Monday, February 1, 2010

"Was There Ever Such Imprudence?"

I promised that from time to time I would publish excerpts from Alice B. Neal's novel The Gossips of Rivertown, and here's the first one. It's a fine introduction to "the gossips" and the object of their overzealous interest: the cheerful and hardworking Mary Butler.

Mrs. Harden stepped out a minute to tell Hannah, for the fortieth time, to be careful of the china, and as the door closed behind her, a bright face passed the window—and lo, another theme.

"If there isn't Mary Butler again!"—said one of the ladies, as the three looked after her retreating form.

"That girl's always in the street!"

"So John says!"

But horror for the moment suspended speech, and raised six hands simultaneously.

"Did you ever see the like?"

"She called him back, didn't she?"

"Yes, he had got to Stone's store."

"Well, I don't wonder he looks strange—just to see her shaking her finger at him, just as if she'd known him all her life, and to my certain knowledge, she never saw him before Mrs. Jackson's party; but when girls are in the street all the time, what can be expected?" Mrs. Folger drew a long sigh, and shook her head ominously.

Here Mrs. Harden returned, and was made acquainted with the important fact—all the witnesses speaking at once—that Mary Butler was going up street (for the third time this week, and it's only Wednesday)—and met Mr. Jorden just by the bank. He bowed very coldly (didn't he?) and was going on, when Mary Butler called him back, and they stood laughing and talking for as much as five minutes before she let him go. Miss Harriet, who had known him so long—a bowing acquaintance, of a year's standing—wouldn't have dreamed of doing such a thing. Her mother hoped not—no, certainly, such an imprudent thing!

The gentlemen came in before the wonder had fairly subsided, and the interesting intelligence was duly reported. How provoking Mr. Folger was! He could not see anything at all remarkable in the affair; perhaps they were old friends; and Mr. Harden would insist that Mary Butler had an undoubted right to go up street as often as she chose. But men are always so queer—they never suspect! There was more going on than some people thought for the ladies all agreed they should hear from that quarter again.

And so they did, for just as Hannah called them to tea, Harriet directed their attention to the window, with many a silent sign toward that corner of the room in which the gentlemen were discussing the projected river road; and there in the uncertain twilight of early spring, they saw—just as sure as you are reading this page—they saw Mary Butler going down street, and Mr. Jorden walking with her! Miss Harriet declared it was very hard to see why some people were “so much in the street,” in a manner that said as plainly as possible, that she thought it extremely lurid; and added that "she'd like to have brother John see her walking that way with Mr. Jorden," intimating that if he did, it would be the last time she'd get out that winter!

Perhaps it is worthwhile to remark that Mr. Jorden was one of the eligibles of Rivertown, and Mary Butler was a poor girl, with no income save that earned by a needle, which was probably the reason why it was so very improper, in the eyes of Miss Harriet, for her to be more than a speaking acquaintance to the "best match in town." Miss Harriet, by the way, had often been made happy for a week by a bow from him, and would have given her new gipsy-hat, plume and all, for a call from one so distingué.

Sketch the First. The Neighbours. Chapter I