CHAPTER I. UNCLE STILLINGHAST.
"Do you think they will be here to-night, sir?"
"Don't know, and don't care."
"The road is very bad,"—after a pause, "that skirts the Hazel property."
"Well, what then; what then, little May?"
"The carriage might be overturned, sir; or, the horses might shy a little to the left, and go over the precipice into the creek."
"Is that all?"
"Is it not dreadful to think of, sir?"
"Well, I don't know; I should be sorry to lose the horses—"
"Oh, sir! and my cousin! Did you forget her?"
"I care nothing about her. I suppose my forefathers must have committed some crime for which I am to suffer, by being made, willy-nilly, the guardian of two silly, mawkish girls."
"But, sir, you have been very kind to me, and it shall be the endeavor of my life to prove my gratitude."
"Very fine, without being in the least consoling! I'd as lief have two African monkeys under my care—don't laugh—it exasperates, and makes me feel like doing as I should do, if I had the cursed animals—"
"How is that, sir?"
"Beat you. I hate womankind. Most of all do I hate them in their transition stages. They are like sponges, and absorb every particle of evil that the devil sprinkles in the air, until they learn to be young hypocrites—triflers—false—heartless."
"Oh, dear uncle! has such been your experience? Have you ever met with such women?"
"Have I ever met with such women, you holy innocent? I have never met with any other. Now, be still."
"Oh! Uncle Stillinghast—"
"I pity you, sir; indeed, I pity you. Something very dreadful must in times past have embittered you—"
"You are a fool, little May. Don't interrupt me again at your peril."
And so there was a dead silence, except when the rain and sleet lashed the window-panes, or a lump of coal crumbled into a thousand glowing fragments, and opened a glowing abyss in the grate; or the cat uncurled herself on the rug, and purred, while she fixed her great winking eyes on the blaze. The two persons who occupied the room were an old man and a young maiden. He was stern, and sour-looking, as he sat in his high-back leather chair, with a pile of ledgers on the table before him,—the pages of which he examined with the most incomparable patience. A snuff-colored wig sat awry on his head, and a snuff-colored coat, ornamented with large horn buttons, drooped ungracefully from his high, stooping shoulders. His neckcloth was white, but twisted, soiled, and tied carelessly around his thin, sinewy throat. His legs were cased in gray lamb's-wool stockings, over which his small-clothes were fastened at the knees with small silver buckles. His face was not originally cast in such a repulsive mould, but commerce with the world, and a succession of stinging disappointments in his early manhood, had woven an ugly mask over it, from behind which glimpses of his former self, on rare occasions, shone out. Such was Mark Stillinghast at the opening of our story: old, cynical, and rich, but poor in friendship, and without any definite ideas of religion, except, that if such a thing really existed, it was a terra incognita, towards which men rather stumbled than ran....