The two elder Miss Hallecks were so much older than Olive, the youngest, that they seemed to be of a sort of intermediary generation between her and her parents, though Olive herself was well out of her teens, and was the senior of her brother Ben by two or three years. The elder sisters were always together, and they adhered in common to the religion of their father and mother. The defection of their brother was passive, but Olive, having conscientiously adopted an alien faith, was not a person to let others imagine her ashamed of it, and her Unitarianism was outspoken. In her turn she formed a kind of party with Ben inside the family, and would have led him on in her own excesses of independence if his somewhat melancholy indifferentism had consented. It was only in his absence that she had been with her sisters during their summer sojourn in the White Mountains; when they returned home, she vigorously went her way, and left them to go theirs. She was fond of them in her defiant fashion; but in such a matter as calling on Mrs. Hubbard she chose not to be mixed up with her family, or in any way to countenance her family's prepossessions. Her sisters paid their visit together, and she waited for Clara Kingsbury to come up from the seaside. Then she went with her to call upon Marcia, sitting observant and non-committal while Clara swooped through the little house, up stairs and down, clamoring over its prettiness, and admiring the art with which so few dollars could be made to go so far. "Think of finding such a bower on Clover Street!" She made Marcia give her the cost of everything; and her heart swelled with pride in her sex—when she heard that Marcia had put down all the carpets herself. "I wanted to make them up," Marcia explained, "but Mr. Hubbard wouldn't let me,—it cost so little at the store."
"Wouldn't let you!" cried Miss Kingsbury. "I should hope as much, indeed!
Why, my child, you're a Roman matron!"
She came away in agony lest Marcia might think she meant her nose. She drove early the next morning to tell Olive Halleck that she had spent a sleepless night from this cause, and to ask her what she should do. "Do you think she will be hurt, Olive? Tell me what led up to it. How did I behave before that? The context is everything in such cases."
"Oh, you went about praising everything, and screaming and shouting, and my-dearing and my-childing her, and patronizing—"
"There, there! say no more! That's sufficient! I see,—I see it all! I've done the very most offensive thing I could, when I meant to be the most appreciative."
"These country people don't like to be appreciated down to the quick, in that way," said Olive. "I should think Mrs. Hubbard was rather a proud person."
"I know! I know!" moaned Miss Kingsbury. 'It was ghastly."
"I don't suppose she's ashamed of her nose—"
"Olive!" cried her friend, "be still! Why, I can't bear it! Why, you wretched thing!"
"I dare say all the ladies in Equity make up their own carpets, and put them down, and she thought you were laughing at her."
"Will you be still, Olive Halleck?" Miss Kingsbury was now a large, blonde mass of suffering, "Oh, dear, dear! What shall I do? It was sacrilege—yes, it was nothing less than sacrilege—to go on as I did. And I meant so well! I did so admire, and respect, and revere her!" Olive burst out laughing. "You wicked girl!" whimpered Clara. "Should you—should you write to her?"
"And tell her you didn't mean her nose? Oh, by all means, Clara,—by all means! Quite an inspiration. Why not make her an evening party?"
"Olive," said Clara, with guilty meekness, "I have been thinking of that."
"No, Clara! Not seriously!" cried Olive, sobered at the idea.
"Yes, seriously. Would it be so very bad? Only just a little party," she pleaded. "Half a dozen people or so; just to show them that I really feel—friendly. I know that he's told her all about meeting me here, and I'm not going to have her think I want to drop him because he's married, and lives in a little house on Clover Street."
"Noble Clara! So you wish to bring them out in Boston society? What will you do with them after you've got them there?" Miss Kingsbury fidgeted in her chair a little. "Now, look me in the eye, Clara! Whom were you going to ask to meet them? Your unfashionable friends, the Hallecks?"
"My friends, the Hallecks, of course."
"And Mr. Atherton, your legal adviser?"
"I had thought of asking Mr. Atherton. You needn't say what he is, if you please, Olive; you know that there's no one I prize so much."
"Very good. And Mr. Cameron?"
"He has got back,—yes. He's very nice."
"A Cambridge tutor; very young and of recent attachment to the College, with no local affiliations, yet. What ladies?"
"Miss Strong is a nice girl; she is studying at the Conservatory."
"Yes. Poverty-stricken votary of Miss Kingsbury. Well?"
"Unfashionable sister of fashionable artist. Yes?"
"Young radical clergyman, and his wife, without a congregation, and hoping for a pulpit in Billerica. Parlor lectures on German literature in the mean time. Well?"
"And Mrs. Savage, I thought."
"Well-preserved young widow of uncertain antecedents tending to grassiness; out-door protégée of the hostess. Yes, Clara, go on and give your party. It will be perfectly safe! But do you think it will deceive anybody?"
"Now, Olive Halleck!" cried Clara, "I am not going to have you talking to me in that way! You have no right to do it, and you have no business to do it," she added, trying to pluck up a spirit. "Is there anybody that I value more than I do you and your sisters, and Ben?"
"No. But you don't value us just in that way, and you know it. Don't you be a humbug, Clara. Now go on with your excuses."
"I'm not making excuses! Isn't Mr. Atherton in the most fashionable society?"
"Yes. Why don't you ask some other fashionable people?"
"Olive, this is all nonsense,—perfect nonsense! I can invite any one I like to meet any one I like, and if I choose to show Mr. Hubbard's wife a little attention, I can do it, can't I?"
"Oh, of course!"
"And what would be the use of inviting fashionable people—as you call them—to meet them? It would just embarrass them, all round."
"Perfectly correct, Miss Kingsbury. All that want you to do is to face the facts of the case. I want you to realize that, in showing Mr. Hubbard's wife this little attention, you're not doing it because you scorn to drop an old friend, and want to do him the highest honor; but because you think you can palm off your second-class acquaintance on them for first-class, and try to make up in that way for telling her she had a hooked nose!"
"You know that I didn't tell her she had a hooked nose."
"You told her that she was a Roman matron,—it's the same thing," said
Miss Kingsbury bit her lip and tried to look a dignified resentment. She ended by saying, with feeble spite, "I shall have the little evening for all you say. I suppose you won't refuse to come because I don't ask the whole Blue Book to meet them."
"Of course we shall come! I wouldn't miss it for anything. I always like to see how you manage your pieces of social duplicity, Clara. But you needn't expect that I will be a party to the swindle. No, Clara! I shall go to these poor young people and tell them plainly, 'This is not the best society; Miss Kingsbury keeps that for—'"
"Olive! I think I never saw even you in such a teasing humor." The tears came into Clara's large, tender blue eyes, and she continued with an appeal that had no effect, "I'm sure I don't see why you should make it a question of anything of the sort. It's simply a wish to—to have a little company of no particular kind, for no partic—Because I want to."
"Oh, that's it, is it? Then I highly approve of it," said Olive. "When is it to be?"
"I sha'n't tell you, now! You may wait till I'm ready," pouted Clara, as she rose to go.
"Don't go away thinking I'm enough to provoke a saint because you've got mad at me, Clara!"
"Mad? You know I'm not mad! But I think you might be a little sympathetic _some_times, Olive!" said her friend, kissing her.
"Not in cases of social duplicity, Clara. My wrath is all that saves you. If you were not afraid of me, you would have been a lost worldling long ago."
"I know you always really love me," said Miss Kingsbury, tenderly.
"No, I don't," retorted her friend, promptly. "Not when you're humbugging. Don't expect it, for you won't get it." She followed Clara with a triumphant laugh as she went out of the door; and except for this parting taunt Clara might have given up her scheme. She first ordered her coupé driven home, in fact, and then lowered the window to countermand the direction, and drove to Bartley's door on Clover Street.
It was a very handsome equipage, and was in keeping with all the outward belongings of Miss Kingsbury, who mingled a sense of duty and a love of luxury in her life in very exact proportions. When her coupé was not standing before some of the wretchedest doors in the city, it was waiting at the finest; and Clara's days were divided between the extremes of squalor and of fashion.
She was the only child of parents who had early left her an orphan. Her father, who was much her mother's senior, was an old friend of Olive's father, and had made him his executor and the guardian of his daughter. Mr. Halleck had taken her into his own family, and, in the conscientious pursuance of what he believed would have been her father's preference, he gave her worldly advantages which he would not have desired for one of his own children. But the friendship that grew up between Clara and Olive was too strong for him in some things, and the girls went to the same fashionable school together.
When his ward came of age he made over to her the fortune, increased by his careful management, which her father had left her, and advised her to put her affairs in the hands of Mr. Atherton. She had shown a quite ungirlish eagerness to manage them for herself; in the midst of her profusion she had odd accesses of stinginess, in which she fancied herself coming to poverty; and her guardian judged it best that she should have a lawyer who could tell her at any moment just where she stood. She hesitated, but she did as he advised; and having once intrusted her property to Atherton's care, she added her conscience and her reason in large degree, and obeyed him with embarrassing promptness in matters that did not interfere with her pleasures. Her pleasures were of various kinds. She chose to buy herself a fine house, and, having furnished it luxuriously and unearthed a cousin of her father's in Vermont and brought her to Boston to matronize her, she kept house on a magnificent scale, pinching, however, at certain points with unexpected meanness. When she was alone, her table was of a Spartan austerity; she exacted a great deal from her servants, and paid them as small wages as she could. After that she did not mind lavishing money upon them in kindness. A seamstress whom she had once employed fell sick, and Miss Kingsbury sent her to the Bahamas and kept her there till she was well, and then made her a guest in her house till the girl could get back her work. She watched her cook through the measles, caring for her like a mother; and, as Olive Halleck said, she was always portioning or burying the sisters of her second-girls. She was in all sorts of charities, but she was apt to cut her charities off with her pleasures at any moment, if she felt poor. She was fond of dress, and went a great deal into society: she suspected men generally of wishing to marry her for her money, but with those whom she did not think capable of aspiring to her hand, she was generously helpful with her riches. She liked to patronize; she had long supported an unpromising painter at Rome, and she gave orders to desperate artists at home.
The world had pretty well hardened one half of her heart, but the other half was still soft and loving, and into this side of her mixed nature she cowered when she believed she had committed some blunder or crime, and came whimpering to Olive Halleck for punishment. She made Olive her discipline partly in her lack of some fixed religion. She had not yet found a religion that exactly suited her, though she had many times believed herself about to be anchored in some faith forever.
She was almost sorry that she had put her resolution in effect when she rang at the door, and Marcia herself answered the bell, in place of the one servant who was at that moment hanging out the wash. It seemed wicked to pretend to be showing this pretty creature a social attention, when she meant to palm off a hollow imitation of society upon her. Why should she not ask the very superfinest of her friends to meet such a brilliant beauty? It would serve Olive Halleck right if she should do this, and leave the Hallecks out; and Marcia would certainly be a sensation. She half believed that she meant to do it when she quitted the house with Marcia's promise that she would bring her husband to tea on Wednesday evening, at eight; and she drove away so far penitent that she resolved at least to make her company distinguished, if not fashionable. She said to herself that she would make it fashionable yet, if she chose, and as a first move in this direction she easily secured Mr. Atherton: he had no engagements, so few people had got back to town. She called upon Mrs. Witherby, needlessly reminding her of the charity committees they had served on together; and then she went home and actually sent out notes to the plainest daughter and the maiden aunt of two of the most high-born families of her acquaintance. She added to her list an artist and his wife, ("Now I shall have to let him paint me!" she reflected,) a young author whose book had made talk, a teacher of Italian with whom she was pretending to read Dante, and a musical composer.
Olive came late, as if to get a whole effect of the affair at once; and her smile revealed Clara's failure to her, if she had not realized it before. She read there that the aristocratic and aesthetic additions which she had made to the guests Olive originally divined had not sufficed; the party remained a humbug. It had seemed absurd to invite anybody to meet two such little, unknown people as the Hubbards; and then, to avoid marking them as the subjects of the festivity by the precedence to be observed in going out to supper, she resolved to have tea served in the drawing-room, and to make it literally tea, with bread and butter, and some thin, ascetic cakes.
However sharp he was in business, Mr. Witherby was socially a dull man; and his wife and daughter seemed to partake of his qualities by affinition and heredity. They tried to make something of Marcia, but they failed through their want of art. Mrs. Witherby, finding the wife of her husband's assistant in Miss Kingsbury's house, conceived an awe of her, which Marcia would not have known how to abate if she had imagined it; and in a little while the Witherby family segregated themselves among the photograph albums and the bricabrac, from which Clara seemed to herself to be fruitlessly detaching them the whole evening. The plainest daughter and the maiden aunt of the patrician families talked to each other with unavailing intervals of the painter and the author, and the radical clergyman and his wife were in danger of a conjugal devotion which society does not favor; the unfashionable sister of the fashionable artist conversed with the young tutor and the Japanese law-student whom he had asked leave to bring with him, and whose small, mouse-like eyes continually twinkled away in pursuit of the blonde beauty of his hostess. The widow was winningly attentive, with a tendency to be confidential, to everybody. The Italian could not disabuse himself of the notion that he was expected to be light and cheerful, and when the pupil of the Conservatory sang, he abandoned himself to his error, and clapped and cried bravo with unseemly vivacity. But he was restored to reason when the composer sat down at the piano and played, amid the hush that falls on society at such times, something from Beethoven, and again something of his own, which was so like Beethoven that Beethoven himself would not have known the difference.
Mr. Atherton and Halleck moved about among the guests, and did their best to second Clara's efforts for their encouragement; but it was useless. In the desperation which owns defeat, she resolved to devote herself for the rest of the evening to trying to make at least the Hubbards have a good time; and then, upon the dangerous theory, of which young and pretty hostesses cannot be too wary, that a wife is necessarily flattered by attentions to her husband, she devoted herself exclusively to Bartley, to whom she talked long and with a reckless liveliness of the events of his former stay in Boston. Their laughter and scraps of their reminiscence reached Marcia where she sat in a feint of listening to Ben Halleck's perfunctory account of his college days with her husband, till she could bear it no longer. She rose abruptly, and, going to him, she said that it was time to say good-night. "Oh, so soon!" cried Clara, mystified and a little scared at the look she saw on Marcia's face. "Good night," she added coldly.
The assembly hailed this first token of its disintegration with relief; it became a little livelier; there was a fleeting moment in which it seemed as if it might yet enjoy itself; but its chance passed; it crumbled rapidly away, and Clara was left looking humbly into Olive Halleck's pitiless eyes. "Thank you for a delightful evening, Miss Kingsbury! Congratulate you!" she mocked, with an unsparing laugh. "Such a success! But why didn't you give them something to eat, Clara? Those poor Hubbards have a one-o'clock dinner, and I famished for them. I wasn't hungry myself,—we have a two-o'clock dinner!"
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