BELLAIRE is, or was when I knew it, a most charmingly quaint old town, half old English and half very old German, with the most delightfully aristocratic and exclusive society. Not that the town seemed quaint to me then, or the society remarkable: I had never known any other. But I have lived in many places since, and I have known many kinds of people, and I have come to think that none of them can compare with Bellaire or Bellairians in the sixties.
The college people held undisputed sway in west end, where Old Tomlinson, as we loved to call her, sat gray with her hundred years beneath the shade of her spreading maples and lindens, while the army people dominated the eastern end, in the fine old barracks built of yellow brick, brought over for the purpose by the English before the Revolution. Those of you who go to Bellaire now have no idea how beautiful the old barracks were before that summer of '63, when they were burned by Fitzhugh Lee, the stately trees mutilated or entirely cut down, and the velvet lawns trampled into mire, never to be restored to their former perfection.
From the barracks to the college stretched the long Main Street, where society proper dwelt. Not to inhabit one of the substantial dwellings planted firmly on the brick sidewalk of that thoroughfare was almost to be ostracized in Bellaire society. There were other residence streets and other residences, on Portland, Langdon, and Harcourt, for instance, perhaps quite as fine as anything Main could boast; but Main Street residents either pitied or patronized or entirely ignored their less fortunate neighbors. On the other hand, the young women whose hard lot doomed them to dwell on the "back" streets eagerly cultivated their Main Street friends, that they might have a stoop whereon to sit on pleasant summer mornings or cool summer evenings; for the great dissipation of Bellaire was to watch the trains come in from Henrysburg and Marystown at ten in the morning and six in the afternoon. The track passed the whole length of Main Street, and the station was in the old Mansion House in the very heart of the town, and a little before train-time every stoop was filled with pretty maidens in the freshest and daintiest of summer lawns and linens.
It was not the trains, however, that was so much the attraction, though their coming was always an excitement in that quiet town, with the arrivals and departures to be commented upon–it was not so much the trains, I think, as what followed. For very shortly after their arrival, from the east end of town came the dashing cavalry officers after their mail; and as they always came before the slow old postmaster and his assistants had distributed it (nothing was ever done in a hurry in Bellaire), they employed the waiting interval either in making informal calls at the most popular stoops, or in displaying their fine horsemanship and finer horses by racing from one end of the town to the other, sure of admiring glances from many bright eyes.
Then, besides the officers from the east end were the students from the west end, coming down the street in twos or threes or larger numbers after their mail, and stopping at their favorite stoops–generally not the ones the officers patronized–until Main Street, or at least the two blocks from Harcourt to College, would have impressed a stranger with the idea that he had lighted upon a midsummer festival or open-air reception.
Those were halcyon days, but: they belong to the golden past. The cavalry school, with its dashing young officers, was removed soon after the close of the war, and I fancy society in Bellaire has never ceased to mourn their loss. To be sure, the students are left; but I have been back to Bellaire several times in the last thirty years, and I have thought the class of students changed. They seem so much younger, and not half so handsome, chivalrous, and high-toned as the young heroes of my girlhood. Possibly the Bellaire girls of today would not agree with me; but I cannot help feeling a little sorry for them, that they can never know what a fine set of young fellows our Toms and Dicks and Harrys were.
It was five minutes to ten o'clock on the fifth of September, 1860, when a group was gathered on the doorstep of the Burton mansion, momentarily expecting the whistle of the Henrysburg train. It was a few minutes late; the train from Marystown was already on the siding in front of the campus, puffing and blowing, as it impatiently waited its turn to run into the station after the passing of its consort.
It was a perfect September day, and the whole Northumberland valley lay basking under an Italian sky. The town itself was gently simmering in the torrid blaze, but its magnificent elms and maples had not then been cut down to barricade against Lee's cavalry, and there was plenty of cool green shade to moderate the hot glare reflected from brick walls and brick sidewalks.
We were proud of the Burton mansion. I have no doubt that its double flight of stone steps, protected by iron railings, rising in symmetrical curves to meet the white-pillared porch, would be called Old Colonial now; but I do not remember that in those days we had ever heard of Old Colonial, and we thought it simply a very fine house, to be pointed out with pride to our chance guests as a fitting residence for one of our oldest families.
The Burtons were acknowledged leaders in style. Nobody who made any pretensions to fashion or taste thought of getting their new bonnets or frocks until after the return of the Misses Burton from their two months' sojourn in Philadelphia, spent among their grand relations on Spruce and Walnut streets. To be sure, it sometimes made us a little late with our winter wardrobes for they often did not get home until Christmas; but we would have worn our old clothes all winter rather than have suffered the mortification of not having our new ones as exact copies of the Philadelphia toilets as our country milliners and dressmakers could manage.
On this September morning there were on the Burton porch and steps–besides Miss Sallie Burton and her younger sister, Miss Mazie–their cousin, the beautiful Miss Marcia Morris, and Miss Lydia McNair, a dashing belle of the army set, on the friendliest terms with all the officers, but not disdaining also to reckon a young collegian or two in her train.
She was sitting now on one of, the lower steps of the curved flight, talking to a handsome young lieutenant, who had dismounted and was holding his horse by the bridle, which required his standing near the curb, and necessitated Miss Lydia raising her voice more than was considered quite proper in staid Bellaire. But Miss Lydia had little regard for small conventions. She rather liked to talk loud and laugh loud, if occasion permitted. The men all liked her, and so did some of the women, and the rest tolerated her for the sake of the men, and because no bluer blood could be found in Pennsylvania than flowed in the veins of the McNairs.
By her side stood Rex McAllister, a South Carolinian, and the beau and exquisite of the college. In those days the old college drew its patronage almost entirely from the South: Maryland and Virginia, the Eastern Shore, the two Carolinas, Georgia, and even occasionally Alabama and Mississippi, sent their sons to its venerable halls. The modest little college has perhaps no exalted reputation in the East and North, but among Southerners of the passing generation, or the little remnant of it left by that terrible war, it is not unknown to fame. They were fine fellows as I remember them, those ardent, hot-headed Southerners, with the most beautiful manners in the world; and if they had any vices, they kept them decorously out of sight, so that the recipients of their devotion were at liberty to give full rein to their imaginations and endow them with all the heroic virtues.
Rex McAllister stood with one slender, arched foot, incased in a closely fitting boot of calf, resting on the lower step as he alternately looked up to utter some pretty compliment to Miss Morris on the upper step, or down to answer some saucy speech of Miss Lydia's. The attitude showed to advantage his tall, slender figure, his shoulders, built squarely out by careful padding to suit the taste of the day, and his long coat, of finest broadcloth, almost sweeping the ground as he stood, buttoned closely about a waist that his envious admirers said could have been reduced to such ladylike dimensions only by steels and lacers. In one hand he twirled a slender ebony cane, surmounted by a shapely leg and foot in ivory, and in the other he held his broad palmetto hat, removed out of deference to the ladies or because of the intense heat, or perhaps to display to better advantage the coal-black curls, not too closely cropped, whose moderate gloss, and the delicate perfume they exhaled, showed that he had a finer taste in hair-oils than many of the men of that day. His Byronic collar, neither stiff nor glossy, and his loosely tied bow with uneven ends, were the only careless points in his dress; and no one could doubt for a moment that this was a studied neglect to heighten the resemblance to the poet that the flashing black eyes and smoothly shaven face rendered sufficiently obvious to the most casual glance.
Miss Lydia's loud talking and laughing had annoyed his somewhat punctilious ideas of propriety, and he was rather pointedly devoting himself to Miss Marcia, whose manners were as faultless as her face, when a specially loud burst of laughter drew the attention of the whole party to Miss Lydia. Her hands were clasping her round waist, her head thrown back, her eyes tightly closed, her shapely mouth open, disclosing two rows of white teeth, between which rolled a quick succession of merry peals. She was in the very agonies of mirth. The lieutenant stood regarding her with anything but a mirthful glance, a deep flush of anger or mortification rising to the very roots of his closely cropped military hair, and one hand pulling savagely at his fierce cavalry mustache. Everybody gazed at her for a moment in dumb astonishment, and then Miss Sallie Burton called down from the vestibule step:
"Why, Lyd McNair, what is the matter?"
And Miss Marcia said coldly: "You might at least let us share your fun, Lydia."
To both of which speeches Miss Lydia responded only by swaying back and forth and by renewed peals of laughter.
"You will have to enlighten us, Lieutenant Watson," said Rex McAllister, turning to the officer, who now seemed undetermined whether to mount his horse and leave Miss Lydia to recover at her leisure, or to await the apology he considered due him.
He answered stiffly: "You must ask Miss McNair; she is pleased to be merry this morning. That is all I know."
"Oh–I–beg your pardon," gasped Miss Lydia; "but you–are–too funny," and she was again seized with a spasm that threatened to be hysterical.
McAllister suddenly broke the perplexed silence of the others:
"By Hercules! here comes Dr. Charlton post-haste. Do you suppose he is after me? Can't you hide me somewhere, Miss Burton?"
The college bell was ringing the ten-o'clock hour, and McAllister was due at a recitation in "Paley's Evidences" to the doctor, which he had just announced his intention of cutting.
His exclamation had an electrical effect upon Miss Lydia. She sat erect at once, her hands dropped demurely in her lap, her mouth shut, her eyes wide open.
"Do you think he saw me?" she said in an awestruck whisper to McAllister, who was as astonished at her sudden recovery as he had been at her seizure.
There was one being in the world for whom Lydia McNair entertained the profoundest reverence, and he was at that moment coming down the street, his old-fashioned and somewhat rusty swallow-tailed coat flying open to disclose a flowered-satin waistcoat, the tails streaming behind him with the rapidity of his progress, his high black-silk stock slightly awry, his black beaver hat pushed a little back, his slight figure bent eagerly forward, his gold-headed cane grasped belligerently in his hand, his pale, scholarly face flushed with his unusual exertion. In fact, the dignified doctor was evidently in a tremendous hurry, and, absorbed by one idea, perfectly oblivious of the ridiculous figure he made. The group on the steps now saw something to laugh at, and were, inclined to emulate Miss Lydia's example, but Miss Lydia herself was rigidly sober.
The train was overdue, but its whistle had been heard from the bridge at the lower end of Main Street, and now the rolling smoke was visible through the trees of the Square, and the ringing of the bell and the puffing of the engine were plainly audible.
"He is going to take the train, and thinks he is late," murmured Miss Lydia.
At that moment the doctor came abreast of the little party and became conscious of two things: one was that the train had not yet arrived and he was in time, and the other that his undignified haste was affording amusement and comment to a select group of Bellaire's haut ton. He drew himself erect, lowered his cane, pulled forward his hat, and stopped. The two ends of his black stock still fluttered beneath his left ear, but he had not been aware of their disarrangement, and so was calmly unconscious of them. The tails of his coat gently subsided from their angle of velocity as his pace slackened, and now, as he regarded the little circle with a pleasant smile and a benignant glance from his mild blue eyes he was as fine a picture of a gentleman and a scholar as one might ever see.
At his courteous "Good morning, ladies; good morning, gentlemen, " the ladies rose to their feet, and the men stood with their hats held deferentially to the side of their heads. It was Miss Lydia who dared to respond with more than a simple "Good morning."
"Are you going to take the train, doctor?" most sweetly; "you seem to be in a hurry."
Like most retiring scholars of a kindly nature, the doctor was very susceptible to the attractions of a young and pretty woman; and if she added a touch of audacity to her other charms, it made her all the more irresistible. He smiled appreciatively as he turned to her:
"No, Miss Lydia; but Mrs. Charlton has sent me to meet a young and, no doubt, charming lady. Don't you think it is proper to assume an air of eagerness and haste on such an errand?"
"Perfectly proper, doctor; and you have succeeded admirably–don't you think so, Lieutenant Watson?" with a little propitiatory smile to the offended officer, who still stood in an attitude of grim unbending.
The lieutenant replied only by a stately bow, and the train drawing in to the station opposite, the doctor turned to Rex McAllister and said gravely:
"I have postponed my recitation for fifteen minutes, Mr. McAllister. Your furlough will be extended for that time; at the end of which Mr. Paley will expect you to be in Evidence."
McAllister was too confused to see the little twinkle in the tail of the doctor's eye, and he had a Southerner's slowness in perceiving anything in the nature of a pun. But Miss Lydia laughed a quick response, and the doctor, who dearly loved to have his small jokes appreciated, beamed on her graciously as he added:
"Ah, Mr. McAllister, you will have to beware of the sirens. I would recommend you, if you are walking down Main Street near ten o'clock, to αίψα ίαίνε κηρός έπ ονατα δ άλευψε." With which learned quotation, that McAllister appreciated and Miss Lydia did not, the doctor made a sweeping bow to the ladies and crossed over to the train.
"I think I know who the young lady is," said McAllister; "I heard Miss Lucy say the other day that they were to have a new teacher for St. John's school."
"Oh, of course, " said Miss Mazie; "I know all about her. She is from Massachusetts–a real Yankee school-ma'am. I wonder if she will be young and pretty, as the doctor said? Somehow I can't fancy a Yankee school-ma'am anything but an ancient maiden lady with spectacles and a false front."
"You will have an opportunity of judging for yourself, Miss Mazie," said Rex; "that must be the young lady that the doctor is helping off the car."
"Why, she is young!" said Miss Lydia; "and pretty, too–at least from this distance."
"Wouldn't you call her a little–ah–prim? " ventured the lieutenant, hesitatingly. The others laughed, for the adjective did seem rather appropriate to the slim figure in gray, with long, light brown curls falling straight beneath a close little quakerish bonnet, which was about as much as they could see of her.
"What will you give me if I walk up to the college with her?" said Rex McAllister, looking sharply at the little figure, and deciding at once that she was pretty enough to make an effort at acquaintance worth while.
"Mr. McAllister!" exclaimed all the girls together; while Miss Lydia added, "You don't dare! One glance of lightning from the doctor's blue eyes would annihilate you."
"Oh, of course, if I did it impertinently. But I shall wait until they are half-way up the block, and then, as I pass them on my way to college, I shall stop and ask the doctor, most deferentially, if I cannot relieve him of that heavy bag he is carrying. Of course he will introduce me, and we will all three walk up together, as cozy as old acquaintances."
"Well, you could do it, if any one could," returned Miss Lydia; "but I hope the doctor will see through your little game, and give you an awful settler. And if he does, I would give a fippenny bit to be there and see."
"Thank you, Miss Lydia, you are always kind! Here they come! She is pretty, isn't she?"
Unconsciously they all fell into a silent survey of the little figure passing them with downcast eyes, betraying by her constrained walk and fluctuating color her consciousness of their scrutiny. The doctor was talking in his pleasant fashion, trying to put her at her ease, and only noticed the little party on the steps by including them absent-mindedly in a sweeping wave of his hat. When they were well out of earshot, McAllister broke out:
"Ye gods! what a complexion! roses and milk!"
"Not at all," said Miss Lydia, tartly; "she has a very good skin, but it does not compare with Miss Lucy Charlton's. That's genuine roses and milk."
"And she has such a prim, school-ma'amish air," added Miss Marcia; "I should have known she was from New England from her walk and the cut of her frock. "
"Did you notice her hair, girls?" said Miss Mazie, contributing her quota to the round robin of criticism from the vestibule step. "It's drab; matches her funny little bonnet exactly."
"I am not sure but that she would look very well," said Miss Sallie, judicially, "if she were only stylishly dressed. A broad hat now, with a deep fall of lace around it, instead of that queer old-fashioned bonnet, and a black silk mantilla with heavy fringe in place of that little gray cape, would give her quite a different air."
Out of regard to the men present, none of them quite dared to say that it was the skirt falling in straight, scanty folds to the feet, without the sign of a hoop, that gave her a hopelessly outlandish look in the eyes of these country belles. But they could not refrain from preening their own flowing robes over their well-caned petticoats with a conscious air that clearly indicated to the masculine intellects present where the trouble lay. Rex made a low obeisance:
"I bow to the superior judgment of the ladies. She is a fright, doubtless. It was preposterous in me to form an opinion on her complexion or any other of her charms before I had heard your decisions. But now, if you will permit me, I will obey the doctor's behest and hie me collegeward. Miss Lydia, I beg you will watch me well, and see how boldly I dare tackle this female griffin. Ladies, good morning and au revoir!"
The doctor and his convoy were now more than halfway up the block, and it took some tall striding on the part of McAllister's long legs to overtake them, before they should reach the "Iron Gate" corner. It was under the Washington elm, with its hollow, rapidly decaying trunk, and its wide-spreading branches overshadowing the low log-cabin, whose entrance, sunk a foot below the pavement level, was a guarantee of its antiquity and a sure proof to us, young people that it had once been, as tradition said, Washington's headquarters in the Indian wars before the Revolution–it was on that sacred spot that Rex overtook them and put into execution his shameless little plot.On the steps of the Burton mansion the girls were craning their necks to witness his expected discomfiture. To their utter amazement, they saw Dr. Charlton stop as McAllister addressed him, put the bag into his hand, apparently utter a few hasty words of introduction, then turn and come flying down the street again, while Rex, without turning his head, gently fluttered his cambric handkerchief over his left shoulder as a signal to the watchers on the steps of his triumph, and bent his head to the little lady on his right with that air of mingled gallantry and deference he knew so well how to assume.
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