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Malbone: An Oldport Romance Thomas Wentworth Higginson

II. Place Aux Dames!

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IN every town there is one young maiden who is the universal favorite, who belongs to all sets and is made an exception to all family feuds, who is the confidante of all girls and the adopted sister of all young men, up to the time when they respectively offer themselves to her, and again after they are rejected. This post was filled in Oldport, in those days, by my cousin Kate.

Born into the world with many other gifts, this last and least definable gift of popularity was added to complete them all. Nobody criticised her, nobody was jealous of her, her very rivals lent her their new music and their lovers; and her own discarded wooers always sought her to be a bridesmaid when they married somebody else.

She was one of those persons who seem to have come into the world well-dressed. There was an atmosphere of elegance around her, like a costume; every attitude implied a presence-chamber or a ball-room. The girls complained that in private theatricals no combination of disguises could reduce Kate to the ranks, nor give her the "make-up" of a waiting-maid. Yet as her father was a New York merchant of the precarious or spasmodic description, she had been used from childhood to the wildest fluctuations of wardrobe;--a year of Paris dresses,--then another year spent in making over ancient finery, that never looked like either finery or antiquity when it came from her magic hands. Without a particle of vanity or fear, secure in health and good-nature and invariable prettiness, she cared little whether the appointed means of grace were ancient silk or modern muslin. In her periods of poverty, she made no secret of the necessary devices; the other girls, of course, guessed them, but her lovers never did, because she always told them. There was one particular tarlatan dress of hers which was a sort of local institution. It was known to all her companions, like the State House. There was a report that she had first worn it at her christening; the report originated with herself. The young men knew that she was going to the party if she could turn that pink tarlatan once more; but they had only the vaguest impression what a tarlatan was, and cared little on which side it was worn, so long as Kate was inside.

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During these epochs of privation her life, in respect to dress, was a perpetual Christmas-tree of second-hand gifts. Wealthy aunts supplied her with cast-off shoes of all sizes, from two and a half up to five, and she used them all. She was reported to have worn one straw hat through five changes of fashion. It was averred that, when square crowns were in vogue, she flattened it over a tin pan, and that, when round crowns returned, she bent it on the bedpost. There was such a charm in her way of adapting these treasures, that the other girls liked to test her with new problems in the way of millinery and dress-making; millionnaire friends implored her to trim their hats, and lent her their own things in order to learn how to wear them. This applied especially to certain rich cousins, shy and studious girls, who adored her, and to whom society only ceased to be alarming when the brilliant Kate took them under her wing, and graciously accepted a few of their newest feathers. Well might they acquiesce, for she stood by them superbly, and her most favored partners found no way to her hand so sure as to dance systematically through that staid sisterhood. Dear, sunshiny, gracious, generous Kate!--who has ever done justice to the charm given to this grave old world by the presence of one free-hearted and joyous girl?

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Malbone: An Oldport Romance
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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