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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAn Original Belle - Chapter 7. Surprises
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An Original Belle - Chapter 7. Surprises Post by :srinivasraju Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Payson Roe Date :May 2012 Read :2218

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An Original Belle - Chapter 7. Surprises

CHAPTER VII. SURPRISES

MR. Lanniere evidently had serious intentions, for he came unfashionably early. He fairly beamed on the young girl when he found her at home. Indeed, as she stood before him in her radiant youth, which her evening costume enhanced with a fine taste quickly recognized by his practised eyes, he very justly regarded her as better than anything which his million had purchased hitherto. It might easily be imagined that he had added a little to the couleur de rose of the future by an extra glass of Burgundy, for he positively appeared to exude an atmosphere of affluence, complacency, and gracious intention. The quick-witted girl detected at once his King-Cophetua air, and she was more amused than embarrassed. Then the eager face of Fenton Lane arose in her fancy, and she heard his words, "I would shoulder a musket and march away to-morrow if you bade me!" How insignificant was all that this man could offer, as compared with the boundless, self-sacrificing love of the other, before whom her heart bowed in sincere homage if nothing more! What was this man's offer but an expression of selfishness? And what could she ever be but an accessory of his Burgundy? Indeed, as his eyes, humid from wine, gloated upon her, and he was phrasing his well-bred social platitudes and compliments, quite oblivious of the fact that HER eyes were taking on the blue of a winter sky, her cheeks began to grow a little hot with indignation and shame. He knew that she did not love him, that naturally she could not, and that there had been nothing in their past relations to inspire even gratitude and respect towards him. In truth, his only effort had been to show his preference and to indicate his wishes. What then could his offer mean but the expectation that she would take him as a good bargain, and, like any well-bred woman of the world, comply with all its conditions? Had she given him the impression that she could do this? While the possibility made her self-reproachful, she was conscious of rising resentment towards him who was so complacently assuming that she was for sale.

"Indeed, Miss Vosburgh," was the conclusion of his rather long preliminaries, "you must not run away soon again. June days may be charming under any circumstances, but your absence certainly insures dull June evenings."

"You are burdening your conscience without deceiving me," the young girl replied, demurely, "and should not so wrong yourself. Mamma said that you were very entertaining, and that last evening was a delightful one. It could scarcely be otherwise. It is natural that people of the same age should be congenial. I will call mamma at once."

"I beg you will not,--at least not just yet. I have something to say to which I trust you will listen kindly and favorably. Do you think me so very old?"

"No older than you have a perfect right to be, Mr. Lanniere," said the girl, laughing. "I can think of no reason for your reproachful tone."

"Let me give you one then. Your opinions are of immense importance to me."

"Truly, Mr. Lanniere, this is strange beyond measure, especially as I am too young to have formed many opinions."

"That fact only increases my admiration and regard One must reach my years in order to appreciate truly the dewy freshness of youth. The world is a terra incognita to you yet, and your opinions of life are still to be formed. Let me give you a chance to see the world from lofty, sunny elevations."

"I am too recently from my geography not to remember that while elevations may be sunny they are very cold," was the reply, with a charming little shiver. "Mont Blanc has too much perspective."

"Do not jest with me or misunderstand me, Miss Vosburgh," he said, impressively. "There is a happy mean in all things."

"Yes, Mr. Lanniere, and the girl who means to be happy should take care to discover it."

"May it not be discovered for her by one who is better acquainted with life? In woman's experience is not happiness more often thrust upon her than achieved? I, who know the world and the rich pleasures and triumphs it affords to one who, in the military phrase of the day, is well supported, can offer you a great deal,--more than most men, I assure you."

"Why, Mr. Lanniere," said the young girl, looking at him with demure surprise, "I am perfectly contented and happy. No ambition for triumphs is consuming me. What triumphs? As for pleasure, each day brings all and more than I deserve. Young as one may be, one can scarcely act without a motive."

"Then I am personally nothing to you?" he said stiffly, and rising.

"Pardon me, Mr. Lanniere. I hope my simple directness may not appear childish, but it seems to me that I have met your suggestions with natural answers; What should you be to me but an agreeable friend of mamma's?"

He understood her fence perfectly, and was aware that the absence of a mercenary spirit on her part made his suit appear almost ridiculous. If her clear young eyes would not see him through a golden halo, but only as a man and a possible mate, what could he be to her? Even gold-fed egotism could not blind him to the truth that she was looking at HIM, and that the thought of bartering herself for a little more of what she had to her heart's content already was not even considered. There was distressing keenness in the suggestion that, not wanting the extraneous things he offered, no motive was left. He was scarcely capable of suspecting her indignation that he should deem her capable of sacrificing her fair young girlhood for greater wealth and luxury, even had she coveted them,--an indignation enhanced by her new impulses. The triumphs, happiness, and power which she now was bent on achieving could never be won under the dense shade of his opulent selfishness. He embodied all that was inimical to her hopes and plans, all that was opposed to the motives and inspiration received from her father, and she looked at him with unamiable eyes.

While he saw this to some extent, he was unaccustomed to denial by others or by himself. She was alluringly beautiful, as she stood before him,--all the more valued because she valued herself so highly, all the more coveted because superior to the sordid motives upon which even he had counted as the chief allies in his suit. In the intense longing of a self-indulgent nature he broke out, seizing her hand as he spoke: "O Miss Marian, do not deny me. I know I could make you happy. I would give you everything. Your slightest wish should be law. I would be your slave."

"I do not wish a slave," she replied, freezingly, withdrawing her hand. "I am content, as I told you; but were I compelled to make a choice it should be in favor of a man to whom I could look up, and whom I could aid in manly work. I shall not make a choice until compelled to by my heart."

"If your heart is still your own, give me a chance to win it," resumed the suitor, seeking vainly to take her hand again. "I am in my prime, and can do more than most men. I will put my wealth at your disposal, engage in noble charities, patriotic--"

This interview had been so absorbing as to make them oblivious of the fact that another visitor had been admitted to the hall. Hearing voices in the drawing-room, Mr. Strahan entered, and now stood just behind Mr. Lanniere, with an expression in which dismay, amusement, and embarrassment were so comically blended that Marian, who first saw him, had to cover her face with her handkerchief to hide her sense of the ludicrous.

"Pardon me," said the inopportune new-comer, "I--I--"

"Maledictions on you!" exclaimed the goaded millionnaire, now enraged beyond self-control, and confronting the young fellow with glaring, bloodshot eyes.

This greeting put Strahan entirely at his ease, and a glimpse of Marian's mirth had its influence also. She had turned instantly away, and gone to the farther side of the apartment.

"Come now, Mr. Lanniere," he said, with an assumption of much dignity; "there is scant courtesy in your greeting, and without reason. I have the honor of Miss Vosburgh's acquaintance as truly as yourself. This is her parlor, and she alone has the right to indicate that I am unwelcome. I shall demand no apologies here and now, but I shall demand them. I may appear very young--"

"Yes, you do; very young. I should think that ears like yours might have--" And then the older man paused, conscious that the violence of his anger was carrying him too far.

Strahan struck a nonchalant attitude, as he coolly remarked: "My venerable friend, your passion is unbecoming to your years. Miss Vosburgh, I humbly ask your pardon that my ears were not long enough to catch the purport of this interview. I am not in the habit of listening at a lady's door before I enter. My arrival at a moment so awkward for me was my misfortune. I discovered nothing to your discredit, Mr. Lanniere. Indeed, your appreciation of Miss Vosburgh is the most creditable thing I know about you,--far more so than your insults because I merely entered the door to which I was shown by the maid who admitted me. Miss Vosburgh, with your permission I will now depart, in the hope that you will forgive the annoyance--"

"I cannot give you my permission under the circumstances, Mr. Strahan. You have committed no offence against me, or Mr. Lanniere, either, as he will admit after a little thought. Let us regard the whole matter as one of those awkward little affairs over which good breeding can speedily triumph. Sit down, and I will call mamma."

"Pardon me, Miss Vosburgh," said Mr. Lanniere, in a choking voice, for he could not fail to note the merriment which the mercurial Strahan strove in vain to suppress; "I will leave you to more congenial society. I have paid you the highest compliment in my power, and have been ill-requited."

As if stung, the young girl took a step towards him, and said, indignantly: "What was the nature of your compliment? What have you asked but that I should sell myself for money? I may have appeared to you a mere society girl, but I was never capable of that. Good-evening, sir."

Mr. Lanniere departed with tingling ears, and a dawning consciousness that he had over-rated his million, and that he had made a fool of himself generally.

All trace of mirth passed from Strahan's expression, as he looked at the young girl's stern, flushed face and the angry sheen of her eyes.

"By Jove!" he exclaimed, "that's magnificent. I've seen a girl now to whom I can take off my hat, not as a mere form. Half the girls in our set would have given their eyes for the chance of capturing such a man. Think what a vista of new bonnets he suggests!"

"You are probably mistaken. One girl has proved how she regarded the vista, and I don't believe you had any better opinion of me than of the others. Come now, own up. Be honest. Didn't you regard me as one of the girls 'in our set' as you phrase it, that would jump at the chance?"

"Oh, nonsense, Miss Marian. The idea--"

She checked him by a gesture. "I wish downright sincerity, and I shall detect the least false note in your words."

Strahan looked into her resolute, earnest eyes a moment, and then revealed a new trait. He discarded the slight affectation that characterized his manner, stood erect, and returned her gaze steadily. "You ask for downright sincerity?" he said.

"Yes; I will take nothing less."

"You have no right to ask it unless you will be equally sincere with me."

"Oh, indeed; you are in a mood for bargains, as well as Mr. Lanniere."

"Not at all. You have stepped out of the role of the mere society girl. In that guise I shall be all deference and compliments. On the basis of downright sincerity I have my rights, and you have no right to compel me to give an honest opinion so personal in its nature without giving one in return."

"I agree," she said, after a moment's thought.

"Well, then, while I was by no means sure, I thought it was possible, even probable, that you would accept a man like Lanniere. I have known society girls to do such things, haven't you?"

"And I tell you, Mr. Strahan, that you misjudge a great many society girls."

"Oh, you must tell me a great deal more than that. Have I not just discovered that I misjudged one? Now pitch into Arthur Strahan."

"I am inclined to think that I have misjudged you, also; but I will keep my compact, and give you the impression you made, and you won't like it."

"I don't expect to; but I shall expect downright sincerity."

"Very well. I'll test you. You are not simple and manly, even in your dress and manner; you are an anomaly in the country; you are inclined to gossip; and it's my belief that a young man should do more in life than amuse himself."

Strahan flushed, but burst out laughing as he exclaimed, "My photograph, by Jupiter!"

"Photographs give mere surface. Come, what's beneath it?"

"In one respect, at least, I think I am on a par with yourself. I have enough honest good-nature to listen to the truth with thanks."

"Is that all?"

"Come, Miss Marian, what is the use of words when I have had such an example of deeds? I have caught you, red-handed, in the act of giving a millionnaire his conge. In the face of this stern fact do you suppose I am going to try to fish up some germs of manhood for your inspection? As you have suggested, I must do something, or I'm out of the race with you. I honestly believe, though, I am not such a fool as I have seemed. I shall always be something of a rattle-brain, I suppose, and if I were dying I could not help seeing the comical side of things." He hesitated a moment, and then asked, abruptly, "Miss Marian, have you read to-day's paper?"

"Yes, I have," with a tinge of sadness in her tone.

"Well, so have I. Think of thousands of fine young fellows lying stiff and stark in those accursed swamps!"

"Yes," she cried, with a rush of tears, "I WILL think of them. I will try to see them, horrible as the sight is, even in fancy. When they died so heroically, shame on me if I turn away in weak, dainty disgust! Oh, the burning shame that Northern girls don't think more of such men and their self-sacrifice!"

"You're a trump, Miss Marian; that's evident. Well, one little bit of gossip about myself, and then I must go. I have another engagement this evening. Old Lanniere was right. I'm young, and I've been very young. Of late I've made deliberate effort to remain a fool; but a man has got to be a fool or a coward down to the very hard-pan of his soul if the logic of recent events has no effect on him. I don't think I am exactly a coward, but the restraint of army-life, and especially roughing it, is very distasteful. I kept thinking it would all soon be over, that more men were in now than were needed, and that it was a confounded disagreeable business, and all that. But my mind wasn't at rest; I wasn't satisfied with the ambitions of my callow youth; and, as usual when one is in trouble and in doubt about a step, I exaggerated my old folly to disguise my feelings. But this Richmond campaign, and the way Stonewall Jackson has been whacking our fellows in the Shenandoah, made me feel that I was standing back too long, and the battle described in to-day's paper brought me to a decision. I'm in for it, Miss Marian. You may think I'm not worth the powder required to blow me up, but I'm going to Virginia as soon as I can learn enough not to be more dangerous to those around me than to the enemy."

She darted to his side, and took his hand, exclaiming, "Mr. Strahan! forgive me; I've done you a hundred-fold more injustice than you have me!"

He was visibly embarrassed, a thing unusual with him, and he said, brusquely: "Oh, come now, don't let us have any pro patria exaltation. I don't resemble a hero any more than I do a doctor of divinity. I'm just like lots of other young fellows who have gone, only I have been slower in going, and my ardor won't set the river on fire. But the times are waking up all who have any wake-up in them, and the exhibition of the latest English cut in coats and trousers is taking on a rather inglorious aspect. How ridiculous it all seems in the light of the last battle! Jove! but I HAVE been young!"

He did look young indeed, with his blond mustache and flushed face, that was almost as fair as a girl's. She regarded him wonderingly, thinking how strangely events were applying the touchstone to one and another. But the purpose of this boyish-appearing exquisite was the most unexpected thing in the era of change that had begun. She could scarcely believe it, and exclaimed, "You face a cannon?"

"I don't look like it, do I? I fancy I would. I should be too big a coward to run away, for then I should have to come back to face you, which would be worse, you know. I'm not going to do any bragging, however. Deeds, deeds. Not till I have laid out a Johnny, or he has laid me out, can I take rank with you after your rout of the man of millions. I don't ask you to believe in me yet."

"Well, I do believe in you. You are making an odd yet vivid impression on me. I believe you will face danger just as you did Mr. Lanniere, in a half-nonchalant and a half-satirical mood, while all the time there will be an undercurrent of downright earnestness and heroism in you, which you will hide as if you were ashamed of it."

He flushed with pleasure, but only laughed, "We'll see." Then after a moment he added, "Since we are down to the bed-rock in our talk I'll say out the rest of my say, then follow Lanniere, and give him something more to digest before he sleeps."

"Halt, sir--military jargon already--how can you continue your quarrel with Mr. Lanniere without involving my name?"

Strahan looked blank for a second, then exclaimed: "Another evidence, of extreme youth! Lanniere may go to thunder before I risk annoying you."

"Yes, thank you; please let him go to thunder. He won't talk of the affair, and so can do you no harm."

"Supposing he could, that would be no excuse for annoying you."

"I think you punished him sufficiently before he went, and without ceasing to be a gentleman, too. If you carry out your brave purpose you need not fear for your reputation."

"Well, Miss Marian, I shall carry it out. Society girl as I believed you to be, I like you better than the others. Don't imagine I'm going to be sentimental. I should stand as good a chance of winning a major-general's stars as you. I've seen better fellows raising the siege and disappearing, you know. Well, the story I thought would be short is becoming long. I wanted to tell you first what I proposed; for, hang it all! I've read it in your eyes that you thought I was little better than a popinjay, and I wished to prove to you that I could be a man after my fashion."

"I like your fashion, and am grateful for your confidence. What's more, you won't be able to deceive me a bit hereafter. I shall persist in admiring you as a brave man, and shall stand up for you through thick and thin."

"You always had a kind of loyalty to us fellows that we recognized and appreciated."

"I feel now as if I had not been very loyal to any one, not even myself. As with you, however, I must let the future tell a different story."

"If I make good my words, will you be my friend?"

"Yes, yes indeed, and a proud one. But oh!"--she clasped her hand over her eyes,--"what is all this tending to? When I think of the danger and suffering to which you may--"

"Oh, come now," he interrupted, laughing, but with a little suspicious moisture in eyes as blue as her own; "it will be harder for you to stay and think of absent friends than for them to go. I foresee how it will turn out. You will be imagining high tragedy on stormy nights when we shall be having a jolly game of poker. Good-night. I shall be absent for a time,--going to West Point to be coached a little by my friend Captain Varrum."

He drew himself up, saluted her a la militaire, right-about-faced with the stiffness of a ramrod, and was departing, when a light hand touched his arm, and Marian said, with a look so kind and sympathetic that his eyes fell before it: "Report to me occasionally, Captain Strahan. There are my colors;" and she gave him a white rose from her belt.

His mouth quivered slightly, but with a rather faltering laugh he replied, as he put the rose to his lips, "Never let the color suggest that I will show the white feather;" and then he began his military career with a precipitate retreat.

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