On a cheery June day Mrs. Penelope Carroll and her niece Debby Wilder, were whizzing along on their way to a certain gay watering-place, both in the best of humors with each other and all the world beside. Aunt Pen was concocting sundry mild romances, and laying harmless plots for the pursuance of her favorite pastime, match-making; for she had invited her pretty relative to join her summer jaunt, ostensibly that the girl might see a little of fashionable life, but the good lady secretly proposed to herself to take her to the beach and get her a rich husband, very much as she would have proposed to take her to Broadway and get her a new bonnet: for both articles she considered necessary, but somewhat difficult for a poor girl to obtain.
Debby was slowly getting her poise, after the excitement of a first visit to New York; for ten days of bustle had introduced the young philosopher to a new existence, and the working-day world seemed to have vanished when she made her last pat of butter in the dairy at home. For an hour she sat thinking over the good-fortune which had befallen her, and the comforts of this life which she had suddenly acquired. Debby was a true girl, with all a girl’s love of ease and pleasure; it must not be set down against her that she surveyed her pretty travelling-suit with much complacency, rejoicing inwardly that she could use her hands without exposing fractured gloves, that her bonnet was of the newest mode, needing no veil to hide a faded ribbon or a last year’s shape, that her dress swept the ground with fashionable untidiness, and her boots were guiltless of a patch, — that she was the possessor of a mine of wealth in two of the eight trunks belonging to her aunt, that she was travelling like any lady of the land with man and maid-servant at her command, and that she was leaving work and care behind her for a month or two of novelty and rest.
When these agreeable facts were fully realized, and Aunt Pen had fallen asleep behind her veil, Debby took out a book, and indulged in her favorite luxury, soon forgetting past, present, and future in the inimitable history of Martin Chuzzlewit. The sun blazed, the cars rattled, children cried, ladies nodded, gentlemen longed for the solace of prohibited cigars, and newspapers were converted into sun-shades, nightcaps, and fans; but Debby read on, unconscious of all about her, even of the pair of eyes that watched her from the Opposite corner of the car. A Gentleman with a frank, strong-featured face sat therein, and amused himself by scanning with thoughtful gaze the countenances of his fellow-travellers. Stout Aunt Pen, dignified even in her sleep, was a “model of deportment” to the rising generation; but the student of human nature found a more attractive subject in her companion, the girl with an apple-blossom face and merry brown eyes, who sat smiling into her book, never heeding that her bonnet was awry, and the wind taking unwarrantable liberties with her ribbons and her hair.
Innocent Debby turned her pages, unaware that her fate sat opposite in the likeness of a serious, black-bearded gentleman, who watched the smiles rippling from her lips to her eyes with an interest that deepened as the minutes passed. If his paper had been full of anything but “Bronchial Troches” and “Spalding’s Prepared Glue,” he would have found more profitable employment; but it wasn’t, and with the usual readiness of idle souls he fell into evil ways, and permitted curiosity, that feminine sin, to enter in and take possession of his manly mind. A great desire seized him to discover what book so interested his pretty neighbor; but a cover hid the name, and he was too distant to catch it on the fluttering leaves. Presently a stout Emerald-Islander, with her wardrobe oozing out of sundry paper parcels, vacated the seat behind the two ladies; and it was soon quietly occupied by the individual for whom Satan was finding such indecorous employment. Peeping round the little gray bonnet, past a brown braid and a fresh cheek, the young man’s eye fell upon the words the girl was reading, and forgot to look away again. Books were the desire of his life; but an honorable purpose and an indomitable will kept him steady at his ledgers till he could feel that he had earned the right to read. Like wine to many another was an open page to his; he read a line, and, longing for more, took a hasty sip from his neighbor’s cup, forgetting that it was a stranger’s also.
Down the page went the two pairs of eyes, and the merriment from Debby’s seemed to light up the sombre ones behind her with a sudden shine that softened the whole face and made it very winning. No wonder they twinkled, for Elijah Pogram spoke, and “Mrs. Hominy, the mother of the modern Gracchi, in the classical blue cap and the red cotton pocket-handkerchief, came down the room in a procession of one.” A low laugh startled Debby, though it was smothered like the babes in the Tower; and, turning, she beheld the trespasser scarlet with confusion, and sobered with a tardy sense of his transgression. Debby was not a starched young lady of the “prune and prism” school, but a frank, free-hearted little body, quick to read the sincerity of others, and to take looks and words at their real value. Dickens was her idol; and for his sake she could have forgiven a greater offence than this.
The stranger’s contrite countenance and respectful apology won her good-will at once; and with a finer courtesy than any Aunt Pen would have taught, she smilingly bowed her pardon, and, taking another book from her basket, opened it, saying, pleasantly, —
“Here is the first volume if you like it, Sir. I can recommend it as an invaluable consolation for the discomforts of a summer day’s journey, and it is heartily at your service.”
As much surprised as gratified, the gentleman accepted the book, and retired behind it with the sudden discovery that wrongdoing has its compensation in the pleasurable sensation of being forgiven. Stolen delights are well known to be specially saccharine: and much as this pardoned sinner loved books, it seemed to him that the interest of the story flagged, and that the enjoyment of reading was much enhanced by the proximity of a gray bonnet and a girlish profile. But Dickens soon proved more powerful than Debby, and she was forgotten, till, pausing to turn a leaf, the young man met her shy glance, as she asked, with the pleased expression of a child who has shared an apple with a playmate, —
“Is it good?”
“Oh, very!” — and the man looked as honestly grateful for the book as the boy would have done for the apple.
Only five words in the conversation, but Aunt Pen woke, as if the watchful spirit of propriety had roused her to pluck her charge from the precipice on which she stood.
“Dora, I’m astonished at you! Speaking to strangers in that free manner is a most unladylike thing. How came you to forget what I have told you over and over again about a proper reserve?” The energetic whisper reached the gentleman’s ear, and he expected to be annihilated with a look when his offence was revealed; but he was spared that ordeal, for the young voice answered, softly, —
“Don’t faint, Aunt Pen: I only did as I’d be done by; for I had two books, and the poor man looked so hungry for something to read that I couldn’t resist sharing my ‘goodies.’ He will see that I’m a countrified little thing in spite of my fine feathers, and won’t be shocked at my want of rigidity and frigidity; so don’t look dismal, and I’ll be prim and proper all the rest of the way, — if I don’t forget it.”
“I wonder who he is; may belong to some of our first families, and in that case it might be worth while to exert ourselves, you know. Did you learn his name, Dora?” whispered the elder lady.
Debby shook her head, and murmured, “Hush!” — but Aunt Pen had heard of matches being made in cars as well as in heaven; and as an experienced general, it became her to reconnoitre, when one of the enemy approached her camp. Slightly altering her position, she darted an all-comprehensive glance at the invader, who seemed entirely absorbed, for not an eyelash stirred during the scrutiny. It lasted but an instant, yet in that instant he was weighed and found wanting; for that experienced eye detected that his cravat was two inches wider than fashion ordained, that his coat was not of the latest style, that his gloves were mended, and his handkerchief neither cambric nor silk. That was enough, and sentence was passed forthwith, — “Some respectable clerk, good-looking, but poor, and not at all the thing for Dora”; and Aunt Pen turned to adjust a voluminous green veil over her niece’s bonnet, “To shield it from the dust, dear,” which process also shielded the face within from the eye of man.
A curious smile, half mirthful, half melancholy, passed over their neighbor’s lips; but his peace of mind seemed undisturbed, and he remained buried in his book Till they reached [their destination] , at dusk. As he returned it, he offered his services in procuring a carriage or attending to luggage; but Mrs. Carroll, with much dignity of aspect, informed him that her servants would attend to those matters, and, bowing gravely, he vanished into the night.