A lady sat reading. She was so absorbed in her book as to be nearly motionless. Her face, in repose, was serious, almost sad; for twice a score of years had not passed without leaving the shadow of a cloud or the mark of a tempest. The door opened, and, as she looked up, pleasant smile lay softly on her lips. A beautiful girl, elegantly attired for an evening party, came in.
"All ready?" said the lady, closing her volume, and looking at the maiden with a lively interest, that blended thoughtfulness with affection.
"All ready," aunt Helen. "And now what do you think of me? What is the effect?" Tone, expression, and manner, all gave plainly enough speaker's own answer to her questions. She thought the make up splendid--the effect striking.
"Shall I say just what I think, Alice?"
A thin veil of shadows fell over the bright young countenance.
"Love will speak tenderly. But even tenderly-spoken things, not moving with the current of our feelings, are not pleasant to hear."
"Say on, aunt Helen. I can listen to anything from you. You think me overdressed. I see it in your eyes."
"You have read my thought correctly, dear."
"In what particular am I overdressed? Nothing could be simpler than a white illusion."
"Without an abundance of pink trimming, it would be simple and becoming enough. Your dressmaker has overloaded it with ribbon; at least, so it appears to me. But, passing that let me suggest a thought touching those two heavy bracelets. One, on the exposed arm, is sufficiently attractive. Two will create the impression that you are weakly fond of ornament; and in the eyes of every one who feels this, the effect of your dress will be marred. Men and women see down into our states of feeling with wonderful quick intuitions, and read us while we are yet ignorant in regard to ourselves."
Alice unclasped, with a faint sigh, one of the bracelets, and laid it on her aunt's bureau.
"Is that better?" she asked.
"I think so."
"But the arm is so naked, aunt. It wants something, just for relief."
"To me the effect would be improved if arms and neck were covered. But, as it is, if you think something required to draw attention from the bare skin, let one ornament be the most simple in your jewel box. You have a bracelet of hair, with neat mountings. Take that."
Alice stood for a while pondering her aunt's suggestion. Then, with half-forced cheerfulness of tone, she answered,--
"May be you're right, I'll take the hair bracelets instead. And now, what else?"
"The critic's task is never for me a pleasant one, Alice. Least pleasant when it touches one I love. If you had not asked what I thought of your appearance, I would have intruded no exceptions. I have been much in society since I was very young, and have always been an observer. Two classes of women, I notice, usually make up the staple of our social assemblages: those who consult taste in dress, and those who study effect; those who think and appreciate, and those who court admiration. By sensible people,--and we need not pay much regard to the opinion of others,--these two classes are well understood, and estimated at their real value."
"It is quite plain, aunt Helen," said Alice, her color much heightened, "that you have set me over to the side of those who study effect and court admiration."
"I think you are in danger of going over to that side, my dear," was gently answered, "and I love you too well not to desire something better for my niece. Turn your thought inward and get down, if possible, to your actual state of mind. Why have you chosen this very effective style of dress? It is not in good taste--even you, I think, will agree with me so far."
"Not in good taste, aunt Helen!"
"A prima donna, or a ballet--"
"How, aunt!" Alice made a quick interruption.
"You see, my child, how I am affected. Let me say it out in plain words--your appearance, when, you came in a few minutes ago actually shocked me."
"Indeed, indeed, aunt Helen, you are too severe in your tastes! We are not Friends."
"You are not going in the character of a May queen, Alice, that you should almost hide your beautiful hair in ribbons and flowers. A stiff bouquet in a silver holder is simply an impediment, and does not give a particle of true womanly grace. That necklace of pearls, if half hidden among soft laces, would be charming; but banding the uncovered neck and half-exposed chest, it looks bald, inharmonious, and out of place. White, with a superfluity of pink trimming, jewelry and flowers, I call on the outside of good taste; and if you go as you are, you will certainly attract all eyes, but I am sure you will not win admiration for these things from a single heart whose regard is worth having. Don't be hurt with me, Alice. I am speaking with all love and sincerity, and from a wider experience and observation than it is possible for you to have reached. Don't go as you are, if you can possibly make important changes. What time is left?"
Alice stood silent, with a clouded face. Her aunt looked at her watch.
"There is a full half hour. You may do much in that time. But you had best refer to your mother. Her taste and mine may not entirely accord."
"O, as to that, mother is on your side. But she is always so plain in her notions," said Alice, with a slight betrayal of impatience.
"A young lady will always be safest in society, Alice--always more certain to make a good impression, if she subordinate her love of dress and ornament as much as possible to her mother's taste. In breaking away from this, my dear, you have gone over to an extreme that, if persisted in, will class you with vain lovers of admiration; with mere show girls, who, conscious of no superior moral and mental attractions, seek to win by outward charms. Be not of them, dear Alice, but of the higher class, whose minds are clothed in beautiful garments whose loveliest and most precious things are, like jewels, shut within a casket."
Alice withdrew, silent, almost hurt, though not offended, and more than half resolved to give up the party. But certainly recollections checked this forming resolve before it reached a state of full decision.
"How will this do?" She pushed open the door of her aunt's room half an hour afterwards with this sentence on her lips. Her cheeks were glowing, and her eyes full of sparkles. So complete was the change, that for a brief space the aunt gazed at her wonderingly. She wore a handsome fawn-colored silk, made high in the neck, around which was a narrow lace collar of exceeding fineness, pinned with a single diamond. A linked band of gold, partly hidden by the lace undersleeve, clasped one of her wrists. A small spray of pearls and silver formed the only ornament for her hair, and nestled, beautifully contrasted among its dark and glossy braids.
"Charming!" replied aunt Helen, in no feigned admiration. "In my eyes you are a hundred times more attractive than you were, a little while ago, and will prove more attractive to all whose favor is worth the winning." And she arose and kissed her nice lovingly.
"I am not overdressed." Alice smiled.
"Better underdressed than overdressed, always, my dear, If there is any fault, it is on the right side."
"I am glad you are pleased, aunt Helen."
"Are you not better pleased with yourself?" was asked.
"I can't just say that, aunt. I've worn this dress in company several times, and it's very plain."
"It is very becoming, dear; and we always appear to best advantage in that which most accords with our style of person and complexion. To my eyes, in this more simple yet really elegant apparel, you look charming. Before, you impressed me with a sense of vulgarity; now, the impression, is one of refinement."
"Thank you for such flattering words, aunt Helen. I will accept the pictures in your eyes as justly contrasted. Of one thing I am sure, I shall feel more at ease, and less conscious of observation, than would have been the case had I gone in my gayer attire. Good evening. It is growing late, and I must be away."
The maiden stooped, and kissed her aunt affectionately.
"Good evening, dear, and may the hours be pleasant ones."
When Alice entered the drawing-room, where the company were assembling her eyes were almost dazzled with the glitter of jewelry and the splendor of colors. Most of the ladies present seemed ambitious of display, emulous of ornament. She felt out of place, in her grave and simple costume, and moved to a part of the room where she would be away from observation. But her eyes were soon wandering about, scanning forms and faces, not from simple curiosity, but with an interest that was visible in her countenance. She looked for the presence of one who had been, of late, much in her thoughts: of one for whose eyes, more than for the eyes of any other, she apparelled herself with that studied effect which received so little approval from her aunt Helen. Alice felt sober. If she entertained doubts touching her change of dress they were gone now. Plainly, to her convictions, aunt Helen was wrong and she had been wrong in yielding her own best judgement of the case.
Alice had been seated only for a little while, when she saw the young man to whom we have just referred. He was standing at the extreme end of the room, talking in a lively manner with a gayly-dressed girl, who seemed particularly pleased with his attentions. Beside her Alice would have seemed almost Quaker-like in plainness. And Alice felt this with something like a pang. Soon they passed across the room, approaching very near, and stood within a few feet of her for several minutes. Then they moved away, and sit down together not far off, still chatting in the lively manner at first observed. Once or twice the young man appeared to look directly at Alice, but no sign of recognition was visible on his face.
After the first emotions of disappointment in not being recognized had subsided, the thoughts of Alice began to lift her out of the state in much she bad been resting.
"If fine feathers make the fine bird," she said to herself, "let him have the gay plumage. As for me, I ask a higher estimate. So I will be content."
With the help of pride she rose above the weakness that was depressing her. A lady friend joined her at the moment, and she was soon interested in conversation.
"Excuse me for a personal reference, Alice," said this friend in a familiar way, "and particularly for speaking of dress. But the fact is, you shame at least one half of us girls by your perfect subordination of everything to good taste. I never saw you so faultlessly attired in my life."
"The merit, if there is any," replied Alice, "is not mine. I was coming like a butterfly, but my aunt Helen, who is making us a visit, objected so strongly that I took off my party dress and head-dress, made for the occasion, and, in a fit of half-don't-care desperation, got myself up after this modest fashion that you are pleased to call in such good taste."
"Make your aunt Helen my compliments, and say to her that I wish she were multiplied a thousands times. You will be the belle to-night, if there are many sensible man present. Ah, there comes Mr. Benton!" At this name the heart of Alice leaped. "He has spied you out already. You are the attraction, of course, not me."
Mr. Benton, who had been, of late, so much in her thought, now stood bowing before the two young ladies, thus arresting their conversation. The last speaker was right. Alice had drawn him across the room, as was quickly apparent, for to her alone he was soon addressing himself. To quite the extent allowable in good breeding, was Alice monopolized by Mr. Benton during the evening and when he left her, with scarcely-concealed reluctance, another would take his place, and enjoy the charm of her fine intelligence.
"Have you been introduced to Alice T----?" she heard one gentleman ask of another, as she stood near a window opening into the conservatory, and partly hidden by curtains.
"Yes," was the answer.
"She is a pleasant girl."
"By odds the most charming I have met to-night. And then she has had the good taste to dress in a modest, womanly manner. How beautifully she contrasts with a dozen I could name, all radiant with colors as a bed of tulips."
She heard no more. But this was enough.
"You had a pleasant evening judging from your face," said aunt Helen, when she meet her niece on the next morning.
"Yes; it was a very pleasant one--very pleasant." Her color deepened and her eyes grew brighter.
"You were not neglected on account of you attractive style of dress?"
"Judging from the attentions I received, it must have been very attractive. A novelty, perhaps. You understand human nature better than I do, aunt Helen."
"Was it the plainest in the room?"
"It was plainer than that of half a dozen ladies old enough to have grandchildren."
The aunt smiled.
"Then it has not hurt your prospects?"
The question was in jest; but aunt Helen saw instantly into the heart of her niece. For a moment their eyes lingered in each other; then Alice looked down upon the floor.
"No it has not hurt my prospects." The answer was in a softer voice, and then followed a long-drawn inspiration, succeeded by the faintest of sighs.
A visit from Mr. Benton, on the next evening, removed all doubt from the dress question, if any remained.