STRANGER TAKEN IN.
I had come to New York to seek my fortune. The path over which I was to pursue the fickle goddess was but vaguely defined, at least in regard to details. But I knew what I wanted to do, and that was to practice my profession.
I had just finished a three years' course in a New Jersey medical college, during which time I had spent the greater part of my modest patrimony, which had consisted of three thousand dollars realized from an insurance on my father's life. My father had been a physician of fine skill, high ideals, and small practice, a not uncommon combination. I had no mother or sisters to keep me at home; our town was abundantly supplied with physicians; and, as I did not care to wait half a lifetime for a practice which would have barely supported me during the remaining half, I had determined to seek my fortune elsewhere.
On leaving a small town, it was natural that I should come to a large one. I knew that the greatest success, other things being equal, was only possible where the largest opportunities existed; and if I did not succeed in a large city, I could not reproach myself with the lack of opportunity. Hence I came to New York.
I secured board at a second-rate boarding-house in the neighborhood of Washington Square. It was part of my plan of operations to study the city a while before hanging out my shingle.
With this object in view I spent a good deal of time on the streets and in public places; and on pleasant evenings I frequently sat for an hour or two in Washington Square. Seated there, on one of the public benches, often in close proximity to some bottle-nosed and ill-odored tramp, I would study the strange jumble of types in the stream of humanity that rolled through the park, which is more of a thoroughfare than a pleasure-ground.
Most of those who passed belonged to the shabbier classes of the metropolis; you could see there every variety of New Yorker, from the above-mentioned tramp to the shabby genteel clerk, only the wealthy and prosperous looking were seldom met with.
One evening as I sat in my accustomed seat, absorbed for the moment in a calculation as to how long the human stomach could endure the food at Mrs. Van Hashelar's borading-house[sic], when I was dimly conscious of a female figure passing by. I looked up, but the lady had gone too far for me to see her face. What I did see was a slender figure, set off by a blue silk dress of a stylish cut, and though walking somewhat briskly, borne along with a graceful motion quite different from the usual wabble[sic] of a woman in a hurry; a charming back, above which rose a well-turned neck, surmounted by a head of hair of the color poets are popularly supposed to rave about, a ruddy gold, on top of which in turn reposed a most bewitching bonnet. This somewhat elaborate description but faintly pictures the impression she made upon me at the time.
I felt a sudden desire to see the lady's face; I was sure it would be beautiful, and I have always been a great admirer of beautiful women, or rather of the beautiful in women;—the distinction is obvious. I rose from my seat, and started down another path, running in the same general direction as she was going, intending to execute a sort of flank movement and meet her face to face on the other side of the park, where the two paths converged after a long curve. Just as I approached the point where the paths came together the lady slipped and fell, uttering a little scream. I rushed forward and assisted her to rise.
"Are you badly hurt?" I inquired in a sympathetic voice.
"Oh, no," she replied, thanking me, "it is nothing at all." But as she started off she came near falling a second time. I caught her and placed her arm in mine.
"Shall I call a carriage?" I asked.
"Oh, no," she said, "it is hardly worth while. I live only a short distance, and—if you will—"
"Certainly," I said, not waiting for her to finish the sentence, "I shall be very glad to assist you."
A few minutes' walk, and one or two turns brought us to a brick house of conventional style, and I helped her up the high stoop and rang the door-bell. As she did not release my arm when the door was opened, I could do nothing less than help her into the house. I deposited my fair burden on a cushioned arm-chair in the parlor, and, hat in hand, was beginning an elaborate parting bow, when she exclaimed:
"Oh, do sit down and rest a moment. How tired you must be , carrying poor me such a distance."
I sat down. I may say here that she was quite as pretty as I had imagined her to be.
"I suppose we ought to be introduced," she said. "I am Miss Preston."
"And I am Dr. Scott, at your service," I replied. Our conversation had not advanced beyond this preliminary stage when the door-bell here rang, and the servant girl entered a moment later with a telegraph message. Excusing herself, Miss Preston hurriedly tore open the envelope and glanced at the message. Her face took on a look of concern, and she said to the servant:
"Katy, is papa at home?"
"No, ma'am, he went to Boston this afternoon."
"Then telephone Uncle George's house and see if he is at home;" and when the girl had gone out she continued, turning to me: "It's all about my Cousin Harry. He is at Yale, and I am afraid is just a little wild. He tells me that through an unfortunate mistake he has got into a scrape, without any fault of his own, and that if I don't send him a telegraph money order for $50 by 9 o'clock, he is likely to be disgraced, and perhaps expelled from college."
I murmured my sympathy. The girl returned and announced that Uncle George had gone to Philadelphia, and would not be back until the next night. At this intelligence the expression of concern in Miss Preston's face deepened into dismay.
"Papa away—Uncle George out of town—and only $25 in the house," she exclaimed. "Oh what shall—"
I interrupted her: "If I can venture to offer you my assistance I shall be glad to lend you the money."
"Oh, no," she said, "I couldn't think of accepting a loan from a stranger—or, such a recent acquaintance,"—she corrected herself, blushing.
I assured her with some eloquence of speech that in a crisis like this the ordinary conventionalities of polite society should yield to the exigency of the moment; and in the end I persuaded her to accept a loan of $25.
"Papa will send a check when he returns to-morrow," she said, "or I will send the money by Katy, if you will leave me your card."
I felt for my card-case, but I had left it at home. I said it didn't matter; I often walked down that way, and would stop in in a day or two, and see if she had recovered from her injury.
"Very well," she replied with a fine blush and an entrancing smile, "I shall expect you."
I went home with my head in a whirl. What a divine creature! What beauty! What grace! What refinement of sentiment! And to think that I had been able to serve this beautiful creature, and to place her under an obligation to me, and that I was expected to call again. I felt much like a knight-errant of the olden time when he had rescued some captive princess, and had been rewarded for his valor with permission to wear her colors. My ecstatic condition was the more excusable by reason of the fact that I had no lady acquaintances in New York—barring Mrs. Van Hashelar—and had been for three years immersed in the dry details of my medical studies, and entirely without ladies' society.
I concluded that two days would be a reasonable time to elapse before I called to see Miss Preston. I spent the next two days in dreamland. If I sought my accustomed seat in Washington Square it was only to compare the women who passed with Miss Preston. It was very annoying to have to think of such an adorable creature in such a formal way. Dear Miss Preston would have looked very well on an envelope, or even as a spoken address; but to think of her as "Miss Preston," was maddening. I tried to supply the haitus, and ran over all the pretty names I could think of without being able to decide upon any one which expressed all I thought her name ought to suggest. I suppose if I had known her name was Sarah, or Jane, or even Sarah Jane, I would have thought it very nice, but I gave up in despair the attempt to name such loveliness. To find relief from my restlessness I went up to Astor Library and tried to read a bulky treatise on macrobiosis, which was my favorite study; but somehow the subject was less interesting than usual, and I finally found temporary distraction from my thoughts, in Ouida's latest novel.
The two days finally ran out, and with winged feet I sought the home of my fair acquaintance. I was at first a little doubtful about the place, as on my former visit my absorption in the young lady had been such that I had failed to notice either street or number. However, by following the same course as before, I soon found the home, and rang the door-bell. A servant girl admitted me, and asking my name, ushered me into the parlor. I had been seated but a moment, when a somewhat elderly woman, of angular build and severe countenance, entered the room. In answer to her inquiring look I said that I had called to ask how Miss Preston was.
"Miss Preston, why there's no Miss Preston here," she replied.
I looked around the room. It was surely the same room in which I had seen her last. There was the same ugly steel engraving of Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation; the same chromo of Charles Sumner between the front windows, the piano occupied the same corner, and on it stood the same open sheet of music, the latest popular catch, "When the Chickens Come to Roost," or some similar title.
"But, madam," I said, "is not this the residence of Mr. Preston?"
"No, indeed," she replied, [sic]this is Mrs. Ledbetter's boarding-house."
"This is surely where I saw Miss Preton[sic]. But perhaps I am mistaken in the house, though it seems hardly possible."
"There are no Prestons in the block," she said, positively. Then a thought seemed to strike her. "Perhaps you mean Miss Weston; she and her father went away yesterday."
"Was she a blonde, with dark blue eyes and very fine teeth, and did she wear a blue silk dress?" I inquired.
"Her exact description, only those fine teeth were false. They left yesterday, without paying their board-bill. Twenty-six dollars, young man, is a large sum for a poor widow to be swindled out of."
I began to have an idea. "Do you know where they lived?" I asked.
"They said they were going to Boston, where they were expecting remittances, and all that. But it's my belief that they live wherever they can get board. That sort of people don't have any homes."
My idea had by this time developed into a theory. I remembered the stories I had read of the female sharpers of New York. I had been swindled. The sprained ankle was only a trap, into which I had fallen, like any common greenhorn. I made my theory known to Mrs. Ledbetter, and her opinion readily coincided with mine, which was further strengthened by several circumstances which she related. My theory became a conviction. I had been taken in, and I had myself to thank for it.
"Well, young man," said Mrs. Ledbetter, "you have my sympathy, but I don't see that that helps either of us. Where are you boarding?"
Having found out that I did not wish to change my boarding-house, Mrs. Ledbetter at length permitted me to wish her good afternoon.
I was cruely undeceived. My faith in humanity had received a shock from which I feared, in my youthful pessimism, that it would never recover. Henceforth woman lost her charm for me, and in every fair face I saw a possible Miss Preston. I steeled my heart against feminine attractions; I even changed my boarding-house because I discovered in myself signs of weakening toward a pretty short-hand writer who came to board at Mrs. Van Hashelar's. My mind was made up; I would live and die a bachelor.
However, this sternness wore off, or, at least became softened with time, which takes the edge off the sharpest pain. I resumed my walks and character studies; but as my experience of Washington Square had been so painful I got into the habit of going up to Central Park to pursue my observations. One afternoon I sat on an iron bench just at the intersection of a carriage drive and a footway, reading a copy of the Herald, which contained a graphic account of a great ball on Fifth Avenue the night before. I was wondering how long it would be before I could gain admittance to that enchanted sphere—I confess that I am given to day-dreams—when a carriage drew near, and an exclamation in a feminine voice caused me to look up. A handsome cart had stopped a few yards away, in which sat an elderly gentleman and a very good-looking young lady.
"Yes, papa," said the lady, "it is surely he; I cannot be mistaken." When she spoke I recognized Miss Preston. In the light of those eyes and the charm of that voice I forgot that I had been swindled, and blushed to the roots of my hair—I am not sure that my hair did not blush, but as it is naturally red I cannot be certain. I lifted my hat and advanced to the carriage, as her attitude showed that she expected me to do.
"Papa," she said, turning to the portly, well-clad gentleman who sat beside her, "this is Dr. Scott, who so kindly helped me to rescue Harry from that very disagreeable predicament the other night;—my papa, Mr. Preston. We have been looking for you ever since, and I have been, oh, so mortified that I could not learn your address. We got the directory, and looked up all the Dr. Scotts, but could not find you. How could you be so cruel as to leave us under such a burden of obligation for so long?"
As I was trying to collect my thoughts, and to tell the truth without referring to my manifestly absurd suspicions, the portly and respectable father invited me to enter the carriage. I complied, and as we drove through the shaded drives of the beautiful metropolitan pleasure-ground, I explained that I had been unable to find the house.
"A very natural mistake," observed Mr. Preston, oracularly, "for one who is not familiar with great cities. To find a needle in a hay-mow is an easy task compared with searching for a person in New York without an address"—in which opinion I agreed with him; indeed, he could not at that moment have expressed an opinion in which I would not have concurred.
But why prolong the story? I accompanied them home; I got my money, though that was a small matter. My first visit was but one of many, and I now have an office in the basement of my father-in-law's residence. Mr. Preston is an alderman, and is interested in city contracts. He is already rich, and when his term of office expires we expect to move up on Fifth Avenue. As my wife is her father's only child, and will undoubtedly inherit his wealth, I am not obliged to enter the feverish race for money. I am at present engaged in the preparation of a work on macrobiosis, which I expect will make me famous. There is but one drawback to our wedded happiness—Mr. Preston is a widower and I have no mother-in-law.