Not at Home!
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1859
Never but once did I venture upon the utterance of that little white lie, "Not at home," and then I was well punished for my weakness and folly. It occurred at a time when there were in my family two new inhabitants: a niece from New York, and a raw Irish servant girl that I had taken a few days before, on trial.
My niece, Agnes, was a young lady in her nineteenth year, the daughter of my brother. I had not seen her before since her school-girl days; and knew little of her character. Her mother I had always esteemed as a right-thinking, true-hearted woman. I was much pleased to have a visit from Agnes, and felt drawn toward her more and more every day. There was something pure and good about her.
"Now, Aggy, dear," said I to her, one morning after breakfast, as we took our work and retired from the dining-room to one of the parlors, where I was occasionally in the habit of sitting — "we must sew for dear life until dinner time, so as to finish these two frocks for the children to wear this evening. It isn't right, I know, to impose on you in this way. But you sew so quick and neatly; and then it will help me through, and leave me free to visit Girard College with you this afternoon."
"Don't speak of it, aunt," returned Agnes. — "I'm never happier than when employed. And, besides, it's only fair that I should sew for you in the morning, if you are to go pleasuring with me in the afternoon."
Lightly the hours flew by, passed in cheerful conversation. I found that the mind of my niece had been highly cultivated; that her tastes were refined, and her moral sense acute. To say that I was pleased with her, would but half express what I felt.
There was to be a juvenile party at the house of one of our acquaintances that evening, to which the children were invited; and we were at work in preparing dresses and other matters suitable for them to appear in.
Twelve o'clock came very quickly — too quickly for me, in fact; for I had not accomplished near so much as I had hoped to do. It would require the most diligent application, through every moment of time that intervened until the dinner hour, for us to get through with what we were doing, so as to have the afternoon to ourselves for the intended excursion.
As the clock rung out the hour of noon, I exclaimed: "Is it possible! I had no idea that it was so late. How slowly I do seem to get along!"
Just at this moment the bell rung.
"Bless me! I hope we are not to have visitors this morning," said I, as I let my hands fall in my lap. I thought hurriedly for a moment, and then remarked, in a decided way:
"Of course we cannot see anyone. We are engaged."
By this time I heard the footsteps of Mary on her way from the kitchen, and I very naturally passed quickly to the parlor door to intercept and give her my instructions.
"Say that I'm engaged," was on my tongue. But, somehow or other, I had not the courage to give these words utterance. The visitor might be a person to whom such an excuse for not appearing would seem unkind, or be an offence. In this uncertain state, my mind fell into confusion. Mary was before me, and awaiting the direction she saw that I was about giving.
"Say that I'm not at home, if anyone asks to see me," came in a sudden impulse from my lips.
And then my cheeks flushed to think that I had instructed my servant to give utterance to a falsehood.
"Yes, Mam," answered the girl, glancing into my face with a knowing leer, that produced an instant sense of humiliation; and away she went to do my bidding.
I did not glance towards Agnes, as I returned to my seat and took up my work. I had not the courage to do this. That I had lowered myself in her estimation, I felt certain. I heard the street door open, and bent, involuntarily, in a listening attitude. The voice of a lady uttered my name.
"She's not at home, mam," came distinctly on my ears, causing the flush on my cheeks to become still deeper.
A murmur of voices followed. Then I heard the closing of the vestibule door, and Mary returning to the back parlor where we were sitting.
"Who was it, Mary?" I inquired, as the girl entered.
"Mrs. — Mrs. — Now what was it? Sure, and I've forgotten their names entirely."
But, lack of memory did not long keep me in ignorance as to who were my visitors, for, as ill luck would have it, they had bethought themselves of some message they wished to leave, and, re-opening the vestibule door, left a-jar by Mary, followed her along the passage to the room they saw her enter. As they pushed open the door of the parlor, Mary heard them, and, turning quickly she went to them. A moment she stood, confronting, in no very graceful attitude, a couple of ladies, and then escaped to the kitchen.
Here was a scene of embarrassment. Not among all my acquaintances were there, perhaps, two people, whom I would have least desired to witness in me such a fault as the one of which I had been guilty. For a little while, I knew not what to say. I sat, overcome with mortification. At length, I arose, and said with an effort,
"Walk in, ladies! How are you this morning? I'm pleased to see you. Take chairs. My niece, Mrs. Williams, and Mrs. Glenn. I hope you will excuse us. We were — "
"Oh, no apologies, Mrs. Smith," returned one of the ladies, with a quiet smile, and an air of self-possession. "Pardon this intrusion. We understood the servant to say that you were not at home."
"Engaged, she meant," said I, a deeper crimson suffusing my face. "The fact is, we are working for dear life, to get the children ready for a party tonight, and wished to be excused from seeing anyone."
"Certainly — all right," returned Mrs. Williams, "I merely came in to say to your servant (I had forgotten it at the door) that my sister expected to leave for her home in New York in a day or two, and would call here with me, tomorrow afternoon."
"I shall be very happy to see her," said I, — "very happy. Do come in and sit down for a little while. If I had only known it was you."
Now that last sentence, spoken in embarrassment and mental confusion, was only making matters worse. It placed me in a false and despicable light before my visitors; for in it was the savor of hypocrisy, which is foreign to my nature.
"No, thank you," replied my visitors. "Good day!"
And they retired, leaving me so overcome with shame, mortification, confusion, and distress, that I burst into tears.
"To think that I should have done such a thing!" was my first remark, so soon as I had a little recovered my self-possession; and I looked up, half timidly, into the face of my niece. I shall not soon forget the expression of surprise and pain that was in her fair young countenance. I had uttered a falsehood in her presence, and thus done violence to the good opinion she had formed of me. The beautiful ideal of her aunt, which had filled her mind, was blurred over; and her heart was sad in consequence.
"Dear Aggy!" said I, throwing my work upon the floor, and bending earnestly towards her. — "Don't think too meanly of me for this little circumstance. I never was guilty of that lying before — never! And well have I been punished for my thoughtless folly I spoke from impulse, and not reflection, when I told Mary to say that I was not at home, and repented of what I had done almost as soon as the words passed my lips."
Agnes looked at me for some moments, until her eyes filled with tears. Then she said in a low, sweet, earnest voice:
"Mother always says, if she cannot see anyone who calls, that she is engaged."
"And so do I, dear," I returned. "This is my first offence against truth, and you may be sure that it will be the last."
And it was my last.
When next I met Mrs. Williams and Mrs. Glenn, there was, in both of them, a reserve not seen before. I felt this change keenly. I had wronged myself in their good opinion; and could not venture upon an explanation of my conduct; for that, I felt, might only make matters worse.
How often, since, has my cheek burned, as a vivid recollection came up before my mind of what occurred on that morning! I can never forget it.