"No, of course not. The least said about such things the better."
"Don't for the world. I have told you in perfect confidence, and you are the only one to whom I have breathed it. I wouldn't have it get out for any consideration."
"Give yourself no uneasiness. I shall not allude to the subject."
"I merely told you because I knew you were a friend, and would let it go no farther. But would you have thought it?"
"I certainly am very much surprised."
"So am I. But when things pass right before your eyes and ears, there is no gainsaying them."
"No. Seeing is said to be believing."
"Of course it is."
"But, Mrs. Grimes, are you very sure that you heard aright?"
"I am positive, Mrs. Raynor. It occurred only an hour ago, and the whole thing is distinctly remembered. I called in to see Mrs. Comegys, and while I was there, the bundle of goods came home. I was present when she opened it, and she showed me the lawn dress it contained. There were twelve yards in it. 'I must see if there is good measure,' she said, and she got a yard-stick and measured it off. There were fifteen yards instead of twelve. 'How is this?' she remarked. 'I am sure I paid for only twelve yards, and here are fifteen.' The yard-stick was applied again. There was no mistake; the lawn measured fifteen yards. 'What are you going to do with the surplus?' I asked. 'Keep it, of course,' said Mrs. Comegys. 'There is just enough to make little Julia a frock. Won't she look sweet in it?,' I was so confounded that I couldn't say a word. Indeed, I could hardly look her in the face. At first I thought of calling her attention to the dishonesty of the act; but then I reflected that, as it was none of my business, I might get her ill-will for meddling in what didn't concern me."
"And you really think, then, that she meant to keep the three yards without paying for them?
"Oh, certainly! But then I wouldn't say anything about it for the world. I wouldn't name it, on any consideration. Of course you will not repeat it."
"No. If I cannot find any good to tell of my friends, I try to refrain from saying anything evil."
"A most excellent rule, Mrs. Raynor, and one that I always follow. I never speak evil of my friends, for it always does more harm than good. No one can say that I ever tried to injure another."
"I hope Mrs. Comegys thought better of the matter, upon reflection," said Mrs. Raynor.
"So do I. But I am afraid not. Two or three little things occur to me now, that I have seen in my intercourse with her, which go to satisfy my mind that her moral perceptions are not the best in the world. Mrs. Comegys is a pleasant friend, and much esteemed by every one. It could do no good to spread this matter abroad, but harm."
After repeating over and over again her injunction to Mrs. Raynor not to repeat a word of what she had told her, Mrs. Grimes bade this lady, upon whom she had called, good morning, and went on her way. Ten minutes after, she was in the parlor of an acquaintance, named Mrs. Florence, entertaining her with the gossip she had picked up since their last meeting. She had not been there long, before, lowering her voice, she said in a confidential way--
"I was at Mrs. Comegys' to-day, and saw something that amazed me beyond every thing."
"Yes. You will be astonished when you hear it. Suppose you had purchased a dress and paid for a certain number of yards; and when the dress was sent home, you should find that the storekeeper had made a mistake and sent you three or four yards more than you had settled for. What would you do?"
"Send it back, of course."
"Of course, so say I. To act differently would not be honest. Do you think so?"
"It would not be honest for me."
"No, nor for any one. Now, would you have believed it? Mrs. Comegys not only thinks but acts differently."
"You must be mistaken, certainly, Mrs. Grimes."
"Seeing is believing, Mrs. Florence."
"So it is said, but I could hardly believe my eyes against Mrs. Comegys' integrity of character. I think I ought to know her well, for we have been very intimate for years."
"And I thought I knew her, too. But it seems that I was mistaken."
Mrs. Grimes then repeated the story of the lawn dress.
"Gracious me! Can it be possible?" exclaimed Mrs. Florence. "I can hardly credit it."
"It occurred just as I tell you. But Mrs. Florence, you musn't tell it again for the world. I have mentioned it to you in the strictest confidence. But I need hardly say this to you, for I know how discreet you are."
"I shall not mention it."
"It could do no good."
"None in the world."
"Isn't it surprising, that a woman who is so well off in the world as Mrs. Comegys, should stoop to a petty act like this?"
"It is, certainly."
"Perhaps there is something wrong here," and Mrs. Grimes placed her finger to her forehead and looked sober.
"How do you mean?" asked the friend.
"You've heard of people's having a dishonest monomania. Don't you remember the case of Mrs. Y----?"
"She had every thing that heart could desire. Her husband was rich, and let her have as much money as she wanted. I wish we could all say that, Mrs. Florence, don't you?"
"It would be very pleasant, certainly, to have as much money as we wanted."
"But, notwithstanding all this, Mrs. Y---- had such a propensity to take things not her own, that she never went into a dry goods store without purloining something, and rarely took tea with a friend without slipping a teaspoon into her pocket. Mr. Y---- had a great deal of trouble with her, and, in several cases, paid handsomely to induce parties disposed to prosecute her for theft, to let the matter drop. Now do you know that it has occurred to me that, perhaps, Mrs. Comegys is afflicted in this way? I shouldn't at all wonder if it were so."
"I'm afraid it is as I suspect. A number of suspicious circumstances have happened when she has been about, that this would explain. But for your life, Mrs. Florence, don't repeat this to any mortal!"
"I shall certainly not speak of it, Mrs. Grimes. It is too serious a matter. I wish I had not heard of it, for I can never feel toward Mrs. Comegys as I have done. She is a very pleasant woman, and one with whom it is always agreeable and profitable to spend an hour."
"It is a little matter, after all," remarked Mrs. Grimes, "and, perhaps, we treat it too seriously."
"We should never think lightly of dishonest practices, Mrs. Grimes. "Whoever is dishonest in little things, will be dishonest in great things, if a good opportunity offer. Mrs. Comegys can never be to me what she has been. That is impossible."
"Of course you will not speak of it again."
"You need have no fear of that."
A few days after, Mrs. Raynor made a call upon a friend, who said to her,
"Have you heard about Mrs. Comegys?"
"What about her?"
"I supposed you knew it. I've heard it from half a dozen persons. It is said that Perkins, through a mistake of one of his clerks, sent her home some fifteen or twenty yards of lawn more than she had paid for, and that, instead of sending it back, she kept it and made it up for her children. Did you ever hear of such a trick for an honest woman?"
"I don't think any honest woman would be guilty of such an act. Yes, I heard of it a few days ago as a great secret, and have not mentioned it to a living soul."
"Secret? bless me! it is no secret. It is in every one's mouth."
"Is it possible? I must say that Mrs. Grimes has been very indiscreet."
"Mrs. Grimes! Did it come from her in the first place?"
"Yes. She told me that she was present when the lawn came home, and saw Mrs. Comegys measure it, and heard her say that she meant to keep it."
"Which she has done. For I saw her in the street, yesterday, with a beautiful new lawn, and her little Julia was with her, wearing one precisely like it."
"How any woman can do so is more than I can understand."
"So it is, Mrs. Raynor. Just to think of dressing your child up in a frock as good as stolen! Isn't it dreadful?"
"It is, indeed!"
"Mrs. Comegys is not an honest woman. That is clear. I am told that this is not the first trick of the kind of which she has been guilty. They say that she has a natural propensity to take things that are not her own."
"I can hardly believe that."
"Nor can I. But it's no harder to believe this than to believe that she would cheat Perkins out of fifteen of twenty yards of lawn. It's a pity; for Mrs. Comegys, in every thing else, is certainly a very nice woman. In fact, I don't know any one I visit with so much pleasure."
Thus the circle of detraction widened, until there was scarcely a friend or acquaintance of Mrs. Comegys, near or remote, who had not heard of her having cheated a dry goods dealer out of several yards of lawn. Three, it had first been alleged; but the most common version of the story made it fifteen or twenty. Meantime, Mrs. Comegys remained in entire ignorance of what was alleged against her, although she noticed in two or three of her acquaintances, a trifling coldness that struck her as rather singular.
One day her husband, seeing that she looked quite sober, said--
"You seem quite dull to-day, dear. Don't you feel well?"
"Yes, I feel as well as usual, in body."
"But not in mind?"
"I do not feel quite comfortable in mind, certainly, though I don't know that I have any serious cause of uneasiness."
"Though a slight cause exists. May I ask what it is?"
"It is nothing more nor less than that I was coolly cut by an old friend to-day, whom I met in a store on Chesnut street. And as she is a woman that I highly esteem, both for the excellence of her character, and the agreeable qualities, as a friend, that she possesses. I cannot but feel a little bad about it. If she were one of that capricious class who get offended with you, once a month, for no just cause whatever, I should not care a fig. But Mrs. Markle is a woman of character, good sense and good feeling, whose friendship I have always prized."
"Was it Mrs. Markle?" said the husband, with some surprise.
"What can possibly be the cause?"
"I cannot tell."
"Have you thought over every thing?"
"Yes, I have turned and turned the matter in my mind, but can imagine no reason why she, of all others, could treat me coolly."
"Have you never spoken of her in a way to have your words misinterpreted by some evil-minded person--Mrs. Grimes, for instance--whose memory, or moral sense, one or the other, is very dull?"
"I have never spoken of her to any one, except in terms of praise. I could not do otherwise, for I look upon her as one of the most faultless women I know."
"She has at least shown that she possesses one fault."
"What is that?"
"If she has heard any thing against you of a character so serious as to make her wish to give up your acquaintance, she should at least have afforded you the chance of defending yourself before condemning you."
"I think that, myself."
"It may be that she did not see you," Mr. Comegys suggested.
"She looked me in the face, and nodded with cold formality."
"Perhaps her mind was abstracted."
"It might have been so. Mine would have been very abstracted, indeed, to keep me from a more cordial recognition of a friend."
"How would it do to call and see her?"
"I have been thinking of that. But my feelings naturally oppose it. I am not conscious of having done any thing to merit a withdrawal of the friendly sentiments she has held towards me; still, if she wishes to withdraw them, my pride says, let her do so."
"But pride, you know, is not always the best adviser."
"No. Perhaps the less regard we pay to its promptings, the better."
"I think so."
"It is rather awkward to go to a person and ask why you have been treated coldly."
"I know it is. But in a choice of evils, is it not always wisest to choose the least?"
"But is any one's bad opinion of you, if it be not correctly formed, an evil?"
"Certainly it is."
"I don't know. I have a kind of independence about me which says, 'Let people think what they please, so you are conscious of no wrong.'"
"Indifference to the world's good or bad opinion is all very well," replied the husband, "if the world will misjudge us. Still, as any thing that prejudices the minds of people against us, tends to destroy our usefulness, it is our duty to take all proper care of our reputations, even to the sacrifice of a little feeling in doing so."
Thus argued with by her husband, Mrs. Comegys, after turning the matter over in her mind, finally concluded to go and see Mrs. Markle. It was a pretty hard trial for her, but urged on by a sense of right, she called upon her two or three days after having been treated so coldly. She sent up her name by the servant. In about five minutes, Mrs. Markle descended to the parlor, where her visitor was awaiting her, and met her in a reserved and formal manner, that was altogether unlike her former cordiality. It was as much as Mrs. Comegys could do to keep from retiring instantly, and without a word, from the house. But she compelled herself to go through with what she had begun.
Mrs. Markle did, indeed, offer her hand; or rather the tips of her fingers; which Mrs. Comegys, in mere reciprocation of the formality, accepted. Then came an embarrassing pause, after which the latter said--
"I see that I was not mistaken in supposing that there was a marked coldness in your manner at our last meeting."
Mrs. Markle inclined her head slightly.
"Of course there is a cause for this. May I, in justice to myself as well as others, inquire what it is?"
"I did not suppose you would press an inquiry on the subject," replied Mrs. Markle. "But as you have done so, you are, of course, entitled to an answer."
There came another pause, after which, with a disturbed voice, Mrs. Markle said--
"For some time, I have heard a rumor in regard to you, that I could not credit. Of late it has been so often repeated that I felt it to be my duty to ascertain its truth or falsehood. On tracing, with some labor, the report to its origin, I am grieved to find that it is too true."
"Please say what it is," said Mrs. Comegys, in a firm voice.
"It is said that you bought a dress at a dry goods store in this city, and that on its being sent home, there proved to be some yards more in the piece of goods than you paid for and that instead of returning what was not your own, you kept it and had it made up for one of your children."
The face of Mrs. Comegys instantly became like crimson; and she turned her head away to hide the confusion into which this unexpected allegation had thrown her. As soon as she could command her voice, she said--
"You will, of course, give me the author of this charge."
"You are entitled to know, I suppose," replied Mrs. Markle. "The person who originated this report is Mrs. Grimes. And she says that she was present when the dress was sent home. That you measured it in her presence, and that, finding there were several yards over, you declared your intention to keep it and make of it a frock for your little girl. And, moreover, that she saw Julia wearing a frock afterwards, exactly like the pattern of the one you had, which she well remembers. This seems to me pretty conclusive evidence. At least it was so to my mind, and I acted accordingly."
Mrs. Comegys sat for the full space of a minute with her eyes upon the floor, without speaking. When she looked up, the flush that had covered her face had gone. It was very pale, instead. Rising from her chair, she bowed formally, and without saying a word, withdrew.
"Ah me! Isn't it sad?" murmured Mrs. Markle, as she heard the street door close upon her visitor. "So much that is agreeable and excellent, all dimmed by the want of principle. It seems hardly credible that a woman, with every thing she needs, could act dishonestly for so small a matter. A few yards of lawn against integrity and character! What a price to set upon virtue!"
Not more than half an hour after the departure of Mrs. Comegys, Mrs. Grimes called in to see Mrs. Markle.
"I hope," she said, shortly after she was seated, "that you won't say a word about what I told you a few days ago; I shouldn't have opened my lips on the subject if you hadn't asked me about it. I only mentioned it in the first place to a friend in whom I had the greatest confidence in the world. She has told some one, very improperly, for it was imparted to her as a secret, and in that way it has been spread abroad. I regret it exceedingly, for I would be the last person in the world to say a word to injure any one. I am particularly guarded in this."
"If it's the truth, Mrs. Grimes, I don't see that you need be so anxious about keeping it a secret," returned Mrs. Markle.
"The truth! Do you think I would utter a word that was not true?"
"I did not mean to infer that you would. I believe that what you said in regard to Mrs. Comegys was the fact."
"It certainly was. But then, it will do no good to make a disturbance about it. What has made me call in to see you is this; some one told me that, in consequence of this matter, you had dropped the acquaintance of Mrs. Comegys."
"It is true; I cannot associate on intimate terms with a woman who lacks honest principles."
"But don't you see that this will bring matters to a head, and that I shall be placed in a very awkward position?"
"You are ready to adhere to your statement in regard to Mrs. Comegys?"
"Oh, certainly; I have told nothing but the truth. But still, you can see that it will make me feel exceedingly unpleasant."
"Things of this kind are never very agreeable, I know, Mrs. Grimes. Still we must act as we think right, let what will follow. Mrs. Comegys has already called upon me to ask an explanation of my conduct wards her."
"She has!" Mrs. Grimes seemed sadly distressed. "What did you say to her?"
"I told her just what I had heard."
"Did she ask your author?" Mrs. Grimes was most pale with suspense.
"Of course you did not mention my name."
"She asked the author of the charge, and I named you."
"Oh dear, Mrs. Markle! I wish you hadn't done that. I shall be involved in a world of trouble, and the reputation of a tattler and mischief-maker. What did she say?"
"Not one word."
"She didn't deny it?"
"Of course she could not. Well, that is some satisfaction at least. She might have denied it, and tried make me out a liar, and there would have been plenty to believe her word against mine. I am glad she didn't deny it. She didn't say a word?"
"Did she look guilty?"
"You would have thought so, if you had seen her."
"What did she do?"
"She sat with her eyes upon the floor for some time, and then rose up, and without uttering a word, left the house."
"I wish she had said something. It would have been a satisfaction to know what she thought. But I suppose the poor woman was so confounded, that she didn't know what to say."
"So it appeared to me. She was completely stunned. I really pitied her from my heart. But want of principle should never be countenanced. If we are to have social integrity, we must mark with appropriate condemnation all deviations therefrom. It was exceedingly painful, but the path of duty was before me, and I walked in it without faltering."
Mrs. Grimes was neither so clear-sighted, nor so well satisfied with what she had done, as all this. She left the house of Mrs. Markle feeling very unhappy. Although she had been using her little unruly member against Mrs. Comegys with due industry, she was all the while on the most friendly terms with her, visiting at her house and being visited. It was only a few days, before that she had taken tea and spent an evening with her. Not that Mrs. Grimes was deliberately hypocritical, but she had a free tongue, and, like too many in society, more cautious about what they said than she, much better pleased to see evil than good in a neighbour. There are very few of us, perhaps, who have not something of this fault--an exceedingly bad fault, by the way. It seems to arise from a consciousness of our own imperfections and the pleasure we feel in making the discovery that others are as bad, if not worse than we are.
Two days after Mrs. Comegys had called on Mrs. Markle to ask for explanations, the latter received a note in the following words:
"MADAM.--I have no doubt you have acted according to your own views of right in dropping as suddenly as you have done, the acquaintance of an old friend. Perhaps, if you had called upon me and asked explanations, you might have acted a little differently. My present object in addressing you is to ask, as a matter of justice, that you will call at my house to-morrow at twelve o'clock. I think that I am entitled to speak a word in my own defense. After you have heard that I shall not complain of any course you may think it right to pursue.
Mrs. Markle, could do no less than call as she had been desired to. At twelve o'clock she rang the bell at Mrs. Comegys' door, and was shown into the parlor, where, to her no small surprise, she found about twenty ladies, most of them acquaintances, assembled, Mrs. Grimes among the number. In about ten minutes Mrs. Comegys came into the room, her countenance wearing a calm but sober aspect. She bowed slightly, but was not cordial toward, or familiar with, any one present. Without a pause she said--
"Ladies, I have learned within a few days, very greatly to my surprise and grief, that there is a report circulated among my friends, injurious to my character as a woman of honest principles. I have taken some pains to ascertain those with whom the report is familiar, and have invited all such to be here to-day. I learn from several sources, that the report originated with Mrs. Grimes, and that she has been very industrious in circulating it to my injury."
"Perhaps you wrong Mrs. Grimes there," spoke up Mrs. Markle. "She did not mention it to me until I inquired of her if the report was true. And then she told me that she had never told it but to a single person, in confidence, and that she had inadvertently alluded to it, and thus it became a common report. So I think that Mrs. Grimes cannot justly be charged with having sought to circulate the matter to your injury."
"Very well, we will see how far that statement is correct," said Mrs. Comegys. "Did she mention the subject to you, Mrs. Raynor?"
"She did," replied Mrs. Raynor. "But in strict confidence, and enjoining it upon me not to mention it to any one, as she had no wish to injure you."
"Did you tell it to any one?"
"No. It was but a little while afterward that it was told to me by some one else."
"Was it mentioned to you, Mrs. Florence?" proceeded Mrs. Comegys, turning to another of the ladies present.
"It was, ma'am."
"By Mrs. Grimes?"
"In confidence, I suppose?"
"I was requested to say nothing about it, for fear that it might create an unfavorable impression in regard to you."
"Very well; there are two already. How was it in your case, Mrs. Wheeler?"
This lady answered as the others had done. The question was then put to each lady in the room, when it appeared that out of the twenty, fifteen had received their information on the subject from Mrs. Grimes, and that upon every one secrecy had been enjoined, although not in every case maintained.
"So it seems, Mrs. Markle," said Mrs. Comegys, after she had finished her inquiries, "that Mrs. Grimes has, as I alleged, industriously circulated this matter to my injury."
"It certainly appears so," returned Mrs. Markle, coldly.
Thus brought into a corner, Mrs. Grimes bristled up like certain animals, which are good at running and skulking, but which, when fairly trapped, fight desperately.
"Telling it to a thousand is not half as bad as doing it, Mrs. Comegys," she said, angrily. "You needn't try to screen yourself from the consequences of your wrong doings, by raising a hue and cry against me. Go to the fact, madam! Go to the fact, and stand alongside of what you have done."
"I have no hesitation about doing that, Mrs. Grimes. Pray, what have I done?"
"It is very strange that you should ask, madam."
"But I am charged, I learn, with having committed a crime against society; and you are the author of the charge. What is the crime?"
"If it is any satisfaction to you, I will tell you. I was at your house when the pattern of the lawn dress you now have on was sent home. You measured it in my presence, and there were several yards in it more than you had bought and paid for"--
Mrs. Grimes looked confused, and stammered out, "I do not now exactly remember."
"How many did she tell you, Mrs. Raynor?"
"She said there were three yards."
"And you, Mrs. Fisher?"
"And you, Mrs. Florence?"
"Fifteen yards, I think."
"Oh, no, Mrs. Florence; you are entirely mistaken. You misunderstood me," said Mrs. Grimes, in extreme perturbation.
"Perhaps so. But that is my present impression," replied Mrs. Florence.
"That will do," said Mrs. Comegys. "Mrs. Grimes can now go on with her answer to my inquiry. I will remark, however, that the overplus was just two yards."
"Then you admit that the lawn overran what you had paid for?"
"Certainly I do. It overran just two yards."
"Very well. One yard or a dozen, the principle is just the same. I asked you what you meant to do with it, and you replied, 'keep it, of course.' Do you deny that?"
"No. It is very likely that I did say so, for it was my intention to keep it."
"Without paying for it?" asked Mrs. Markle.
Mrs. Comegys looked steadily into the face of her interrogator for some moments, a flush upon her cheek, an indignant light in her eye. Then, without replying to the question, she stepped to the wall and rang the parlor bell. In a few moments a servant came in.
"Ask the gentleman in the dining-room if he will be kind enough to step here." In a little while a step was heard along the passage, and then a young man entered.
"You are a clerk in Mr. Perkins' store?" said Mrs. Comegys.
"You remember my buying this lawn dress at your store?"
"Very well, ma'am. I should forget a good many incidents before I forgot that."
"What impressed it upon your memory?"
"This circumstance. I was very much hurried at the time when you bought it, and in measuring it off, made a mistake against myself of two yards. There should have been four dresses in the piece. One had been sold previous to yours. Not long after your dress had been sent home, two ladies came into the store and chose each a dress from the pattern. On measuring the piece, I discovered that it was two yards short, and lost the sale of the dresses in consequence, as the ladies wished them alike. An hour afterward you called to say that I had made a mistake and sent you home two yards more than you had paid for; but that as you liked the pattern very much, you would keep it and buy two yards more for a dress for your little girl."
"Yes; that is exactly the truth in regard to the dress. I am obliged to you, Mr. S----, for the trouble I have given you. I will not keep you any longer."
The young man bowed and withdrew.
The ladies immediately gathered around Mrs. Comegys, with a thousand apologies for having for a moment entertained the idea that she had been guilty of wrong, while Mrs. Grimes took refuge in a flood of tears.
"I have but one cause of complaint against you all," said the injured lady, "and it is this. A charge of so serious a nature should never have been made a subject of common report without my being offered a chance to defend myself. As for Mrs. Grimes, I can't readily understand how she fell into the error she did. But she never would have fallen into it if she had not been more willing to think evil than good of her friends. I do not say this to hurt her; but to state a truth that it may be well for her, and perhaps some of the rest of us, to lay to heart. It is a serious thing to speak evil of another, and should never be done except on the most unequivocal evidence. It never occurred to me to say to Mrs. Grimes that I would pay for the lawn; that I supposed she or any one else would have inferred, when I said I would keep it."
A great deal was said by all parties, and many apologies were made. Mrs. Grimes was particularly humble, and begged all present to forgive and forget what was past. She knew, she said, that she was apt to talk; it was a failing with her which she would try to correct. But that she didn't mean to do any one harm.
As to the latter averment, it can be believed or not as suits every one's fancy. All concerned in this affair felt that they had received a lesson they would not soon forget. And we doubt not, that some of our readers might lay it to heart with great advantage to themselves and benefit to others.