The Mistakes of a Rising Family
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856
Mr. Minturn was a rising man; that is, he was gaining money and reputation in his profession. That he felt himself rising, was clearly apparent to all who observed him attentively. His good wife, Mrs. Minturn, was also conscious of the upward movement, and experienced a consequent sense of elevation. From the height they had gained in a few years, it was but natural for them to cast their eyes below, and to note how far beneath them were certain individuals with whom they had once been on a level. The observation of this fact as naturally created an emotion of contempt for these individuals as inferiors.
Among those ranging below the Minturns — in their estimation — was a family named Allender. Mr. Allender was, or had been, a merchant, and was highly esteemed by all who knew him, as a gentleman and a man of fine intelligence. He and Minturn started together in life; the one as a lawyer, and the other as a merchant. Possessing some capital, Mr. Allender was able, in commencing business, to assume a comfortable style of living in his family — while Minturn, who had nothing but his profession to depend upon, and that at the time of his marriage a very small income, was compelled to adopt, in his domestic relations, a very humble scale.
Having been well acquainted, for some years, with Mr. Minturn, Mr. Allender, soon after the marriage of the former, called upon him with his wife. The visit was promptly returned, and from that time the two families kept up intimate relations. The Minturns lived in a small house, in a retired street, for which they paid the annual rent of one hundred and seventy-five dollars. Their house was furnished with exceeding plainness, and their only servant was a stout girl of fourteen.
The Allenders, on the other hand, lived in a fashionable neighborhood, so called. For their house, which was handsomely furnished, they paid a rent of four hundred dollars; and lived in what the Minturns thought to be great elegance. And so it was, in contrast with their style of living. Mrs. Minturn felt quite proud of having such acquaintances, and of being able to visit familiarly in such good society as was to be found at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Allender. You could not be in her company for ten minutes, at any time, without hearing some allusion to the Allenders. What they said, was repeated as oracular; and to those who had never been in their house, Mrs. Minturn described the elegance of everything pertaining thereto, in the most graphic manner.
Well, as time went on, Mr. Minturn, by strict devotion to business, gradually advanced himself in his profession. At the end of four or five years, he was able to move into a larger house and to get better furniture. Still, everything was yet on an inferior scale compared to that enjoyed by Mr. Allender, to whose family his own was indebted for an introduction into society, and for an acquaintance with many who were esteemed as valued friends.
Ten years elapsed, and the Minturns were on a level with the Allenders, as far as external things were concerned. The lawyer's business had steadily increased, but the merchant had not been very successful in trade, and was not esteemed, in the community, a rising man. No change in his style of living had taken place since he first became a housekeeper; and his furniture began, in consequence, to look a little dingy and old-fashioned. This was particularly observed by Mrs. Minturn, who had, at every upward movement — and three of these movements had already taken place — furnished her house from top to bottom.
Five years more reversed the relations between to families. The Minturns still went up — and the Allenders commenced going down. One day, about this time, Mr. Minturn came home from his office, and said to his wife:
"I've got bad news to tell you about our friends the Allenders."
"What is that?" inquired Mrs. Minturn, evincing a good deal of interest, though not exactly of the right kind.
"He's gone bankrupt!"
"He failed to meet his notes in bank yesterday, and today, I understand, he has called his creditors together."
"I'm sorry to hear that, really," said Mrs. Minturn. "What is the cause?"
"I believe his affairs have been getting behind for the last four or five years. He does not seem to possess much business energy."
"I never thought there was a great deal of life about him."
"He's rather a slow man. It requires more activity and energy of character than he possesses, to do business in these times. Men are getting too wide awake. I'm sorry for Allender. He's a good-hearted man — too good-hearted, in fact, for his own interest. But, it's nothing more than I expected."
"And I am sorry for poor Mrs. Allender," said his wife. "What a change it will be for her! Ah, me! Will they lose everything?"
"I have no means of knowing at present. But I hope not."
"Still, they will have to come down a great way."
"No doubt of it."
A week passed after news of Mr. Allender's business disaster had reached the ears of Mrs. Minturn, and in that time she had not called to see her friend in distress. Each of these ladies had a daughter about the same age; and that age was fifteen.
"Where are you going, Emeline?" asked Mrs. Minturn of her daughter, who came down, with her bonnet on, one afternoon about this time.
"I'm going to run around and see Clara Allender," was replied.
"I'd rather you wouldn't go there, just now," said the mother.
"Why not?" asked Emeline.
"I have my reasons for it," returned Mrs. Minturn.
Emeline looked disappointed. She was much attached to Clara, who was a sweet-tempered girl, and felt a week's absence from her as a real privation. Observing the disappointment of Emeline, Mrs. Minturn said, a little impatiently:
"I think you might live without seeing Clara every day. For some time past, you have been little more than her shadow. I don't like these girlish intimacies; they never come to any good."
Tears were in Emeline's eyes as she turned from her mother and went back to her room.
Mr. Allender, at the age of forty, found himself unable, through the exhaustion of his means, to continue in business. He would have resigned everything into the hands of his creditors before suffering a protest, had he not failed to receive an expected payment on the day of his forced suspension. When he did call together the men to whom he was indebted, he rendered them up all his effects, and in all possible ways aided in the settlement of everything. The result was better than he had anticipated. No one lost a dollar — but he was left penniless!
Just then, the president of one of the Marine Insurance Companies resigned his office, and Mr. Allender was unanimously chosen to fill his place. The salary was two thousand dollars. This was sufficient to meet the expense at which his family had been living. So there was no change in their domestic economy. This being the case — the Minturns had no good reason for cutting the acquaintance of their old friends, as much as they now felt disposed to do so. The family visiting, however, was far from being as frequent and as familiar as in former times.
Still, on the part of the Minturns the movement was upward, while the Allender's retained their dead level. The lawyer, who was a man of talents and perseverance, and not over-scrupulous on points of abstract morality, gained both money and reputation in his profession, and was at length known as one of the most acute and successful men at the bar. At last, he was brought forward by one of the political parties as a candidate for a seat in Congress — and elected.
If Mrs. Minturn's ideas of her own elevation and importance in the social world had been large — they were now increased threefold. A winter's residence at the seat of government — during which time she mingled freely with the great people who revolve around certain fixed stars that shine with varied light in the political metropolis — raised still higher the standard of self-estimation. Her daughter Emeline, now a beautiful and accomplished young lady, accompanied her mother wherever she went, and attracted a large share of attention. Among those who seemed particularly pleased with Emeline was a young man, a member of Congress from New York, who belonged to a wealthy and distinguished family, and who was himself possessed of brilliant talent, that made him conspicuous on the floor of Congress, even among men of long-acknowledged abilities. His name was Erskine.
Soon after meeting with the Hon. Mr. Erskine, Mrs. Minturn felt a strong desire to bring him to the feet of her daughter. He presented just the kind of alliance she wished for Emeline. In imagination she soon began to picture to herself the elevated and brilliant position her child would occupy as the wife of Erskine, and she resolved to leave no means untried for the accomplishment of her wishes. Accordingly, she was particularly attentive to the young man whenever thrown into his company; and sought, by flattering his self-love, to make him feel in the best possible humor with himself while in her society. In this way she succeeded in drawing him frequently to her side, where Emeline was always to be found. A sprightly, well-educated, and finely accomplished girl, Emeline soon interested the young Mr. Erskine; and he showed her, as has been said, a good deal of attention during the winter, and Mrs. Minturn flattered herself that her daughter had made a conquest.
When the session of Congress closed, the Minturns returned home in the enjoyment of a much higher opinion of themselves than they had ever before entertained, and quite disposed to be rather more choice than before in regard to their visiting acquaintances.
A few days after their reappearance in old circles, a card of invitation to meet some friends at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Allender was received. It extended to themselves and their eldest daughter, Emeline. Mrs. Minturn handed the card to her husband on his return from his office in the evening.
"What is this?" he asked, on taking it. "Ah, indeed!" he added, in rather an equivocal voice, on perceiving its tenor. "Are you going?"
"I rather think not."
"Just as you say about it," remarked the acquiescing husband.
"The truth is," said Mrs. Minturn, "a regard for our position makes it necessary for us to be more select in our acquaintances. I don't wish Emeline to be on terms of intimacy with Clara Allender any longer. There is too great a difference in their social relations. As people are judged by the company they keep — they should be a little choice in their selection. I like Mrs. Allender very well, in her place. She is a good, plain, common-sense sort of a woman, but she occupies a grade below us; and we should remember and act upon this for the sake of our children, if for nothing else."
"No doubt you are right," replied Mr. Minturn. "Mr. Allender has neither energy of character nor enterprise; he, therefore, occupies a dead level in society. At that level, he cannot expect everyone else to remain."
"Not us, at least!"
"Clara called to see Emeline yesterday. I saw her in the parlor, and asked her to excuse Emeline, as she was a little indisposed. It is true, I had to fib a little. But that was better than a renewal of an acquaintance that ought now to cease. She seemed a little hurt, but I can't help it."
"Of course not. I am sorry, for their sakes, that we must give up the acquaintance. No loss can come to us, as we have more friends, now, than are just convenient."
"It would help Clara a good deal," remarked Mrs. Minturn, "to mingle in our circle. Her mother feels this, and, therefore, does not wish to give us up. I've not the least doubt but this party is made on our account. It won't do, however; they will have to let us go."
"It will be sufficient to send our regrets," said Mr. Minturn.
"We'd better not even do that," replied his wife. "That will indicate a wish to retain the acquaintance — and we have no such desire. Better sever the relation at once and be done with the matter. It is unpleasant at least, and there is no use in prolonging disagreeable sensations."
"Be it so, then," remarked Mr. Minturn, rising; and so the thing was decided.
Mrs. Minturn had lapsed into a small mistake concerning the reason that induced Mr. and Mrs. Allender to give an entertainment just at that time. It was not in honor of their return from Washington, and designed to unite the families in a firmer union; no, a thought like this had not entered the mind of the Allenders. The honor was designed for another — even for the Hon. Mr. Erskine, who was the son of one of Mr. Allender's oldest and most valued friends, whom he had not seen for many years, yet with whom he had enjoyed an uninterrupted correspondence.
On his return home, Mr. Erskine remained a few days in the city, as much to see Mr. Allender as for anything else, his father having particularly asked him to do so. He had never met Mr. Allender before, but was charmed with his gentlemanly character and fine intelligence at the first interview, and still more pleased with him at each subsequent meeting. With Mrs. Allender he was also pleased; but, most of all, with Clara. About the latter there was a charm that won his admiration. She was beautiful; but how different her beauty from that of the brilliant belles who had glittered in the mirthful circles of fashion he had just left! It was less the beauty of features — than as from the pure and lovely spirit within. Erskine had been more than pleased with Miss Minturn; but he thought of her as one in a lower sphere while in the presence of Clara, who, like a half-hidden violet, seemed all unconscious of her beauty or fragrance.
Yes, it was for Mr. Erskine that the party was given, and in order to introduce him to a highly refined and intellectual circle, of which Mr. Allender and his wife notwithstanding external reverses, were still the center. Not from any particular pleasure that was expected to be derived from the company of the Minturns, were they invited; for, in going up — they had changed so for the worse, that their society had become irksome, if not offensive. But, for the sake of old friendship, they were included. But they did not come; and no one missed them.
On the next day, Mr. Erskine called upon Mrs. Minturn and her daughter, as he intended leaving the city in the afternoon.
"We looked for you all last evening," said Mrs. Minturn. "Why did you not call around?"
"I was at a select party last night," replied the young man.
"Were you, indeed?"
"Yes. At Mr. Allender's. Do you know the family?"
"At Allender's!" The tone of surprise, not altogether unmingled with contempt, with which this was uttered by Mrs. Minturn, put Erskine a little on his guard.
"Do you know them?" he asked, with some gravity of manner.
"Not very intimately. We had some acquaintance in former years, but we have broken it off. They sent us cards of invitation, but we did not notice them."
"What is their standing?"
"Not high. I believe none of our first people visit them."
"Who was there?" asked Emeline.
The tone in which this was spoken caused Mr. Erskine to turn and look somewhat closely into the young lady's face, to mark its expression. She had never appeared less lovely in his eyes.
"Not a great many," he replied.
"I suppose not," said Mrs. Minturn.
"It was a select party," remarked the young man.
"And select enough, no doubt, you found it."
"You speak truly. I have never been in one more so," replied Erskine.
"You have not answered my question as to who were there," said Emeline.
"Young ladies, do you mean?"
"Yes, young ladies."
"Do you know Miss Bouchard?"
"I have no particular acquaintance with her. But she was not there!"
"Oh, yes she was. And so was her father, General Bouchard."
"You astonish me!" said Mrs. Minturn. "Certainly you are in error."
"I believe not. I had a good deal of interesting conversation with General Bouchard, who is well acquainted with my father."
"Who else was there?"
"Senator York, and his beautiful niece, who created such a sensation in Washington last winter. She and Miss Allender, who is, it strikes me, a charming girl, seemed delighted with each other, and were side by side most of the evening. They sang together many times with exquisite effect. Then there were Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, Mr. and Mrs. Richmond, Miss Julia Cash, and Miss Greystone."
All these belonged to a circle yet above that in which the Minturns had moved.
"I am astonished," said Mrs. Minturn, but poorly concealing her mortification. "I had no idea that the Allenders kept such company. How did you happen to be invited?"
"Mr. Allender is one of my father's oldest and most valued friends. I called at his desire, and found both him and his family far above the 'common run' of people. I do not in the least wonder at the class of people I met at their house. I am sorry that you have been led so far astray in your estimation of their characters. You never could have known them well."
"Perhaps not," said Mrs. Minturn, in a subdued voice. "Did you hear us asked for?" she ventured to add. "We were invited, as I mentioned, and would have gone — but didn't expect to find any there with whom it would be agreeable to associate."
This remark did not in the least improve the matter in the eyes of Mr. Erskine, who now understood the Minturns rather better than before. A feeling of repugnance took the place of his former friendly sentiments; and in a briefer time than he had intended, he brought his visit to a close, and bade them good day.
What was now to be done? The Minturns had fallen into an error, which must, if possible, be repaired. The Allenders were of far more consequence than they had believed, and their estimation of them rose correspondingly. A note of regret at not being able to attend the party, in consequence of a previous engagement, was written, and this enclosed in another note, stating that in consequence of the neglect of a servant, it had not been delivered on the day before. Both were despatched within half an hour after Mr. Erskine left the house.
On the day after, Mrs. Minturn and her daughter called at Mrs. Allender's, and offered verbal regrets at not having been able to attend the party.
"We wanted to come very much, but both Emeline and I were so much indisposed, that the doctor said we mustn't think of going out" — forgetting at the moment, the tenor of the note she had written only the day before. But scarcely were the words out of her mouth, when a glance of uneasy surprise from Emeline brought a recollection of this fact, and caused the blood to mount to her face.
A sudden change in the manner of Mrs. Allender was conclusive evidence that she, too, was laying side by side the two conflicting statements.
"But even," added Mrs. Minturn, in a voice that betrayed some disturbance of mind, "if we had not been indisposed, a previously made engagement would have been in the way of a pleasure that we shall always regret having lost. You had a highly select party, I understood."
"Only a few old and much esteemed friends, that we invited to meet a gentleman who was passing through the city, whose father and Mr. Allender are old acquaintances."
"The Hon. Mr. Erskine, you mean," said Mrs. Minturn, whose vanity led her to betray herself still more.
"Yes. Have you met him?"
"Oh, yes," was replied with animation. "We were very intimate at Washington. He showed Emeline very particular attentions."
"Ah! I was not aware that you knew him."
"Intimately. He called to see us yesterday, on the eve of his departure for New York."
"Oh, mother!" exclaimed Emeline, as soon as they had stepped beyond the street-door, on leaving the house of Mrs. Allender, "why did you say anything at all about Mr. Erskine, and especially after blundering so in the matter of apology? She'll see through it all, as clear as daylight. And won't we look sorry in her eyes? I'm mortified to death!"
"I don't know what came over me," returned the mother, with evident chagrin. "To think that I should have been so beside myself!"
So much mortified were both the mother and daughter, on reflection, that they could not venture to call again upon Mrs. Allender and Clara, who did not return the last visit. And the intimacy from that time was broken off.
The next winter came round, and the Minturns resorted again to Washington. Emeline had hoped to receive a letter from Mr. Erskine, whom she half believed to be in love with her; but no such desired communication came. But she would meet him at the Capitol; and to that time of meeting, she looked forward with feelings of the liveliest interest. On arriving in Washington, at the opening of the session, she went, on the first day, to the Capitol. But much to her disappointment, a certain member from New York was not in his place.
"Where is Mr. Erskine," she asked of his colleague, whom she met in the evening.
"Has not arrived yet," was replied. "He will probably be along tomorrow or next day. He stopped in your city as he came along; and I shrewdly suspect that he had in contemplation a very desperate act."
"Indeed! What was that?" returned Emeline, endeavoring to appear unconcerned.
"Taking to himself a wife!"
"You surprise me," said the young lady. "Who is the bride?"
"I don't know. He said nothing to me on that subject. Others, who appear to be in the secret, aver that his detention is occasioned by the cause I have alleged."
It required a strong effort on the part of Miss Minturn to keep from betraying the painful shock her feelings had sustained. She changed the subject as quickly as possible.
On the next day, it was whispered about that Mr. Erskine had arrived in company with his newly-made bride.
"Who is she?" asked both Mrs. Minturn and her daughter; but no one to whom they applied, happened to know. Those who had seen her pronounced her very beautiful. Two days passed, and then a bridal party was given, to which Mrs. Minturn and Emeline were invited. They had been sitting in the midst of a large company for about ten minutes, their hearts in a flutter of anticipation, when there was a slight movement at the door, and then Mr. Erskine entered with his bride upon his arm. One glance sufficed for Mrs. Minturn and her daughter — it was Clara! While others were pressing forward to greet the lovely bride, they, overcome with disappointment, and oppressed by mortification, retired from the room, and, ordering their carriage, left the house unobserved.
Up to this day, they have never sought to renew the acquaintance.