Dred: The Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp – Harriet Beecher Stowe

“Bills, Harry?—Yes.—Dear me, where are they?—There!—No. Here?—Oh, look!—What do you think of this scarf? Isn’t it lovely?”

“Yes, Miss Nina, beautiful—but”—

“Oh, those bills!—Yes—well, here goes—here—perhaps in this box. No—that’s my opera-hat. By the bye, what do you think of that? Isn’t that bunch of silver wheat lovely? Stop a bit—you shall see it on me.”

And, with these words, the slight little figure sprang up as if it had wings, and, humming a waltzing-tune, skimmed across the room to a looking-glass, and placed the jaunty little cap on the gay little head, and then, turning a pirouette on one toe, said, “There, now!”

“There, now!” Ah, Harry! ah, mankind generally! the wisest of you have been made fools of by just such dancing, glittering, fluttering little assortments of curls, pendants, streamers, eyes, cheeks, and dimples!

The little figure, scarce the height of the Venus, rounded as that of an infant, was shown to advantage by a coquettish morning-dress of buff muslin, which fluttered open in front to display the embroidered skirt, and trim little mouse of a slipper. The face was one of those provoking ones which set criticism at defiance. The hair, waving, curling, dancing hither and thither, seemed to have a wild, laughing grace of its own; the brown eyes twinkled like the pendants of a chandelier; the little, wicked nose, which bore the forbidden upward curve, seemed to assert its right to do so with a saucy freedom; and the pendants of multiplied brilliants that twinkled in her ears, and the nodding wreath of silver wheat that set off her opera-hat, seemed alive with mischief and motion.

“Well, what do you think?” said a lively, imperative voice,—just the kind of voice that you might have expected from the figure.

The young man to whom this question was addressed was a well-dressed, gentlemanly person of about thirty-five, with dark complexion and hair, and deep, full blue eyes. There was something marked and peculiar in the square, high forehead, and the finely-formed features, which indicated talent and ability; and the blue eyes had a depth and strength of color that might cause them at first glance to appear black. The face, with its strongly-marked expression of honesty and sense, had about it many careworn and thoughtful lines. He looked at the little, defiant fay for a moment with an air of the most entire deference and admiration; then a heavy shadow crossed his face, and he answered, abstractedly, “Yes, Miss Nina, everything you wear becomes pretty—and that is perfectly charming.”

“Isn’t it, now, Harry? I thought you would think so. You see, it’s my own idea. You ought to have seen what a thing it was when I first saw it in Mme. Le Blanche’s window. There was a great hot-looking feather on it, and two or three horrid bows. I had them out in a twinkling, and got this wheat in—which shakes so, you know. It’s perfectly lovely!—Well, do you believe, the very night I wore it to the opera, I got engaged?”

“Engaged, Miss Nina?”

“Engaged!—Yes, to be sure! Why not?”

“It seems to me that’s a very serious thing, Miss Nina.”

“Serious!—ha! ha! ha!” said the little beauty, seating herself on one arm of the sofa, and shaking the glittering hat back from her eyes. “Well, I fancy it was—to him, at least. I made him serious, I can tell you!”

“But is this true, Miss Nina? Are you really engaged?”

“Yes, to be sure I am—to three gentlemen; and going to stay so till I find which I like best. May be, you know, I shan’t like any of them.”

“Engaged to three gentlemen, Miss Nina?”

“To be sure!—Can’t you understand English, Harry? I am now—fact.”

“Miss Nina, is that right?”

“Right?—why not? I don’t know which to take—I positively don’t; so I took them all on trial, you know.”

“Pray, Miss Nina, tell us who they are.”

“Well, there’s Mr. Carson;—he’s a rich old bachelor—horridly polite—one of those little, bobbing men, that always have such shiny dickies and collars, and such bright boots, and such tight straps. And he’s rich—and perfectly wild about me. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, you know; so I just said yes, to have a little quiet. Besides, he is very convenient about the opera and concerts, and such things.”

“Well, and the next?”

“Well, the next is George Emmons. He’s one of your pink-and-white men, you know, who look like cream-candy, as if they were good to eat. He’s a lawyer, of a good family,—thought a good deal of, and all that. Well, really, they say he has talents—I’m no judge. I know he always bores me to death; asking me if I have read this or that—marking places in books that I never read. He’s your sentimental sort—writes the most romantic notes on pink paper, and all that sort of thing.”

“And the third?”

“Well, you see, I don’t like him a bit—I’m sure I don’t. He’s a hateful creature! He isn’t handsome; he’s proud as Lucifer; and I’m sure I don’t know how he got me to be engaged. It was a kind of an accident. He’s real good, though—too good for me, that’s a fact. But, then, I’m afraid of him a little.”

“And his name?”

“Well, his name is Clayton—Mr. Edward Clayton, at your service. He’s one of your high-and-mighty people—with such deep-set eyes—eyes that look as if they were in a cave—and such black hair! And his eyes have a desperate sort of sad look, sometimes—quite Byronic. He’s tall, and rather loose-jointed—has beautiful teeth; his mouth, too, is—well, when he smiles, sometimes it really is quite fascinating; and then he’s so different from other gentlemen! He’s kind—but he don’t care how he dresses; and wears the most horrid shoes. And, then, he isn’t polite—he won’t jump, you know, to pick up your thread or scissors; and sometimes he’ll get into a brown study, and let you stand ten minutes before he thinks to give you a chair, and all such provoking things. He isn’t a bit of a lady’s man. Well, consequence is, as my lord won’t court the girls, the girls all court my lord—that’s the way, you know; and they seem to think it’s such a feather in their cap to get attention from him—because, you know, he’s horrid sensible. So, you see, that just set me out to see what I could do with him. Well, you see, I wouldn’t court him;—and I plagued him, and laughed at him, and spited him, and got him gloriously wroth; and he said some spiteful things about me, and then I said some more about him, and we had a real up-and-down quarrel;—and then I took a penitent turn, you know, and just went gracefully down into the valley of humiliation—as we witches can; and it took wonderfully—brought my lord on to his knees before he knew what he was doing. Well, really, I don’t know what was the matter, just then, but he spoke so earnest and strong that actually he got me to crying—hateful creature!—and I promised all sorts of things, you know—said altogether more than will bear thinking of.”

“And are you corresponding with all these lovers, Miss Nina?”

“Yes—isn’t it fun? Their letters, you know, can’t speak. If they could, when they come rustling together in the bag, wouldn’t there be a muss?”

“Miss Nina, I think you have given your heart to this last one.”

“Oh, nonsense, Harry! Haven’t got any heart!—don’t care two pins for any of them! All I want is to have a good time. As to love, and all that, I don’t believe I could love any of them; I should be tired to death of any of them in six weeks. I never liked anything that long.”

“Miss Nina, you must excuse me, but I want to ask again, is it right to trifle with the feelings of gentlemen in this way?”

“Why not?—Isn’t all fair in war? Don’t they trifle with us girls, every chance they get—and sit up so pompous in their rooms, and smoke cigars, and talk us over, as if they only had to put out their finger and say, ‘Come here,’ to get any of us? I tell you, it’s fun to bring them down!—Now, there’s that horrid George Emmons—I tell you, if he didn’t flirt all winter with Mary Stephens, and got everybody to laughing about her!—it was so evident, you see, that she liked him—she couldn’t help showing it, poor little thing!—and then my lord would settle his collar, and say he hadn’t quite made up his mind to take her, and all that. Well, I haven’t made up my mind to take him, either—and so poor Emma is avenged. As to the old bach—that smooth-dicky man—you see, he can’t be hurt; for his heart is rubbed as smooth and hard as his dicky, with falling in love and out again. He’s been turned off by three girls, now; and his shoes squeak as brisk as ever, and he’s just as jolly. You see, he didn’t use to be so rich. Lately, he’s come into a splendid property; so, if I don’t take him, poor man, there are enough that would be glad of him.”

“Well, then, but as to that other one?”

“What! my lord Lofty? Oh, he wants humbling!—it wouldn’t hurt him, in the least, to be put down a little. He’s good, too, and afflictions always improve good people. I believe I was made for a means of grace to ’em all.”

“Miss Nina, what if all three of them should come at once—or even two of them?”

“What a droll idea! Wouldn’t it be funny? Just to think of it! What a commotion! What a scene! It would really be vastly entertaining.”

“Now, Miss Nina, I want to speak as a friend.”

“No, you shan’t! it is just what people say when they are going to say something disagreeable. I told Clayton, once for all, that I wouldn’t have him speak as a friend to me.”

“Pray, how does he take all this?”

“Take it! Why, just as he must. He cares a great deal more for me than I do for him.” Here a slight little sigh escaped the fair speaker. “And I think it fun to shock him. You know he is one of the fatherly sort, who is always advising young girls. Let it be understood that his standard of female character is wonderfully high, and all that. And then, to think of his being tripped up before me!—it’s too funny!” The little sprite here took off her opera-hat, and commenced waltzing a few steps, and, stopping midwhirl, exclaimed: “Oh, do you know we girls have been trying to learn the cachucha, and I’ve got some castanets? Let me see—where are they?” And with this she proceeded to upset the trunk, from which flew a meteoric shower of bracelets, billets-doux, French Grammars, drawing-pencils, interspersed with confectionery of various descriptions, and all the et ceteras of a school-girl’s depository. “There, upon my word, there are the bills you were asking for. There, take them!” throwing a package of papers at the young man. “Take them! Can you catch?”

“Miss Nina, these do not appear to be bills.”

“Oh, bless me! those are love-letters, then. The bills are somewhere.” And the little hands went pawing among the heap making the fanciful collection fly in every direction over the carpet. “Ah! I believe now in this bonbon-box I did put them. Take care of your head, Harry!” And, with the word, the gilded missile flew from the little hand, and opening on the way, showered Harry with a profusion of crumpled papers. “Now you have got them all, except one, that I used for curl-papers the other night. Oh, don’t look so sober about it! Indeed, I kept the pieces—here they are. And now don’t you say, Harry, don’t you tell me that I never save my bills. You don’t know how particular I have been, and what trouble I have taken. But, there—there’s a letter Clayton wrote to me, one time when we had a quarrel. Just a specimen of that creature!”

“Pray tell us about it, Miss Nina,” said the young man, with his eyes fixed admiringly on the little person, while he was smoothing and arranging the crumpled documents.

“Why, you see, it was just this way. You know, these men—how provoking they are! They’ll go and read all sorts of books—no matter what they read!—and then they are so dreadfully particular about us girls. Do you know, Harry, this always made me angry?”

“Well, so, you see, one evening Sophy Elliot quoted some poetry from Don Juan,—I never read it, but it seems folks call it a bad book,—and my lord Clayton immediately fixed his eyes upon her in such an appalling way, and says, ‘Have you read Don Juan, Miss Elliot?’ Then, you know, as girls always do in such cases, she blushed and stammered, and said her brother had read some extracts from it to her. I was vexed, and said, ‘And, pray, what’s the harm if she did read it? I mean to read it, the very first chance I get!’

“Oh! everybody looked so shocked. Why, dear me! if I had said I was going to commit murder, Clayton could not have looked more concerned. So he put on that very edifying air of his, and said, ‘Miss Nina, I trust, as your friend, that you will not read that book. I should lose all respect for a lady friend who had read that.’

“‘Have you read it, Mr. Clayton?’ said I.

“‘Yes, Miss Nina,’ said he, quite piously.

“‘What makes you read such bad books?’ said I, very innocently.

“Then there followed a general fuss and talk; and the gentlemen, you know, would not have their wives or their sisters read anything naughty, for the world. They wanted us all to be like snow-flakes, and all that. And they were quite high, telling they wouldn’t marry this, and they wouldn’t marry that, till at last I made them a curtsey, and said, ‘Gentlemen, we ladies are infinitely obliged to you, but we don’t intend to marry people that read naughty books, either. Of course you know snow-flakes don’t like smut!’

“Now, I really didn’t mean anything by it, except to put down these men, and stand up for my sex. But Clayton took it in real earnest. He grew red and grew pale, and was just as angry as he could be. Well, the quarrel raged about three days. Then, do you know, I made him give up, and own that he was in the wrong. There, I think he was, too,—don’t you? Don’t you think men ought to be as good as we are, any way?”

“Miss Nina, I should think you would be afraid to express yourself so positively.”

“Oh, if I cared a sou for any of them, perhaps I should. But there isn’t one of the train that I would give that for!” said she, flirting a shower of peanut-shells into the air.

“Yes, but, Miss Nina, some time or other you must marry somebody. You need somebody to take care of the property and place.”

“Oh, that’s it, is it? You are tired of keeping accounts, are you, with me to spend the money? Well, I don’t wonder. How I pity anybody that keeps accounts! Isn’t it horrid, Harry? Those awful books! Do you know that Mme. Ardaine set out that ‘we girls’ should keep account of our expenses? I just tried it two weeks. I had a headache and weak eyes, and actually it nearly ruined my constitution. Somehow or other, they gave it up, it gave them so much trouble. And what’s the use? When money’s spent, it’s spent; and keeping accounts ever so strict won’t get it back. I am very careful about my expenses. I never get anything that I can do without.”

“For instance,” said Harry, rather roguishly, “this bill of one hundred dollars for confectionery.”

“Well, you know just how it is, Harry. It’s so horrid to have to study! Girls must have something. And you know I didn’t get it all for myself; I gave it round to all the girls. Then they used to ask me for it, and I couldn’t refuse—and so it went.”

“I didn’t presume to comment, Miss Nina. What have we here?—Mme. Les Cartes, $450?”

“Oh, Harry, that horrid Mme. Les Cartes! You never saw anything like her! Positively it is not my fault. She puts down things I never got: I know she does. Nothing in the world but because she is from Paris. Everybody is complaining of her. But, then, nobody gets anything anywhere else. So what can one do, you know? I assure you, Harry, I am economical.”

The young man, who had been summing up the accounts, now burst out into such a hearty laugh as somewhat disconcerted the fair rhetorician.

She colored to her temples.

“Harry, now, for shame! Positively, you aren’t respectful!”

“Oh, Miss Nina, on my knees I beg pardon!” still continuing to laugh; “but, indeed, you must excuse me. I am positively delighted to hear of your economy, Miss Nina.”

“Well, now, Harry, you may look at the bills and see. Haven’t I ripped up all my silk dresses and had them colored over, just to economize? You can see the dyer’s bill, there; and Mme. Carteau told me she always expected to turn my dresses twice, at least. Oh, yes, I have been very economical.”

“I have heard of old dresses turned costing more than new ones, Miss Nina.”

“Oh, nonsense, Harry! What should you know of girls’ things? But I’ll tell you one thing I’ve got, Harry, and that is a gold watch for you. There it is,” throwing a case carelessly towards him; “and there’s a silk dress for your wife,” throwing him a little parcel. “I have sense enough to know what a good fellow you are, at any rate. I couldn’t go on as I do, if you didn’t rack your poor head fifty ways to keep things going straight here at home for me.”

A host of conflicting emotions seemed to cross the young man’s face, like a shadow of clouds over a field, as he silently undid the packages. His hands trembled, his lips quivered, but he said nothing.

“Come, Harry, don’t this suit you? I thought it would.”

“Miss Nina, you are too kind.”

“No, I’m not, Harry; I am a selfish little concern, that’s a fact,” said she, turning away, and pretending not to see the feeling which agitated him.

“But, Harry, wasn’t it droll, this morning, when all our people came up to get their presents! There was Aunt Sue, and Aunt Tike, and Aunt Kate, each one got a new sack pattern, in which they are going to make up the prints I brought them. In about two days our place will be flaming with aprons and sacks. And did you see Aunt Rose in that pink bonnet, with the flowers? You could see every tooth in her head! Of course, now they’ll be taken with a very pious streak, to go to some camp-meeting or other, to show their finery. Why don’t you laugh, Harry?”

“I do, don’t I, Miss Nina?”

“You only laugh on your face. You don’t laugh deep down. What’s the matter? I don’t believe it’s good for you to read and study so much. Papa used to say that he didn’t think it was good for”—

She stopped, checked by the expression on the face of her listener.

“For servants, Miss Nina, your papa said, I suppose.”

With the quick tact of her sex, Nina perceived that she had struck some disagreeable chord in the mind of her faithful attendant, and she hastened to change the subject, in her careless, rattling way.

“Why, yes, Harry, study is horrid for you, or me either, or anybody else, except musty old people, who don’t know how to do anything else. Did ever anybody look out of doors, such a pleasant day as this, and want to study? Think of a bird’s studying, now, or a bee! They don’t study—they live. Now, I don’t want to study—I want to live. So now, Harry, if you’ll just get the ponies and go in the woods, I want to get some jessamines, and spring beauties, and wild honeysuckles, and all the rest of the flowers that I used to get before I went to school.”


Click the title for a free full text:

Dred: The Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp

by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1856

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