyes came down from the curling smoke to Strahan's face with a flash, and he rose and paced the room for a moment, then said, in his old quiet tones, "They say the child is father of the man."

"Oh well, Merwyn," was the slightly irritable rejoinder, "I have and ever had, you remember, a way of expressing my thoughts. If, while abroad, you have become intolerant of that trait, why, the sooner we understand each other the better. I don't profess to be anything more than an American, and I called to-day with no other motive than the obvious and natural one."

A shade of annoyance passed over Merwyn's face, but as Strahan ceased he came forward and held out his hand, saying: "I like you all the better for speaking your thoughts,--for doing just as you please. You must be equally fair and yield to me the privilege of keeping my thoughts, and doing as I please."

Strahan felt that there was nothing to do but to take the proffered hand, so irresistible was the constraint of his host's courtesy, although felt to be without warmth or cordiality. Disguising his inward protest by a light laugh he said: "I could shake hands with almost any one on such a mutual understanding. Well, since we have begun on the basis of such absolute frankness on my part, my next thought is, What shall be our relations while you are here? I am a busier fellow than I was at one time, and my stay is also uncertain, and sure to be brief. I do not wish to be unneighborly in remembrance of old times, nor do I wish to be obtrusive. In the natural order of things, I should show you, a comparative stranger, some attention, inform you about the natives and transient residents, help you amuse yourself, and all that. But I have not the slightest desire to make unwelcome advances. I have plenty of such in prospect south of Mason and Dixon's line."

Merwyn laughed with some heartiness as he said: "You have attained one attribute of a soldier assuredly,--bluntness. Positively, Strahan, you have developed amazingly. Why, only the other day we were boys squabbling to determine who should have the first shot at an owl we saw in the mountains. The result was, the owl took flight. You never gave in an inch to me then, and I liked you all the better for it. Come now, be reasonable. I yield to you your full right to be yourself; yield as much to me and let us begin where we left off, with only the differences that years have made, and we shall get on as well as ever."

"Agreed," said Strahan, promptly. "Now what can I do for you? I have only certain hours at my disposal."

"Well," replied Merwyn, languidly, "come and see me when you can, and I'll walk over to your quarters--I suppose I should so call them--and have a smoke with you occasionally. I expect to be awfully dull here, but between the river and the mountains I shall have resources."

"You propose to ignore society then?"

"Why say 'ignore'? That implies a conscious act. Let us suppose that society is as indifferent to me as I to it."

"There's a little stutterer down at the hotel who claims to be an English lord."

"Bah, Strahan! I hope your sword is sharper than your satire. I've had enough of English lords for the present."

"Yes, Merwyn, you appear to have had enough of most things,--perhaps too much. If your countrymen are uninteresting, you may possibly wish to meet some of your countrywomen. I've been abroad enough to know that you have never found their superiors."

"Well, that depends upon who my countrywoman is. I should prefer to see her before I intrude--"

"Risk being bored, you mean."

"As you please. Fie, Strahan! you are not cultivating a soldier's penchant for women?"

"It hasn't needed any cultivating. I have my opinion of a man who does not admire a fine woman."

"So have I, only each and all must define the adjective for themselves."

"It has been defined for me. Well, my time is up. We'll be two friendly neutral powers, and, having marked out our positions, can maintain our frontiers with diplomatic ease. Good-morning."

Merwyn laughingly accompanied his guest to the door, but on the piazza, they met Mrs. Merwyn, who involuntarily frowned as she saw Strahan's uniform, then with quiet elegance she greeted the young man. But he had seen her expression, and was somewhat formal.

"We shall hope to see your mother and sisters before long," the lady remarked.

Strahan bowed, and walked with military erectness down the avenue, his host looking after him with cynical and slightly contemptuous good-nature; but Mrs. Merwyn followed the receding figure with an expression of great bitterness.

Her appearance was that of a remarkable woman. She was tall, and slight; every motion was marked by grace, but it was the grace of a person accustomed to command. One would never dream of woman's ministry when looking at her. Far more than would ever be true of Marian she suggested power, but she would govern through her will, her pride and prejudices. The impress of early influences had sunk deep into her character. The only child of a doting father, she had ruled him, and, of course, the helpless slaves who had watched her moods and trembled at her passion. There were scars on human backs to-day, which were the results of orders from her girlish lips. She was not greatly to blame. Born of a proud and imperious ancestry, she had needed the lessons of self-restraint and gentleness from infancy. Instead, she had been absolute, even in the nursery; and as her horizon had widened it had revealed greater numbers to whom her will was law. From childhood she had passed into maidenhood with a dower of wealth and beauty, learning early, like Marian, that many of her own race were willing to become her slaves.

In the South there is a chivalric deference to women far exceeding that usually paid to the sex at the North, and her appearance, temperament, and position evoked that element to the utmost. He knows little of human nature who cannot guess the result. Yet, by a common contradiction, the one among her many suitors who won such love as she could give was a Northern man as proud as herself. He stood alone in his manner of approach, made himself the object of her thoughts by piquing her pride, and met her varying moods by a quiet, unvarying dignity that compelled her respect. The result was that she yielded to the first man who would not yield undue deference to her.

Mr. Merwyn employed his power charily, however, or rather with principle. He quietly insisted on his rights; but as he granted hers without a word, and never irritated her by small, fussy exactions, good-breeding prevented any serious clashing of wills, and their married life had passed in comparative serenity. As time elapsed her will began, in many ways, to defer to his quieter and stronger will, and then, as if life must teach her that there is no true control except self-control, Mr. Merwyn died, and left her mistress of almost everything except herself.

It must not be supposed, however, that her self-will was a passionate, moody absolutism. She had outgrown that, and was too well-bred ever to show much temper. The tendency of her mature purposes and prejudices was to crystallize into a few distinct forms. With the feminine logic of a narrow mind, she made her husband an exception to the people among whom he had been born and bred. Widowed, she gave her whole heart to the South. Its institutions, habits, and social code were sacred, and all opponents thereof sacrilegious enemies. To that degree that they were hostile, or even unbelieving, she hated them.

During the years immediately preceding the war she had been abroad superintending the education of Willard and two younger daughters, and when hostilities began she was led to believe that she could serve the cause better in England than on her remote plantation. In her fierce partisanship, or rather perverted patriotism,--for in justice it must be said that she knew no other country than the South,--she was willing to send her son to Richmond. He thwarted this purpose by quietly manifesting one of his father's traits.

"No," he said, "I will not fight against the section to which my father belonged. To my mind it's a wretched political squabble at best, and the politicians will settle it before long. I have my life before me, and don't propose to be knocked on the head for the sake of a lot of political John Smiths, North or South."

In vain she tried to fire his heart with dreams of Southern empire. He had made up that part of himself derived from Northern birth--his mind--and would not yield. Meantime his Southern, indolent, pleasure-loving side was appealed to powerfully by aristocratic life abroad, and he felt it would be the sheerest folly to abandon his favorite pursuits. He was little more then than a graceful animal, shrewd enough to know that his property was chiefly at the North, and that it would be unwise to endanger it.

Mrs. Merwyn's self-interest and natural affection led her to yield to necessity with fairly good grace. The course resolved upon by Willard preserved her son and the property. When the South had accomplished its ambitious dreams she believed she would have skill enough to place him high among its magnates, while, if he were killed in one of the intervening battles,--well, she was loyal enough to incur the risk, but at heart she did not deeply regret that she had escaped the probable sacrifice.

Thus time passed on, and she used her social influence in behalf of her section, but guardedly, lest she should jeopardize the interests of her children. In May of the year in which our story opened, the twenty-first birthday of Willard occurred, and was celebrated with befitting circumstance. He took all this quietly, but on the morning of the day following he said to his mother:--

"You remember the provisions of my father's will. My share of the property was to be transferred to me when I should become of age. We ought to return to New York at once and have the necessary papers made out."

In vain she protested that the property was well managed, that the income was received regularly, that he could have this, and that it would be intensely disagreeable for her to visit New York. He, who had yielded indifferently to all her little exactions, was inexorable, and the proud, self-willed woman found that he had so much law and reason on his side that she was compelled to submit.

Indeed, she at last felt that she had been unduly governed by her prejudices, and that it might be wise to go and see for themselves that their affairs were managed to the best advantage. Deep in her heart was also the consciousness that it was her husband's indomitable will that she was carrying out, and that she could never escape from that will in any exigency where it could justly make itself felt. She therefore required of her son the promise that their visit should be as unobtrusive as possible, and that he would return with her as soon as he had arranged matters to his mind. To this he had readily agreed, and they were now in the land for which the mother had only hate and the son indifference.

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