The Minister's Wooing
A GUEST AT THE COTTAGE.
NOTHING is more striking, in the light and shadow of the human drama, than to compare the inner life and thoughts of elevated and silent natures with the thoughts and plans which those by whom they are surrounded have of and for them. Little thought Mary of any of the speculations that busied the friendly head of Miss Prissy, or that lay in the provident forecastings of her prudent mother. When a life into which all our life-nerves have run is cut suddenly away, there follows, after the first long bleeding is stanched, an internal paralysis of certain portions of our nature. It was so with Mary: the thousand fibres that bind youth and womanhood to earthly love and life were all in her as still as the grave, and only the spiritual and divine part of her being was active. Her hopes, desires, and aspirations were all such as she could have had in greater perfection as a disembodied spirit than as a mortal woman. The small stake for self which she had invested in life was gone,—and henceforward all personal matters were to her so indifferent that she scarce was conscious of a wish in relation to her own individual happiness. Through the sudden crush of a great affliction, she was in that state of self-abnegation to which the mystics brought themselves by fastings and self-imposed penances,—a state not purely healthy, nor realizing the divine ideal of a perfect human being made to exist in the relations of human life,— but one of those exceptional conditions, which, like the hours that often precede dissolution, seem to impart to the subject of them a peculiar aptitude for delicate and refined spiritual impressions. We could not afford to have it always night,—and we must think that the broad, gay morning light, when meadow-lark and robin and bobolink are singing in chorus with a thousand insects and the waving of a thousand breezes, is on the whole the most in accordance with the average wants of those who have a material life to live and material work to do. But then we reverence that clear-obscure of midnight, when everything is still and dewy;—then sing the nightingales, which cannot be heard by day; then shine the mysterious stars. So when all earthly voices are hushed in the soul, all earthly lights darkened, music and color float in from a higher sphere.
No veiled nun, with her shrouded forehead and downcast eyes, ever moved about a convent with a spirit more utterly divided from the world than Mary moved about her daily employments. Her care about the details of life seemed more than ever minute; she was always anticipating her mother in every direction, and striving by a thousand gentle proveniences to save her from fatigue and care; there was even a tenderness about her ministrations, as if the daughter had changed feelings and places with the mother.
The Doctor, too, felt a change in her manner towards him, which, always considerate and kind, was now invested with a tender thoughtfulness and anxious solicitude to serve which often brought tears to his eyes. All the neighbors who had been in the habit of visiting at the house received from her, almost daily, in one little form or another, some proof of her thoughtful remembrance.
She seemed in particular to attach herself to Mrs. Marvyn,—throwing her care around that fragile and wounded nature, as a generous vine will sometimes embrace with tender leaves and flowers a dying tree.
But her heart seemed to have yearnings beyond even the circle of home and friends. She longed for the sorrowful and the afflicted,—she would go down to the forgotten and the oppressed,—and made herself the companion of the Doctor’s secret walks and explorings among the poor victims of the slave-ships, and entered with zeal as teacher among his African catechumens.
Nothing but the limits of bodily strength could confine her zeal to do and suffer for others; a river of love had suddenly been checked in her heart, and it needed all these channels to drain off the waters that must otherwise have drowned her in the suffocating agonies of repression.
Sometimes, indeed, there would be a returning thrill of the old wound,—one of those overpowering moments when some turn in life brings back anew a great anguish. She would find unexpectedly in a book a mark that he had placed there,—or a turn in conversation would bring back a tone of his voice,— or she would see on some thoughtless young head curls just like those which were swaying to and fro down among the wavering seaweeds,—and then her heart gave one great throb of pain, and turned for relief to some immediate act of love to some living being. They who saw her in one of these moments felt a surging of her heart towards them, a moisture of the eye, a sense of some inexpressible yearning, and knew not from what pain that love was wrung, nor how that poor heart was seeking to still its own throbbings in blessing them.
By what name shall we call this beautiful twilight, this night of the soul, so starry with heavenly mysteries? Not happiness,—but blessedness. They who have it walk among men “as sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing,—as poor, yet making many rich,—as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.”
The Doctor, as we have seen, had always that reverential spirit towards women which accompanies a healthy and great nature; but in the constant converse which he now held with a beautiful being, from whom every particle of selfish feeling or mortal weakness seemed sublimed, he appeared to yield his soul up to her leading with a wondering humility, as to some fair, miraculous messenger of Heaven. All questions of internal experience, all delicate shadings of the spiritual history, with which his pastoral communings in his flock made him conversant, he brought to her to be resolved with the purest simplicity of trust.
“She is one of the Lord’s rarities,” he said, one day, to Mrs. Scudder, “and I find it difficult to maintain the bounds of Christian faithfulness in talking with her. It is a charm of the Lord’s hidden ones that they know not their own beauty; and God forbid that I should tempt a creature made so perfect by divine grace to selfexaltation, or lay my hand unadvisedly, as Uzzah did, upon the ark of God, by my inconsiderate praises!”
“Well, Doctor,” said Miss Prissy, who sat in the corner, sewing on the dove-colored silk, “I do wish you could come into one of our meetings and hear those blessed prayers. I don’t think you nor anybody else ever heard anything like ’em.”
“I would, indeed, that I might with propriety enjoy the privilege,” said the Doctor.
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” said Miss Prissy; “next week they’re going to meet here; and I’ll leave the door just ajar, and you can hear every word, just by standing in the entry.”
“Thank you, Madam,” said the Doctor; “it would certainly be a blessed privilege, but I cannot persuade myself that such an act would be consistent with Christian propriety.”
“Ah, now do hear that good man!” said Miss Prissy, after he had left the room; “if he ha’n’t got the making of a real gentleman in him, as well as a real Christian!—though I always did say, for my part, that a real Christian will be a gentleman. But I don’t believe all the temptations in the world could stir that blessed man one jot or grain to do the least thing that he thinks is wrong or out of the way. Well, I must say, I never saw such a good man; he is the only man I ever saw good enough for our Mary.”
Another spring came round, and brought its roses, and the apple-trees blossomed for the third time since the commencement of our story; and the robins had rebuilt their nest, and began to lay their blue eggs in it; and Mary still walked her calm course, as a sanctified priestess of the great worship of sorrow. Many were the hearts now dependent on her, the spiritual histories, the threads of which were held in her loving hand,—many the souls burdened with sins, or oppressed with sorrow, who found in her bosom at once confessional and sanctuary. So many sought her prayers, that her hours of intercession were full, and often needed to be lengthened to embrace all for whom she would plead. United to the good Doctor by a constant friendship and fellowship, she had gradually grown accustomed to the more and more intimate manner in which he regarded her,—which had risen from a simple “dear child,” and “dear Mary,” to “dear friend,” and at last “dearest of all friends,” which he frequently called her, encouraged by the calm, confiding sweetness of those still, blue eyes, and that gentle smile, which came without one varying flutter of the pulse or the rising of the slightest flush on the marble cheek.
One day a letter was brought in, postmarked “Philadelphia.” It was from Madame de Frontignac; it was in French, and ran as follows:—
“MY DEAR LITTLE WHITE ROSE:-
“I am longing to see you once more, and before long I shall be in Newport. Dear little Mary, I am sad, very sad;— the days seem all of them too long; and every morning I look out of my window and wonder why I was born. I am not so happy as I used to be, when I cared for nothing but to sing and smooth my feathers like the birds. That is the best kind of life for us women;—if we love anything better than our clothes, it is sure to bring us great sorrow. For all that, I can’t help thinking it is very noble and beautiful to love;—love is very beautiful, but very, very sad. My poor dear little white cat, I should like to hold you a little while to my heart;—it is so cold all the time, and aches so, I wish I were dead; but then I am not good enough to die. The Abbé says, we must offer up our sorrow to God as a satisfaction for our sins. I have a good deal to offer, because my nature is strong and I can feel a great deal.
“But I am very selfish, dear little Mary, to think only of myself, when I know how you must suffer. Ah! but you knew he loved you truly, the poor dear boy!—that is something. I pray daily for his soul; don’t think it wrong of me; you know it is our religion;—we should all do our best for each other.
“Remember me tenderly to Mrs. Marvyn. Poor mother!—the bleeding heart of the Mother of God alone can understand such sorrows.
“I am coming in a week or two, and then I have many things to say to ma belle rose blanche; till then I kiss her little hands.
“VIRGINIE DE FRONTIGNAC.”
One beautiful afternoon, not long after, a carriage stopped at the cottage, and Madame de Frontignac alighted. Mary was spinning in her garret-boudoir, and Mrs. Scudder was at that moment at a little distance from the house, sprinkling some linen, which was laid out to bleach on the green turf of the clothes-yard.
Madame de Frontignac sent away the carriage, and ran up the stairway, pursuing the sound of Mary’s spinning-wheel mingled with her song; and in a moment, throwing aside the curtain, she seized Mary in her arms, and kissed her on either cheek, laughing and crying both at once.
“I knew where I should find you, ma blanche! I heard the wheel of my poor little princess! It’s a good while since we spun together, mimi! Ah, Mary, darling, little do we know what we spin! life is hard and bitter, is’n’t it? Ah, how white your cheeks are, poor child!”
Madame de Frontignac spoke with tears in her own eyes, passing her hand caressingly over the fair cheeks.
“And you have grown pale, too, dear Madame,” said Mary, looking up, and struck with the change in the once brilliant face.
“Have I, petite? I don’t know why not. We women have secret places where our life runs out. At home I wear rouge; that makes all right;—but I don’t put it on for you, Mary; you see me just as I am.”
Mary could not but notice the want of that brilliant color and roundness in the cheek, which once made so glowing a picture; the eyes seemed larger and tremulous with a pathetic depth, and around them those bluish circles that speak of languor and pain. Still, changed as she was, Madame de Frontignac seemed only more strikingly interesting and fascinating than ever. Still she had those thousand pretty movements, those nameless graces of manner, those wavering shades of expression, that irresistibly enchained the eye and the imagination,—true Frenchwoman as she was, always in one rainbow shimmer of fancy and feeling, like one of those cloud-spotted April days which give you flowers and rain, sun and shadow, and snatches of birdsinging, all at once.
“I have sent away my carriage, Mary, and come to stay with you. You want me,—n’est ce pas?” she said, coaxingly, with her arms round Mary’s neck; “if you don’t, tant pis! for I am the bad penny you English speak of,—you cannot get me off.”
“I am sure, dear friend,” said Mary, earnestly, “we don’t want to put you off.”
“I know it; you are true; you mean what you say; you are all good real gold, down to your hearts; that is why I love you. But you, my poor Mary, your cheeks are very white; poor little heart, you suffer!”
“No,” said Mary; “I do not suffer now. Christ has given me the victory over sorrow.”
There was something sadly sublime in the manner in which this was said,—and something so sacred in the expression of Mary’s face that Madame de Frontignac crossed herself, as she had been wont before a shrine; and then said, “Sweet Mary, pray for me; I am not at peace; I cannot get the victory over sorrow.”
“What sorrow can you have?” said Mary,—"you, so beautiful, so rich, so admired, whom everybody must love?”
“That is what I came to tell you; I came to confess to you. But you must sit down there” she said, placing Mary on a low seat in the garret-window; “arid Virginie will sit here,” she said, drawing a bundle of uncarded wool towards her, and sitting down at Mary’s feet.
“Dear Madame,” said Mary, “let me get you a better seat.”
“No, no, mignonne, this is best; I want to lay my head in your lap”;—and she took off her riding-hat with its streaming plume, and tossed it carelessly from her, and laid her head down on Mary’s lap. “Now don’t call me Madame any more. Do you know,” she said, raising her head with a sudden brightening of cheek and eye, “do you know that there are two mes to this person?—one is Virginie, and the other is Madame de Frontignac. Every body in Philadelphia knows Madame de Frontignac;—she is very gay, very careless, very happy; she never has any serious hours, or any sad thoughts; she wears powder and diamonds, and dances all night, and never prays;—that is Madame. But Virginie is quite another thing. She is tired of all this,—tired of the balls, and the dancing, and the diamonds, and the beaux; and she likes true people, and would like to live very quiet with somebody that she loved. She is very unhappy; and she prays, too, sometimes, in a poor little way,—like the birds in your nest out there, who don’t know much, but chipper and cry because they are hungry. This is your Virginie. Madame never comes here,—never call me Madame.”
“Dear Virginie,” said Mary, “how I love you!”
“Do you, Mary,—bien sûr? You are my good angel! I felt a good impulse from you when I first saw you, and have always been stronger to do right when I got one of your pretty little letters. Oh, Mary, darling, I have been very foolish and very miserable, and sometimes tempted to be very, very bad! Oh, sometimes I thought I would not care for God or anything else!—it was very bad of me,— but I was like a foolish little fly caught in a spider’s net before he knows it.”
Mary’s eyes questioned her companion with an expression of eager sympathy, somewhat blended with curiosity.
“I can’t make you understand me quite,” said Madame de Frontignac, “unless I go back a good many years. You see, dear Mary, my dear angel mamma died when I was very little, and I was sent to be educated at the Sacré Cœur, in Paris. I was very happy and very good, in those days; the sisters loved me, and I loved them; and I used to be so pious, and loved God dearly. When I took my first communion, Sister Agatha prepared me. She was a true saint, and is in heaven now; and I remember, when I came to her, all dressed like a bride, with my white crown and white veil, that she looked at me so sadly, and said she hoped I would never love anybody better than God, and then I should be happy. I didn’t think much of those words then; but, oh, I have since, many times! They used to tell me always that I had a husband who was away in the army, and who would come to marry me when I was seventeen, and that he would give me all sorts of beautiful things, and show me everything I wanted to see in the world, and that I must love and honor him.
“Well, I was married at last; and Monsieur de Frontignac is a good brave man, although he seemed to me very old and sober; but he was always kind to me, and gave me nobody knows how many sets of jewelry, and let me do everything I wanted to, and so I liked him very much; but I thought there was no danger I should love him, or anybody else, better than God. I didn’t love anybody in those days; I only liked people,’ and some people more than others. All the men I saw professed to be lovers, and I liked to lead them about and see what foolish things I could make them do, because it pleased my vanity; but I laughed at the very idea of love.
“Well, Mary, when we came to Philadelphia, I heard everybody speaking of Colonel Burr, and what a fascinating man he was; and I thought it would be a pretty thing to have him in my train,— and so I did all I could to charm him. I tried all my little arts,— and if it is a sin for us women to do such things, I am sure I have been punished for it. Mary, he was stronger than I was. These men, they are not satisfied with having the whole earth under their feet, and having all the strength and all the glory, but they must even take away our poor little reign;—it’s too bad!
“I can’t tell you how it was; I didn’t know myself; but it seemed to me that he took my very life away from me; and it was all done before I knew it. He called himself my friend, my brother; he offered to teach me English; he read with me; and by-and-by he controlled my whole life. I, that used to be so haughty, so proud,—I, that used to laugh to think how independent I was of everybody,—I was entirely under his control, though I tried not to show it. I didn’t well know where I was; for he talked friendship, and I talked friendship; he talked about sympathetic natures that are made for each other, and I thought how beautiful it all was; it was living in a new world. Monsieur de Frontignac was as much charmed with him as I was; he often told me that he was his best friend,—that he was his hero, his model man; and I thought,—oh, Mary, you would wonder to hear me say what I thought! I thought he was a Bayard, a Sully, a Montmorenci,—everything grand and noble and good. I loved him with a religion; I would have died for him; I sometimes thought how I might lay down my life to save his, like women I read of in history. I did not know myself; I was astonished I could feel so; and I did not dream that this could be wrong. How could I, when it made me feel more religious than anything in my whole life? Everything in the world seemed to grow sacred. I thought, if men could be so good and admirable, life was a holy thing, and not to be trifled with.
“But our good Abbé is a faithful shepherd; and when I told him these things in confession, he told me I was in great danger,—danger of falling into mortal sin. Oh, Mary, it was as if the earth had opened under me! He told me, too, that this noble man, this man so dear, was a heretic, and that, if he died, he would go to dreadful pains. Oh, Mary, I dare not tell you half what he told me,—dreadful things that make me shiver when I think of them! And then he said that I must offer myself a sacrifice for him; that, if I would put down all this love, and overcome it, God would perhaps accept it as a satisfaction, and bring him into the True Church at last.
“Then I began to try. Oh, Mary, we never know how we love till we try to unlove! It seemed like taking my heart out of my breast, and separating life from life. How can one do it? I wish any one would tell me. The Abbé said I must do it by prayer; but it seemed to me prayer only made me think the more of him.
“But at last I had a great shock; everything broke up like a great, grand, noble dream,—and I waked out of it just as weak and wretched as one feels when one has overslept. Oh, Mary, I found I was mistaken in him,—all, all, wholly!”
Madame de Frontignac laid her forehead on Mary’s knee, and her long chestnut hair drooped down over her face.
“He was going somewhere with my husband to explore, out in the regions of the Ohio, where he had some splendid schemes of founding a state; and I was all interest. And one day, as they were preparing, Monsieur de Frontignac gave me a quantity of papers to read and arrange, and among them was a part of a letter;—I never could imagine how it got there; it was from Burr to one of his confidential friends. I read it, at first, wondering what it meant, till I came to two or three sentences about me.”
Madame de Frontignac paused a moment, and then said, rising with sudden energy,—
“Mary, that man never loved me; he cannot love; he does not know what love is. What I felt he cannot know; he cannot even dream of it, because he never felt anything like it. Such men never know us women; we are as high as heaven above them. It is true enough that my heart was wholly in his power,—but why? Because I adored him as something divine, incapable of dishonor, incapable of selfishness, incapable of even a thought that was not perfectly noble and heroic. If he had been all that, I should have been proud to be even a poor little flower that should exhale away to give him an hour’s pleasure; I would have offered my whole life to God as a sacrifice for such a glorious soul;—and all this time, what was he thinking of me?
“He was using my feelings to carry his plans; he was admiring me like a picture; he was considering what he should do with me; and but for his interests with my husband, he would have tried his power to make me sacrifice this world and the next to his pleasure. But he does not know me. My mother was a Montmorenci, and I have the blood of her house in my veins;we are princesses;—we can give all; but he must be a god that we give it for.”
Mary’s enchanted eye followed the beautiful narrator, as she enacted before her this poetry and tragedy of real life, so much beyond what dramatic art can ever furnish. Her eyes grew splendid in their depth and brilliancy; sometimes they were full of tears, and sometimes they flashed out like lightnings; her whole form seemed to be a plastic vehicle which translated every emotion of her soul; and Mary sat and looked at her with the intense absorption that one gives to the highest and deepest in Art or Nature.
“Enfin,—que faire?” she said at last, suddenly stopping, and drooping in every limb. “Mary, I have lived on this dream so long!—never thought of anything else! —now all is gone, and what shall I do?
“I think, Mary,” she added, pointing to the nest in the tree, “I see my life in many things. My heart was once still and quiet, like the round little eggs that were in your nest;—now it has broken out of its shell, and cries with cold and hunger. I want my dream again,—I wish it all back,—or that my heart could go back into its shell. If I only could drop this year out of my life, and care for nothing, as I used to! I have tried to do that; I can’t; I cannot get back where I was before.”
“Would you do it, dear Virginie?” said Mary; “would you, if you could?”
“It was very noble and sweet, all that,” said Virginie; “it gave me higher thoughts than ever I had before; I think my feelings were beautiful;—but now they are like little birds that have no mother; they kill me with their crying.”
“Dear Virginie, there is a real Friend in heaven, who is all you can ask or think,—nobler, better, purer,—who cannot change, and cannot die, and who loved you and gave Himself for you.”
“You mean Jesus,” said Virginie. “Ah, I know it; and I say the offices to him daily, but my heart is very wild and starts away from my words. I say, ‘My God, I give myself to you!’—and after all, I don’t give myself, and I don’t feel comforted. Dear Mary, you must have suffered, too,—for you loved really,—I saw it;—when we feel a thing ourselves, we can see very quick the same in others; —and it was a dreadful blow to come so all at once.”
“Yes, it was,” said Mary; “I thought I must die; but Christ has given me peace.”
These words were spoken with that long-breathed sigh with which we always speak of peace,—a sigh that told of storms and sorrows past,—the sighing ot the wave that falls spent and broken on the shores of eternal rest
There was a little pause in the conversation, and then Virginie raised her head and spoke in a sprightlier tone.
“Well, my little fairy cat, my white doe, I have come to you. Poor Virginie wants something to hold to her heart; let me have you,” she said, throwing her arms round Mary.
“Dear, dear Virginie, indeed you shall!” said Mary. “I will love you dearly, and pray for you. I always have prayed for you, ever since the first day I knew you.”
“I knew it,—I felt your prayers in my heart. Mary, I have many thoughts that I dare not tell to any one, lately,—but I cannot help feeling that some are real Christians who are not in the True Church. You are as true a saint as Saint Catharine; indeed, I always think of you when I think of our dear Lady; and yet they say there is no salvation out of the Church.”
This was a new view of the subject to Mary, who had grown up with the familiar idea that the Romish Church was Babylon and Antichrist, and who, during the conversation, had been revolving the same surmises with regard to her friend. She turned her grave, blue eyes on Madame de Frontignac with a somewhat surprised look, which melted into a half-smile. But the latter still went on with a puzzled air, as if trying to talk herself out of some mental perplexity.
“Now, Burr is a heretic,—and more than that, he is an infidel; he has no religion in his heart,—I saw that often, —it made me tremble for him,—it ought to have put me on my guard. But you, dear Mary, you love Jesus as your life. I think you love him just as much as Sister Agatha, who was a saint. The Abbé says that there is nothing so dangerous as to begin to use our reason in religion,—that, if we once begin, we never know where it may carry us; but I can’t help using mine a very little. I must think there are some saints that are not in the True Church.”
“All are one who love Christ,” said Mary; “we are one in Him.”
“I should not dare to tell the Abbé,” said Madame de Frontignac; and Mary queried in her heart, whether Dr. H. would feel satisfied that she could bring this wanderer to the fold of Christ without undertaking to batter down the walls of her creed; and yet, there they were, the Catholic and the Puritan, each strong in her respective faith, yet melting together in that embrace of love and sorrow, joined in the great communion of suffering. Mary took up her Testament, and read the fourteenth chapter of John:—
“Let not your heart be troubled; ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you; and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there ye may be also.”
Mary read on through the chapter,— through the next wonderful prayer; her face grew solemnly transparent, as of an angel; for her soul was lifted from earth by the words, and walked with Christ far above all things, over that starry pavement where each footstep is on a world.
The greatest moral effects are like those of music,—not wrought out by sharp-sided intellectual propositions, but melted in by a divine fusion, by words that have mysterious, indefinite fulness of meaning, made living by sweet voices, which seem to be the out throbbings of angelic hearts. So one verse in the Bible read by a mother in some hour of tender prayer has a significance deeper and higher than the most elaborate of sermons, the most acute of arguments.
Virginie Frontignac sat as one divinely enchanted, while that sweet voice read on; and when the silence fell between them, she gave a long sigh, as we do when sweet music stops. They heard between them the soft stir of summer leaves, the distant songs of birds, the breezy hum when the afternoon wind shivered through many branches, and the silver sea chimed in. Virginie rose at last, and kissed Mary on the forehead.
“That is a beautiful book,” she said, “and to read it all by one’s self must be lovely. I cannot understand why it should be dangerous; it has not injured you.
“Sweet saint,” she added, “let me stay with you; you shall read to me every day. Do you know I came here to get you to take me? I want you to show me how to find peace where you do; will you let me be your sister?”
“Yes, indeed,” said Mary, with a cheek brighter than it had been for many a day; her heart feeling a throb of more real human pleasure than for long months.
“Will you get your mamma to let me stay?” said Virginie, with the bashfulness of a child; “haven’t you a little place like yours, with white curtains and sanded floor, to give to poor little Virginie to learn to be good in?”
“Why, do you really want to stay here with us,” said Mary, “in this little house?”
“Do I really?” said Virginie, mimicking her voice with a start of her old playfulness;—“don’t I really? Come now, mimi, coax the good mamma for me,—tell her I shall try to be very good. I shall help you with the spinning,—you know I spin beautifully,—and I shall make butter, and milk the cow, and set the table. Oh, I will be so useful, you can’t spare me!”
“I should love to have you dearly,” said Mary, warmly; “but you would soon be dull for want of society here.”
“Quelle idée! mn petite drôle!” said the lady,—who, with the mobility of her nation, had already recovered some of the saucy mocking grace that was habitual to her, as she began teasing Mary with a thousand little childish motions. “Indeed, mimi, you must keep me hid up here, or may-be the wolf will find me and eat me up; who knows?”
Mary looked at her with inquiring eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, Mary,—I mean, that, when he comes back to Philadelphia, he thinks he shall find me there; he thought I should stay while my husband was gone; and when he finds I am gone, he may come to Newport; and I never want to see him again without you;—you must let me stay with you.”
“Have you told him,” said Mary, “what you think?”
“I wrote to him, Mary,—but, oh, I can’t trust my heart! I want so much to believe him, it kills me so to think evil of him, that it will never do for me to see him. If he looks at me with those eyes of his, I am all gone; I shall believe anything he tells me; he will draw me to him as a great magnet draws a poor little grain of steel.”
“But now you know his uuworthiness, his baseness,” said Mary, “I should think it would break all his power.”
“Should you think so? Ah, Mary, we cannot unlove in a minute; love is a great while dying. I do not worship him now as I did. I know what he is. I know he is bad, and I am sorry for it. I should like to cover it from all the world,—even from you, Mary, since I see it makes you dislike him; it hurts me to hear any one else blame him. But sometimes I do so long to think I am mistaken, that I know, if I should see him, I should catch at anything he might tell me, as a drowning man at straws; I should shut my eyes, and think, after all, that it was all my fault, and ask a thousand pardons for all the evil he has done. No,—Mary, you must keep your blue eyes upon me, or I shall be gone.”
At this moment Mrs. Scudder’s voice was heard, calling Mary below.
“Go down now, darling, and tell mamma; make a good little talk to her, ma reine! Ah, you are queen here! all do as you say,—even the good priest there; you have a little hand, but it leads all; so go, petite.”
Mrs. Scudder was somewhat flurried and discomposed at the proposition;— there were the pros and the cons in her nature, such as we all have. In the first place, Madame de Frontignac belonged to high society,—and that was pro; for Mrs. Seudder prayed daily against worldly vanities, because she felt a little traitor in her heart that was ready to open its door to them, if not constantly talked down. In the second place, Madame de Frontignac was French,—there was a con; for Mrs. Seudder had enough of her father John Bull in her heart to have a very wary look-out on anything French. But then, in the third place, she was out of health and unhappy,—and there was a pro again; for Mrs. Scudder was as kind and motherly a soul as ever breathed. But then she was a Catholic,— con. But the Doctor and Mary might convert her,—pro. And then Mary wanted her,—pro. And she was a pretty, bewitching, lovable creature,—pro.— The pros had it; and it was agreed that Madame de Frontignac should be installed as proprietress of the spare chamber, and she sat down to the tea-table that evening in the great kitchen.
THE domesticating of Madame de Frontignac as an inmate of the cottage added a new element of vivacity to that still and unvaried life. One of the most beautiful traits of French nature is that fine gift of appreciation, which seizes at once the picturesque side of every condition of life, and finds in its own varied storehouse something to assort with it. As compared with the Anglo-Saxon, the French appear to be gifted with a naïve childhood of nature, and to have the power that children have of gilding every scene of life with some of their own poetic fancies.
Madame de Frontignac was in raptures with the sanded floor of her little room, which commanded, through the apple-boughs, a little morsel of a seaview. She could fancy it was a nymph’s cave, she said.
“Yes, ma Marie, I will play Calypso, and you shall play Telemachus, and Dr. H. shall he Mentor. Mentor was so very, very good!—only a little bit—dull,” she said, pronouncing the last word with a wicked accent, and lifting her hands with a whimsical gesture like a naughty child who expects a correction.
Mary could not but laugh; and as she laughed, more color rose in her waxen cheeks than for many days before.
Madame de Frontignac looked as triumphant as a child who has made its mother laugh, and went on laying things out of her trunk into her drawers with a zeal that was quite amusing to see.
“You see, ma blanche, I have left all Madame’s clothes at Philadelphia, and brought only those that belong to Virginie,—no tromperie, no leathers, no gauzes, no diamonds,—only white dresses, and my straw hat en bergère. I brought one string of pearls that was my mother’s; but pearls, you know, belong to the seanymphs. I will trim my hat with seaweed and buttercups together, and we will go out on the beach to-night and get some gold and silver shells to dress mon miroir.”
“Oh, I have ever so many now!” said Mary, running into her room, and coming back with a little bag.
They both sat on the bed together, and began pouring them out,—Madame de Frontignac showering childish exclamations of delight.
Suddenly Mary put her hand to her heart as if she had been struck with something; and Madame de Frontignac heard her say, in a low voice of sudden pain, “Oh, dear!”
“What is it, mimi?” she said, looking up quickly.
“Nothing,” said Mary, turning her head.
Madame de Frontignac looked down, and saw among the sea-treasures a necklace of Venetian shells, that she knew never grew on the shores of Newport. She held it up.
“Ah, I see,” she said. “He gave you this. Ah, ma pauvrette,” she said, clasping Mary in her arms, “thy sorrow meets thee everywhere! May I be a comfort to thee!—just a little one!”
“Dear, dear friend!” said Mary, weeping. “I know not how it is. Sometimes I think this sorrow is all gone; but then, for a moment, it comes back again. But I am at peace; it is all right, all right; I would not have it otherwise. But, oh, if he could have spoken one word to me before! He gave me this,” she added, “when he came home from his first voyage to the Mediterranean. I did not know it was in this bag. I had looked for it everywhere.”
“Sister Agatha would have told you to make a rosary of it,” said Madame de Frontignac; “but you pray without a rosary. It is all one,” she added; “there will be a prayer for every shell, though you do not count them. But come, ma chère, get your bonnet, and let us go out on the beach.”
That evening, before going to bed, Mrs. Scudder came into Mary’s room. Her manner was grave and tender; her eyes had tears in them; and although her usual habits were not caressing, she came to Mary and put her arms around her and kissed her. It was an unusual manner, and Mary’s gentle eyes seemed to ask the reason of it.
“My daughter,” said her mother, “I have just had a long and very interesting talk with our dear good friend, the Doctor; ah, Mary, very few people know how good he is!”
“True, mother,” said Mary, warmly; “he is the best, the noblest, and yet the humblest man in the world.”
“You love him very much, do you not?” said her mother.
“Very dearly,” said Mary.
“Mary, he has asked me, this evening, if you would be willing to be his wife.”
“His wife, mother?” said Mary, in the tone of one confused with a new and strange thought.
“Yes, daughter; I have long seen that he was preparing to make you this proposal.”
“You have, mother?”
“Yes, daughter; have you never thought of it?”
There was a long pause,—Mary standing, just as she had been interrupted, in her night toilette, with her long, light hair streaming down over her white dress, and the comb held mechanically in her hand. She sat down after a moment, and, clasping her hands over her knees, fixed her eyes intently on the floor; and there fell between the two a silence so profound, that the tickings of the clock in the next room seemed to knock upon the door. Mrs. Scudder sat with anxious eyes watching that silent face, pale as sculptured marble.
“Well, Mary,” she said at last.
A deep sigh was the only answer. The violent throbbings of her heart could be seen undulating the long hair as the moaning sea tosses the rockweed.
“My daughter,” again said Mrs. Scudder.
Mary gave a great sigh, like that of a sleeper awakening from a dream, and, looking at her mother, said,—
“Do you suppose he really loves me, mother?”
“Indeed he does, Mary, as much as man ever loved woman!”
“Does he indeed?” said Mary, relapsing into thoughtfulness.
“And you love him, do you not?” said her mother.
“Oh, yes, I love him.”
“You love him better than any man in the world, don’t you?”
“Oh, mother, mother! yes!” said Mary, throwing herself passionately forward, and bursting into sobs; “yes, there is no one else now that I love better,—no one!—no one!”
“My darling! my daughter!” said Mrs. Scudder, coming and taking her in her arms.
“Oh, mother, mother!” she said, sobbing distressfully, “let me cry, just for a little,—oh, mother, mother, mother!”
What was there hidden under that despairing wail?—It was the parting of the last strand of the cord of youthful hope.
Mrs. Scudder soothed and caressed her daughter, but maintained still in her breast a tender pertinacity of purpose, such as mothers will, who think they are conducting a child through some natural sorrow into a happier state.
Mary was not one, either, to yield long to emotion of any kind. Her rigid education had taught her to look upon all such outbursts as a species of weakness, and she struggled for composure, and soon seemed entirely calm.
“It he really loves me, mother, it would give him great pain, if I refused,” said Mary, thoughtfully.
“Certainly it would; and, Mary, you have allowed him to act as a very near friend for a long time; and it is quite natural that he should have hopes that you loved him.”
“I do love him, mother,—better than anybody in the world except you. Do you think that will do?”
“Will do?” said her mother; “I don’t understand you.”
“Why, is that loving enough to marry? I shall love him more, perhaps, after,— shall I, mother?”
“Certainly you will; every one does.”
“I wish he did not want to marry me, mother,” said Mary, after a pause. “I liked it a great deal better as we were before.”
“All girls feel so, Mary, at first; it is very natural.”
“Is that the way you felt about father, mother?”
Mrs. Scudder’s heart smote her when she thought of her own early love,—that great love that asked no questions,—that had no doubts, no fears, no hesitations,— nothing but one great, outsweeping impulse, which swallowed her life in that of another. She was silent; and after a moment, she said,—
“I was of a different disposition from you, Mary. I was of a strong, wilful, positive nature. I either liked or disliked with all my might. And besides, Mary, there never was a man like your father.”
The matron uttered this first article in the great confession of woman’s faith with the most unconscious simplicity.
“Well, mother, I will do whatever is my duty. I want to be guided. If I can make that good man happy, and help him to do some good in the world—After all, life is short, and the great thing is to do for others.”
“I am sure, Mary, if you could have heard how he spoke, you would be sure you could make him happy. He had not spoken before, because he felt so uuworthy of such a blessing; he said I was to tell you that he should love and honor you all the same, whether you could be his wife or not,—but that nothing this side of heaven would be so blessed a gift,—that it would make up for every trial that could possibly come upon him. And you know, Mary, he has a great many discouragements and trials;—people don’t appreciate him; his efforts to do good are misunderstood and misconstrued; they look down on him, and despise him, and tell all sorts of evil things about him; and sometimes he gets quite discouraged.”
“Yes, mother, I will marry him,” said Mary;—“yes, I will.”
“My darling daughter!” said Mrs. Scudder,—“this has been the hope of my life!”
“Has it, mother?” said Mary, with a faint smile; “I shall make you happier, then?”
“Yes, dear, you will. And think what a prospect of usefulness opens before you! You can take a position, as his wife, which will enable you to do even more good than you do now; and you will have the happiness of seeing, every day, how much you comfort the hearts and encourage the hands of God’s dear people.”
“Mother, I ought to be very glad I can do it,” said Mary; “and I trust I am. God orders all things for the best.”
“Well, my child, sleep to-night, and to-morrow we will talk more about it.”
MRS. SCUDDER kissed her daughter, and left her. After a moment’s thought, Mary gathered the long silky folds of hair around her head, and knotted them for the night. Then leaning forward on her toilet-table, she folded her hands together, and stood regarding the reflection of herself in the mirror.
Nothing is capable of more ghostly effect. than such a silent, lonely contemplation of that mysterious image of ourselves which seems to look out of an infinite depth in the mirror, as if it were our own soul beckoning to us visibly from unknown regions. Those eyes look into our own with an expression sometimes vaguely sad and inquiring. The face wears weird and tremulous lights and shadows; it asks us mysterious questions, and troubles us with the suggestions of our relations to some dim unknown. The sad, blue eyes that gazed into Mary’s had that look of calm initiation, of melancholy comprehension, peculiar to eyes made clairvoyant by “great and critical” sorrow. They seemed to say to her, “Fulfil thy mission; life is made for sacrifice; the flower must fall before fruit can perfect itself.” A vague shuddering of mystery gave intensity to her reverie. It seemed as if those mirror-depths were another world; she heard the far-off dashing of sea-green waves; she felt a yearning impulse towards that dear soul gone out into the infinite unknown.
Her word just passed had in her eyes all the sacred force of the most solenmly attested vow; and she felt as it that vow had shut some till then open door between her and him; she had a kind of shadowy sense of a throbbing and yearning nature that seemed to call on her,— that seemed surging towards her with an imperative, protesting force that shook her heart to its depths.
Perhaps it is so, that souls, once intimately related, have ever after this a strange power of affecting each other,— a power that neither absence nor death can annul. How else can we interpret those mysterious hours in which the power of departed love seems to overshadow us, making our souls vital with such longings, with such wild throbbings, with such unutterable sighings, that a little more might burst the mortal bond? Is it not deep calling unto deep? the free soul singing outside the cage to her mate beating against the bars within?
Mary even, for a moment, fancied that a voice called her name, and started, shivering. Then the habits of her positive and sensible education returned at once, and she came out of her reverie as one breaks from a dream, and lifted all these sad thoughts with one heavy sigh from her breast; and opening her Bible, she read: “They that trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Zion, which cannot be removed, but abideth forever. As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about his people from henceforth, even forever.”
Then she kneeled by her bedside, and offered her whole life a sacrifice to the loving God who had offered his life a sacrifice for her. She prayed for grace to be true to her promise,—to be faithful to the new relation she had accepted. She prayed that all vain regrets for the past might be taken away, and that her soul might vibrate without discord in unison with the will of Eternal Love. So praying, she rose calm, and with that clearness of spirit which follows an act of uttermost self-sacrifice; and so calmly she laid down and slept, with her two hands crossed upon her breast, her head slightly turned on the pillow, her cheek pale as marble, and her long dark lashes lying drooping, with a sweet expression, as if under that mystic veil of sleep the soul were seeing things forbidden to the waking eye. Only the gentlest heaving of the quiet breast told that the heavenly spirit, within had not gone whither it was hourly aspiring to go.
Meanwhile Mrs. Scudder had left Mary’s room, and entered the Doctor’s study, holding a candle in her hand. The good man was sitting alone in the dark, with his head bowed upon his Bible. When Mrs. Scudder entered, he rose, and regarded her wistfully, but did not speak. He had something just then in his heart for which he had no words; so he only looked as a man does who hopes and fears for the answer of a decisive question.
Mrs. Scudder felt some of the natural reserve which becomes a matron coming charged with a gift in which lies the whole sacredness of her own existence, and which she puts from her hands with a jealous reverence. She therefore measured the man with her woman’s and mother’s eye, and said, with a little stateliness,—
“My dear Sir, I come to tell you the result of my conversation with Mary.”
She made a little pause,—and the Doctor stood before her as humbly as if he had not weighed and measured the universe; because he knew, that, though he might weigh the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance, yet it was a far subtiler power which must possess him of one small woman’s heart. In fact, he felt to himself like a great, awkward, clumsy, mountainous earthite asking of a white-robed angel to help him up a lodder of cloud. He was perfectly sure for the moment, that he was going to be refused; and he looked humbly firm,—he would take it like a man. His large blue eyes, generally so misty in their calm, had a resolute clearness, rather mournful than otherwise. Of course, no such celestial experience was going to happen to him.
He cleared his throat, and said,—
Mrs. Scudder’s womanly dignity was appeased; she reached out her hand, cheerfully, and said,—
“She has accepted.”
The Doctor drew his hand suddenly away, turned quickly round, and walked to the window,—although, as it was ten o’clock at night and quite dark, there was evidently nothing to be seen there. He stood there, quietly, swallowing very hard, and raising his handkerchief several times to his eyes. There was enough went on under the black coat just then to make quite a little figure in a romance, if it had been uttered; but he belonged to a class who lived romance, but never spoke it. In a few moments he returned to Mrs. Scudder, and said,—
“I trust, dear Madam, that this very dear friend may never have reason to think me ungrateful for her wonderful goodness; and whatever sins my evil heart may lead me into, I hope I may never fall so low as to forget the undeserved mercy of this hour. If ever I shrink from duty or murmur at trials, while so sweet a friend is mine, I shall be vile indeed.”
The Doctor, in general, viewed himself on the discouraging side, and had berated and snubbed himself all his life as a most flagitious and evil-disposed individual,—a person to be narrowly watched, and capable of breaking at any moment into the most flagrant iniquity; and therefore it was that, he received his good fortune in so different a spirit from many of the lords of creation in similar circumstances.
“I am sensible,” he added, “that a poor minister, without much power of eloorence, and commissioned of the Lord to speak unpopular truths, and whose worldly ondition, in consequence, is never likely to be very prosperous,—that such an one could scarcely be deemed a suitable partner for so very beautiful a young woman, who might expect proposals, in a temporal point of view, of a much more advantageous nature; and I am therefore the more struck and overpowered with this blessed result.”
These last words caught in the Doctor’s throat, as if he were overpowered in very deed.
“In regard to her happiness,” said the Doctor, with a touch of awe in his voice, “I would not have presumed to become the guardian of it, were it not that I am persuaded it is assured by a Higher Power; for ‘when He giveth quietness, who then can make trouble?’ (Job, xxxiv. 29.) Put I trust I may say no effort on my part shall be wanting to secure it.”
Mrs. Scudder was a mother, and had come to that stage in life where mothers always feel tears rising behind their smiles. She pressed the Doctor’s hand silently, and they parted for the night.
We know not how we can acquit ourselves to our friends of the great world for the details of such an unfashionable courtship, so well as by giving them, before they retire for the night, a dip into a more modish view of things.
The Doctor was evidently green,— green in his faith, green in his simplicity, green in his general belief of the divine in woman, green in his particular humble faith in one small Puritan maiden, whom a knowing fellow might at least have manœuvred so skilfully as to break up her saintly superiority, discompose her, rout her ideas, and lead her up and down a swamp of hopes and fears and conjectures, till she was wholly bewildered and ready to take him at last—if he made up his mind to have her at all—as a great bargain, for which she was to be sensibly grateful.
Yes, the Doctor was green,—immortally green, as a cedar of Lebanon, which, waving its broad archangel wings over some fast-rooted eternal old solitude, and seeing from its sublime height the vastness of the universe, veils its kingly head with humility before God’s infinite majesty.
He has gone to bed now,—simple old soul!—first apologizing to Mrs. Scudder for having kept her up to so dissipated and unparalleled an hour as ten o’clock on his personal matters.
Meanwhile our Asmodeus shall transport us to a handsomely furnished apartment in one of the most fashionable hotels of Philadelphia, where Colonel Aaron Burr, just returned from his trip to the then aboriginal wilds of Ohio, is seated before a table covered with maps, letters, books, and papers. His keen eye runs over the addresses of the letters, and he eagerly seizes one from Madame de Frontignac, and reads it; and as no one but ourselves is looking at him now, his face has no need to wear its habitual mask. First comes an expression of profound astonishment; then of chagrin and mortification; then of deepening concern; there were stops where the dark eyelashes flashed together, as if to brush a tear out of the view of the keen-sighted eyes; and then a red flush rose even to his forehead, and his delicate lips wore a sarcastic smile. He laid down the letter, and made one or two turns through the room.
The man had felt the dashing against his own of a strong, generous, indignant woman’s heart fully awakened, and speaking with that impassionad vigor with which a French regiment charges in battle. There were those picturesque, winged words, those condensed expressions, those subtile piercings of meaning, and, above all, that simple pathos, for which the French tongue has no superior; and for the moment the woman had the victory; she shook his heart. But Burr resembled the marvel with which chemists amuse themselves. His heart was a vase filled with boiling passions,—while his will, a still, cold, unmelted lump of ice, lay at the bottom.
Self-denial is not peculiar to Christians. He who goes downward often puts forth as much force to kill a noble nature as another does to annihilate a sinful one. There was something in this letter so keen, so searching, so self-revealing, that it brought on one of those interior crises in which a man is convulsed with the struggle of two natures, the godlike and the demoniac, and from which he must pass out more wholly to the dominion of the one or the other.
Nobody knew the true better than Burr. He knew the godlike and the pure; he had felt its beauty and its force to the very depths of his being, as the demoniac knew at once the fair Man of Nazareth; and even now he felt the voice within that said, “What have I to do with thee?” and the rending of a struggle of heavenly life with fast-coming eternal death.
That letter had told him what he might be, and what he was. It was as if his dead mother’s hand had held up before him a glass in which he saw himself-whiterobed and crowned, and so dazzling in purity that he loathed his present self.
As he walked up and down the room perturbed, he sometimes wiped tears from his eyes, and then set his teeth and compressed his lips. At last his face grew calm and settled in its expression, his mouth wore a sardonic smile; he came and took the letter, and, folding it leisurely, laid it on the table, and put a heavy paperweight over it, as if to hold it down and bury it. Then drawing to himself some maps of new territories, he set himself vigorously to some columns of arithmetical calculations on the margin; and thus he worked for an hour or two, till his mind was as dry and his pulse as calm as a machine; then he drew the inkstand towards him, and scribbled hastily the following letter to his most confidential associate,—a letter which told no more of the conflict that preceded it than do the dry sands and the civil gossip of the sea-waves to-day of the storm and wreck of last week.
“Dear—. Nous voici—once more in Philadelphia. Our schemes in Ohio prosper. Frontignac remains there to superintend. He answers our purpose passablement. On the whole, I don’t see that we could do better than retain him; he is, besides, a gentlemanly, agreeable person, and wholly devoted to me, —a point certainly not to be overlooked.
“As to your railleries about the fair Madame, I must say, in justice both to her and myself, that any grace with which she has been pleased to honor me is not to be misconstrued. You are not to imagine any but the most Platonic ot liaisons. She is as high-strung as an Arabian steed,—proud, heroic, romantic, and French! and such must be permitted to take their own time and way, which we in our gaucherie can onlv humbly wonder at. I have ever professed myself her abject slave, ready to follow any whim, and obeying the slightest signal of the jewelled hand. As that is her sacred pleasure, I have been inhabiting the most abstract realms of heroic sentiment, living on the most diluted moonshine, and spinning out elaborately all those charming and seraphic distinctions between tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee with which these ecstatic creatures delight themselves in certain stages of affaires du cœur.
“The last development, on the part of my goddess, is a fit of celestial anger, of the cause of which I am in the most innocent ignorance. She writes me three pages of French sublimities, writing as only a French woman can,—bids me an eternal adieu, and informs me she is going to Newport.
“Of course the affair becomes stimulating. I am not to presume to dispute her sentence, or doubt a lady’s perfect sincerity in wishing never to see me again; but yet I think I shall try to pacify the
‘tantas in antmis cœlestibus iras.’
If a woman hates you, it is only her love turned wrong side out, and you may turn it back with due care. The pretty creatures know how becoming a grande passion is, and take care to keep themselves in mind; a quarrel serves their turn, when all else fails.
“To another point. I wish you to advertise S-, that his insinuations in regard to me in the ‘Aurora’ have been observed, and that I require that they be promptly retracted, He knows me well enough to attend to this hint. I am in earnest when I speak; if the word does nothing, the blow will come,—and if I strike once, no second blow will be needed. Yet I do not wish to get him on my hands needlessly; a duel and a love affair and hot weather, coming on together, might prove too much even for me.—N. B. Thermometer stands at 85. I am resolved on Newport next week.
“P. S. I forgot to say, that, oddly enough, my goddess has gone and placed herself under the wing of the pretty Puritan I saw in Newport. Fancy the mélange! Could anything be more piquant?—that cart-load of goodness, the old Doctor, that sweet little saint, and Madame Faubourg St. Germain shaken up together! Fancy her listening with well-bred astonishment to a critique on the doings of the unregenerate, or flirting that little jewelled fan of hers in Mrs. Scudder’s square pew of a Sunday! Probably they will carry her to the weekly prayer-meeting, which of course she will contrive some fine French subtilty for admiring, and find ravissant. I fancy I see it.”
When Burr had finished this letter, he had actually written himself into a sort of persuasion of its truth. When a finely constituted nature wishes to go into baseness, it has first to bribe itself. Evil is never embraced undisguised, as evil, but under some fiction which the mind accepts and with which it has the singular power of blinding itself in the face of daylight. The power of imposing on one’s self is an essential preliminary to imposing on others. The man first argues himself down, and then he is ready to put the whole weight of his nature to deceiving others. This letter ran so smoothly, so plausibly, that it produced on the writer of it the effect of a work of fiction, which we know to be unreal, but feel to be true. Long habits of this kind of self-delusion in time produce a paralysis in the vital nerves of truth, so that one becomes habitually unable to see things in their verity, and realizes the awful words of Scripture,—“He feedeth on ashes; a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say, Is there not a lie in my right hand?”
BETWEEN three and four the next morning, the robin in the nest above Mary’s window stretched out his left wing, opened one eye, and gave a short and rather drowsy chirp, which broke up his night’s rest and restored him to the full consciousness that he was a bird with wings and feathers, with a large appletree to live in, and all heaven for an estate,—and so, on these fortunate premises, he broke into a gush of singing, clear and loud, which Mary, without waking, heard in her slumbers.
Scarcely conscious, she lay in that dim clairvoyant state, when the half-sleep of the outward senses permits a delicious dewy clearness of the soul, that perfect ethereal rest and freshness of faculties, comparable only to what we imagine of the spiritual state,—season of celestial enchantment, in which the heavy weight “of all this unintelligible world” drops off, and the soul, divinely charmed, nestles like a wind-tossed bird in the protecting bosom of the One All-Perfect, All-Beautiful. What visions then come to the inner eye have often no words corresponding in mortal vocabularies. The poet, the artist, and the prophet in such hours become possessed of divine certainties which all their lives they struggle with pencil or song or burning words to make evident to their fellows. The world around wonders; but they are unsatisfied, because they have seen the glory and know how inadequate the copy.
And not merely to selectest spirits come these hours, but to those humbler poets, ungifted with utterance, who are among men as fountains sealed, whose song can be wrought out only by the harmony of deeds, the patient, pathetic melodies of tender endurance, or the heroic chant of undiscouraged labor. The poor slave-woman, last night parted from her only boy, and weary with the cottonpicking,—the captive pining in his cell, —the patient wife of the drunkard, saddened by a consciousness of the growing vileness of one so dear to her once,— the delicate spirit doomed to harsh and uncongenial surroundings,—all in such hours feel the soothings of a celestial harmony, the tenderness of more than a mother’s love.
It is by such seasons as these, more often than by reasonings or disputings that doubts are resolved in the region of religious faith. The All-Father treats us as the mother does her “infant crying in the dark”; He does not reason with our fears, or demonstrate their fallacy, but draws us silently to His bosom, and we are at peace. Nay, there have been those, undoubtedly, who have known God falsely with the intellect, yet felt Him truly with the heart,—and there be many, principally among the unlettered little ones of Christ’s flock, who positively know that much that is dogmatically propounded to them of their Redeemer is cold, barren, unsatisfying, and utterly false, who yet can give no account of their certainties better than that of the inspired fisherman, “We know Him, and have seen Him.” It was in such hours as these that Mary’s deadly fears for the soul of her beloved had passed all away,—passed out of her,—as if some warm, healing nature of tenderest vitality had drawn out of her heart all pain and coldness, and warmed it with the breath of an eternal summer.
So, while the purple shadows spread their gauzy veils inwoven with fire along the sky, and the gloom of the sea broke out here and there into lines of light, and thousands of birds were answering to each other from apple-tree and meadow-grass and top of jagged rock, or trooping in bands hither and thither, like angels on loving messages, Mary lay there with the flickering light through the leaves fluttering over her face, and the glow of dawn warming the snow-white draperies of the bed and giving a tender rose-hue to the calm cheek. She lay halt-conscious, smiling the while, as one who sleeps while the heart waketh, and who hears in dreams the voice of the One Eternally Beautiful and Beloved.
Mrs. Scudder entered her room, and, thinking that she still slept, stood and looked down on her. She felt as one does who has parted with some precious possession, a sudden sense of its value coming over her; she queried in herself whether any living mortal were worthy of so perfect a gift; and nothing but a remembrance of the Doctor’s prostrate humility at all reconciled her to the sacrifice she was making.
“Mary, dear!” she said, bending over her, with an unusual infusion of emotion in her voice,—“darling child!”
The arms moved instinctively, even before the eyes unclosed, and drew her mother down to her with a warm, clingine embrace. Love in Puritan families was often like latent caloric,—an allpervading force, that affected no visible thermometer, shown chiefly by a noble silent confidence, a ready helpfulness, but seldom outbreathed in caresses; yet natures like Mary’s always craved these outward demonstrations, and leaned towards them as a trailing vine sways to the nearest support. It was delightful for once fully to feel how much her mother loved her, as well as to know it.
“Dear, precious mother! do you love me so very much?”
“I live and breathe in you, Mary!” said Mrs. Scudder,—giving vent to herself in one of those trenchant shorthand expressions wherein positive natures incline to sum up everything, if they must speak at all.
Mary held her mother silently to her breast, her heart shining through her face with a quiet radiance.
“Do you feel happy this morning?” said Mrs. Scudder.
“Very, very, very happy, mother!”
“I am so glad to hear you say so!” said Mrs. Scudder,—who, to say the truth, had entertained many doubts on her pillow the night before.
Mary began dressing herself in a state of calm exaltation. Every trembling leaf on the tree, every sunbeam, was like a living smile of God,—every fluttering breeze like His voice, full of encouragement and hope.
“Mother, did you tell the Doctor what I said last night?”
“I did, my darling.”
“Then, mother, I would like to see him a few moments alone.”
“Well, Mary, he is in his study, at his morning devotions.”
“That is just the time. I will go to him.”
The Doctor was sitting by the window; and the honest-hearted, motherly lilacs, abloom for the third time since our story began, were filling the air with their sweetness.
Suddenly the door opened, and Mary entered, in her simple white short-gown and skirt, her eyes calmly radiant, and her whole manner having something serious and celestial. She came directly towards him and put out both her little hands, with a smile half-childlike, halfangelic; and the Doctor bowed his head and covered his face with his hands.
“Dear friend,” said Mary, kneeling and taking his hands, “if you want me, I am come. Life is but a moment,—there is an eternal blessedness just beyond us, —and for the little time between I will be all I can to you, if you will only show me how.”
And the Doctor-
No, young man,—the study-door closed just then, and no one heard those words from a quaint old Oriental book which told that all the poetry of that grand old soul had burst into flower, as the aloe blossoms once in a hundred years. The feelings of that great heart might have fallen unconsciously into phrases from that one love-poem of the Bible which such men as he read so purely and devoutly, and which warm the icy clearness of their intellection with the myrrh and spices of ardent lands, where earthly and heavenly love meet and blend in one indistinguishable horizon-line, like sea and sky.
“Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun? My dove, my undefiled, is but one; she is the only one of her mother. Thou art all fair, my love! there is no spot in thee!”
The Doctor might have said all this; we will not say he did, nor will we say he did not; all we know is, that, when the breakfast-table was ready, they came out cheerfully together. Madame de Frontignac stood in a fresh white wrapper, with a few buttercups in her hair, waiting for the breakfast. She was startled to see the Doctor entering all-radiant, leading in Mary by the hand, and looking as if he thought she were some dream-miracle which might dissolve under his eyes, unless he kept fast hold of her.
The keen eyes shot their arrowy glance, which went at once to the heart of the matter. Madame de Frontignac knew they were affianced, and regarded Mary with attention.
The calm, sweet, elevated expression of her face struck her; it struck her also that that was not the light of any earthly love,—that it had no thrill, no blush, no tremor, but only the calmness of a soul that knows itself no more; and she sighed involuntarily
She looked at the Doctor, and seemed to study attentively a face which happiness made this morning as genial and attractive as it was generally strong and fine.
There was little said at the breakfasttable; and yet the loud singing of the birds, the brightness of the sunshine, the life and vigor of all things, seemed to make up for the silence of those who were too well pleased to speak.
“Eh bien, ma chère” said Madame, after breakfast, drawing Mary into her little room,—“c’ent donc fini?”
“Yes,” said Mary, cheerfully.
“Thou art content?” said Madame, passing her arm around her. “Well, then, I should be. But, Mary, it is like a marriage with the altar, like taking the veil, is it not?”
“No,” said Mary; “it is not taking the veil; it is beginning a cheerful, reasonable life with a kind, noble friend, who will always love me truly, and whom I hope to make as happy as he deserves.”
“I think well of him, my little cat,” said Madame, reflectively; but she stopped something she was going to say, and kissed Mary’s forehead. After a moment’s pause, she added, “One must have love or refuge, Mary;—this is thy refuge, child; thou wilt have peace in it.” She sighed again. “Enfin,” she said, resuming her gay tone, “what shall be la toilette de noces? Thou shalt have Virginie’s pearls, my fair one, and look like a sea-born Venus. Tiens, let me try them in thy hair.”
And in a few moments she had Mary’s long hair down, and was chattering like a blackbird, wreathing the pearls in and out, and saying a thousand pretty little nothings,—weaving grace and poetry upon the straight thread of Puritan life.
BUSTLE IN THE PARISH.
THE announcement of the definite engagement of two such bright particular stars in the hemisphere of the Doctor’s small parish excited the interest that such events usually create among the faithful of the flock.
There was a general rustle and flutter, as when a covey of wild pigeons has been started; and all the little elves who rejoice in the name of “says he” and “says I” and “do tell” and “have you heard” were speedily flying through the consecrated air of the parish.
The fact was discussed by matrons and maidens, at the spinning-wheel, in the green clothes-yard, and at the foamy wash-tub, out of which rose weekly a new birth of freshness and beauty. Many a rustic Venus of the foam, as she splashed her dimpled elbows in the rainbow-tinted froth, talked of what should be done for the forthcoming solemnities, and wondered what Mary would have on when she was married, and whether she (the Venus) should get an invitation to the wedding, and whether Ethan would go,—not, of course, that she cared in the least whether he did or not.
Grave, elderly matrons talked about the prosperity of Zion, which they imagined intimately connected with the event of their minister’s marriage; and descending from Zion, speculated on bedquilts and table-cloths, and rummaged their own clean, sweet-smelling stores, fragrant with balm and rose-leaves, to lay out a bureau-cover, or a pair of sheets, or a dozen napkins for the wedding outfit.
The solemnest of solemn quiltings was resolved upon. Miss Prissy declared that she fairly couldn’t sleep nights with the responsibility of the wedding-dresses on her mind, but yet she must give one day to getting on that quilt.
The grand monde also was in motion. Mrs. General Wilcox called in her own particular carriage, bearing present of a Cashmere shawl for the bride, with the General’s best compliments,—also an oak-leaf pattern for quilting, which had been sent her from England, and which was authentically established to be that used on a petticoat belonging to the Princess Royal. And Mrs. Major Seaforth came also, bearing a scarf of wrought India muslin; and Mrs. Vernon sent a splendid China punch-bowl. Indeed, to say the truth, the notables high and mighty of Newport, whom the Doctor had so unceremoniously accused of building their houses with blood and establishing their city with iniquity, considering that nobody seemed to take his words to heart, and that they were making money as fast as old Tyre, rather assumed the magnanimous, and patted themselves on the shoulder for this opportunity to show the Doctor that after all they were good fellows, though they did make money at the expense of thirty per cent, on human life.
Simeon Brown was the only exception. He stood aloof, grim and sarcastic, and informed some good middle-aged ladies who came to see if he would, as they phrased it, “esteem it a privilege to add his mite” to the Doctor’s outfit, that he would give him a likely negro boy, if he wanted him, and, if he was too conscientious to keep him, he might sell him at a fair profit,—a happy stroke of humor which he was fond of relating many years after.
The quilting was in those days considered the most solemn and important recognition of a betrothal. And for the benefit of those not to the manner born, a little preliminary instruction may be necessary.
The good wives of New England, impressed with that thrifty orthodoxy of economy which forbids to waste the merest trifle, had a habit of saving every scrap clipped out in the fashioning of household garments, and these they cut into fanciful patterns and constructed of them rainbow shapes and quaint traceries, the arrangement of which became one of their few fine arts. Many a maiden, as she sorted and arranged fluttering bits of green, yellow, red, and blue, felt rising in her breast a passion for somewhat vague and unknown, which came out at length in a new pattern of patchwork. Collections of these tiny fragments were always ready to fill an hour when there was nothing else to do; and as the maiden chatted with her beau, her busy flying needle stitched together those pretty bits, which, little in themselves, were destined, by gradual unions and accretions, to bring about at last substantial beauty, warmth, and comfort,—emblems thus of that household life which is to be brought to stability and beauty by reverent economy in husbanding and tact in arranging the little useful and agreeable morsels of daily existence.
When a wedding was forthcoming, there was a solemn review of the stores of beauty and utility thus provided, and the patchwork-spread best worthy of such distinction was chosen for the quilting. Thereto, duly summoned, trooped all intimate female friends of the bride, old and young; and the quilt being spread on a frame, and wadded with cotton, each vied with the others in the delicacy of the quilting she could put upon it. For the quilting also was a fine art, and had its delicacies and nice points,—which grave elderly matrons discussed with judicious care. The quilting generally began at an early hour in the afternoon, and ended at dark with a great supper and general jubilee, at which that ignorant and incapable sex which could not quilt was allowed to appear and put in claims for consideration of another nature. It may, perhaps, be surmised that this expected reinforcement was often alluded to by the younger maidens, whose wickedly coquettish toilettes exhibited suspicious marks of that willingness to get a chance to say “No” which has been slanderously attributed to mischievous maidens.
In consideration of the tremendous responsibilities involved in this quilting, the reader will not be surprised to learn, that, the evening before, Miss Prissy made her appearance at the brown cottage, armed with thimble, scissors, and pincushion, in order to relieve her mind by a little preliminary confabulation.
“You see me, Miss Scudder, run ’most to death,” she said; “but I thought I would just run up to Miss Major Seaforth’s, and see her best bed-room quilt, ’cause I wanted to have all the ideas we possibly could, before I decided on the pattern. Hers is in shells,—just common shells,—nothing to be compared with Miss Wilcox’s oak-leaves; and I suppose there isn’t the least doubt that Miss Wilcox’s sister, in London, did get that from a lady who had a cousin who was governess in the royal family; and I just quilted a little bit to-day on an old piece of silk, and it comes out beautiful; and so I thought I would just come and ask you if you did not think it was best for us to have the oak-leaves.”
“Well, certainly, Miss Prissy, if you think so,” said Mrs. Scudder, who was as pliant to the opinions of this wise woman of the parish as New England matrons generally are to a reigning dress-maker and factotum.
Miss Prissy had the happy consciousness, always, that her early advent under any roof was considered a matter of especial grace; and therefore it was with rather a patronizing tone that she announced that she would stay and spend the night with them.
“I knew,” she added, “that your spare chamber was full, with that Madame de —, what do you call her?—if I was to die, I could not remember the woman’s name. Well, I thought I could curl in with you, Mary, ’most anywhere.”
“That’s right, Miss Prissy,” said Mary; “you shall be welcome to half my bed any time.”
“Well, I knew you would say so, Mary; I never saw the thing you would not give away one half of, since you was that high,” said Miss Prissy,—illustrating her words by placing her hand about two feet from the floor.
Just at this moment, Madame de Frontignac entered and asked Mary to come into her room and give her advice as to a piece of embroidery. When she was gone out, Miss Prissy looked after her and sunk her voice once more to the confidential whisper which we before described.
“I have heard strange stories about that French woman,” she said; “but as she is here with you and Mary, I suppose there cannot be any truth in them. Dear me! the world is so censorious about women! But then, you know, we don’t expect much from French women. I suppose she is a Roman Catholic, and worships pictures and stone images; but then, after all, she has got an immortal soul, and I can’t help hoping Mary’s influence may be blest to her. They say, when she speaks French, she swears every few minutes; and if that is the way she was brought up, may-be she isn’t accountable. I think we can’t be too charitable for people that a’n’t privileged as we are. Miss Vernon’s Polly told me she had seen her sew Sundays,—sew Sabbath-day! She came into her room sudden, and she was working on her embroidery there; and she never winked nor blushed, nor offered to put it away, but sat there just as easy! Polly said she never was so beat in all her life; she felt kind o’ scared, every time she thought of it. But now she has come here, who knows but she may be converted?”
“Mary has not said much about her state of mind,” said Mrs. Scudder; “but something of deep interest has passed between them. Mary is such an uncommon child, that I trust everything to her.”
We will not dwell further on the particulars of this evening,—nor describe how Madame de Frontignac reconnoitred Miss Prissy with keen, amused eyes,— nor how Miss Prissy assured Mary, in the confidential solitude of her chamber, that her fingers just itched to get hold of that trimming on Madame de Frog— something’s dress, because she was pretty nigh sure she could make some just like it, for she never saw any trimming she could not make.
The robin that lived in the apple-tree was fairly outgeneralled the next morning; for Miss Prissy was up before him, tripping about the chamber on the points of her toes, knocking down all the movable things in the room, in her efforts to be still, so as not to wake Mary; and it was not until she had finally upset the stand by the bed, with the candlestick, snuffers, and Bible on it, that Mary opened her eyes.
“Miss Prissy! dear me! what is it you are doing?”
“Why, I am trying to be still, Mary, so as not to wake you up; and it seems to me as if everything was possessed, to tumble down so. But it is only half past three,—so you turn over and go to sleep.”
“But, Miss Prissy,” said Mary, sitting up in bed, “you are all dressed; where are you going?”
“Well, to tell the truth, Mary, I am just one of those people that can’t sleep when they have got responsibility on their minds; and I have been lying awake more than an hour here, thinking about that quilt. There is a new way of getting it on to the frame that I want to try; ’cause, you know, when we quilted Cerinthy Stebbins’s, it would trouble us in the rolling; and I have got a new way that I want to try, and I mean just to get it on to the frame before breakfast. I was in hopes I should get out without waking any of you. I am in hopes I shall get by your mother’s door without waking her, —’cause I know she works hard and needs her rest,—but that bed-room door squeaks like a cat, enough to raise the dead!
“Mary,” she added, with sudden energy, “if I had the least drop of oil in a teacup, and a bit of quill, I’d stop that door making such a noise.” And Miss Prissy’s eyes glowed with resolution.
“I don’t know where you could find any at this time,” said Mary.
“Well, never mind; I’ll just go and open the door as slow and careful as I can,” said Miss Prissy, as she trotted out of the apartment.
The result of her carefulness was very soon announced to Mary by a protracted sound resembling the mewing of a hoarse cat, accompanied by sundry audible grunts from Miss Prissy, terminating in a grand finale of clatter, occasioned by her knocking down all the pieces of the quilting-frame that stood in the corner of the room, with a concussion that roused everybody in the house.
“What is that?” called out Mrs. Scudder, from her bed-room.
She was answered by two streams of laughter,—one from Mary, sitting up in bed, and the other from Miss Prissy, holding her sides, as she sat dissolved in merriment on the sanded floor.
[To be continued.]