The Fatal Error
"Clinton!" said Margaret Hubert, with a look of supreme contempt. Don't speak of him to me, Lizzy. His very name is an offence to my ears!" and the lady's whole manner became disturbed.
"He will be at the ball to-night, of course, and will renew his attentions," said the friend, in an earnest, yet quiet voice. "Now, for all your expressions of dislike, I have thought that you were really far from being indifferent to Mr. Clinton, and affected a repugnance at variance with your true feelings."
"Lizzy, you will offend me if you make use of such language. I tell you he is hateful to me," replied Miss Hubert.
"Of course, you ought to know your own state of mind best," said Lizzy Edgar. "If it is really as you say, I must confess that my observation has not been accurate. As to there being anything in Mr. Clinton to inspire an emotion of contempt, or create so strong a dislike as you express, I have yet to see it. To me he has ever appeared in the light of a gentleman."
"Then suppose you make yourself agreeable to him, Lizzy," said Miss Hubert.
"I try to make myself agreeable to every one," replied the even-minded girl. "That is a duty I owe to those with whom I associate."
"Whether you like them or not?"
"It doesn't follow, because I do not happen to like a person, that I should render myself disagreeable to him."
"I never tolerate people that I don't like," said Miss Hubert.
"We needn't associate too intimately with those who are disagreeable to us," returned her friend; "but when we are thrown together in society, the least we can do is to be civil."
"You may be able to disguise your real feelings, but I cannot. Whatever emotion passes over my mind is seen in my face and discovered in my tone of voice. All who know me see me as I am."
And yet, notwithstanding this affirmation, Margaret Hubert did not, at all times, display her real feelings. And her friend Lizzy Edgar was right in assuming that she was by no means indifferent to Mr. Clinton. The appearance of dislike was assumed as a mask, and the distance and reserve she displayed towards him were the offspring of a false pride and unwomanly self-esteem. The truth was, her heart had, almost unsought, been won. The manly bearing, personal grace and brilliant mind of Philip Clinton, had captivated her feelings and awakened an emotion of love ere she was conscious that her heart was in danger. And she had even leaned towards him instinctively, and so apparently that the young man observed it, and was attracted thereby. The moment, however, he became at all marked in his attentions, the whole manner of Margaret changed. She was then aware of the rashness she had displayed, and her pride instantly took the alarm. Reserve, dignity, and even hauteur, characterized her bearing towards Clinton; and to those who spoke of him as a lover, she replied in terms nearly similar to what she used to her friend Lizzy Edgar, on the occasion to which reference has just been made.
All this evidenced weakness of mind as well as pride. She wished to be sought before she was won--at least, that was the language she used to herself. Her lover must come, like a knight of old, and sue on bended knee for favor.
Clinton observed the marked change in her manner. Fortunately for his peace of mind, he was not so deeply in love as to be very seriously distressed. He had admired her beauty, her accomplishments, and the winning grace of her manners; and more, had felt his heart beginning to warm towards her. But the charm with which she had been invested, faded away the moment the change of which we have spoken became apparent. He was not a man of strong, ungovernable impulses; all his passions were under the control of right reason, and this gave him a clear judgment. Consequently, he was the last person in the world for an experiment such as Margaret Hubert was making. At first he thought there must be some mistake, and continued to offer the young lady polite attentions, coldly and distantly as they were received. He even went farther than his real feelings bore him out in going, and made particular advances, in order to be perfectly satisfied that there was no mistake about her dislike or repugnance.
But there was one thing which at first Clinton did not understand. It was this. Frequently, when in company where Margaret was present, he would, if he turned his eyes suddenly upon her, find that she was looking at him with an expression which told him plainly that he was not indifferent to her. This occurred so often, and was so frequently attended with evident confusion on her part, that he began to have a suspicion of the real truth, and to feel disgust at so marked an exhibition of insincerity. Besides, the thought of being experimented upon in this way, did not in the least tend to soften his feelings towards the fair one. He believed in frankness, honesty and reciprocal sincerity. He liked a truthful, ingenuous mind, and turned instinctively from all artifice, coquetry or affectation.
The game which Miss Hubert was playing had been in progress only a short time, when her friend Lizzy Edgar, who was on terms of close intimacy, spent the day with her, occupying most of the time in preparation for a fancy ball that was to come off that night. The two young ladies attired themselves with much care, each with a view to effect. Margaret looked particularly to the assumption of a certain dignity, and her costume for the evening had been chosen with that end in view. A ruff, and her grand-mother's rich silk brocade, did give to her tall person all the dignity she could have desired.
At the proper time the father of Miss Hubert accompanied the young ladies to the ball, preparations for which had for some time been in progress. As soon almost as Margaret entered the room, her eyes began to wander about in search of Mr. Clinton. It was not long before she discovered him--nor long before his eyes rested upon and recognized her stately figure.
"If she be playing a part, as I more than half suspect," said the young man to himself, "her performance will end to-night, so far as I am concerned."
And with the remark, he moved towards that part of the room where the two young ladies were standing. Lizzy returned his salutations with a frank and easy grace, but Margaret drew herself up coldly, and replied to his remarks with brief formality. Clinton remained with them only long enough to pass a few compliments, and then moved away and mingled with the crowd in another part of the large saloon, where the gay company were assembled. During the next hour, he took occasion now and then to search out Margaret in the crowd, and more than once he found that her eyes were upon him.
"Once more," he said, crossing the room and going up to where she was leaning upon the arm of an acquaintance.
"May I have the pleasure of dancing with you in the next set?"
"Thank you, sir," replied Margaret, with unbending dignity; "I am already engaged."
Clinton bowed and turned away. The fate of the maiden was sealed. She had carried her experiment too far. As the young man moved across the room, he saw Lizzy Edgar sitting alone, her face lit up with interest as she noted the various costumes, and observed the ever-forming and dissolving tableaux that filled the saloon, and presented to the eye a living kaleidoscope.
"Alone," he said, pausing before the warm-hearted, even tempered girl.
"One cannot be alone here," she replied, with a sweet smile irradiating her countenance. "What a fairy scene it is," she added, as her eyes wandered from the face of Clinton and again fell upon the brilliant groups around them.
"Have you danced this evening?" asked Clinton.
"In one set," answered Lizzy.
"Are you engaged for the next in which you may feel disposed to take the floor?"
"Then may I claim you for my partner?"
"If it is your pleasure to do so," replied Lizzy, smiling.
In a cotillion formed soon afterward in that part of the room, were Margaret Hubert and her sweet friend Lizzy Edgar. Margaret had a warmer color on her cheeks than usual, and her dignity towered up into an air of haughtiness, all of which Clinton observed. Its effect was to make his heart cold towards her, instead of awakening an ardent desire to win a proud and distant beauty.
In vain did Margaret look for the young man to press forward, the moment the cotillion was dissolved, and claim her for the next. He lingered by the side of Miss Edgar, more charmed with her than he had ever been, until some one else came and engaged the hand of Miss Hubert. The disappointed and unhappy girl now unbent herself from the cold dignity that had marked her bearing since her entrance into the ball-room, and sought to win him to her side by the flashing brilliancy of her manners; but her efforts were unavailing. Clinton had felt the sweeter, purer, stronger attractions of one free from all artifice; and when he left her side, he had no wish to pass to that of one whose coldness had repelled, and whose haughtiness had insulted him.
On the next day, when Lizzy called upon her friend, she found her in a very unhappy state of mind. As to the ball and the people who attended, she was exceedingly captious in all her remarks. When Clinton was mentioned, she spoke of him with a sneer. Lizzy hardly knew how to take her. Why the young man should be so offensive, she was at a loss to imagine, and honestly came to the conclusion that she had been mistaken in her previous supposition that Margaret really felt an interest in him.
A few evenings only elapsed before Clinton called upon Miss Edgar, and from that time visited her regularly. An offer of marriage was the final result. This offer Lizzy accepted.
The five or six months that elapsed from the time Clinton became particular in his attentions to Miss Edgar, until he formally declared himself a lover, passed with Margaret Herbert in one long-continued and wild struggle with her feelings. Conscious of her error, and madly conscious, because conviction had come too late, she wrestled vigorously, but in vain, with a passion that, but for her own folly, would have met a free and full return. Lizzy spoke to her of Clinton's marked attentions, but did not know how, like heavy and painful strokes, every word she uttered fell upon her heart. She saw that Margaret was far from being happy, and often tenderly urged her to tell the cause, but little dreamed of the real nature of her sufferings.
At last Lizzy told her, with a glowing cheek, that Clinton had owned his love for her, and claimed her hand in marriage. For some moments after this communication was made, Margaret could offer no reply. Her heart trembled faintly in her bosom and almost ceased to beat; but she rallied herself, and concealed what she felt under warm congratulations. Lizzy was deceived, though in her friend's manner there was something that she could not fully comprehend.
"You must be my bridesmaid," said the happy girl, a month or two afterwards.
"Why not choose some one else?" asked Margaret.
"Because I love you better than any friend I have," replied Lizzy, putting an arm around the neck of Margaret and kissing her.
"No, no; I cannot--I cannot!" was the unexpressed thought of Margaret--while something like a shudder went over her. But the eyes of her friend did not penetrate the sad secret of her heart.
"Come, dear, say yes. Why do you hesitate? I would hardly believe myself married if you were not by my side when the nuptial pledge was given."
"It shall be as you wish," replied Margaret.
"Perhaps you misunderstood me," said Lizzy, playfully; "I was not speaking of my funeral, but of my wedding."
This sportive sally gave Margaret an opportunity to recover herself, which she did promptly; and never once, from that time until the wedding day of her friend arrived, did she by look or word betray what was in her heart.
Intense was the struggle that went on in the mind of Margaret Hubert. But it was of no avail; she loved Clinton with a wild intensity that was only the more fervid from its hopelessness. But pride and a determined will concealed what neither could destroy.
At last the wedding night of Lizzy Edgar arrived, and a large company assembled to witness the holy rite that was to be performed, and to celebrate the occasion with appropriate festivities. Margaret, when the morning of that day broke coldly and drearily upon her, felt so sad at heart that she wept, and, weeping, wished that she could die. There had been full time for reflection since, by her own acts, she had repulsed one in whom her heart felt a deep interest, and repulsed him with such imprudent force that he never returned to her again. Suffering had chastened her spirit, although it could not still the throbbings of pain. As the time approached when she must stand beside her friend and listen to vows of perpetual love that she would have given all the world, were it in her possession, to hear as her own, she felt that she was about entering upon a trial for which her strength would be little more than adequate.
But there was no retreat now. The ordeal had to be passed through. At last the time of trial came, and she descended with her friend, and stood up with her before the minister of God, who was to say the fitting words and receive the solemn vows required in the marriage covenant. From the time Margaret took her place on the floor, she felt her power over herself failing. Most earnestly did she struggle for calmness and self-control, but the very fear that inspired this struggle made it ineffectual. When the minister in a deeply impressive voice, said, "I pronounce you husband and wife," her eyes grew dim, and her limbs trembled and failed; she sunk forward, and was only kept from falling by the arm of the minister, which was extended in time to save her.
Twenty years have passed since that unhappy evening, and Margaret Hubert is yet unmarried. It was long before she could quench the fire that had burned so fiercely in her heart. When it did go out, the desolate hearth it left remained ever after cold and dark.