IT was past the hour of two, when Jessie Loring stepped from the carriage and entered her home. A domestic admitted her.
"Aunt is not waiting for me?" she said in a tone of inquiry.
"No; she has been in bed some hours."
"It is late for you to be sitting up, Mary, and I am sorry to have been the cause of it. But, you know, I couldn't leave earlier."
She spoke kindly, and the servant answered in a cheerful voice.
"I'll sit up for you, Miss Jessie, at any time. And why shouldn't I? Sure, no one in the house is kinder or more considerate of us than you; and it's quite as little as a body can do to wait up for you once in a while, and you enjoying yourself."
"Thank you, Mary. And now get to bed as quickly as possible, for you must be tired and very sleepy. Good-night."
"Good night, and God bless you!" responded the servant, warmly. "She was the queen there, I know?" she added, proudly, speaking to herself as she moved away.
It was a night in mid-October. A clear, cool, moon-lit radiant night. From her window, Jessie could look far away over the housetops to a dark mass of forest trees, just beyond the city, and to the gleaming river that lay sleeping at their feet. The sky was cloudless, save at the west, where a tall, craggy mountain of vapor towered up to the very zenith. After loosening and laying off some of her garments, Miss Loring, instead (sic) off retiring, sat down by the window, and leaning her head upon her hand looked out upon the entrancing scene. She did not remark upon its beauty, nor think of its weird attractions; nor did her eyes, after the first glance, convey any distinct image of external objects to her mind. Yet was she affected by them. The hour, and the aspect of nature wrought their own work upon her feelings.
She sat down and leaned her head upon her hand, while the scenes in which she had been for the past few hours an actor, passed before her in review with almost the vividness of reality. Were her thoughts pleasant ones? We fear not; for every now and then a faint sigh troubled her breast, and parted her too firmly closed lips. The evening's entertainment had not satisfied her in something. There was a pressure on her feelings that weighed them down heavily.
"There is more in one sentence of his than in a a page of the other's wordy utterances." Her lips moved in the earnestness of her inward-spoken thoughts. "How annoyed I was to be dragged from his side by Mr. Dexter just as I had begun to feel a little at my ease, and just as my voice had gained something of its true expression. It is strange how his presence disturbs me; and how my eyes fall beneath his gaze! He seems very cold and very distant; and proud I should think. Proud! Ah! has he not cause for pride? I have not looked upon his peer to-night. How that man did persecute me with his attentions! He monopolized me wholly! Perhaps I should be flattered by his attentions--and, perhaps, I was. I know that I was envied. Ah, me! what a pressure there is on my heart! From the moment I first looked into the face of Paul Hendrickson, I have been an enigma to myself. Some great change is wrought in me--some new capacities opened--some deeper yearnings quickened into life. I am still Jessie Loring, though not the Jessie Loring of yesterday. Have I completed a cycle of being? Am I entering upon another and higher sphere of existence? How the questions bewilder me! Clouds and darkness seem gathering around me, and my heart springs upward, half in fear, and half in hope!"
An hour later, and Miss Loring still sat by the closed window, her eyes upon the gleaming river and sombre woods beyond, yet seeing them not. The tall mountain of vapor, which had arisen like a pyramid of white marble, no longer retained its clear, bold outline, but, yielding to aerial currents, had been rent from base to crown, and now its scattered fragments lay in wild confusion along the whole sweep of the western horizon. Down into these shapeless ruins the moon had plunged, and her pure light was struggling to penetrate their rifts, and pour its blessing upon the slumbering earth.
A rush of wind startled the maiden from her deep abstraction, and, as it went moaning away among the eaves and angles of the surrounding tenements, she arose, and putting off her garments, went sighing to bed. Dreams visited her in sleep, and in every dream she was in the presence of Paul Hendrickson. Very pleasant were they, for in the sweet visions that came to her, Paul was by her side, his voice filling her ears and echoing in her heart like tones of delicious music. They walked through fragrant meadows, by the side of glittering streams, and amid groves with singing birds on all the blossomy branches. How tenderly he spoke to her!--how reverently he touched with his manly lips her soft white hand, sending such electric thrills of joy to her heart as waking maidens rarely know! But, suddenly, after a long season of blessed intercourse, a stern voice shocked her ears, and a heavy hand grasped roughly her arm. She turned in fear, and Leon Dexter stood before her, a dark frown upon his countenance. With a cry of terror she awoke.
Day had already come, but no bright sun shone down upon the earth, for leaden clouds were in the sky, and nature was bathed in tears. It was some time before the agitation that accompanied Miss Loring's sudden awakening, had sufficiently subsided to leave her mind composed enough to arise and join the family. When she did so, she found her aunt, Mrs. Loring and her cousins Amanda and Dora, two not over refined school girls, aged fourteen and sixteen, awaiting her appearance.
"You are late this morning, Jessie," said Mrs. Loring. Then, before her niece had time to reply, she spoke to her eldest daughter--"Amanda, ring the bell, and order breakfast at once."
"I am sorry to have kept you waiting, aunt Phoebe," replied Jessie. "I did not get to bed until very late, and slept too soundly for the morning bell."
"You must have been as deeply buried in the arms of Morpheus as one of the seven sleepers, not to have heard that bell! I thought Kitty would never stop the intolerable din. The girl seems to have a passion for bell-ringing. Her last place was, I fancy, a boarding-house."
Mrs. Loring spoke with a slight shade of annoyance in her tones. Her words and manner, it was plain from Jessie's countenance, were felt as a rebuke. In a few moments the breakfast bell was heard, and the family went down to the morning meal, which had been delayed full half an hour beyond the usual time.
"Had you a pleasant time last evening?" inquired Mrs. Loring, after they were seated at the table, and a taste of the fragrant coffee and warm cakes had somewhat refreshed her body, and restored the tranquillity of her feelings.
"Very," replied Jessie in an absent way.
"Who was there?"
"Oh! everybody. It was a very large company."
"Who in particular that I know?"
"Mrs. Compton and her daughter Agnes."
"Indeed! Was Agnes there?" said Mrs. Loring, in manifest surprise.
"Yes; and she looked beautiful."
"I didn't know that she had come out. Agnes must be very young--not over seventeen. I am surprised at her mother! How did she behave herself? Bold, forward and hoydenish enough, I suppose! I never liked her."
"I did not observe any impropriety of conduct," said Jessie. "She certainly was neither bold nor forward."
"Did she sing?"
"Probably no one asked her." Mrs. Loring was in a cynical mood.
"Yes; I heard her asked more than once to sing."
"And she refused?"
"Affectation! She wanted urging. She has had peculiar advantages, and is said to possess fine musical ability. I have heard that she is a splendid performer. No doubt she was dying to show off at the piano."
"I think not," said Jessie, "for I heard her say to Mrs. Compton, in an under tone, 'I can't, indeed, dear mother! The very thought of playing before these people, makes my heart tremble. I can play very well at home, when my mind is calm; but I should blunder in the first bar here."
"Children should be left at home," said Mrs. Loring. "That is my doctrine. This crowding of young girls into company, and crowding out grown up people, is a great mistake; but, who else was there? What gentlemen?"
Mrs. Loring curled her flexible lip.
The eyes of Jessie drooped as those of her aunt were directed in close scrutiny to her face.
"He's a catch. Set your cap for him, Jessie, and you may ride in your own carriage." There was a vulgar leer in Mrs. Loring's eye. The color rose to Jessie's face, but she did not answer.
"Did he show you any attentions?" inquired the aunt.
"Yes. He was quite as attentive as I could desire."
"Indeed! And what does 'as you could desire,' mean?"
Jessie turned her face partly away to hide its crimson.
"Ah, well; I see how it is, dear. You needn't blush so. I only hope you may get him. He was attentive, then, was he?"
"I have no reason to complain of his lack of attentions, said Jessie, her voice cold and firm. "They would have been flattering to most girls. But, I do not always give to compliments and 'company manners,' the serious meanings that some attach to them."
"Jessie," Mrs. Loring spoke with sudden seriousness; "take my advice, and encourage Leon Dexter. I am pleased to know that you were so much an object of his attentions as your remarks lead me to infer. I know that you will make him a good wife; one of whom he can never be ashamed; and I know that a union with him will give you a proud position."
"Will you waive the subject, at present, dear aunt?" said Jessie, with a pleading look, at the same time glancing covertly towards her cousins, who were drinking in every word with girlish eagerness.
"Oh, by all means," answered Mrs. Loring, "if it is in the least annoying. I was forgetting myself in the interest felt for your welfare."
"And so Mr. Dexter showed you marked attentions last evening?" said Jessie's aunt, joining her in the sitting-room, after Amanda and Dora had left for school.
"Did I say so, aunt?" inquired Jessie, looking into her relative's face.
"You said enough to make the inference clear, my child."
"Well, Aunt Phoebe, he was attentive--more so, by a great deal, than I desired!"
"Than you desired!" There was unfeigned surprise in the voice of Mrs. Loring. "What do you mean, Jessie?"
"The man's position is all well enough; but the man himself is not altogether to my liking."
"You must have grown remarkably fastidious all at once. Why, girl! there isn't a handsomer man to be found anywhere. He is a noble looking fellow! Where are your eyes?"
"The man that a wife has to deal with, is the man of the spirit, Aunt Phoebe--the real man. The handsome outside is nothing, if the inner man is not beautiful!" Jessie spoke with a sudden glow of feeling.
"Stuff and nonsense, child!" said Mrs. Loring, impatiently. "Stuff and nonsense!" she repeated, seeing that her niece looked steadily into her face. "What do you know of the man of the spirit, as you call it? And, moreover, what possesses you to infer that Mr. Dexter's inner man is not as beautiful as the outer?"
"The soul looks forth from the eyes, and manifests its quality in the tones of the voice," replied Jessie, a fine enthusiasm illuminating her beautiful face. "No man can hide from us his real character, unless we let self-love and self-interest draw an obscuring veil."
"You are a strange girl, Jessie--a very strange girl!" Mrs. Loring was fretted. "What can you mean? Here, a splendid fortune promises to be poured into your lap, and you draw your garments aside, hesitating and questioning as to whether the golden treasure is worth receiving! I am half amazed at your conduct!"
"Are you weary of my presence here, Aunt Phoebe?" said Jessie, a tremor in her low failing tones.
"Now give me patience with the foolish girl!" exclaimed Mrs. Loring, assuming an angry aspect. "What has come over you, Jessie? Did I say anything about being wearied with your presence? Because I manifest an unusual degree of interest in your future welfare, am I to be charged with a mean, selfish motive? I did not expect this of you."
"Dear aunt! forgive me!" said Jessie, giving way to tears. "My feelings are unusually disturbed this morning. Late hours and the excitement of company have made me nervous. As for Mr. Dexter, let us pass him by for the present. He has not impressed me as favorably as you seem to desire."
"Spare me, dear aunt! If you press the subject on me now, you will only excite disgust where you hope to create a favorable impression. I have had many opportunities of close observation, and failed not to improve them. The result is"
"What?" queried her aunt.
"That the more narrowly I scan him the less I like him. He is superficial, vain and selfish."
"How do you know?"
"I cannot make manifest to your eyes the signs that were clear to mine. But so I have read him."
"And read him with the page upside down, my, word for it, Miss Jessie Loring!"
Jessie answered only with a sigh, and when her aunt still pressed her on the subject, she begged to be spared, as she felt nervous and excited. So, leaving the sitting room, she retired to her own apartment, to gather up, and unravel, if possible, the tangled thread of thought and feeling.
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