The Gift of Beauty
by Timothy Shay Arthur, 1855
"Is she not loveliness itself?" said a young man named Atwood, to a friend who stood by his side. "My eyes follow her as if there were a spell in her beauty."
"I have often, said," was replied to this remark, "that Florence d'Almaigne was the prettiest woman I had ever seen."
"You said the truth. I never saw her equal."
"As your hand is still free, why don't you seek to gain favor in the eyes of this queen of beauty?" said the friend.
"There would be little chance for me," replied Atwood, "while so many, with pretensions far more imposing than mine, are eagerly seeking her favor. I may worship at a distance, but dare not approach and lay my hand upon the goddess."
"You know the old adage, Atwood," said the friend, smiling. "'Faint heart never won fair lady.' You are as good as any of the aspirants for her favor, and far better than most of them. Press up boldly, then. It is the boldest who wins the most beautiful. And she is worth the winning, if I am rightly informed, for she is as good, as beautiful."
"Her face is the image of her mind. No one can be long in her company, without half forgetting her pure, bright countenance in love for her purer spirit. But, as I said before, she is not to be mine; I must worship at a distance. Look at her now! See how unconsciously she leans toward Courtney while he speaks to her, as if she were striving to comprehend in every word he utters, some deeper meaning. Her heart is already his."
"I trust not. He is not worthy to possess her heart."
"He is utterly unworthy!" replied Atwood, "for he has an impure mind, and is lacking in sound principles. He is attracted only by the surpassing beauty of her face. The unfading beauty of her mind and heart — he does not see; and even if he could see it, he would deem it an inferior attraction."
Florence d'Almaigne, the young lady about whom the two friends were conversing, possessed, in a high degree, the dangerous gift of beauty. Wherever she went, she became the center around which gathered a crowd of admirers — the boldest forcing themselves at once upon her attention, while the more modest and more excellent looked on from a greater distance. Among the most ardent of her admirers, was Atwood, just introduced, and a young man named Courtney. Atwood lacked confidence in himself, while Courtney was always ready to press forward to an advanced position. The one drew back from the place which his merit entitled him to assume — while the other assumed the place for which he was really unworthy. From this it will be seen how unequal were the chances of the young men for gaining favor in the eyes of Florence. The remark of Atwood, as to the unworthiness of Courtney, caused this reply.
"What you say, my friend, is perfectly true, and, therefore, the stronger reason exists why you should press forward and secure the hand of Florence. You love her for the beauty of her mind — as well as the beauty of her face, and therefore, you are more worthy of her, and more justly entitled to her hand. Claim it boldly, and it is yours!"
But Atwood shook his head.
"It's no use. Already her heart is more than half in the possession of Courtney."
"I don't believe it."
"Look for yourself. If she did not love him, could she be so lost to all around her as she now seems to be? I have been looking at her for ten minutes, and I am sure her eyes have seen nothing but his face, and her ear heard nothing but the tones of his voice, during all that time."
"Give her eyes a chance to see your face, and her ears an opportunity to hear the sound of your voice," replied the friend, "and I doubt not, that she will like the expression of the one and the tones of the other far better. You are too timid, Atwood — you think too humbly of yourself. Lay this weakness, I had almost said folly, aside, and for the sake of Florence d'Almaigne, if for nothing else, step forward like a man and win her for your bride. You can do it — I know you can. See! They are about forming a cotillion in the next room. Go at once and ask the hand of Florence for the first set."
"Courtney has secured that, of course."
"Don't be so certain of that. It is more than probable that he has not even noticed the movement for a dance. But, even if he has, claim her hand for the second set; and if engaged for that, secure it for the third."
Thus urged, Atwood passed across the room to where Florence sat by the side of Courtney, and asked her if he might claim the favor of her hand for the cotillion that was forming.
"Cotillion!" said Courtney, in surprise, looking around. "Bless me! Are we to have a dance? I didn't notice what was going on."
With a graceful inclination of her head, and a smile that went direct to the heart of Atwood, Florence accepted the invitation, and rising up, drew her hand within the offered arm of the young man. As they were moving away, Courtney, who had recovered himself, said —
"Shall I have the pleasure of your hand for the next set, Miss d'Almaigne?"
"Certainly," she replied, and then advanced to the next room with Atwood.
On their leaving the floor, after having danced through the cotillion, Courtney met them, and attempted to take Florence from the arm of Atwood, by stepping forward with a manner perfectly polite, yet coolly impudent, which said, "you have danced with the lady, which is all the claim you have to her." But Atwood retained the lady's hand within his arm, conducted her to a seat, and sat down beside her. Courtney took a chair on the other side, and attempted to engage her in conversation; but Atwood, who felt annoyed at the manner of his rival, determined not to be thrown into the shade quite so easily. He, therefore, exerted himself in order to keep the attention of Florence, and succeeded in leading the conversation, and enchaining her interest in spite of all the attempts that were made by Courtney to divert her mind from the topics that were introduced.
Florence had always highly esteemed Atwood. The excellent qualities of his mind and heart, were well understood by her, and justly appreciated. But she had never looked upon him as a lover, because, so far as she could understand him, he had never approached her as a lover. Here she was mistaken; and her mistake arose from this cause. In consequence of her great beauty, she was surrounded by admirers from the time she first entered society. Lovers pressed forward, and sought, with the utmost eagerness, to gain her favor. Admired, courted, flattered — she learned to expect something more than a quiet, somewhat retiring and deferential manner, in any one who approached her as a lover. If there was not some ardor manifested — some more than ordinary delight at being in her company, expressed — she could not imagine that any deeper feeling than one of mere friendship could exist. From the cause here assigned, she had remained in entire ignorance of the deep and true affection with which she was loved by Atwood. Had she known the nature of his feelings, others might have approached her in vain.
On the particular occasion now referred to, the evident pleasure that Atwood seemed to have in her company, and the more than usual efforts which were made by him to interest her, were particularly gratifying. She had been pleased, and more than pleased with Courtney; but she could not help seeing and feeling how greatly Atwood was his superior in all the qualities that a woman could truly love. Instinctively her heart warmed toward Atwood, and she felt that in loving one like him, and being blessed with his manly love in return — she could indeed be happy. But this was a feeling that only existed for a little while, for she was engaged to Courtney for the next cotillion, and was then separated from Atwood, who, not being of an ardent temperament, could not again press forward and force himself upon her attention, as he had done under the instigation of his friend. To him it seemed a lowering of himself to come into rivalry with a man like Courtney.
"If she can love him, she can't love me," he said to himself, with some bitterness and a slight feeling of contempt, as he stood aloof during the rest of the evening, and saw her monopolized almost entirely by Courtney.
From that time, instead of visiting Miss d'Almaigne more frequently, and showing by more palpable signs that he loved her, Atwood, with a strange inconsistency, went to see her less frequently, thus leaving a fairer field to Courtney, who, in consequence of the interest the other had manifested for Florence at the party, pressed his suit with increasing ardor. A result such as might naturally be expected, followed. "The boldest won the most beautiful."
It soon became known that Florence was the affianced bride of Charles Courtney. This intelligence had a more serious effect upon Atwood than he had anticipated. When the fact came indisputably to his knowledge, which it did just as he was making up his mind to lay aside his diffidence and reserve, and boldly present himself as a suitor for the hand and heart of one whose love would be, he felt, the greatest blessing of his life — it stunned, confused, and almost maddened him.
"Fool — fool — fool that I am!" he mentally ejaculated. "I might have won her; but now it is too late!"
From that time, the young man was changed. He went no more into company. He became thoughtful, silent, and melancholy. This change was observed, and formed the subject of remarks which failed not to reach the ears of Florence.
"I expected to hear of some broken heart when your engagement was announced," said a young friend to her, a few days after the event.
"Did you, indeed!" returned Florence, smiling. "How many catastrophes of this kind have occurred, to your certain knowledge?"
"I have only heard of one case yet," replied the friend.
"There is one, then?"
"Oh, yes. One decided case of a broken heart."
"Indeed! Who is the unfortunate sufferer?"
"Can't you guess?"
"Oh, no! I have not the least idea."
"I don't believe you have. I never thought that he aspired to the distinction of one of your lovers; although I knew him as a warm friend and admirer."
"So much the more wonderful? Who is he?"
"Impossible!" exclaimed Florence, her face becoming at once serious.
"It is true. They say he is very much changed, and has not gone into company since the fact of your engagement to Mr. Courtney became known. I am sure I haven't met him anywhere for over two months. Have you?"
"No. But there is doubtless some other cause for this than the one you have assigned."
"It is said not. Mr. Swanson told me yesterday, that to his certain knowledge, Atwood has long been deeply in love with you, but, seeing you surrounded by such a crowd of admirers, thought it hopeless to press his suit."
"Not a word of it true," returned Florence.
But her friend persisted in declaring that it was just as she had said.
Although Miss d'Almaigne asserted her entire disbelief in what had been alleged, yet the impression that it might be true could not be wholly resisted. When alone, and she pondered more seriously upon what she had heard, and remembered that she had not received a visit from Atwood, nor met him anywhere in company, for at least two months, this impression gained strength. As it thus gained strength from many more evidences that were presented to her, it produced a feeling of tenderness whenever she thought of Atwood, and caused something so much like regret that she had not known his real sentiments sooner, that she was startled and alarmed at her own state of mind, and endeavored to thrust aside every thought on the subject that presented itself. But this she found by no means an easy task. For a time she could think of nothing else, which so distressed her that the change in her feelings was noticed by her friends, and even by her intended husband.
Having gained the object of his pursuit, as far as her consent to marry him was concerned, the ardent manners of Courtney gave place to a more quiet exterior and the repose of self-satisfaction. Little by little, his true character began to show itself, and there were not infrequently exhibited, to the eyes of Florence, traits she could not admire, nor even approve. Involuntarily contrasts would be made between him and Atwood as to some particular thing that would show itself. This was often done without her taking any notice of the mental process, although it impressed itself, with all its effects, upon her mind; when she became at any time conscious of such a train of thoughts, she condemned it as wrong, and sought to fix her attention upon some other subjects.
The nearer the wedding day of Florence approached, the more disturbed became her mind, and the more did her heart shrink from the anticipated union. She had met Atwood but once since the time of her engagement. It was at the house of a very intimate friend of the young man's where he happened to call, not dreaming that she was there. He met Florence with an embarrassed air. When he addressed her, it was with a polite formality altogether different from his former manner. Atwood only stayed about half an hour, and then went away.
"He is very much changed," remarked the friend, after the young man had retired. "It grieves me to see him. I'm afraid his business hasn't turned out well, for he told me, the last time he was here, that he had sold out his store, and was going to leave the city."
"Indeed!" Florence spoke with a quickness of tone, and an expression of surprise so strong, that her friend looked at her earnestly for a moment or two, and then said —
"Yes. He leaves next week, I believe."
"Where is he going?"
"I did not inquire, particularly; but somewhere South or West, I believe. It is singular what could have come over him all at once. I tried to jest with him about being disappointed in love, but he did not appear to relish it very much, and so I said no more. I am half inclined to believe, though, that it is something of this kind. But who could have jilted him?"
"You said, just now, that you thought it was some business matter that troubled him," said Florence, wishing to effect a change in the tenor of her friend's remarks.
"So I did. But sometimes I think one thing, and sometimes another. I am more inclined, however, to the opinion that he has been disappointed in love. If so, who could have jilted him? as I just said. That is what puzzles me. I never knew that he addressed anyone seriously. In fact, the only lady I ever heard him admire, was yourself. Don't blush so! It's the truth. But it wasn't you, of course. Well! Poor fellow! I'm sorry for him from my heart, for he is one of the best of young men. If anyone has trifled with his affections, she'll regret it before she dies, or I'm mistaken. She will be lucky, indeed, if she gets a husband half as worthy as he is."
This conversation took place about a month previous to the time appointed for the wedding of Florence. It tended in no way to increase the pleasure with which she looked forward to that period, for since a question as to the entire worthiness of Courtney had been created by little acts, words, and omissions which forced themselves upon her attention shortly after her engagement with him, she had observed him more closely, and read many leaves in the book of his character before unturned. The consequence was, that she shrunk more and more from him every day.
About two weeks before the time arrived at which Florence was to be married, she was attending a large party. During the evening, while sitting near to one side of the folding doors that communicated between the two parlors, she found herself so close to a couple of young men in the adjoining parlor, who were partly concealed from view, as to learn all that they said. She did not give any particular heed to their words until their mention of her intended husband's name, caused a sudden throb of her heart.
"There's Courtney," said one of them.
"He's to be married to Miss d'Almaigne soon, I believe," remarked the other.
"So it is said. Well! There's no accounting for tastes. How Miss d'Almaigne ever came to fancy him — a fellow with more impudence than brains, and more pretension than principle — is what I can't understand. I know half a dozen young men, between whom and Courtney, there is no kind of comparison, who would have jumped at her; but they were too modest to put in their claims for such a queen of beauty. Ah me! I feel sorry for her. She is a lovely girl, and it is said as good as she is beautiful. As to her ever being happy with Courtney, that is out of the question, and she will discover it to her sorrow, before she is a year married. It is a dangerous thing to possess beauty like hers. It is almost sure to bring unhappiness in the married life."
"It will certainly bring it, in her case," was replied. "Courtney has been attracted alone by her beauty. Her goodness he has no ability to appreciate; for his heart is too depraved. I know him well, and know him to be an evil man. If I thought she would believe me, I would tell her some things that would open her eyes, and brave all the consequences which he might visit upon me. But to do so would be useless; she no doubt thinks him perfection. I wish it may always be so!"
"So do I; but that is impossible."'
Here the subject of conversation was changed, and Florence moved to another part of the room as quickly as possible. The young men remained perfectly ignorant of the fact that she had overheard their words. About ten minutes afterward Florence left the rooms, under the plea of not feeling well, and returned home. It was not a mere plea. The unhappy girl was sick at heart.
Florence d'Almaigne had no mother to counsel her in an emergency like this. That best friend had been dead for many years. Her father was a stern-tempered man; one to whom she feared to mention what she had heard, lest it should lead to serious consequences. All night she lay in anxious thought as to the best course for her to pursue. Before morning she had made up her mind firmly, not to consummate the marriage contract, predicating her resolution upon the agreement of some things she had overheard in regard to Courtney, with her own observation of his character. She also made up her mind to inform him by letter, immediately, of her resolution.
At the breakfast table her father noticed that she looked pale and unhappy. He inquired in regard to her health; but she answered him evasively, saying something about not being able to sleep, and having a violent headache.
Immediately after breakfast, Florence retired to her room, and wrote, as follows, to Courtney:
"Dear Sir — The nearer the time fixed for our marriage approaches, the more unhappy do I become. When I consented to be your wife, I did not fully know my own heart. I now see that the proposed union, if it should take place, will make me, of all persons, the most miserable. This being so, would it be right either for your sake or mine, for me to take upon myself vows that cannot come from the heart? If your wife is wretched, can you be happy? No, you cannot be! Release me, then, I beg of you, from the promise I made to become your wife. Do not seek to change my present feelings, for you cannot succeed. A more intimate fellowship with you, which I have had since our engagement, has made me more intimately acquainted than I possibly could have been before that engagement took place, with peculiarities in your disposition and traits in your character, which, instead of drawing my heart closer to, have estranged it from you. I cannot help this. It is a fact in the nature of things, and one which neither you nor I should lightly disregard. Yours, etc. Florence."
Mr. d'Almaigne was sitting in his office about twelve o'clock on that day, when young Courtney entered. He had a strange agitated look. Without a word of preface, he placed the letter of Florence in his hand.
"In the name of goodness! what does all this mean?" exclaimed the father, after running his eye hurriedly over the letter.
"That's what I wish you to explain, sir," said Courtney, compressing his lips, and eyeing Mr. d'Almaigne with a steady look.
There was something in the expression of the eye, face and tone of the young man, that Mr. d'Almaigne did not like. Before replying to his words, he read the letter of Florence over again slowly, and as thoughtfully as he could.
"I presume you can explain it better than I can," he said, looking up from the letter, and speaking in a firm, yet mild voice. "This is the first I have heard of this matter. Please, what has led to it?"
"That is just what I desire to know from you. It is not to be presumed that your daughter would take a step like this, without consulting her father."
"I have told you, young man, that this is the first I have heard of the matter!" replied Mr. d'Almaigne, sternly.
"Do you intend sustaining your daughter in the step she has taken?" asked Courtney.
"She is of age. If she adheres to what she intimates in this letter, I shall not attempt to control her."
"Then, sir, I warn you, that this is not the last you will hear of the matter!" returned Courtney, in a passionate manner, taking the open letter from Mr. d'Almaigne's hand, and turning away as he thrust it into his pocket.
The father hurried home.
"Florence, dear," he said, tenderly, on meeting his daughter, "I wish to know from you all that has prompted the strange letter you sent today to Mr. Courtney? Speak freely. If you can show me that you are right, I will sustain you."
This was so different from what she had expected from her father, that it melted her to tears, and it was some time before she could control her feelings sufficiently to give him a full history of all she had thought, felt, and observed for some months, and the startling confirmation of her fears that had accidentally occurred on the previous evening.
"Who were the young men who spoke so freely of Mr. Courtney?" asked the father.
"Speak freely, my child. I must know all."
Florence mentioned their names, and the remarks which each had made.
"If Robert Morrison said that — then there is truth in it. Thank Heaven, my child! for saving you from a union that must have made you wretched!"
On the next day, Mr. d'Almaigne received a notice from an attorney, that he had been instructed by Charles Courtney to institute a lawsuit against his daughter, for breach of a marriage contract, and that damages were to be laid at ten thousand dollars. Mr. d'Almaigne immediately called upon the two young men alluded to as having conversed quite freely about Courtney. To them, he related what his daughter had overheard them say, and what had been the result, and finished by asking if they had any facts to which they would be willing to testify in court, which would be received as sufficient proof of the unfitness of Courtney to become the husband of his daughter. One of them declined having anything to do with the matter, but the other was made of different material. He not only related to Mr. d'Almaigne many unprincipled and immoral acts of Courtney, but avowed his willingness to give clear testimony on the subject in court, if necessary.
"Are you willing to meet Courtney, in the presence of his own lawyer, and repeat what you have repeated to me?" asked Mr. d'Almaigne.
"Without hesitation. It is a duty I owe to innocence, to truth, to justice."
"Are you not afraid of consequences, personal to yourself?"
"No, sir; I never think of anything personal, where right is concerned," was the manly reply.
In a day or two Courtney was confronted with the young man, and became, for the first time, aware of the notoriety of some of his acts. He blustered and threatened a good deal to conceal his chagrin, but there it all rested. No more was ever heard of the suit. Some months afterward, certain transactions of a disreputable character in which he had been engaged, coming to light — he deemed it most prudent to leave the city, to which he did not soon return.
The effect of all this upon Florence was very unhappy. Her spirits sunk, and her health suffered. She withdrew from society, almost entirely; when she did appear, every one noticed that the brilliancy of her cheeks had faded, and that her eyes no longer sparkled with their former luster. Her voice too, had lost the melody of its tones. She was still beautiful, but her beauty did not arrest the attention as quickly as before. In course of time, this depression of spirits wore off, and Florence went into company more frequently. The flush of health came back to her cheeks, the light to her eyes, and the heart-refreshing melody to the tones of her voice. But her whole manner was more quiet, and she rather shunned than courted the attentions that were everywhere paid to her. Suitors as before sought her hand, but she gave encouragement to none, and if any, more bold than the rest, pressed forward and told the story of their love, she gently declined the generous tender of their hearts. Years passed away, and though not unwooed, Florence d'Almaigne was still unwedded.
Business called Mr. d'Almaigne to the West about five years after the occurrence of the principal event of our story. He had only been absent a few weeks when intelligence reached Florence that, from the upsetting of a stagecoach, he had been seriously injured, and was then lying at a hotel in Cincinnati. Without a moment's delay, Florence made preparations for going to her father. She started on the next morning. When she arrived at Cincinnati, she found that he had received several severe fractures, and was otherwise badly hurt; but that he was out of all danger, and recovering as rapidly as the nature of his injuries would permit.
During the long conversation that Florence held with her father about the accident, the pain he had suffered, and the circumstances attending his removal to Cincinnati, and the care and attention he had received there, he mentioned the fact that a young man who had left their native city some years ago, by the name of Atwood, and who was boarding in the hotel, had shown him the greatest kindness, visiting him many times each day, and sometimes remaining up with him, when his pain was worse, nearly all night long.
The cause of the deepening color on Florence's cheeks was altogether unknown to her father. He had scarcely done speaking, when a tap on the door was followed by the entrance of the very person who had been mentioned. He looked surprised, and was evidently confused at seeing Florence, and it required a very strong effort on her part, not to betray too palpably the deep agitation of her bosom.
"Mrs. Courtney! I am happy to see you," said Atwood, advancing and taking her hand, "though grieved at the sad accident that has caused your hurried visit to our Western country."
"Stop — stop, my young friend!" said Mr. d'Almaigne, "not quite so fast. Not Mrs. Courtney, thank Heaven! but Florence d'Almaigne."
Atwood let the hand of Florence, that he still held, fall quickly, and stepped back one or two paces, with a look of bewilderment.
"I thought you were married years ago," he said.
"She was to have been," replied her father, "but we discovered the unworthiness of her suitor before it was too late."
We need hardly say that Atwood remained quite as attentive to Mr. d'Almaigne, as before the arrival of his daughter; nor will the reader be at all surprised to hear that before the old gentleman was able to leave the city, he had seen enough to satisfy him that the young man and Florence were on the very best terms imaginable. Shortly after his return home, he received proposals from Atwood for the hand of his daughter, which, on reference to her, were accepted, provided he would move back again to the East. As may be supposed, this was not considered a hard proviso.
Mine at last, said Atwood, as he sat gazing into the face of his wife, some days after their marriage. "For this happiness, I never dared even to hope. If you had been less beautiful, you would have been mine years ago."
"The gift of beauty had liked to have proved a fatal gift to me," replied Florence, a thoughtful shade passing over her face.
"As it proves to hundreds every year. But the danger is past now."
"For which my heart is overflowing with thankfulness," returned Florence, as her eyes filled with tears, and she leaned forward and rested her lovely face upon the bosom of her husband.