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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Mystery Of Metropolisville - Chapter 7. Catching And Getting Caught
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The Mystery Of Metropolisville - Chapter 7. Catching And Getting Caught Post by :geoall28 Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Eggleston Date :May 2012 Read :1165

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The Mystery Of Metropolisville - Chapter 7. Catching And Getting Caught


Did you never notice how many reasons, never thought of before, against having an aching tooth drawn, occur to you when once you stand on the dentist's door-stone ready to ring the bell? Albert Charlton was full of doubts of what Miss Isabel Marlay's opinion of his sister might be, and of what Miss Isabel Marlay might think of him after his intemperate denunciation of ministers and all other men of the learned professions. It was quite a difficult thing for him to speak to her on the subject of his sister's love-affair, and so, whenever an opportunity presented itself, he found reason to apprehend interruption. On one plea or another he deferred the matter until afternoon, and when afternoon came, Isa had gone out. So that what had seemed to him in the watchfulness of the night an affair for prompt action, was now deferred till evening. But in his indecision and impatience Charlton found it impossible to remain quiet. He must do something, and so he betook himself to his old recreation of catching insects. He would have scorned to amuse himself with so cruel a sport as fishing; he would not eat a fish when it was caught. But though he did not think it right for man to be a beast of prey, slaughtering other animals to gratify his appetites, he did not hesitate to sacrifice the lives of creeping things to satisfy the intellectual needs of humanity. Even this he did with characteristic tenderness, never leaving a grasshopper to writhe on a pin for two days, but kindly giving him a drop of chloroform to pass him into the Buddhist's heaven of eternal repose. In the course of an hour or two he had adorned his hat with a variety of orthoptera, coleoptera, and all the other opteras known to the insect-catching profession. A large Cecropia spread its bright wings across the crown of his hat, and several green Katydids appeared to be climbing up the sides for an introduction to the brilliant moth; three dragon-flies sat on the brim, and two or three ugly beetles kept watch between them. As for grasshoppers, they hung by threads from the hat-brim, and made unique pendants, which flew and flopped about his face as he ran hither and thither with his net, sweeping the air for new victims. Hurrying with long strides after a large locust which he suspected of belonging to a new species, and which flew high and far, his eyes were so uplifted to his game that he did not see anything else, and he ran down a hill and fairly against a lady, and then drew back in startled surprise and apologized. But before his hasty apology was half-uttered he lifted his eyes to the face of the lady and saw that it was Miss Minorkey, walking with her father. Albert was still more confused when he recognized her, and his confusion was not relieved by her laughter. For the picturesque figure of Charlton and his portable museum was too much for her gravity, and as the French ladies of two centuries ago used to say, she "lost her serious." Guessing the cause of her merriment, Charlton lifted his hat off his head, held it up, and laughed with her.

"Well, Miss Minorkey, no wonder you laugh. This is a queer hat-buggery and dangling grasshoppery."

"That's a beautiful Cecropia," said Helen Minorkey, recovering a little, and winning on Albert at once by showing a little knowledge of his pet science, if it was only the name of a single specimen. "I wouldn't mind being an entomologist myself if there were many such as this and that green beetle to be had. I am gathering botanical specimens," and she opened her portfolio.

"But how did you come to be in Metropolisville?"

"Why," interrupted Mr. Minorkey, "I couldn't stand the climate at Perritaut. The malaria of the Big Gun River affected my health seriously. I had a fever night before last, and I thought I'd get away at once, and I made up my mind there was more oxygen in this air than in that at Perritaut. So I came up here this morning. But I'm nearly dead," and here Mr. Minorkey coughed and sighed, and put his hand on his breast in a self-pitying fashion.

As Mr. Minorkey wanted to inspect an eighty across the slough, on which he had been asked to lend four hundred dollars at three per cent a month, and five after maturity, with a waiver in the mortgage, he suggested that Helen should walk back, leaving him to go on slowly, as the rheumatism in his left knee would permit. It was quite necessary that Miss Minorkey should go back; her boots were not thick enough for the passage of the slough. Mr. Charlton kindly offered to accompany her.

Albert Charlton thought that Helen Minorkey looked finer than ever, for sun and wind had put more color into her cheeks, and he, warm with running, pushed back his long light hair, and looked side-wise at the white forehead and the delicate but fresh cheeks below.

"So you like Cecropias and bright-green beetles, do you?" he said, and he gallantly unpinned the wide-winged moth from his hat-crown and stuck it on the cover of Miss Minorkey's portfolio, and then added the green beetle. Helen thanked him in her quiet way, but with pleased eyes.

"Excuse me, Miss Minorkey," said Albert, blushing, as they approached the hotel, "I should like very much to accompany you to the parlor of the hotel, but people generally see nothing but the ludicrous side of scientific pursuits, and I should only make you ridiculous."

"I should be very glad to have you come," said Helen. "I don't mind being laughed at in good company, and it is such a relief to meet a gentleman who can talk about something besides corner lots and five per cent a month, and," with a wicked look at the figure of her father in the distance, "and mortgages with waivers in them!"

Our cynic philosopher found his cynicism melting away like an iceberg in the Gulf-stream. An hour before he would have told you that a woman's flattery could have no effect on an intellectual man; now he felt a tremor of pleasure, an indescribable something, as he shortened his steps to keep time with the little boots with which Miss Minorkey trod down the prairie grass, and he who had laughed at awkward boys for seeking the aid of dancing-masters to improve their gait, wished himself less awkward, and actually blushed with pleasure when this self-possessed young lady praised his conversation. He walked with her to the hotel, though he took the precaution to take his hat off his head and hang it on his finger, and twirl it round, as if laughing at it himself--back-firing against the ridicule of others. He who thought himself sublimely indifferent to the laughter of ignoramuses, now fencing against it!

The parlor of the huge pine hotel (a huge unfinished pine hotel is the starting point of speculative cities), the parlor of the Metropolisville City Hotel was a large room, the floor of which was covered with a very cheap but bright-colored ingrain carpet; the furniture consisted of six wooden-bottomed chairs, very bright and new, with a very yellow rose painted on the upper slat of the back of each, a badly tattered hair-cloth sofa, of a very antiquated pattern, and a small old piano, whose tinny tones were only matched by its entire lack of tune. The last two valuable articles had been bought at auction, and some of the keys of the piano had been permanently silenced by its ride in an ox-cart from Red Owl to Metropolisville.

But intellect and culture are always superior to external circumstances, and Mr. Charlton was soon sublimely oblivious to the tattered hair-cloth of the sofa on which he sat, and he utterly failed to notice the stiff wooden chair on which Miss Minorkey reposed. Both were too much interested in science to observe furniture; She admired the wonders of his dragon-flies, always in her quiet and intelligent fashion; he returned the compliment by praising her flowers in his eager, hearty, enthusiastic way. Her coolness made her seem to him very superior; his enthusiasm made him very piquant and delightful to her. And when he got upon his hobby and told her how grand a vocation the teacher's profession was, and recited stories of the self-denial of Pestalozzi and Froebel, and the great schemes of Basedow, and told how he meant here in this new country to build a great Institute on rational principles, Helen Minorkey found him more interesting than ever. Like you and me, she loved philanthropy at other people's expense. She admired great reformers, though she herself never dreamed of putting a little finger to anybody's burden.

It took so long to explain fully this great project that Albert staid until nearly supper-time, forgetting the burden of his sister's unhappy future in the interest of science and philanthropy. And even when he rose to go, Charlton turned back to look again at a "prairie sun-flower" which Helen Minorkey had dissected while he spoke, and, finding something curious, perhaps in the fiber, he proposed to bring his microscope over in the evening and examine it--a proposition very grateful to Helen, who had nothing but _ennui to expect in Metropolisville, and who was therefore delighted. Delighted is a strong word for one so cool: perhaps it would be better to say that she was relieved and pleased at the prospect of passing an evening with so curious and interesting a companion. For Charlton was both curious and interesting to her. She sympathized with his intellectual activity, and she was full of wonder at his intense moral earnestness.

As for Albert, botany suddenly took on a new interest in his eyes. He had hitherto regarded it as a science for girls. But now he was so profoundly desirous of discovering the true character of the tissue in the plant which Miss Minorkey had dissected, that it seemed to him of the utmost importance to settle it that very evening. His mother for the first time complained of his going out, and seemed not very well satisfied about something. He found that he was likely to have a good opportunity, after supper, to speak to Isabel Marlay in regard to his sister and her lover, but somehow the matter did not seem so exigent as it had. The night before, he had determined that it was needful to check the intimacy before it went farther, that every day of delay increased the peril; but things often look differently under different circumstances, and now the most important duty in life for Albert Charlton was the immediate settlement of a question in structural botany by means of microscopic investigation. Albert was at this moment a curious illustration of the influence of scientific enthusiasm, for he hurriedly relieved his hat of its little museum, ate his supper, got out his microscope, and returned to the hotel. He placed the instrument on the old piano, adjusted the object, and pedagogically expounded to Miss Minorkey the true method of observing. Microscopy proved very entertaining to both. Albert did not feel sure that it might not become a life-work with him. It would be a delightful thing to study microscopic botany forever, if he could have Helen Minorkey to listen to his enthusiastic expositions. From her science the transition to his was easy, and they studied under every combination of glasses the beautiful lace of a dragon-fly's wing, and the irregular spots on a drab grasshopper which ran by chance half-across one of his eyes. The thrifty landlord had twice looked in at the door in hope of finding the parlor empty, intending in which case to put out the lamp. But I can not tell how long this enthusiastic pursuit of scientific knowledge might have lasted had not Mr. Minorkey been seized with one of his dying spells. When the message was brought by a Norwegian servant-girl, whose white hair fairly stood up with fright, Mr. Charlton was very much shocked, but Miss Minorkey did not for a moment lose her self-possession. Besides having the advantage of quiet nerves, she had become inured to the presence of Death in all his protean forms--it was impossible that her father should be threatened in a way with which she was not already familiar.

Emotions may be suspended by being superseded for a time by stronger ones. In such case, they are likely to return with great force, when revived by some association. Charlton stepped out on the piazza with his microscope in his hand and stopped a moment to take in the scene--the rawness and newness and flimsiness of the mushroom village, with its hundred unpainted bass-wood houses, the sweetness, peacefulness, and freshness of the unfurrowed prairie beyond, the calmness and immutability of the clear, star-lit sky above--when he heard a voice round the corner of the building that put out his eyes and opened his ears, if I may so speak. Somebody was reproaching somebody else with being "spooney on the little girl."

"He! he!"--the reply began with that hateful giggle--"I know my business, gentlemen. Not such a fool as you think." Here there was a shuffling of feet, and Charlton's imagination easily supplied the image of Smith Westcott cutting a "pigeon-wing."

"Don't I know the ways of this wicked world? Haven't I had all the silly sentiment took out of me? He! he! I've seen the world," and then he danced again and sang:

"Can't you come out to-night,
Can't you come out to-night,
And dance by the light of the moon?"

"Now, boys," he began, again rattling his coins and keys, "I learnt too much about New York. I had to leave. They didn't want a man there that knew all the ropes so well, and so I called a meeting of the mayor and told him good-by. He! he! By George! 'S a fack! I drank too much and I lived two-forty on the plank-road, till the devil sent me word he didn't want to lose his best friend, and he wished I'd just put out from New York. 'Twas leave New York or die. That's what brought me here. It I'd lived in New York I wouldn't never 've married. Not much, Mary Ann or Sukey Jane. He! he!" And then he sang again:

"If I was young and in my prime,
I'd lead a different life,
I'd spend my money--

"but I'd be hanged if I'd marry a wife to save her from the Tower of London, you know. As long as I could live at the Elysian Club, didn' want a wife. But this country! Psha! this is a-going to be a land of Sunday-schools and sewing-societies. A fellow can't live here without a wife:

"'Den lay down de shubble and de hoe,
Den hang up de fiddle and de bow--
For poor old Ned--'

"Yah! Can't sing! Out of practice! Got a cold! Instrument needs tuning! Excuse me! He! he!"

There was some other talk, in a voice too low for Albert to hear, though he listened with both ears, waiving all sense of delicacy about eavesdropping in his anger and his desire to rescue Katy. Then Westcott, who had evidently been drinking and was vinously frank, burst out with:

"Think I'd marry an old girl! Think I'd marry a smart one! I want a sweet little thing that would love me and worship me and believe everything I said. I know! By George! He! he! That Miss Minorkey at the table! She'd see through a fellow! Now, looky here, boys, I'm goin' to be serious for once. I want a girl that'll exert a moral influence over me, you know! But I'll be confounded if I want too much moral influence, by George, he! he! A little spree now and then all smoothed over! I need moral influence, but in small doses. Weak constitution, you know! Can't stand too much moral influence. Head's level. A little girl! Educate her yourself, you know! He! he! By George! And do as you please.

"'O Jinny! git yer hoe-cake done, my dear!
O Jinny! git yer hoe-cake done!'

"Yah! yah! He! he! he!"

It is not strange that Charlton did not sleep that night, that he was a prey to conflicting emotions, blessing the cool, intellectual, self-possessed face of Miss Minorkey, who knew botany, and inwardly cursing the fate that had handed little Katy over to be the prey of such a man as Smith Westcott.

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