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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Aaron Burr and Mary
By Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896)
 
From ‘The Minister’s Wooing’

WHEN, with his peculiarly engaging smile, he [Burr] offered his arm, she felt a little of the flutter natural to a modest young person unexpectedly honored with the notice of one of the great ones of the earth, whom it is seldom the lot of humble individuals to know except by distant report.  1
  But although Mary was a blushing and sensitive person, she was not what is commonly called a diffident girl: her nerves had that healthy, steady poise which gave her presence of mind in the most unwonted circumstances.  2
  The first few sentences addressed to her by her new companion were in a tone and style altogether different from any in which she had ever been approached,—different from the dashing frankness of her sailor lover, and from the rustic gallantry of her other admirers.  3
  That indescribable mixture of ease and deference, guided by refined tact, which shows the practiced, high-bred man of the world, made its impression on her immediately, as a breeze on the cords of a wind-harp. She felt herself pleasantly swayed and breathed upon; it was as if an atmosphere were around her in which she felt a perfect ease and freedom, an assurance that her lightest word might launch forth safely, as a tiny boat, on the smooth, glassy mirror of her listener’s pleased attention.  4
  “I came to Newport only on a visit of business,” he said, after a few moments of introductory conversation. “I was not prepared for its many attractions.”  5
  “Newport has a great deal of beautiful scenery,” said Mary.  6
  “I have heard that it was celebrated for the beauty of its scenery, and of its ladies,” he answered; “but,” he added, with a quick flash of his dark eye, “I never realized the fact before.”  7
  The glance of the eye pointed and limited the compliment, and at the same time there was a wary shrewdness in it: he was measuring how deep his shaft had sunk, as he always instinctively measured the person he talked with.  8
  Mary had been told of her beauty since her childhood, notwithstanding her mother had essayed all that transparent, respectable hoaxing by which discreet mothers endeavor to blind their daughters to the real facts of such cases: but in her own calm, balanced mind, she had accepted what she was so often told, as a quiet verity; and therefore she neither fluttered nor blushed on this occasion, but regarded the speaker with a pleased attention, as one who was saying obliging things.  9
  “Cool!” he thought to himself; “hum! a little rustic belle, I suppose,—well aware of her own value; rather piquant, on my word!”  10
  “Shall we walk in the garden?” he said: “the evening is so beautiful.”  11
  They passed out of the door and began promenading the long walk. At the bottom of the alley he stopped, and turning, looked up the vista of box ending in the brilliantly lighted rooms where gentlemen with powdered heads, lace ruffles, and glittering knee-buckles were handing ladies in stiff brocades, whose towering heads were shaded by ostrich feathers and sparkling with gems.  12
  “Quite court-like, on my word!” he said. “Tell me, do you often have such brilliant entertainments as this?”  13
  “I suppose they do,” said Mary. “I never was at one before, but I sometimes hear of them.”  14
  “And you do not attend?” said the gentleman, with an accent which made the inquiry a marked compliment.  15
  “No, I do not,” said Mary: “these people generally do not visit us.”  16
  “What a pity,” he said, “that their parties should want such an ornament! But,” he added, “this night must make them aware of their oversight; if you are not always in society after this, it will surely not be for want of solicitation.”  17
  “You are very kind to think so,” replied Mary; “but even if it were to be so, I should not see my way clear to be often in such scenes as this.”  18
  Her companion looked at her with a glance a little doubtful and amused, and said, “And pray why not? if the inquiry be not too presumptuous.”  19
  “Because,” said Mary, “I should be afraid they would take too much time and thought, and lead me to forget the great object of life.”  20
  The simple gravity with which this was said, as if quite assured of the sympathy of her auditor, appeared to give him a secret amusement. His bright, dark eyes danced, as if he suppressed some quick repartee; but drooping his long lashes deferentially, he said in gentle tones, “I should like to know what so beautiful a young lady considers the great object of life.”  21
  Mary answered reverentially, in those words then familiar from infancy to every Puritan child, “To glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”  22
  “Really?” he said, looking straight into her eyes with that penetrating glance with which he was accustomed to take the gauge of every one with whom he conversed.  23
  “Is it not?” said Mary, looking back, calm and firm, into the sparkling, restless depths of his eyes.  24
  At that moment, two souls, going with the whole force of their being in opposite directions, looked out of their windows at each other with a fixed and earnest recognition.  25
  Burr was practiced in every art of gallantry; he had made womankind a study; he never saw a beautiful face and form without a sort of restless desire to experiment upon it and try his power over the interior inhabitant: but just at this moment, something streamed into his soul from those blue, earnest eyes, which brought back to his mind what pious people had so often told him of his mother, the beautiful and early-sainted Esther Burr. He was one of those persons who systematically managed and played upon himself and others, as a skillful musician on an instrument. Yet one secret of his fascination was the naïveté with which, at certain moments, he would abandon himself to some little impulse of a nature originally sensitive and tender. Had the strain of feeling which now awoke in him come over him elsewhere, he would have shut down some spring in his mind and excluded it in a moment: but talking with a beautiful creature whom he wished to please, he gave way at once to the emotion; real tears stood in his fine eyes, and he raised Mary’s hand to his lips and kissed it, saying:—  26
  “Thank you, my beautiful child, for so good a thought. It is truly a noble sentiment, though practicable only to those gifted with angelic natures.”  27
  “Oh, I trust not,” said Mary, earnestly touched and wrought upon, more than she herself knew, by the beautiful eyes, the modulated voice, the charm of manner, which seemed to enfold her like an Italian summer.  28
  Burr sighed,—a real sigh of his better nature, but passed out with all the more freedom that he felt it would interest his fair companion, who, for the time being, was the one woman of the world to him.  29
  “Pure and artless souls like yours,” he said, “cannot measure the temptations of those who are called to the real battle of life in a world like this. How many nobler aspirations fall withered in the fierce heat and struggle of the conflict!”  30
  He was saying then what he really felt, often bitterly felt,—but using this real feeling advisedly, and with skillful tact, for the purpose of the hour.  31
  What was this purpose? To win the regard, the esteem, the tenderness of a religious, exalted nature shrined in a beautiful form; to gain and hold ascendency. It was a lifelong habit; one of those forms of refined self-indulgence which he pursued, thoughtless and reckless of consequences. He had found now the keynote of the character: it was a beautiful instrument, and he was well pleased to play on it.  32
  “I think, sir,” said Mary, modestly, “that you forget the great provision made for our weakness.”  33
  “How?” he said.  34
  “They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength,” she replied gently.  35
  He looked at her as she spoke these words, with a pleased, artistic perception of the contrast between her worldly attire and the simple, religious earnestness of her words.  36
  “She is entrancing!” he thought to himself; “so altogether fresh and naïve!”  37
  “My sweet saint,” he said, “such as you are the appointed guardians of us coarser beings. The prayers of souls given up to worldliness and ambition effect little. You must intercede for us. I am very orthodox, you see,” he added with that subtle smile which sometimes irradiated his features. “I am fully aware of all that your reverend doctor tells you of the worthlessness of unregenerate doings; and so when I see angels walking below, I try to secure a ‘friend at court.’”  38
  He saw that Mary looked embarrassed and pained at this banter, and therefore added with a delicate shading of earnestness:—  39
  “In truth, my fair young friend, I hope you will sometimes pray for me. I am sure, if I have any chance of good, it will come in such a way.”  40
  “Indeed I will,” said Mary fervently,—her little heart full, tears in her eyes, her breath coming quick,—and she added with a deepening color, “I am sure, Mr. Burr, that there should be a covenant blessing for you if for any one, for you are the son of a holy ancestry.”  41
 
 
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