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Malbone: An Oldport Romance Thomas Wentworth Higginson

IX. Dangerous Ways

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For you may be sure that Philip was very little troubled by inconvenient memories. He never had to affect forgetfulness of anything. The past slid from him so easily, he forgot even to try to forget. He liked to quote from Emerson, "What have I to do with repentance?" "What have my yesterday's errors," he would say, "to do with the life of to-day?"

"Everything," interrupted Aunt Jane, "for you will repeat them to-day, if you can."

"Not at all," persisted he, accepting as conversation what she meant as a stab. "I may, indeed, commit greater errors,"--here she grimly nodded, as if she had no doubt of it,--"but never just the same. To-day must take thought for itself."

"I wish it would," she said, gently, and then went on with her own thoughts while he was silent. Presently she broke out again in her impulsive way.

"Depend upon it," she said, "there is very little direct retribution in this world."

Phil looked up, quite pleased at her indorsing one of his favorite views. She looked, as she always did, indignant at having said anything to please him.

"Yes," said she, "it is the indirect retribution that crushes. I've seen enough of that, God knows. Kate, give me my thimble."

Malbone had that smooth elasticity of surface which made even Aunt Jane's strong fingers slip from him as they might from a fish, or from the soft, gelatinous stem of the water-target. Even in this case he only laughed good-naturedly, and went out, whistling like a mocking-bird, to call the children round him.

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Toward the more wayward and impulsive Emilia the good lady was far more merciful. With all Aunt Jane's formidable keenness, she was a little apt to be disarmed by youth and beauty, and had no very stern retributions except for those past middle age. Emilia especially charmed her while she repelled. There was no getting beyond a certain point with this strange girl, any more than with Philip; but her depths tantalized, while his apparent shallows were only vexatious. Emilia was usually sweet, winning, cordial, and seemed ready to glide into one's heart as softly as she glided into the room; she liked to please, and found it very easy. Yet she left the impression that this smooth and delicate loveliness went but an inch beyond the surface, like the soft, thin foam that enamels yonder tract of ocean, belongs to it, is a part of it, yet is, after all, but a bequest of tempests, and covers only a dark abyss of crossing currents and desolate tangles of rootless kelp. Everybody was drawn to her, yet not a soul took any comfort in her. Her very voice had in it a despairing sweetness, that seemed far in advance of her actual history; it was an anticipated miserere, a perpetual dirge, where nothing had yet gone down. So Aunt Jane, who was wont to be perfectly decisive in her treatment of every human being, was fluctuating and inconsistent with Emilia. She could not help being fascinated by the motherless child, and yet scorned herself for even the doubting love she gave.

"Only think, auntie," said Kate, "how you kissed Emilia, yesterday!"

"Of course I did," she remorsefully owned. "I have kissed her a great many times too often. I never will kiss her again. There is nothing but sorrow to be found in loving her, and her heart is no larger than her feet. Today she was not even pretty! If it were not for her voice, I think I should never wish to see her again."

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Malbone: An Oldport Romance
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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