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Malbone: An Oldport Romance Thomas Wentworth Higginson

XII. A New Engagement

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Aunt Jane had perhaps done injustice to the personal appearance of Mr. John Lambert. His features were irregular, but not insignificant, and there was a certain air of slow command about him, which made some persons call him handsome. He was heavily built, with a large, well-shaped head, light whiskers tinged with gray, and a sort of dusty complexion. His face was full of little curved wrinkles, as if it were a slate just ruled for sums in long division, and his small blue eyes winked anxiously a dozen different ways, as if they were doing the sums. He seemed to bristle with memorandum-books, and kept drawing them from every pocket, to put something down. He was slow of speech, and his very heaviness of look added to the impression of reserved power about the man.

All his career in life had been a solid progress, and his boldest speculations seemed securer than the legitimate business of less potent financiers. Beginning business life by peddling gingerbread on a railway train, he had developed such a genius for railway management as some men show for chess or for virtue; and his accumulating property had the momentum of a planet.

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He had read a good deal at odd times, and had seen a great deal of men. His private morals were unstained, he was equable and amiable, had strong good sense, and never got beyond his depth. He had travelled in Europe and brought home many statistics, some new thoughts, and a few good pictures selected by his friends. He spent his money liberally for the things needful to his position, owned a yacht, bred trotting-horses, and had founded a theological school. He submitted to these and other social observances from a vague sense of duty as an American citizen; his real interest lay in business and in politics. Yet he conducted these two vocations on principles diametrically opposite. In business he was more honest than the average; in politics he had no conception of honesty, for he could see no difference between a politician and any other merchandise. He always succeeded in business, for he thoroughly understood its principles; in politics he always failed in the end, for he recognized no principles at all. In business he was active, resolute, and seldom deceived; in politics he was equally active, but was apt to be irresolute, and was deceived every day of his life. In both cases it was not so much from love of power that he labored, as from the excitement of the game. The larger the scale the better he liked it; a large railroad operation, a large tract of real estate, a big and noisy statesman,--these investments he found irresistible.

On which of his two sets of principles he would manage a wife remained to be proved. It is the misfortune of what are called self-made men in America, that, though early accustomed to the society of men of the world, they often remain utterly unacquainted with women of the world, until those charming perils are at last sprung upon them in full force, at New York or Washington. John Lambert at forty was as absolutely ignorant of the qualities and habits of a cultivated woman as of the details of her toilet. The plain domesticity of his departed wife he had understood and prized; he remembered her household ways as he did her black alpaca dress; indeed, except for that item of apparel, she was not so unlike himself. In later years he had seen the women of society; he had heard them talk; he had heard men talk about them, wittily or wickedly, at the clubs; he had perceived that a good many of them wished to marry him, and yet, after all, he knew no more of them than of the rearing of humming-birds or orchids,--dainty, tropical things which he allowed his gardener to raise, he keeping his hands off, and only paying the bills. Whether there was in existence a class of women who were both useful and refined,--any intermediate type between the butterfly and the drudge,--was a question which he had sometimes asked himself, without having the materials to construct a reply.

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Malbone: An Oldport Romance
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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