What Did Miss Darrington See?
Emma B. Cobb, 1870
“It is not hyperbole; it is truth,” he said, softly, a sudden paleness replacing the flush on his face. He stood close behind her, and leaned over to look at the sheet from which she had been singing. His fingers rested for a moment with a light touch upon her hair—a touch inexpressibly soft and caressing—as he repeated:
“‘My dust would hear her and beat,
Had I lain for a century dead;
Would start and tremble under her feet,
And blossom in purple and red.’”
“Why, yes,” he went on, dreamily, “surely the earth does not furnish a grave so deep…’
It was not so very long ago, for it was only about a year before the outbreak of the great rebellion, that Colonel Sibthorpe, living at Catalpa Grove, County, Kentucky, wrote to Mr. Allen, a merchant in Boston, with whom he had large dealings, to procure for him a governess. The correspondent was requested to look out for a young person capable of “finishing” the education of the colonel’s two motherless daughters, aged respectively eighteen and sixteen, and of preparing his younger son for admission to a Southern college.
Mr. Allen was at first not a little embarrassed by a commission so entirely out of the ordinary course of business; but as he had a strong desire to oblige his Kentucky friend and customer, he at once set about making inquiries for a suitable person to “fill the order.” Whether his search was attended with much or little difficulty I am unable to say; I only know that it resulted in the engagement, at a liberal salary, of Miss Elizabeth Darrington, from whom I have derived the chief incidents of the story I am about to relate, and who has reluctantly consented to my making them public.
Perhaps you have seen Miss Darrington? If so, I dare be sworn that you remember her more vividly than many a handsomer woman. At the time I speak of she was about twenty-four, a small figure, slight now, but promising fullness as time should go on; a face neither beautiful nor plain in feature, but showing intellect and esprit, and a manner unmistakably that of a gentlewoman. (It is a word little used now, but it expresses what I mean far more accurately than the flip pant term “lady.”) Sprung from one of the oldest and best families in Massachusetts—one which had produced governors and legislators in the early colonial time, and in nearly every generation since some man of shining mark—she had not only inherited a fair share of the family talent, but she had breathed an atmosphere of intellect and culture from her infancy. She had also been early forced by circumstances into a position of self-reliance, and had learned to think and act independently. The result was a character not so easily summed up as that of a woman of the model sort, made up after the ideal of newspaper homilists, and the reverend gentlemen who lecture on the “Woman Question.” Such as these would have found something of a paganism in the very virtues of Miss Darrington, without, perhaps, perceiving that there was a touch of nobility even in her faults. Proud, certainly—every thing about her, from the curve of her well-cut lip to the high-arched instep of a rather small foot, attested to that fact. Cold? I am not so sure. Her best friends said so; and at least the glance of her eye was cool and steady. Yet she had a keen physical organization, and enjoyed life with a zest unknown to duller and narrower natures. In short, she was one of those women, peculiarly the product of our later civilization, in whom the brain is uppermost, feeling in abeyance, and gifted with a power of self-rule which, if they do suffer, enables them to hide it as skillfully as a Mohican. She liked men, but they seldom got farther with her than the point of good-comradeship. Very young men, by the way, were inclined to fight a little shy of her; but she liked shrewd elderly ones, and these were always her admirers. Her manner, too, was not the modest violet manner of the model woman; there was just a touch of conscious power in it—a fine, well-bred self-assertion, which stood her in good stead in her peculiar position at Catalpa Grove, and enabled her to keep the young ladies of the house very much in order. In those days Northern governesses of the meek sort used often to fare a little dismally among those high-spirited and not over-cultivated Southern girls. But one glance into the level gray eyes of Miss Darrington would have convinced a duller than the Sibthorpes that this was a woman on whom it would be dangerous to play off any airs of superiority. They had a wholesome fear of her at the end of the first hour, but they cordially liked her by the end of the first week, and their respect and liking never diminished while she remained with them. The truth is, real New England “blue blood” is the very bluest in America, and the pride it engenders is more than a match for the haughtiest “F. F. V.”—a fact which our Southern friends did not know so well before the war as they do now, for the reason that in their isolated plantation life they were seldom brought in contact with the real thing. They had their estimate of the Northern spirit from second and third rate specimens. The Sibthorpes were fine girls, however, and when they found out the stuff the governess had in her they were ready enough to make Catalpa Grove a pleasant abode for her, and soon its gayeties were incomplete without her.
The grove was in a populous county, and within easy visiting distance of the city of L—. There was always open house, and a very delightful house at that. The colonel was a good specimen of the Kentucky gentleman, frank, hearty, hospitable, and well-bred, until you touched his prejudices. He greatly admired Miss Darrington, and, in deed, showed some disposition to give his feelings practical expression, but was skillfully checked by the lady before he had committed himself. It did not in the least suit her book to be made love to by her host. She had undertaken a profitable year’s task, and she wanted the salary. She did not choose either to resign the chance of earning it or to be made uncomfortable by the presence in the house of a rejected suitor.
You think I am describing a hard and selfish woman. What do you think she was down there governessing for, that finely trained, thorough-bred creature, among those free-and-easy, not over intellectual Kentuckians? She was the eldest of four children. Her father was dead, and her mother a delicate, fine lady, as lovely and as helpless as a baby or a flower. Elizabeth was the support of the family. She kept the children at school, and wrote every week to her mother a long letter, full of fun and nonsense and merry rattle, to make that dear woman believe she had not a care in the world. But, trust me, she had plenty.
Miss Darrington had been about six months at the grove when, one morning in March, the household was thrown into a little cheerful commotion by a letter from Tom Sibthorpe, the colonel’s eldest son, announcing his return home. He wrote to say that he should bring with him a friend, a young Cuban, with whom he had been traveling, and whom—for I am compelled to give him a fictitious name—I shall call Raphael Aldama. The expected advent of this stranger caused not a little excitement to the. young ladies of the grove. He was of Spanish birth, but his family had lived for years in Havana, and he had formerly been at school with Tom Sibthorpe in New Orleans. The girls had never seen him; but they told Miss Darrington the most remarkable stories about him, of his wonderful personal beauty, his astonishing strength, his terrible temper and reckless daring, his duels and scrapes. He was very rich, very haughty, very magnificent. They were wild to see him, but rather inclined to be afraid of him. He was said to be as irresistible with women as he was dangerous with men. Miss Darrington did not find their picture of the expected guest particularly attractive. She laughed to herself, mentally decided that the romantic Cuban was probably a very ordinary young savage, and thought no more about him.