Educating a Wife: A Chapter of Autobiography
WE had much gay society at Braxfield ; and among the visitors who almost daily thronged our table were many young ladies, very eligible matches, and some almost as charming as that dear Fräulein Münchhausen.
Two of them, I remember, came from Dublin with their father, who was physician to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and had apartments at the castle. They were splendid specimens of the old Milesian race: fair girls with finely formed, well-developed figures, strong and stately, and just evading the exuberance of embonpoint; with brilliant complexions, the rich red in their cheeks such as only the “weeping skies” of the Green Island call out; with magnificent auburn hair, and large blue eyes that looked filled to the brim with merry thoughts. They were highly accomplished, too ; dressed with simple elegance, and were modish and wellbred, as far as that irrepressible spirit of fun and frolic which seems inborn in spirited Irish girls would let them.
The first evening, after the elder of these dashing Milesians had given us, with stirring effect, “The Harp that once through Tara’s Halls,” while she accompanied herself admirably on the harp, gracefully displaying arms of marvellous whiteness that a sculptor might have yearned to copy, it chanced that their father and mine became deeply engaged in a grave conversation touching the formation of human character. Meanwhile, on a sofa at some distance, I had commenced a low conversation on some light topic with the fair songstress, who seemed indifferent to metaphysics ; when the younger sister, touching me so as to call attention to her movements, stole slyly up behind her father, and, cautiously raising her hands to his head, twitched off his wig while he was in the very midst of some learned reply, and made off with it to our end of the room. I shall never forget my father’s look of amazement. From his guest I expected an outburst of anger, but he only said, “ Come back, this minute, you monkey ! Do you think I can talk philosophy without a wig ? ”
They stayed with us several days; and I was quite dazzled and somewhat overwhelmed by their beauty and spirit.
A complete contrast in character to these stylish perpetrators of fun, less bewildering but far more interesting, were two young ladies whose acquaintance I had previously made. They also were from Ireland, indeed from one of its noted families ; daughters of a nobleman whose name is still cherished by the Irish people as one of the most daring and disinterested defenders of their political franchises.
Lord Edward Fitzgerald, younger son of James, first Duke of Leinster, seems, despite his rank, to have been born a democrat. A mere stripling in our Revolutionary days and barely of age when France quailed under her “ Reign of Terror,” he warmly sympathized, during both revolutions, with the oppressed millions struggling for freedom. As a member of the Irish Parliament toward the close of the last century, he took a stand for the independence of his country (then in imminent danger of subversion) as daring as that of Patrick Henry for ours. Brooding over her oppression, impatient under her sufferings, and finding words unavailing to effect redress, Lord Edward appears to have felt that the time for action had come. He joined the secret society of “ United Irishmen,” and was enthusiastically elected its president. That society virtually adopted as its motto the same which had been the watchword of our own Revolution, “ Peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must”; and erelong it counted its members by hundreds of thousands, scattered over every parish in the island ; many of them devoted men, nerved to a stern purpose by sacred incentives, national and spiritual. At that time the Irish Parliament enjoyed absolute independence of all power but the Crown. Grattan, in 1780, had procured the passage of a resolution, “ that the king’s Most Excellent Majesty and the Lords and Commons of Ireland are the only power competent to make laws to bind Ireland.” The British government, acquiescing at the time, sought now to abolish this only competent power ; replacing a national and independent legislature by the admission into the British Parliament of a few Irish members, none of whom, however, it was lawful to choose from among professors of the Catholic faith. Then the “United Irishmen” plotted treason. The plot was prematurely revealed, and their leader betrayed, for money, — by an informer. Lord Edward, after killing with a dagger one of his assailants and severely wounding another, would doubtless have been tried for treason and sentenced to the gallows, but that he died in a Newgate prison-cell two weeks after his capture, of wounds envenomed by disappointed hopes. With a refinement of cruelty for which government policy, except it be such as is utterly disgraceful in a civilized nation, furnishes not a shadow ofexcuse,his wife hadnot been permitted to see him ; and permission was given to his brother and sister only when it was certain he must die, and then but for a few minutes, just three hours before his death. This was in 1798; and two years afterwards, despite the noble stand taken by a talented band of patriots, the outrage was consummated, and the Irish Parliament was merged in that of Great Britain.
Some years before his death Fitzgerald had won and married the beautiful Pamela, daughter, by more than adoption, it seems,1 of the celebrated Madame de Genlis. By her he had two daughters, Pamela and Lucy. These young ladies were connections of a kindly neighbor of ours, Lady Mary Ross, who lived two miles off at Bonnington, a romantic country-seat near the Falls of the Clyde ; Lady Ross’s son, Sir Charles, having married their father’s sister, Lady Mary Fitzgerald. During a visit of some months at Bonnington they were frequent visitors, and always welcome ones, to Braxfield.
We found them charming girls ; charming and estimable ; but one would never have imagined them sisters. The elder, Pamela, inheritor of her mother’s personal gifts, but without the gayety of her mother’s country, was a handsome brunette, small of stature and beautifully formed, with large dark pensive eyes that seemed still to mourn her father’s untimely fate; the younger, Lucy, a delicate blonde, tall and graceful, sprightly and sympathetic ; Irish evidently, not French, of origin ; her enthusiastic father’s true child. Both had the charm of perfect manners, noble, simple, and kindly, rather than demonstrative.
One of them became a connection of ours. It chanced that Sir Guy Campbell, my mother’s first-cousin, a dashing young officer, came to us on a visit for a few days ; and that my father invited Lady Ross and the two Miss Fitzgeralds to dinner to meet him. That evening decided his fate. The dark eyes, with their depths of wistful expression, made an immediate conquest of the lively and brilliant youth. Next day he rode over to Bonnington, and the next, and the next. His visit to us was finally prolonged into a threeweeks’ stay, and every forenoon, during that time, Sir Guy’s charger was brought regularly to the door, not to return with his master, after the first week, till late at night. At the end of the three weeks, the rider’s furlough drawing to a close, there was a wedding at Bonnington, and my father (who had been appointed Pamela’s co-trustee with the Duke of Leinster, her uncle) gave away the bride.
I, in the officer’s place, should have preferred Lucy. As it was, she being five or six years older than myself, I did not presume to think of her, except as a boy thinks of a beautiful woman, with reverential admiration and, as Tennyson has phrased it, with “tender dread.” She was to me a sort of ideal being, removed beyond the actual and the familiar. Perhaps this was in part due to the fact that my affections had already begun to attach themselves elsewhere.
I have stated that, as a boy, I had read a work of Thomas Day’s ; the same of which Leigli Hunt says, “ The pool of mercenary and timeserving ethics was first blown over by the fresh country breeze of Sandford and Merton.” But I do not think that, up to the time of which I am writing, I had read the author’s life ; or found out that he had selected, from a foundling hospital, two young girls of twelve, intending to educate them on Rousseau’s system and to make one of them, by and by, his wife ; and that this strange contrivance did not succeed.
An experiment which, at the age of twenty-one, I commenced, was, I think, better deserving of success than Thomas Day’s ; inasmuch as it was not founded on the cold-blooded calculation of educating first and taking the chance of failing in love afterwards ; also, because, instead of wandering off to French philosophy, I trusted to the domestic influences of Braxfield House.
Among the young girls in our village school was one, ten years old, and whom, as she may be still alive, I shall call Jessie. Her father was foreman of a room in one of our mills, an ordinary character ; her mother (often familiarly going among her neighbors, according to he custom of the country, by her maiden name, Peggy Gardiner) seemed, by beauty and demeanor, and to judge by the exquisite cleanliness, order, and good taste that marked her humble apartments, quite above her station. From her, no doubt, had come to Jessie the nameless grace, the native refinement that distinguished the child, not in my eyes alone, from all her schoolmates.
I should not trust myself to describe this young girl, as I first remember her, did I not call to mind what my mother, six or seven years later, confessed to me, on her return from a visit to Glasgow, on which Jessie had accompanied her. “ I could not walk the streets with her,” she said, “ without serious annoyance. Almost every gentleman we met turned round to look at her, and several contrived to pass and repass us several times, evidently smitten by her beauty. In the shops it was little better : business seemed half suspended, customers and shopmen alike pausing to admire.”
“ You don’t think it was Jessie’s fault, mother ? ” I asked.
“ No ; I think the poor girl’s modest and quiet bearing only attracted people the more ; but it was very unpleasant.”
That was when she was fifteen or sixteen ; as a child of ten she was scarcely less noticed by the fashionable visitors who thronged our school. Not in music and dancing alone did she excel all her fellows. I gave occasional lessons in geography and history to the elder girls’ class to which she belonged ; and while I found her first in almost every branch, she seemed quite unconscious of her superiority.
Her complexion was fair and of unrivalled purity, her face a perfect Grecian oval ; the eyes deep blue, and filled with a dancing light when she smiled ; the chestnut hair long and silky. Every feature was cut with singular delicacy ; the only deviations from strict regularity being that the mouth was, in proportion, a trifle larger than that of the Venus of Milo, but then the teeth, dazzlingly white and perfect, atoned; and that the nose was just a little bit what the French call retroussé; — though one need not now have recourse to French ; Tennyson has coined just the word. To Jessie, as to Lynette, the lines apply, —
Tip-tilted like the petal of a flower.”
Only that, in Jessie’s case, the divergence from the classic line was so slight that the simile of the flower-petal does not quite suit the occasion.
Though she afterwards grew to medium height only, she was, in those days, rather tall for her age. Her person was perfect in its form and proportions ; and this has always had a singular charm for me. Spurzheim set down form large, and color small, in my phrenological chart, telling me I should make a good sculptor or architect; and, in effect, I have always found more pleasure in going over a collection of the best statuary than in viewing the finest gallery of paintings. I recollect reading casually, in some newspaper, the lines,
Young ns the sun is now upon our watch,
Ere I had told its beauties. It was slight,
Even as yon willow, and, like its soft stem,
Fell into thousand motions and all lovely,”
and thinking that they must have been written expressly to describe Jessie. Yet I believe it was not so much her beauty, alike of form and feature, that first awoke in me a sentiment seldom felt, I think, by an adult, for a child so young, as another peculiarity. She was a creature of quick sensibilities, which she had not learned to conceal. Her countenance, always an interesting one, was, if love be dangerous, a somewhat dangerous one to watch. She had a habit — painful, I knew she herself often found it —of blushing at the touch of any emotion, whether of joy or sorrow; at trifles even, as at the unexpected sight of some girlfriend ; and when deeply and suddenly moved, the flush would overspread face and neck. This happened, on one occasion, when I had taken her by surprise in addressing to her a few words of commendation ; the telltale blush which my praise called up first awoke in myself the consciousness how dear she was to me.
I was very much ashamed when I became aware of this : knowing that if it were observed it would expose me to ridicule ; not so much on account of the girl’s social position, — I did not care for that, it being already an article in my social creed that Love, like God, is no respecter of persons, —but a mere child ! not half my own age, and I but just out of my minority : that was ridiculous ! I could not even cal! to mind that any hero of a novel had ever indulged in so absurd a fancy.
The parents of Jessie belonged to the sect over which my grandfather had presided, — the Independents; and my mother attended service twice every Sunday in a small chapel or hall which my father had set apart for these worshippers. When I returned from college, my mother, feeling that her authority in such matters had ceased, merely asked me if I chose to go with her. She was greatly delighted when she found me a willing attendant both at morning and evening service ; and I am glad the dear, good lady never guessed what the attraction was, never knew how often I might have played truant if Peggy Gardiner, a regular church-goer, had not brought her little daughter with her, looking as fresh and lovely as a spring flower ; dressed simply but with scrupulous neatness, and recalling to me what Christ said of the lilies of the field, —that even Solomon, in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these.
Luckily our pew was square and spacious, and I almost always contrived so to select my place (facing the congregation) that I could see that charming young face. My sisters, and even William, would now and then drop to sleep when the sermon overran an hour and a half; but I know that grave, serious audience must have been greatly edified, and my mother quite comforted, by my wakefulness, and by what must have seemed to them my unwavering attention, during endless disquisitions on free-will and election and predestination, on vicarious atonement and original sin. The preachers were too gloomily in earnest ever to select so cheerful a theme as that embodied in my favorite text, “ Love is the fulfilling of the law "; and, fortunately for their good opinion of me, thoughts are not read in this world as no doubt they will be in the next.
It has sometimes occurred to me, however, that this sudden attachment of mine might have proved a passing fancy only, had not my eldest sister, Anne, very innocently and unintentionally given it food and encouragement.
Anne was then a thoughtful girl of seventeen or eighteen, shy, and a little awkward in manner, not handsome nor even pretty, but thoroughly good and practical; domestic in her tastes, a skilful needle-woman who had worked a wonderfully elaborate sampler, embroidered with crowns, royal, baronial, and I know not how many others, and bearing, in various colored worsteds, a stanza, selected, I think, by her mother as a bit of quiet consolation for lack of beauty, and reading thus : —
With comeliness of words or deeds compare?
No ! those at first th’ unwary heart may gain,
But these —these only—can the heart retain.”
Anne was very fond of children and a born teacher; attending the village school almost daily, and often taking part in the instruction of the various classes. In the spring or summer of 1822 site selected two of the best pupils (of whom Jessie was one and a certain Mary the other), who came to Braxfield after school-hours and had lessons from her in music, reading, and sometimes in other branches. After a time, Mary being required at home for domestic duties, Jessie remained sole scholar. Toward the close of the year, her mother began to talk of sending her into the mills ; but pupil and teacher having by this time become strongly attached to each other, a respite of a few months was obtained, and her daily visits, which were uninterrupted even by the rigor of a severe winter, were continued into the next spring.
During all this time, however delighted I was with Anne’s proceedings, I set special guard on my looks and actions. Yet I was unable to refrain from frequent attendance at my sister’s private lessons, especially in music. In eight or ten months Jessie had made wonderful proficiency on the piano, and sang duets with my second sister, Jane, to the admiration of the household ; with all of whom, I may add, she had become a favorite. As I look back on those days, this seems to me strange ; for marked favor to one of humble rank is wont, in a class-ridden country like England, to produce envy and ill-will. It was Jessie’s idiosyncrasy, I think, which averted such results. She had that innate refinement which is sometimes held to belong only to “gentle blood”; coupled with a simple bearing, alike removed from servility and presumption, which seemed to accept a new position, gladly indeed, but quietly and as a matter of course. Less than a year’s daily intercourse with a cultivated circle had so wrought on that delicate nature that, by personal carriage and good breeding, she seemed “ to the manor born.” The servants instinctively treated her as one of our family ; yet to her school companions she was still the same lively and cordial playmate as before. Need I add that the impression she had made on me deepened daily ?
About the 1st of March, 1823, I had a conversation with Anne. She began by saying Jessie’s mother had been telling her that her husband thought it was time that their child should begin to defray her own support by tending a throstle-frame. I could not help reddening, almost as Jessie herself might have done.
“ You don’t like that ? ” said Anne.
“ Of course not. Do ?”
“It would give me great pain. I love the dear child, and I should feel almost as if I were to lose a little sister. But, Robert, I think you would care more still.”
“ What makes you think that ? ”
“ Well, you have a telltale face ; but that’s not all. I found you out some time since. A man who has a secret to keep ought not, when he reads his favorite authors, to make marginal references.”
“ I can’t imagine what you mean, my dear.”
“ You and I are pretty much in the habit of reading the same books ; and in half a dozen places lately I’ve found passages marked that showed what you were thinking about ; one of them in Thomson’s Seasons, in that story about the ‘ lovely young Lavinia ’ who ‘ once had friends,’ and married so nicely at last.”
My consciousness must have betrayed me at this point, for she added, “ It’s no use denying it, Robert. You wish, some day, to make Jessie your wife.”
“ You think me an idiot for falling in love with a mere child ?”
“ No ; one may admire a rosebud as well as the full-grown flower ; and such a sweet rosebud, too ! ”
“ But I ’m more than twice her age.”
“ You won’t be, by and by. When you ’re thirty, Jessie will be nineteen. That ’s not out of the way. You ’re willing to wait ? ”
“ Willing?” I felt pretty much as a Peruvian worshipper might, if he had been asked whether he was willing to await the rising of the sun ; but I only said, “Will you help me, Anne ? ”
Thereupon, after consulting together, we concocted a scheme. My father was then on a visit to Ireland, where he had been lecturing in furtherance of his plans of social reform ; 2 and my sister told me she intended, as soon as he returned, to ask his permission to adopt Jessie, charging herself with the child’s education. When I heard this, I thought Providence must be helping me ; for that was just what I had been wishing for months to bring about, without daring to suggest it, and not knowing whether the girl’s parents would consent. Anne thought they would ; for the mother had expressed to her doubts whether her daughter, who, though healthy, was far from being robust, could endure without injury the confinement of the mills at so early an age.
Thus reassured, I suggested that it might be weeks before my father returned, and that it would be best to send him a letter, carefully prepared, at once. A copy of this letter, covering sixteen pages of note-paper and dated March 3; 1823, lies before me. It was in my sister’s handwriting and signed by her, though in truth a joint production. I had put my heart into it; and, for that matter, so had Anne, who made some excellent points. Here is one : —
“ Do not imagine, my dear papa, that I intend to make a fine lady of this little girl ; nothing is further from my thoughts. I wish to render her independent, and able by and by to take care of herself. With such an education as I propose to give her, she will, when she grows up, be a valuable instructress of youth ; and how rarely do we meet with such a one ! It shall be my study to prevent her acquiring idle or expensive habits, and to make my little charge much more diligent and orderly than you have ever seen us.”
Then followed a diplomatic suggestion, intended, I am afraid, to put my father off the true scent. She told him : —
“ In case I kept house for one of my brothers, she would, I am sure, prove a most agreeable companion for me ; and, by affording me a never-failing source of amusement and interest, might enliven many hours I should otherwise spend in solitude.”
The sly gypsy knew well enough that her elder brother, at least, was not likely to set up bachelor’s hall and there to need a sister to preside ; and that her pupil, instead of proving an amusement to her in the fraternal mansion, would probably there become a domestic blessing to somebody else. But of course it would never have done prematurely to suggest such a contingency as that.
Anne waited with an anxiety only less profound than my own for a reply. It was kind and favorable; and, my mother acquiescing, Jessie became a member of our family circle.
I was exultant; yet I put a still stricter guard than before on all I said and did when Jessie was present. It was a great exercise of self-control. No matter how numerous and brilliant the company in our drawing-room, I knew, by instinct, whether Jessie was there, and missed her at once if she withdrew. Young girls of my own age, beautiful, cultivated, and well-born,— and many such were, from time to time, inmates of Braxfield House, —all failed to awaken in me an emotion comparable to the feeling which the sight of that child, scarcely eleven years old when she came to us, uniformly called forth.
She seemed to win my parents’ hearts, and they behaved admirably, making no distinction between her and their own children ; and for this I was the more grateful, because it placed them, now and then, in an awkward position. They would have to listen, for example, while some casual visitor descanted in warm terms on the singular beauty of their youngest daughter; and I overheard one preposterous flatterer tell my father how much she was like him : about as like, I longed to tell him, as I to Hercules. My father took it very quietly, smiling, and saying only, “She is not mine, — an adopted child.” But I think my mother did n’t quite like it.
I came very near betraying myself one evening ; but fortune stood my friend. We had a young folks party, and a number of both sexes had gathered together. A proposal was made that we should “draw for sweethearts,” — for the evening, of course ; but some one added jestingly, “ Perhaps for life, — who knows ? ” So we wrote the name of each young lady (Jessie included) on a slip of paper, then folded these and shook them up in a hat which I handed round. It so happened that the number of young ladies exceeded by four or five that of the young gentlemen ; so that, when all had drawn and my turn came last, there were still several slips remaining. I glanced at that which I drew and saw Jessie’s name. In a moment, what Anne had said of my telltale face flashed across me ; I turned instantly to hide my confusion by depositing the hat ; and, as I did so, I dropped into it the name that was hidden away in my heart, and stealthily abstracted another unperceived. This time it was the plainest girl in the room ; to whom, grateful for danger past, I cordially offered myself as partner.
But before the evening was over, I contrived to get possession of the slip with Jessie’s name. This I secreted within the lining of a small bead purse which one of my sisters had worked for me. That purse and its enclosure exist still. I kept it hidden away in the secret drawer of a writing-desk.
Our experiment proceeded, smoothly and successfully, for more than two years, — two of the brightest years of my life ; even though I had no means of judging whether Jessie’s heart, in after years, would turn to me or not.
I have heard the question debated, which is the greater happiness,— to love or to be loved. Theoretically, on purely ethical principles, one is led to the conclusion that to love is the higher privilege; and practically the experience of a lifetime confirms to me that view of the case. To love is best. It wears better, it has a nobler influence on a cultivated heart, than the mere consciousness of being loved, however grateful that consciousness may be to self-love, however, too, it may minister to vanity. The tendency of loving, if one loves truly, is to eliminate selfishness ; but it often fosters selfishness to be the object of love. It is better to love without requital, than to be loved unless one can render double in return. It is not of love received, but of love given, that Paul, faithfully translated, speaks, in memorable words : Love, greater than faith, greater than hope, suffereth long, envieth not, seeketh not her own, endureth all things, never faileth. But the recipient even of the purest love may be dead to long-suffering, may nourish envy, may cherish self-seeking, may lack patience under adversity, and may fail when the hour of trial comes. Not he on whom love is bestowed is the favored one, but he by whom love is conferred. It is more blessed to give than to receive.
I never swerved in my loyalty to Jessie ; yet, though I could not help being uniformly kind to her and watchful for her welfare, I tried hard never to give the child any reason to believe that I loved her otherwise than as I did my three sisters. They, on their part, treated her at all times with sisterly affection, as one of themselves ; and this was greatly to their credit ; for Jessie not only quite outshone them in beauty, but in musical talent, in grace in the ball-room and elsewhere, and ultimately in ease of manner. If, at the end of two years, a stranger had been asked to say which of the four girls had been raised from an humble home to her present position, I think Jessie was the last he would have been likely to select.
If I had remained at Braxfield, this novel experiment of mine could have had, I incline to believe, but one issue. It was otherwise ordered, however. In the winter of 1824-5, my father purchased a village and a large tract of land in Indiana, with what result I shall state by and by ; and in the autumn of 1825. when Jessie was little more than thirteen years old, I emigrated to this country. I was sorely tempted, before I left home, to tell the girl how much I loved her, and that I hoped some day, if she should ever come to love and accept me as a husband, to make her my wife. But, while I was romantic enough in those days and later to do many foolish things, common-sense suggested that to a child such a declaration was ill-judged and out of place. So I departed and made no sign. With Anne, however, I conferred in secret ; and she promised me, if I could not return in three or four years, to come to the United States herself and bring Jessie with her.
Though it is anticipating dates, I may as well here state the ultimate issue of this episode in my life. Two years later, namely, in the summer of 1827, longing to see Jessie once more, I joined an English friend and recrossed the Atlantic, I found the young girl beautiful and interesting even beyond my remembrance or expectation ; and, what moved me still more, she received me so cordially and with such evident emotion, that— though I think I may say that I have never been guilty of the presumption of imagining myself loved when I was not—it did seem to me the chances were fair that, if I remained some months and spoke out, she would not say me nay.
But I determined first to make a confidante of my mother, in whose good sense and deep affection for me I placed implicit trust.
“ My son,” she said, “ I saw, before you went to America, that you loved this girl and had already thought of her as a wife. But there is much to be taken into account in such a matter.”
“ You would prefer to have a daughter-in-law from our own rank in life ? ”
“If I could have chosen, yes ; but I do not think that a sufficient objection. My own good father worked his way up from a position as humble ; and Jessie’s appearance and manners are as ladylike as if she had been my own child.”
“ But you have objections, dear mother. Do not withhold them from me, I entreat you.”
“At least I should like to see what will be the result, on her character, of the next three years. I know you, Robert; you have a very high ideal of what a wife ought to be ; unreasonably high, I am afraid. You think this girl perfect, but she is not. I should like to be sure that she will grow up free from undue love of admiration, and, what is more important, perfectly sincere.”
“ Not truthful, mother? ”
“ I do not say that; though, when she first came to us, I sometimes thought it. She is very anxious to please, and occasionally says things rather because she thinks they will be agreeable than because they square with her convictions. I should like a more earnest and downright character in your wife.”
“ You wish me to give her up ?”
“ No ; she has many excellent qualities ; she has so affectionate a heart, and such winning ways, that there is not one of us who can help loving her. But I have something to ask of you, for your sake, dear Robert, not for mine. This girl is only fifteen, a child still ; and you have to return with your father very soon to America. Do not commit yourself: you ought not to marry any one younger than eighteen or nineteen. Let three years pass. I ’ll take as much pains with Jessie, meanwhile, as if she were already my daughter; and I will report to you faithfully the result. Come back when the three years are passed ; and, if I am then alive and you still wish to marry her, I will not say a word, except to wish you both all the happiness this world can afford.” The tears rose to her eyes as she added, in a lower tone, “I only ask for delay ; it may be the last request I shall ever make of you.”
I have never made up my mind, since, whether I did right or wrong. But my mother was in very feeble health at the time, and I felt no assurance that I should ever see her again, as, indeed, I never did. If she had objected to Jessie because of her lowly birth, if she had spoken harshly of her, if she had told me she would never consent to receive her as a daughterin-law, I should have sought to engage the girl, young as she was, then and there. But all she said was so reasonable, and the unfitness of marriage before three years so apparent, that I hesitated as she went on. Her tears, at the last, decided the matter. I gave her the promise she wished.
My word thus pledged, I felt that I must hasten my departure for London, whence we were to embark. The day before I set out, I asked Jessie if she would not like to visit her parents in the village ; and when she assented, I proposed that we should take a circuitous route through the Braxfield woods, the last time, as it proved, that I ever saw them.
On no occasion in my life have I suffered from a struggle between duty and inclination as I did during that walk. As we passed, deep in the woods, a rural seat whence, through the foliage, glittered, in the autumn sun, the rippling waters of the Clyde, I proposed to Jessie that we should sit awhile, to rest and talk. What we said and how long we remained there I cannot tell. All I remember is, feeling at last that, if we sat there half an hour longer, I should break the solemn promise I had made to my mother. So we rose, went on, half in silence, to the village, where we separated, — and dream and temptation were over !
Ere the three years of probation had passed, Anne had died3 and Jessie had married a most amiable and estimable young man, in easy circumstances, — had married before I knew, even, that she had been sought in marriage. More than thirty years passed after that walk through the wooded braes of Braxfield before I saw Jessie again.
It was in Scotland we met, both married persons. I found her in her own handsome house, in a beautiful situation, surrounded by every comfort and some luxuries. So far as I could learn, she had so borne herself through life as to secure esteem and love from a cultivated circle of acquaintances.
Just at first I could scarcely recognize, in the comely matron, the Jessie of my youth, until she smiled. But we met twice or thrice, and talked over the olden time, very quietly at first. During my last visit I asked her if she had ever known that I loved her and that I had wished to make her my wife. She said it had several times occurred to her as possible, even before I left Braxfield, the first time, for America ; that she had felt sure of it during the woodland walk, and especially while we sat together in that secluded spot, with the birds only for witnesses ; but when I had departed to another hemisphere with no promise of return, and without declaring myself, she had felt sure it was because of her humble parentage, and so had given up all idea that she could ever be my wife. Then, with a frankness which even as a child she had always shown toward me, she added that she never could tell when she first loved me ; and that if, during that last walk, I had asked her to become my betrothed, she would have said yes with her whole heart and soul. The tears stood in her eyes as she made this avowal ; and she followed it up by saying, “ I wished to meet you once, and to tell you this. But I know you will feel it to be best that we should not see each other, nor write to each other, any more.”
I told her she was wise and good, and that I would strictly conform to her wishes ; thinking it best so, for both our sakes. So even an occasional exchange of letters which, throughout our thirty years’ severance, had been kept up at long intervals, has ceased from that day. And now, when more than another decade has passed, I am uncertain whether Jessie is still in this land of the living, or has gone before to another, where many dear friends who have been life-long apart will find no cause for further separation.
Here let me confess that it needed, as prompting motive to overcome the natural reluctance one feels to Confide to the public such details of inner life as one has seldom given even to intimate friends, a sense of the duty which an autobiographer owes to his readers. They are entitled, in the way of incident, to whatever of interest or value is strictly his own to relate ; the secrets of others, however, not being included in that category.
When my father returned from Ireland, to find Jessie a member of his family, he related to us an anecdote which pleased me much, in the state of mind I then was, and which may be acceptable to others.
In the winter of 1818 — 19 a party of bright and lively young people had assembled, to spend the period of Christmas festivity at a spacious old country-seat not very far from Dublin. Several of them, ladies as well as gentlemen, had already acted creditably on the amateur stage ; so they fitted out a large hall as theatre, and got up several standard comedies in a manner that elicited hearty applause. Encouraged by this success, they thought they might manage one of Shakespeare’s tragedies ; and their choice fell on Romeo and Juliet. They succeeded in casting all the characters except one, that of Juliet herself. It was offered to several young ladies in succession ; but they all persistently refused, fearing to attempt so arduous a part. In this dilemma some one suggested an expedient. Miss O’Neill, then in the zenith of her fame, was an actress of unblemished reputation, most ladylike demeanor, and eminent talent, whom I once saw as Juliet. She was then regarded, justly I imagine, as the most perfect interpreter of Shakespeare’s embodiment of fervid passion and devotion in the daughter of Capulet that had ever appeared on the London boards ; her singular beauty admirably seconding her rare powers, and turning the heads of half the fashionable young men of the day. She was universally respected, was often admitted to the best society, and had several times assisted at private theatricals.
It so happened that she was then in Dublin, and, for the time, without an engagement. The proposal was, to write to her and ask her, on her own terms, to come to them and take the part of Juliet. This was eagerly acceded to, and a letter despatched accordingly.
The part of Romeo had been assigned to a gentleman of fortune and family, Mr. Becher of Ballygibbin, County Cork ; jeune encore, as the French say, for he was still on the right side of forty, and excelling all his companions in histrionic talent. To him, as soon as the invitation had been given, came one of his intimate friends. “Becher,” said he, “ take my advice before it is too late. Throw up the part of Romeo. I daresay some one else can be found to take it.”
“ Back out of the part ? And why, pray ? Do you think my acting is not worthy to support Miss O’Neill’s ?”
“ You act only too well, my good fellow, and identify yourself only too perfectly with the characters you undertake. I know Miss O’Neill well; there can’t be a better girl, but she’s dangerous. She’s perfectly bewitching in her great rôle. It is notorious that no man ever played Romeo to her Juliet without falling in love with her. Now I’d be sorry to see you go to the stage for a wife.”
“ Marry an actress ! and at my age ! Do you take me for a fool ? ”
“ Anything but that, Becher. I do take you for a whole-souled, splendid fellow, with a little touch of romance about him, impressible by beauty, and still more alive to grace and talent, and I really can’t make up my mind to address even that glorious creature as Mrs. ‘ Becher.’ ”
“Do talk sense, Tom. If I hadn’t agreed to play Romeo, I’d go and offer to take the part now, just to convince you how ridiculous you are.”
“Well, all I hope is that the enchantress will decline.”
But she accepted. Becher played Romeo, shared the fate of his predecessors ; was engaged within the month, and married a few weeks afterwards.
My father spent several days with them at their country-seat. He was charmed with Mrs. Becher, in whom, he said, he could not detect the slightest trace of the actress. And the marriage, my father told us, seemed to have been eminently fortunate, though up to that time they had no children.
In the sequel they had several children. Mr. Becher, eight years later, was created a baronet, lived thirty years with his wife, and was succeeded, in 1850, by their son, Sir Henry Wrixon Becher, the present baronet. Lady Becher died only last winter, loved and mourned by friends and dependants ; having survived her husband more than twenty years.
With one other love-story, also brought by my father from Ireland, I shall conclude this chapter.
The names I have forgotten, but the circumstances happened in a countryhouse, the hereditary seat of an ancient and wealthy Irish family.
There, to its owner then only a few years married, was born a son and heir. There was, in his household at the time, a young woman of eighteen, fairly educated, but in humble circumstances, who had been retained as dependant rather than servant, filling the posts of nursery-governess, and assistant housekeeper. Let us call her Miss Norah Fitzpatrick. She was faithful, industrious, and good-looking, but with no pretension to beauty.
The infant heir of some thirty or forty thousand a year, committed to her care and daily carried about in her arms, became much attached to his nurse. His affection seemed to increase with years ; and at the age of eight or ten, he used to call her his wife, and say he intended to marry her by and by. He returned from college some months before he was eighteen, and, true to his first fancy, after a time he proposed to Miss Fitzpatrick, then just twice his age. She told him that both for his sake and hers, such a marriage was not to be thought of; the great disparity of age, she said, was alone reason sufficient; but, aside from that, the marriage with one so far beneath him in social position would go nigh to break his parents’ hearts and make himself unhappy ; for which she could never forgive herself, and which would render her miserable, even as his wife. And in this she persisted.
Thereupon the youth ceased to urge his suit; but after moping about for some weeks in a listless way, took to his bed with a low fever. When the family physician, an enlightened man, found the usual remedies unavailing and the mother in despair, he said to her, “ Madam, it is my duty to tell you that your son’s condition seems to me the result of deep-seated mental depression. Something preys on his mind ; try to find out what it is ; you may then be able to do more for him than all the medicine in the pharmacopœia.”
The next day the mother did her best to call forth her son’s confidence, but for a time in vain. All she could get from him was, “It’s no use, mother dear. It will only vex you.”
But when she implored him, weeping, to tell her all, he said at last: “ I have loved Norah all my life. I asked her, since I came home, to marry me ; but she refused me, because she said it would make us all unhappy. And, say what I will, she sticks to it.”
“ My son, my son, how could you think of such a thing ? ”
“ I told you it was no use, mother ;
I knew you would take it just so ; but I have n’t spirit to live without her.”
Then the father was consulted ; he was furious ; but the patient’s fever increased from day to day, and the mother’s heart began to relent. “ If it should kill him ! ” she said to her husband ; “ you know how you felt when I refused you the first time.”
That touched him, but he held out three days longer, the young man appearing to sink all the time. Then, one morning, he got up with a sudden resolution and sought his son’s bedside. “ Listen to me, dear boy,” he said ; “your happiness is my first object, but it is my duty to prevent you from doing anything rashly, which you may repent all your life afterwards. You are scarcely eighteen ; that is too young to marry. I want you to make the tour of Europe before you settle down. I will find you an excellent tutor as companion. But I ask from you that you will not return to Ireland till you are twenty-one, nor correspond, meanwhile, with Miss Fitzpatrick. I must say she has acted very honorably ; and if, when you return, you still remain of the same mind and she will accept you, your mother and I will not withhold our consent. But you must promise, on your honor as a gentleman.”
And so the bargain was struck, the parents doubtless believing that three years would cure a boyish fancy. Two weeks saw the son well again, and prepared for his journey. On the very day he was twenty-one, he returned to claim his parents’ promise; overpersuaded Norah ; and my father, invited to their country-seat ten years afterwards, found them, he told us, one of the happiest looking couples he had ever seen. The lady did seem more like the young man’s mother than his wife ; but a thousand nameless, unobtrusive attentions testified that a marriage which the world doubtless pronounced preposterous was a true conjugal union, after all.
Robert Dale Owen.
- “ Pamela, the adopted, or (as may now be said without scruple) the actual daughter of Madame de Genlis by the Duke of Orleans (Egalité), etc.” — Memoirs of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, by Thomas Moore, London, 1831, Vol. I. p. 178.↩
- He was then and later popular in Ireland, even among the upper classes. On March 18, 1823, he held a meeting, very numerously attended, at the Rotunda, Dublin ; at which the Lord Mayor presided, and the Duke and Duchess of Leinster, the Earl of Meath, Lord Cloncurry, Lady Rossmore, and a long list of nobility and gentry, were present.↩
- In a letter from my father to myself, written soon after Anne’s death, he says of her : “ I never knew a judgment more severely correct than hers upon all subjects connected with the mind and dispositions. Whatever was needed to assist her in the education of her pupils she studied with unabating interest ; and even you would be surprised to hear of the number of works which she read to store her mind with useful facts on all subjects for the benefit of those under her charge. She had patience, perseverance, and an accurate knowledge of human nature, and took an interest in the progress and happiness of her pupils, such as I have never seen excelled.”↩