"Where now?" said Frederick Williams to his friend Charles Lawson, on entering his own office and finding the latter, carpet-bag in hand, awaiting his arrival.
"Off for a day or two on a little business affair," replied Lawson.
"Business! What have you to do with business?"
"Not ordinary, vulgar business," returned Lawson with a slight toss of the head and an expression of contempt.
"Oh! It's of a peculiar nature?"
"It is--very peculiar; and, moreover, I want the good offices of a friend, to enable me the more certainly to accomplish my purposes."
"Come! sit down and explain yourself," said Williams.
"Haven't a moment to spare. The boat goes in half an hour."
"The New Haven boat. So come, go along with me to the slip, and we'll talk the matter over by the way."
"I'm all attention," said Williams, as the two young men stepped forth upon the pavement.
"Well, you must know," began Lawson, "that I have a first rate love affair on my hands."
"Now don't smile; but hear me."
"Go on--I'm all attention."
"You know old Everett?"
"Thomas Everett, the silk importer?"
"I know something about him."
"You know, I presume, that he has a pretty fair looking daughter?"
"And I know," replied Williams, "that when 'pretty fair looking' is said, pretty much all is said in her favor."
"Not by a great deal," was the decided answer of Lawson.
"Pray what is there beyond this that a man can call attractive?"
"Her father's money."
"I didn't think of that."
"No. But it would take the saving influence of a pretty large sum to give her a marriageable merit in my eyes."
"Gold hides a multitude of defects, you know, Fred."
"It does; but it has to be heaped up very high to cover a wife's defects, if they be as radical as those in Caroline Everett. Why, to speak out the plain, homespun truth, the girl's a fool!"
"She isn't over bright, Fred, I know," replied Lawson. "But to call her a fool, is to use rather a broad assertion."
"She certainly hasn't good common sense. I would be ashamed of her in company a dozen times a day if she were any thing to me."
"She's young, you know, Fred."
"Yes, a young and silly girl."
"Just silly enough for my purpose. But, she will grow older and wiser, you know. Young and silly is a very good fault."
"Where is she now?"
"At a boarding school some thirty miles from New Haven. Do you know why her father sent her there?"
"She would meet me on her way to and from school while in the city, and the old gentleman had, I presume, some objections to me as a son-in-law."
"And not without reason," replied Williams.
"I could not have asked him to do a thing more consonant with my wishes," continued Lawson. "Caroline told me where she was going, and I was not long in making a visit to the neighborhood. Great attention is paid to physical development in the school, and the young ladies are required to walk, daily, in the open air, amid the beautiful, romantic, and secluded scenery by which the place is surrounded. They walk alone, or in company, as suits their fancies. Caroline chose to walk alone when I was near at hand; and we met in a certain retired glen, where the sweet quiet of nature was broken only by the dreamy murmur of a silvery stream, and there we talked of love. It is not in the heart of a woman to withstand a scene like this. I told, in burning words, my passion, and she hearkened and was won." Lawson paused for some moments; but, as Williams made no remark, he continued--
"It is hopeless to think of gaining her father's consent to a marriage. He is pence-proud, and I, as you know, am penniless."
"I do not think he would be likely to fancy you for a son-in-law," said Williams.
"I have the best of reasons, for knowing that he would not. He has already spoken of me to his daughter in very severe terms."
"As she has informed you?"
"Yes. But, like a sensible girl, she prefers consulting her own taste in matters of the heart."
"A very sensible girl, certainly!"
"Isn't she! Well, as delays are dangerous, I have made up my mind to consummate this business as quickly as possible. You know how hard pressed I am in certain quarters, and how necessary it is that I should get my pecuniary matters in a more stable position. In a word, then, my business, on the present occasion, is to remove Caroline from school, it being my opinion that she has completed her education."
"Has she consented to this?"
"No; but she won't require any great persuasion. I'll manage all that. What I want you to do is, first, to engage me rooms at Howard's, and, second, to meet me at the boat, day after to-morrow, with a carriage."
"Where will you have the ceremony performed?"
"In this city. I have already engaged the Rev. Mr. B---- to do that little work for me. He will join us at the hotel immediately on our arrival, and in your presence, as a witness, the knot will be tied."
"All very nicely arranged," said Williams.
"Isn't it! And what is more, the whole thing will go off like clock work. Of course I can depend on you. You will meet us at the boat."
"I will, certainly."
"Then good by." They were by this time at the landing. The two young men shook hands, and Lawson sprung on board of the boat, while Williams returned thoughtfully to his office.
Charles Lawson was a young man having neither principle nor character. A connection with certain families in New York, added to a good address, polished manners, and an unblushing assurance, had given him access to society at certain points, and of this facility he had taken every advantage. Too idle and dissolute for useful effort in society, he looked with a cold, calculating baseness to marriage as the means whereby he was to gain the position at which he aspired. Possessing no attractive virtues--no personal merits of any kind, his prospects of a connection, such as he wished to form, through the medium of any honorable advances, were hopeless, and this he perfectly well understood. But, the conviction did not in the least abate the ardor of his purpose. And, in a mean and dastardly spirit, he approached one young school girl after another, until he found in Caroline Everett one weak enough to be flattered by his attentions. The father of Caroline, who was a man of some discrimination and force of mind, understood his daughter's character, and knowing the danger to which she was exposed, kept upon her a watchful eye. Caroline's meetings with Lawson were not continued long before he became aware of the fact, and he at once removed her to a school at a distance from the city. It would have been wiser had he taken her home altogether. Lawson could have desired no better arrangement, so far as his wishes were concerned.
On the day succeeding that on which Lawson left New York, Caroline was taking her morning walk with two or three companions, when she noticed a mark on a certain tree, which she knew as a sign that her lover was in the neighborhood and awaiting her in the secluded glen, half a mile distant, where they had already met. Feigning to have forgotten something, she ran back, but as soon as she was out of sight of her companions, she glided off with rapid steps in the direction where she expected to find Lawson. And she was not disappointed.
"Dear Caroline!" he exclaimed, with affected tenderness, drawing his arm about her and kissing her cheek, as he met her. "How happy I am to see you again! Oh! it has seemed months since I looked upon your sweet young face."
"And yet it is only a week since you were here," returned Caroline, looking at him fondly.
"I cannot bear this separation. It makes me wretched," said Lawson.
"And I am miserable," responded Caroline, with a sigh, and her eyes fell to the ground. "Miserable," she repeated.
"I love you, tenderly, devotedly," said Lawson, as he tightly clasped the hand he had taken: "and it is my most ardent wish to make you happy. Oh! why should a parent's mistaken will interpose between us and our dearest wishes?"
Caroline leaned toward the young man, but did not reply.
"Is there any hope of his being induced to give his consent to--to--our--union?"
"None, I fear," came from the lips of Caroline in a faint whisper.
"Is he so strongly prejudiced against me?"
"Then, what are we to do?"
"To meet, hopelessly, is only to make us the more wretched," said Lawson. "Better part, and forever, than suffer a martyrdom of affection like this."
Still closer shrunk the weak and foolish girl to the young man's side. She was like a bird in the magic circle of the charmer.
"Caroline," said Lawson, after another period of silence, and his voice was low, tender and penetrating--"Are you willing, for my sake, to brave your father's anger?"
"For your sake, Charles!" replied Caroline, with sudden enthusiasm. "Yes--yes. His anger would be light to the loss of your affection."
"Bless your true heart!" exclaimed Lawson. "I knew that I had not trusted it in vain. And now, my dear girl, let me speak freely of the nature of my present visit. With you, I believe, that all hope of your father's consent is vain. But, he is a man of tender feelings, and loves you as the apple of his eye."
Thus urged the tempter, and Caroline listened eagerly.
"If," he continued, "we precipitate a union--if we put the marriage rite between us and his strong opposition, that opposition will grow weak as a withering leaf. He cannot turn from you. He loves you too well."
Caroline did not answer; but, it needed no words to tell Lawson that he was not urging his wishes in vain.
"I am here," at length he said, boldly, "for the purpose of taking you to New York. Will you go with me?"
"For what end?" she whispered.
"To become my wife."
There was no starting, shrinking, nor trembling at this proposal. Caroline was prepared for it; and, in the blindness of a mistaken love, ready to do as the tempter wished. Poor lamb! She was to be led to the slaughter, decked with ribbons and garlands, a victim by her own consent.
Frederick Williams, the friend of Lawson, was a young attorney, who had fallen into rather wild company, and strayed to some distance along the paths of dissipation. But, he had a young and lovely-minded sister, who possessed much influence over him. The very sphere of her purity kept him from debasing himself to any great extent, and ever drew him back from a total abandonment of himself in the hour of temptation. He had been thrown a good deal into the society of Lawson, who had many attractive points for young men about him, and who knew how to adapt himself to the characters of those with whom he associated. In some things he did not like Lawson, who, at times, manifested such an entire want of principle, that he felt shocked. On parting with Lawson at the boat, as we have seen, he walked thoughtfully away. His mind was far from approving what he had heard, and the more he reflected upon it, the less satisfied did he feel. He knew enough of the character of Lawson to be well satisfied that his marriage with Caroline, who was an overgrown, weak-minded school girl, would prove the wreck of her future happiness, and the thought of becoming a party to such a transaction troubled him. On returning to his office, he found his sister waiting for him, and, as his eyes rested upon her innocent young countenance, the idea of her being made the victim of so base a marriage, flashed with a pang amid his thoughts.
"I will have no part nor lot in this matter," he said, mentally. And he was in earnest in this resolution. But not long did his mind rest easy under his assumed passive relation to a contemplated social wrong, that one word from him might prevent. From the thought of betraying Lawson's confidence, his mind shrunk with a certain instinct of honor; while, at the same time, pressed upon him the irresistible conviction that a deeper dishonor would attach to him if he permitted the marriage to take place.
The day passed with him uncomfortably enough. The more he thought about the matter, the more he felt troubled. In the evening, he met his sister again, and the sight of her made him more deeply conscious of the responsibility resting upon him. His oft repeated mental excuse--"It's none of my business," or, "I can't meddle in other men's affairs," did not satisfy certain convictions of right and duty that presented themselves with, to him, a strange distinctness. The thought of his own sister was instantly associated with the scheme of some false-hearted wretch, involving her happiness in the way that the happiness of Caroline Everett was to be involved; and he felt that the man who knew that another was plotting against her, and did not apprize him of the fact, was little less than a villain at heart.
On the next day Williams learned that there was a writ out against the person of Charles Lawson on a charge of swindling, he having obtained a sum of money from a broker under circumstances construed by the laws into crime. This fact determined him to go at once to Mr. Everett, who, as it might be supposed, was deeply agitated at the painful intelligence he received. His first thought was to proceed immediately to New Haven, and there rescue his daughter from the hands of the young man; but on learning the arrangements that had been made, he, after much reflecting, concluded that it would be best to remain in New York, and meet them on their arrival.
In the mean time, the foolish girl, whom Lawson had determined to sacrifice to his base cupidity, was half wild with delighted anticipation. Poor child! Passion-wrought romances, written by men and women who had neither right views of life, nor a purpose in literature beyond gain or reputation, had bewildered her half-formed reason, and filled her imagination with. unreal pictures. All her ideas were false or exaggerated. She was a woman, with the mind of an inexperienced child; if to say this does not savor of contradiction. Without dreaming that there might be thorns to pierce her naked feet in the way she was about to enter, she moved forward with a joyful confidence.
On the day she had agreed to return with Lawson, she met him early in the afternoon, and started for New Haven, where they spent the night. On the following day they left in the steamboat for New York. All his arrangements for the marriage, were fully explained to Caroline by Lawson, and most of the time that elapsed after leaving New Haven, was spent in settling their future action in regard to the family. Caroline was confident that all would be forgiven after the first outburst of anger on the part of her father, and that they would be taken home immediately. The cloud would quickly melt in tears, and then the sky would be purer and brighter than before.
When the boat touched the wharf, Lawson looked eagerly for the appearance of his friend Williams, and was disappointed, and no little troubled, at not seeing him. After most of the passengers had gone on shore, he called a carriage, and was driven to Howard's, where he ordered a couple of rooms, after first enquiring whether a friend had not already performed this service for him. His next step was to write a note to the Rev. Mr. B----, desiring his immediate attendance, and, also, one to Williams, informing him of his arrival. Anxiously, and with a nervous fear lest some untoward circumstance might prevent the marriage he was about effecting with a silly heiress, did the young man await the response to these notes, and great was his relief, when informed, after the lapse of an hour, that the Reverend gentleman, whose attendance he had desired, was in the house.
A private parlor had been engaged, and in this the ceremony of marriage was to take place. This parlor adjoined a chamber, in which Caroline awaited, with a trembling heart, the issue of events. It was now, for the first time, as she was about taking the final and irretrievable step, that her resolution began to fail her. Her father's anger, the grief of her mother, the unknown state upon which she was about entering, all came pressing upon her thoughts with a sense of realization such as she had not known before.
Doubts as to the propriety of what she was about doing, came fast upon her mind. In the nearness of the approaching event, she could look upon it stripped of its halo of romance. During the two days that she had been with Lawson, she had seen him in states of absent thought, when the true quality of his mind wrote itself out upon his face so distinctly that even a dim-sighted one could read; and more than once she had felt an inward shrinking from him that was irrepressible. Weak and foolish as she was, she was yet pure-minded; and though in the beginning she did not, because her heart was overlaid with frivolity, perceive the sphere of his impurity, yet now, as the moment was near at hand when there was to be a marriage-conjunction, she began to feel this sphere as something that suffocated her spirit. At length, in the agitation of contending thoughts and emotions, the heart of the poor girl failed her, till, in the utter abandonment of feeling, she gave way to a flood of tears and commenced wringing her hands. At this moment, having arranged with the clergyman to begin the ceremony forthwith, Lawson entered her room, and, to his surprise, saw her in tears.
"Oh, Charles!" she exclaimed, clasping her hands and extending them towards him, "Take me home to my father! Oh, take me home to my father!"
Lawson was confounded at such an unexpected change in Caroline. "You shall go to your father the moment the ceremony is over," he replied; "Come! Mr. B---- is all ready."
"Oh, no, no! Take me now! Take me now!" returned the poor girl in an imploring voice. And she sat before the man who had tempted her from the path of safety, weeping, and quivering like a leaf in the wind.
"Caroline! What has come over you!" said Lawson, in deep perplexity. "This is only a weakness. Come! Nerve your heart like a brave, good girl! Come! It will soon be over."
And he bent down and kissed her wet cheek, while she shrunk from him with an involuntary dread. But, he drew his arm around her waist, and almost forced her to rise.
"There now! Dry your tears!" And he placed his handkerchief to her eyes. "It is but a moment of weakness, Caroline,--of natural weakness."
As he said this, he was pressing her forward towards the door of the apartment where the clergyman (such clergymen disgrace their profession) awaited their appearance.
"Charles?" said Caroline, with a suddenly constrained calmness--"do you love me?"
"Better than my own life!" was instantly replied.
"Then take me to my father. I am too young--too weak--too inexperienced for this."
"The moment we are united you shall go home," returned Lawson. "I will not hold you back an instant."
"Let me go now, Charles! Oh, let me go now!"
"Are you mad, girl!" exclaimed the young man, losing his self-control. And, with a strong arm, he forced her into the next room. For a brief period, the clergyman hesitated, on seeing the distressed bride. Then he opened the book he held in his hand and began to read the service. As his voice, in tones of solemnity, filled the apartment, Caroline grew calmer. She felt like one driven forward by a destiny against which it was vain to contend. All the responses had been made by Lawson, and now the clergyman addressed her. Passively she was about uttering her assentation, when the door of the room was thrown open, and two men entered.
"Stop!" was instantly cried in a loud, agitated voice, which Caroline knew to be that of her father, and never did that voice come to her ears with a more welcome sound.
Lawson started, and moved from her side. While Caroline yet stood trembling and doubting, the man who had come in with Mr. Everett approached Lawson, and laying his hand upon him, said--"I arrest you on a charge of swindling!"
With a low cry of distress, Caroline sprung towards her father; but he held his hands out towards her as if to keep her off, saying, at the same time--
"Are you his wife?"
"No, thank Heaven!" fell from her lips.
In the next moment she was in her father's arms, and both were weeping.
Narrow indeed was the escape made by Caroline Everett; an escape which she did not fully comprehend until a few months afterwards, when the trial of Lawson took place, during which revelations of villany were made, the recital of which caused her heart to shudder. Yes, narrow had been her escape! Had her father been delayed a few moments longer, she would have become the wife of a man soon after condemned to expiate his crimes against society in the felon's cell!
May a vivid realization of what Caroline Everett escaped, warn other young girls, who bear a similar relation to society, of the danger that lurks in their way. Not once in a hundred instances, is a school girl approached with lover-like attentions, except by a man who is void of principle; and not once in a hundred instances do marriages entered upon clandestinely by such persons, prove other than an introduction to years of wretchedness.