"What!" exclaimed Louisa, "after you have lost the shawl?"
"But I can assure thee it _was_ dyed," replied the woman. "It actually _was_ dyed, I can speak positive to that, and we cannot afford to lose the dyeing."
Louisa, child as she was, had acuteness enough to perceive the intended imposition, and, without making an answer, she slipped out of the door: though the woman caught her by the skirt, and attempted to stop her, repeating: "But we can't afford to lose the dyeing."
Louisa, however, disengaged herself from her grasp, and ran down the street, for some distance, as fast as possible--afraid to look back lest the Quaker woman should be coming after her for the money she had brought to pay for the shawl, and which she took care to hold tightly in her hand.
In attempting to make up the coats, it was found impossible to put the different pieces together to the same advantage as before. Also, the silk did not look well, being dyed of a dull brownish black, and stiffened to the consistence of paper. The skirts and sleeves had shrunk much in dyeing, and the pieces that composed the bodies had been ravelled, frayed, and pulled so crooked in dressing, that they had lost nearly all shape. It was impossible to make up the deficiencies by matching the silk with new, as none was to be found that bore sufficient resemblance to it. "Ah!" thought Constance, "how well these coats looked when in their original state! The shade of olive was so beautiful, the silk so soft and glossy, and they fitted so perfectly well."
When put together under all these disadvantages, the coats looked so badly that the girls were at first unwilling to wear them, except in extreme cold weather--particularly as in coming out of church they overheard whispers among the ladies in the crowd, of "That's a dyed silk"--"Any one may see that those coats have been dyed."
They trimmed them with crape, in hopes of making them look better; but the crape wore out almost immediately, and in fact it had to be taken off before the final close of the cold weather.
Spring came at last, and the Allerton family, having struggled through a melancholy and comfortless winter, had taken a larger house in a better part of the town, and made arrangements for commencing their school, in which Constance was to be chief instructress. Isabella and Helen, whose ages were sixteen and fourteen, were to assist in teaching some branches, but to continue receiving lessons in others. Louisa was to be one of the pupils.
About a fortnight before their intended removal to their new residence, one afternoon when none of the family were at home, except Constance, she was surprised by the visit of a friend from New Bedford, a young gentleman who had been absent three years on a whaling voyage, in a ship in which he had the chief interest, his father being owner of several vessels in that line.
Edmund Lessingham was an admirer of ladies generally: but during his long voyage he found by his thinking incessantly of Constance, and not at all of any other female, that he was undoubtedly in love with her; a fact which he had not suspected till the last point of Massachusetts faded from his view. He resolved to improve his intimacy with our heroine, should he find her still at liberty, on his return to New Bedford; and if he perceived a probability of success, to make her at once an offer of his hand. When Lessingham came home, he was much disappointed to hear that Constance Allerton had been living for more than a twelvemonth in Philadelphia. However, he lost no time in coming on to see her.
When he was shown into the parlour, she was sitting with her head bent over her work. She started up on being accosted by his well-remembered voice. Not having heard of the death of her brother, and not seeing her in mourning, Edmund Lessingham was at a loss to account for the tears that filled her eyes, and for the emotion that suffocated her voice when she attempted to reply to his warm expressions of delight at seeing her again. He perceived that she was thinner and paler than when he had last seen her, and he feared that all was not right. She signed to him to sit down, and was endeavouring to compose herself, when Mrs. Craycroft was shown into the room. That lady stared with surprise at seeing a very handsome young gentleman with Constance, who hastily wiped her eyes and introduced Mr. Lessingham.
Mrs. Craycroft took a seat, and producing two or three morning caps from her reticule, she said in her usual loud voice, "Miss Allerton, I have brought these caps for you to alter--I wish you to do them immediately, that they may be washed next week. I find the borders rather too broad, and the headpieces too large (though to be sure I did cut them out myself), so I want you to rip them apart, and make the headpieces smaller, and the borders narrower, and then whip them and sew them on again. I was out the other day when you sent home my husband's shirts with the bill, but when you have done the caps I will pay you for all together. What will you charge for making a dozen aprons of bird's eye diaper for my little Anna? You must not ask much, for I want them quite plain--mere bibs--they are always the best for babies. Unless you will do them very cheap, I may as well make them myself."
The face of Lessingham became scarlet, and, starting from his chair, he traversed the room in manifest perturbation; sympathizing with what he supposed to be the confusion and mortification of Constance, and regretting that the sex of Mrs. Craycroft prevented him from knocking her down.
Constance, however, rallied, replying with apparent composure to Mrs.
Craycroft on the points in question, and calmly settling the bargain for the bird's-eye aprons--she knew that it is only in the eyes of the vulgar-minded and the foolish that a woman is degraded by exerting her ingenuity or her talents as a means of support.
"Well," said Mrs. Craycroft, "you may send for the aprons to-morrow, and I wish you to hurry with them as fast as you can--when I give out work, I never like it to be kept long on hand. I will pay you for the other things when the aprons are done."
Mrs. Craycroft then took her leave, and Constance turned to the window to conceal from Lessingham the tears that in spite of her self-command were now stealing down her cheeks.
Lessingham hastily went up to her, and taking her hand, he said, with much feeling: "Dear Constance--Miss Allerton I mean--what has happened during my absence? Why do I see you thus? But I fear that I distress you by inquiring. I perceive that you are not happy--that you have suffered much, and that your circumstances are changed. Can I do nothing to console you or to improve your situation? Let me at once have a right to do so--let me persuade you to unite your fate with mine, and put an end, I hope for ever, to these unmerited, these intolerable humiliations."
"No, Mr. Lessingham," said Constance, deeply affected, "I will not take advantage of the generous impulse that has led you thus suddenly to make an offer, which, perhaps, in a calmer moment, and on cooler consideration, you may think of with regret."
"Regret!" exclaimed Lessingham, pressing her hand between both of his, and surveying her with a look of the fondest admiration, "dearest Constance, how little you know your own value--how little you suppose that during our long separation--"
Here he was interrupted in his impassioned address by the entrance of Mrs. Allerton and her daughters. Constance hastily withdrew her hand and presented him as Mr. Lessingham, a friend of hers from New Bedford.
Being much agitated, she in a few minutes retired to compose herself in her own apartment. The girls soon after withdrew, and Lessingham, frankly informing Mrs. Allerton that he was much and seriously interested in her sister-in-law, begged to know some particulars of her present condition.
Mrs. Allerton, who felt it impossible to regard Mr. Lessingham as a stranger, gave him a brief outline of the circumstances of Constance's residence with them, and spoke of her as the guardian-angel of the family. "She is not only," said her sister-in-law, "one of the most amiable and affectionate, but also one of the most sensible and judicious of women. Never, never have we in any instance acted contrary to her advice, without eventually finding cause to regret that we did so." And Mrs. Allerton could not forbear casting her eyes over her mourning dress.
Lessingham, though the praises of Constance were music in his ears, had tact enough to take his leave, fearing that his visit was interfering with the tea-hour of the family.
Next morning, the weather was so mild as to enable them to sit up stairs with their sewing; for latterly, the state of their fuel had not allowed them to keep fire except in the parlour and kitchen. Lessingham called and inquired for Constance. She came down, and saw him alone. He renewed, in explicit terms, the offer he had so abruptly made her on the preceding afternoon. Constance, whose heart had been with Lessingham during the whole of his long absence, had a severe struggle before she could bring herself to insist on their union being postponed for at least two years: during which time she wished, for the sake of the family, to remain with them, and get the school firmly established; her nieces, meanwhile, completing their education, and acquiring, under her guidance, a proficiency in the routine of teaching.
"But surely," said Lessingham, "you understand that I wish you to make over to your sister-in-law the whole of your aunt Ilford's legacy? You shall bring me nothing but your invaluable self."
Though grateful for the generosity and disinterestedness of her lover, Constance knew that the interest of her ten thousand dollars was, of course, not sufficient to support Mrs. Allerton and her children without some other source of income; and she was convinced that they would never consent to become pensioners on Lessingham's bounty, kind and liberal as he was. She therefore adhered to her determination of remaining with her sister and nieces till she had seen them fairly afloat, and till she could leave them in a prosperous condition. And Lessingham was obliged to yield to her conviction that she was acting rightly, and to consent that the completion of his happiness should accordingly be deferred for two years.
He remained in Philadelphia till he had seen the Allerton family established in their new habitation, and he managed with much delicacy to aid them in the expenses of fitting it up.
The school was commenced with a much larger number of pupils than had been anticipated. It increased rapidly under the judicious superintendence of Constance: and in the course of two years she had rendered Isabella and Helen so capable of filling her place, that all the parents were perfectly satisfied to continue their children with them. At the end of that time, Lessingham (who, in the interval, had made frequent visits to Philadelphia) came to claim the promised hand of his Constance. They were married--she having first transferred the whole of her little property to her brother's widow.
At the earnest desire of Lessingham, Mrs. Allerton consented that Louisa should live in future with her beloved aunt Constance; and consequently the little girl accompanied them to New Bedford.
Mrs. Allerton and her family went on and prospered--her son was everything that a parent could wish--her children all married advantageously--and happily she has not yet had occasion to put in practice her resolution of never again wearing mourning: though principle, and not necessity, is the motive which will henceforward deter her from complying with that custom.