The Mysterious Reticule by Caroline Lee Hentz

"I own," said Fitzroy, "that I have some foolish prejudices, and this may be one. But I cannot bear to see a lady with a soiled pocket-handkerchief. I never wish to see anything less pure and elegant than this in the hand of a beautiful maiden." He lifted, as he spoke, a superb linen handkerchief, decorated with lace, that lay carelessly folded in the lap of Mary Lee.

"Ah, yes," exclaimed her cousin Kate, laughing, "it looks very nice now, for she has just taken it from her drawer. See, the perfume of the lavender has not begun to evaporate. But wait till to-morrow, and then it will look no nicer than mine."

"To-morrow!" cried the elegant Fitzroy, with an expression of disgust; "surely no lady would think of using a handkerchief more than once. If I were in love with a Venus de Medici herself, and detected her in such an unpardonable act, I believe the spell would be broken."

"I would not give much for your love, then," cried Kate, "if it had no deeper foundation—would you, Mary?"

Mary blushed, for she was already more than half in love with the handsome Fitzroy, and was making an internal resolution to be exceedingly particular in future about her pocket-handkerchiefs.

Fitzroy was a young man of fashion and fortune, of fine person, elegant manners, cultivated mind, and fastidiously refined taste. He had, however, two great defects—one was, attaching too much importance to trifles, and making them the criterion of character; the other, a morbid suspicion of the  sincerity of his friends, and a distrust of their motives, which might become the wildest jealousy in the passion of love. He had a most intense admiration of female loveliness, and looked upon woman as a kind of super-angelic being, whose food should be the ambrosiŠ and nectar of the gods, and whose garments the spotless white of vestal purity. He had never known misfortune, sickness, or sorrow, therefore had never been dependent on those homely, domestic virtues, those tender, household cares, which can alone entitle woman to the poetical appellation of a ministering angel. He was the spoiled child of affluence and indulgence, who looked, as Kate said, "as if he ought to recline on a crimson velvet sofa, and be fanned with peacocks' feathers all the day long." He was now the guest of Mr. Lee, and consequently the daily companion of the beautiful, sensitive Mary and her gay cousin. With his passionate admiration for beauty, it is not strange that he should become more and more attracted towards Mary, who never forgot, in the adornments of her finished toilet, the robe of vestal white and the pure, delicate, perfumed handkerchief, which Fitzroy seemed to consider the ne plus ultra of a lady's perfections. The cousins walked, rode, and visited with the elegant stranger, and never did weeks glide more rapidly away. Mary was happy, inexpressibly happy, for life began to be invested with that soft, purple hue, which, like the rich blush of the grape, is so easily brushed away, and can never be restored.

Fitzroy had often noticed and admired, among the decorations of Mary's dress, a beautiful reticule of white embroidered satin. One evening, on returning from a party, Mary's brow became suddenly clouded. "Oh, how could I be so careless?" exclaimed she, in a tone of vexation; "I have left my reticule behind. How unfortunate!"

Fitzroy immediately offered his services, but Mary persisted in refusing them, and dispatched a servant in his stead.

"You must have something very precious in that bag," said Kate. "I have no doubt it is full of billetdoux or love-letters. I intend to go after it myself, and find out all Mary's secrets."

"How foolish!" cried Mary. "You know there is no such thing in it—nothing in the world but——" She stopped, in evident embarrassment, and lowered her eyes, to avoid Fitzroy's searching glance.

The servant came without the bag, and again Fitzroy renewed his offers of search in the morning.

"No, indeed," said Mary; "I am very grateful, but I cannot allow you to take that trouble. It is of no consequence; I insist that you do not think of going. I am very sorry I said anything about it."

Mary's ill-concealed embarrassment and flitting blushes awakened one of Fitzroy's bosom enemies. Why this strange anxiety and confusion about a simple reticule? It must be the receptacle of secrets she would blush to have revealed. Kate's suggestion was probably true. It contained some confessions or tokens of love which she was holding in her heart's treasury, while her eye and her lip beamed and smiled encouragement and hope of him.

The next morning he rose from his bed at an early hour with a feeling of restlessness and anxiety, and resolved to go himself in search of the lost treasure. He found it suspended on the chair in which he remembered to have seen her last seated, leaning against the window, with the moonbeams shining down on her snowy brow. The soft satin yielded to his touch, and the exquisite beauty of the texture seemed to correspond with the grace and loveliness of the owner. He was beginning to be ashamed of his suspicions, when the resistance of a folded paper against his fingers recalled Kate's laughing assertions about love-letters and billetdoux, and jealous thoughts again tingled in his veins. For one moment he was tempted to open it and satisfy his tantalizing curiosity, but pride and honour resisted the promptings of the evil spirit.

Poor Mary! had she known what sweeping conclusions he brought against her during his homeward walk, she would have wished her unfortunate bag in the bottom of the ocean. She was false, coquettish, and vain! He would never bestow another thought upon her, but bid adieu, as soon as possible, to her father's hospitable mansion, and forget his transient fascination. When he entered the room where Mary and Kate were seated, Mary sprang forward with a crimsoned cheek and extended her hand with an eager, involuntary motion. "I thank you," said she, coldly; "but I am very, very sorry you assumed such unnecessary trouble."

She thanked him with her lips, but her ingenuous countenance expressed anything but gratitude and pleasure. Fitzroy gave it to her with a low, silent bow, and threw himself wearily on the sofa.

"I will know what mystery is wrapped up in this little bag!" exclaimed Kate, suddenly snatching it from her hand. "I know it contains some love talisman or fairy token."

"Ah, Kate, I entreat, I pray you to restore it to me," cried Mary.

"No—no—no," answered Kate, laughing, and holding it high above her head.

Mary sprang to catch it, but Kate only swung it higher and higher with triumphant glee. Fitzroy looked on with a scornful glance; Mary's unaffected alarm confirmed all his suspicions, and he felt a selfish gratification in her increasing trepidation.

"Kate, I did not think you could be rude or unkind before," said Mary, looking reproachfully at Fitzroy, for not assisting her in the contest.

"Since Miss Lee evidently endures so much uneasiness lest the mysteries of her bag should be explored," cried Fitzroy, with a sarcastic smile, "I am sure her friends must sympathize in her sufferings."

"Oh, if you are in earnest, Mary," cried Kate, tossing the reticule over her head, "I would not make you unhappy for the world."

There was a beautiful child, about two or three years old, a little sister of Kate's, who was playing on the carpet with the paraphernalia of her dolls. The bag fell directly in her lap, and she caught it with childish eagerness. "I got it—I got it!" cried she, exultingly; and before Mary could regain possession of it, she had undrawn the silken strings, and emptied the contents in her lap—a parcel of faded rose-leaves scattered on the floor, from a white folded paper that opened as it fell. Fitzroy beheld it, and his jealous fears vanished into air; but another object attracted his too fastidious gaze—a soiled, crumpled pocket-handkerchief lay maliciously displayed in the little plunderer's lap, and then was brandished in her victorious hand. Mary stood for a moment covered with burning blushes, then ran out of the room, stung to the soul by the mocking smile that curled the lip of Fitzroy.

"Cousin Mary been eating cake," said the child, exposing the poor handkerchief still more fully to the shrinking, ultra-refined man of taste and fashion.

The spell was broken, the goddess thrown from her pedestal—the charm of those exquisite, transparent, rose-scented handkerchiefs for ever destroyed. Kate laughed immoderately at the whole scene. There was something truly ridiculous to her in the unfathomable mystery, Mary's preposterous agitation, and Fitzroy's unconcealed disgust. There was a very slight dash of malice mingled with the gayety of her character, and when she recollected how much Fitzroy had admired and Mary displayed her immaculate and superb handkerchiefs, pure from all earthly alloy, she could not but enjoy a little her present mortification. She ridiculed Fitzroy so unmercifully that he took refuge in flight, and then the merry girl sought the chamber of Mary, whither she had fled to conceal her mortification and tears.

"Surely you are not weeping for such a ridiculous cause?" said Kate, sobered at the sight of Mary's real suffering. "I had no idea you were so foolish."

Mary turned away in silence; she could not forgive her for having exposed her weakness to the eyes of Fitzroy.

"Mary," continued Kate, "I did not mean to distress you; I did not imagine there was anything in the bag you really wished concealed, and I am sure there was not. What induced you to make such a fuss about a simple pocket-handkerchief? It looks as nice as mine does, I dare say."

"But he is so very particular," sobbed Mary, "he will never forget it. I have always carried a handkerchief in my bag for use, so that I could keep the one which I held in my hand clean and nice. I knew his peculiarities, and thought there was no harm in consulting them. He will never think of me now without disgust."

"And if he never will," cried the spirited Kate, with flashing eyes, "I would spurn him from my thoughts as a being unworthy of respect or admiration. I would not marry such a man were he to lay at my feet the diadem of the East. Forgive me for having made myself merry at your expense, but I could not help laughing at your overwrought sensibility. Answer me seriously, Mary, and tell me if you think that if Fitzroy really loved you, and was worthy of your love, he would become alienated by a trifle like this?"

Mary began to be ashamed of her emotions in the presence of her reasonable cousin;—she was ashamed, and endeavoured to conceal them, but they were not subdued. She was conscious she must appear in a ridiculous light in the eyes of the scrupulously elegant Fitzroy, whose morbid tastes she had so unfortunately studied. When they met again, it was with feelings of mutual estrangement. She was cold and constrained—he  polite, but reserved. Mary felt with anguish that the soft, purple hue which had thrown such an enchantment over every scene, was vanished away. The realities of existence began to appear.

Fitzroy soon after took his leave, with very different feelings from what he had once anticipated. He blamed himself, but he could not help the chilled state of his heart. Mary was a mortal, after all; she ate cake, drank lemonade, and used her handkerchiefs like other ladies, only she kept them out of sight. Her loveliness, grace, and feminine gentleness of manner no longer entranced him. He departed, and Mary sighed over the dissolving of her first love's dream; but notwithstanding her weakness on this subject, she had a just estimation of herself, and a spirit which, when once roused, guided her to exertions which astonished herself. Her gay cousin, too, departed, and she was thrown upon her own resources. She read much, and reflected more. She blushed for her past weakness, and learned to think with contempt upon the man who had so false an estimate of the true excellence and glory of a woman's character. "Oh," repeated she to herself a hundred times, as, interested in domestic duties, she devoted herself to the comfort of her widowed father, "how miserable I should have been as the wife of a coxcomb, who would desire me to sit all day with folded hands, holding an embroidered handkerchief, with fingers encased in white kid gloves! How could I ever have been so weak and foolish?" Mary generally concluded these reflections with a sigh, for Fitzroy was handsome, graceful, and intellectual, and he was, moreover, the first person who had ever interested her young heart.

The following summer she accompanied her father to a fashionable watering-place. She was admired and caressed, but she turned coldly from the gaze of admiration, and cared not for the gayety that surrounded her. While others hurried to the ball-room, she lingered over her book, or indulged in meditations unfamiliar to the lovely and the young. One evening, when she had been unusually dilatory, she heard her father call, and taking a lamp, began to thread the passage, which led through a long suite of apartments occupied by the visiters of the spring. As she passed by one of the rooms, the door of which was partially opened, she heard a faint, moaning sound, and paused to listen. It returned again and again, and she was sure some stranger was suffering there, probably forgotten  in the gay crowd that filled the mansion. Her first impulse was to enter, but she shrunk from the thought of intruding herself, a young maiden, into the apartment of a stranger. "My father will go in and see who the sufferer is," cried she, hastening to meet him on the stairs.

Mr. Lee required no entreaties from his daughter, for his kind and humane feelings were immediately excited by the idea of a lonely and perhaps dying stranger, in the midst of a heartless crowd. Mary gave the lamp into her father's hand, and stood in the passage while he entered. A sudden exclamation, echoed by a faint low voice, made her heart palpitate with vague apprehensions. Who could this lonely stranger be whom her father evidently recognised? She stood holding her breath painfully, fearing to lose the sound of that faint voice which awakened strange emotions within her, when her father suddenly came to the door and beckoned her to him. "I do believe he is dying," said he, in an agitated tone. "It is Fitzroy himself! You must come to him, while I call a physician."

Mary almost mechanically obeyed the summons, and stood the next moment, pale and trembling, by the bedside of the man she had once loved. Could that, indeed, be the elegant Fitzroy?—with disordered hair, half-closed eyes, parched and trembling lips, which now vainly endeavoured to articulate a sound?—the pillows tossed here and there, as if in wrestling with pain; the white counterpane twisted and tumbled—were these the accompaniments of this fastidious exquisite? These thoughts darted through Mary's mind, as the vision of her soiled handkerchief came ghost-like before her. But she was no longer the weak girl who wept tears of bitter agony at the discovery that she was made of mortal mould; she was a woman awakened to the best energies and virtues of her sex. She found herself alone with the sick man, for her father had flown for the assistance he required, and left her to watch till his return. She saturated her handkerchief with cologne, and bathed his burning temples and feverish hands. Her heart softened over the invalid in his prostrate and dependent state. "Ah, proud Fitzroy," thought she, "this handkerchief is now more soiled and defaced than the one which alienated your fancy from me, and yet you shrink not from its contact. No pride or scorn now flashes from those dim eyes, or curls those pallid lips. Alas! he is very, very ill—I fear even unto death." The tears gathered into her eyes at this appalling  idea, and even mingled with the odorous waters with which she embalmed his forehead.

Her father soon came in with the physician, and Mary resigned her watch by his bedside. She withdrew to her own apartment, and waited with intense anxiety the tidings which he promised to bring her. She was surprised at her own emotions. She thought Fitzroy perfectly indifferent to her—nay, more, that she disliked him; but now, when she saw him in suffering and danger, she remembered the charm with which her imagination had once invested him, and accused herself of harsh and vindictive feelings.

"Yes," said Mr. Lee, in answer to her earnest inquiries, "he is very ill—dangerously ill. Imprudent exposure to the burning mid-day sun has brought on a sudden and violent fever, the consequences of which are more to be dreaded, as he has never been sick before. Could he have commanded immediate attention, perhaps the disease might have been arrested. But in this scene of gayety and confusion—though got up for the express accommodation of invalids—Heaven save the sick and the dying."

"Who will take care of him, father? He has no mother or sister near. Oh, surely we must not let him die for want of these!"

"I know what you are thinking of, Mary," said Mr. Lee, shaking his head; "but I cannot consent to it. The fever may be contagious, and you are too young and too delicate for such a task. Besides, there might be remarks made upon it. No; I will remain with him to-night, and to-morrow we will see what can be done for him."

"But to-night may be the crisis of his fate," pleaded Mary; "to-morrow it may be too late. You are very kind, father, but you are not a woman, and you know there are a thousand gentle cares which only a woman's hand can tender. I am a stranger here; I don't care if they do censure me. Let me act a true woman's, a kind sister's part. You know, by your own experience, what a skilful nurse I am."

Mary pleaded earnestly, and wound her arms caressingly around her father's neck, and looked up into his face with such irresistible eyes, that he could not refuse her. The pallid face of Fitzroy seemed to be leaning beside her own, clothed with that authority which sickness and approaching death impart. So Mary twisted up her shining ringlets, and took the rings from her jeweled fingers, and donned a loose, flowing robe.  Behold her, one of the loveliest nurses that ever brought the blessings of Hygea to the chamber of disease. There is a great deal said in romances of the interesting appearance of invalids, of a languor more lovely than the bloom of health, of a debility more graceful than the fullness of strength; but this is all romance. It has been said by one of the greatest moralists of the age, that the slow consuming of beauty is one of the greatest judgments of the Almighty against man for sin. Certainly a sick chamber is not the place for romantic beings to fall in love, but it is the place where love, once awakened, can exert its holiest influences, and manifest its death-controlling power; it is the place where religion erects its purest altar, and faith brings its divinest offerings. Yea, verily, it is hallowed ground. Thus Mary thought through the vigils of that long night. She had never been dangerously sick herself, but she felt the entire dependence of one human being upon another, and of all upon God. She felt, too, a kind of generous triumph, if such an expression may be used, in the conviction that this proud and over-sensitive being was so completely abandoned to her cares. Fitzroy lay in the deep lethargy of a burning fever, unconscious whose soft footsteps fell "like snow on snow" around his bed. "He never shall know it," said Mary, to herself. "He would probably feel disgust, instead of gratitude. If he saw this handkerchief, all impregnated with camphor, and stained with medicine, he might well think it unfit for a lady's hand. Shame on me, for cherishing so much malice against him—he so sick and pale!"

For more than a week Fitzroy languished in that almost unconscious condition, and during that interval Mary continued to lavish upon him every attention a kind and gentle sister could bestow. At length he was declared out of danger, and she gradually withdrew from her station in the sick chamber. Her mission was fulfilled, and an angelic one it had been. The physician, her father, and a youthful, unimpaired constitution accomplished the rest.

"What do I not owe you?" said Fitzroy, when, liberated from confinement, he was slowly walking with her through one of the green, shady paths of the enclosure. Now he, indeed, looked interesting. The contrast between his dark brown hair and pale cheek was truly romantic. That dark hair once more exhaled the odours of sweet-scented waters, and his black dress and spotless linen were as distinguished for their elegance  as in former days. "What do I not owe you?" repeated he, with more fervour.

Mary smiled. "You were sick, and I ministered unto you. I only obeyed a divine command. A simple act of obedience deserves no reward."

"Then it was only from a sense of duty that you watched over me so kindly?" repeated he, in a mortified tone. "You would have done the same for any stranger?"

"Most certainly I would," replied Mary; "for any stranger as helpless and neglected as you appeared to be."

"Pardon me," said he, evidently disconcerted, "but I thought—I dared to think—that——"

Mary laughed, and her rosy lip began to curl with a slight expression of scorn. She was a woman, and her feelings had once been chafed, humiliated through him, if not by him. Her eyes sparkled, not vindictively, but triumphantly. "You dared to think that I was in love with you! Oh, no; that is all passed—long, long ago."

"Passed? Then you acknowledge that you have loved?"

"Yes," replied she, in the same laughing tone, though she blushed deeply all the while; "I did love you, Fitzroy, and I could have loved you with a life-long passion. To win your affection I tried to pass myself off as an angel, to whose garments the dust of mortality never adhered. You discovered my folly, and turned from me in contempt. It was a bitter lesson at first, but I thank you for it now. I am not the foolish girl that I was when I first knew you, Fitzroy. You must not think that I am——"

"And I am not the fool I was then," interrupted he. "I know now what constitutes the perfection of a woman's character. You only captivated my fancy then, now you have won my whole heart."

"Better lost than won," cried Mary, in the same careless accents. "I could not keep the treasure, and I cannot take it. You think you love me now, but I might fall sick, you know, and people do not look so pretty when they are sick, and you might not like the scent of camphor and medicine, and then one's handkerchiefs get so terribly soiled!"

She stopped, and looked archly at Fitzroy's clouded countenance.

"I understand it all," cried he, bitterly; "you pitied me in sickness, and watched over me. But I must have looked  shockingly ugly and slovenly, and you became disgusted. I cannot blame you, for I deserve such a punishment."

"No, no—not ugly, Fitzroy, but helpless, weak, and dependent, proud man that you are. But, oh! you ought to know that this very helplessness and dependence endear the sufferer ten thousand times more to a fond woman's heart than all the pride of beauty and the bloom of health. I have had my revenge; but believe me, Fitzroy, the hours passed in your chamber of sickness will be remembered as the happiest of my life."

The tone of playful mockery which she had assumed, subsided into one of deep feeling, and tears gathered in her downcast eyes. Fitzroy—but it is no matter what Fitzroy said—certainly something that pleased Mary, for when they returned, more than an hour afterwards, her cheeks were glowing with the roses of Eden.

It was about six months after this that Cousin Kate visited Mary—but not Mary Lee—once more. Fitzroy, who now often complained of a headache, was leaning back in an easy chair, and Mary was bathing his temples, which she occasionally pressed with her linen handkerchief.

"Oh, shocking!" exclaimed Kate; "how can you bear to see Mary touch anything so rumpled and used, about your elegant person?"

"The hand of affection," replied Fitzroy, pressing Mary's gently on his brow, "can shed a beautifying influence over every object. Mary is a true alchemist, and has separated the gold of my heart from the worthless dross that obscured its lustre. She put me in the crucible, and I have been purified by the fires through which I passed."