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Malbone: An Oldport Romance Thomas Wentworth Higginson

XII. A New Engagement

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With imagination thus touched and heart unfilled, this man had been bewitched from the very first moment by Emilia. He kept it to himself, and heard in silence the criticisms made at the club-windows. To those perpetual jokes about marriage, which are showered with such graceful courtesy about the path of widowers, he had no reply; or at most would only admit that he needed some elegant woman to preside over his establishment, and that he had better take her young, as having habits less fixed. But in his secret soul he treasured every tone of this girl's voice, every glance of her eye, and would have kept in a casket of gold and diamonds the little fragrant glove she once let fall. He envied the penniless and brainless boys, who, with ready gallantry, pushed by him to escort her to her carriage; and he lay awake at night to form into words the answer he ought to have made, when she threw at him some careless phrase, and gave him the opportunity to blunder.

And she, meanwhile, unconscious of his passion, went by him in her beauty, and caught him in the net she never threw. Emilia was always piquant, because she was indifferent; she had never made an effort in her life, and she had no respect for persons. She was capable of marrying for money, perhaps, but the sacrifice must all be completed in a single vow. She would not tutor nor control herself for the purpose. Hand and heart must be duly transferred, she supposed, whenever the time was up; but till then she must be free.

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This with her was not art, but necessity; yet the most accomplished art could have devised nothing so effectual to hold her lover. His strong sense had always protected him from the tricks of matchmaking mammas and their guileless maids. Had Emilia made one effort to please him, once concealed a dislike, once affected a preference, the spell might have been broken. Had she been his slave, he might have become a very unyielding or a very heedless despot. Making him her slave, she kept him at the very height of bliss. This king of railways and purchaser of statesmen, this man who made or wrecked the fortunes of others by his whim, was absolutely governed by a reckless, passionate, inexperienced, ignorant girl.

And this passion was made all the stronger by being a good deal confined to his own breast. Somehow it was very hard for him to talk sentiment to Emilia; he instinctively saw she disliked it, and indeed he liked her for not approving the stiff phrases which were all he could command. Nor could he find any relief of mind in talking with others about her. It enraged him to be clapped on the back and congratulated by his compeers; and he stopped their coarse jokes, often rudely enough. As for the young men at the club, he could not bear to hear them mention his darling's name, however courteously. He knew well enough that for them the betrothal had neither dignity nor purity; that they held it to be as much a matter of bargain and sale as their worst amours. He would far rather have talked to the theological professors whose salaries he paid, for he saw that they had a sort of grave, formal tradition of the sacredness of marriage. And he had a right to claim that to him it was sacred, at least as yet; all the ideal side of his nature was suddenly developed; he walked in a dream; he even read Tennyson.

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Malbone: An Oldport Romance
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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