A GREAT many years ago, longer than I like to own, there stood a house in my native town that had for me a peculiar interest. It was one of the oldest houses in the place, wooden, and at first the real red of old Yankeedom, but white when I knew it. Its style was not the ordinary New England routine of nine windows and a door in front; it was not so regular: and instead of standing in the middle of its goodly lot, its north side came up to the sidewalk of a damp, paved alley, sunless even in midsummer, where green moss grew on the brick foundations, and horses stumbled on the round paving-stones always slippery with mud or frost. But the southern half was sunny enough. A garden full of all old-fashioned blooms lay about the wide front door and south of the side entrance. Old pear-trees, knotty and awkward, but veiled always in the spring with snowy blossoms, and hung thereafter with golden fruit, shaded a little the formal flower-beds where grew tulips, lifting scarlet and golden cups or creamy chalices, striped with pink and purple, toward the sun; peonies, round and flaunting; ragged-robins; flowering almond, that bloomed like Aaron’s rod with myriads of tiny roses on a straight stick; fleur-de-lis with languid and royal banners of blue, white, or gold; flowering currant, its prim yellow blossoms breathing out spice to the first spring winds; snowdrops, virginal and graceful; hyacinths, crocuses, jonquils, narcissus, daffadowndillys; velvet and parti-colored roses, the rich buds of Provence and moss, the lavish garlands of the old white rose, and the delicate odorous damask. Why should I catalogue them ? Yet they all rise crowding on my memory, and the air swims with their odors. Ah! not alone their bloom and perfume, but the faces and the speech of the dead come with them; they who rise no more with the recurring spring, who leave no generation after them to repeat those faces and voices for which the heart forever hungers and forever mourns! Long before I knew this quaint old house, a family lived there for whom it was fashioned, and under whose culture all these gardens sprung to life and bloomed and fruited. The son of a clergyman, Mr. Wyllys received the usual social and religious training of New England in the last century, but seems to have had no ambition to follow his father’s calling; being threatened with the universal malady of the country, consumption, he betook himself to the sea, and followed it for ten years, regaining health and making money, — moreover, getting married; for the first of this yellow bundle of letters that lies beside me, and tells me the story I try to re-tell with note and comment, is dated at “ Barbadoes the 13th July, 1767,” and is addressed to “ Miss Mable Ray.” Now truth — that dreadful necessity to the historian — compels me to state that this young lady’s name was really Mehetabel! but he was a lover, and spelling a rare accomplishment then. I am almost afraid to spell so long a name myself; shall I blame my equally cautious hero ? But here is the letter, given, as I shall give them all, verbatim: —
DEAR MABLE, &EMDASH; This pr Capt. Hopkins will inform You that I am in good health as I sincerely wish this to find You. I hope to be at home in ye beginning of September, when I doubt not You will be ready to complete our Union, which God send may he lasting and happy. I shou’d have wrote by Cap’t W—but for reasons mention’d when at home. I’m impatient to leave this Place as I shall then be on my way to what I hold most dear. Farewell my dear Girl, and believe me to be
Truly Yours, JOHN WYLLYS.
This succinct, and honest letter seems to have had its wishes fulfilled, for the next, without date except of April 28th, comes from Mable herself, and is directed to “ Capt. J. Wyllys.”
DEAR SIR,—this I hope will find you well, as it leaves me and the Child, it Seems along time that you are lik to be absent, pray make it as Short as you can. Helena is as wild as you can wish she would be devertion anuf for you if you was hear, our friends at H. and M. are well as common. May Heaven presearve you and return you safe home again is the Constant prayer of
your Loveing wife, M. W.
Now comes a long hiatus in the letters. They are scattered about among so many descendants that my share is small. I must fill the gap with my own narration, which will be less graphic and terse than the language of my ancestors, no doubt, but let me console myself, if not my readers, with the fact that it will be at least better spelled! When Captain W— was about thirty, he took posses-
sion of our old house, which his father had built and inhabited for his life-time, and brought with him his wife and three children to add to the inmates already there, — his two sisters, girls then, who lived for and with each other to a good old age, figuring in all the chronicles related to my childish ears as Aunt Sybil and Aunt Polly.
Here, for a year or two, things went on smoothly; other children came, the flowers blossomed in the garden, and the smooth-cheeked, crisp apricots ripened against the wall; bell-pears — a fruit passsed out of modern reach, a wondrous compound of sugar and wine and fragrance — dropped in the rank grass; peaches that are known no more to man, great rose-flushed globes of honey and perfume that set the very wasps crazy, drooped the slight trees to earth with their gracious burden; cherries and plums strewed the ground, and were wasted from mere profusion; curculio was a stranger in the land, fire-blight unknown, yellows a myth, black knot never tied, and the hordes of ravaging insects yet unhatched; there was enough for men and robins; the land was full of food, but the landsmen were unquiet, and the Revolution blew its fiery blast among New England hills as well as through Southern plantations — there was no West then, or rather, it was Ohio! Now there was no more peaceful sea-going, British ships infested the waters that had been free to commerce, and Captain Wyllys’s captainship was mere sound and fury; but he was a “canny” man, “cute” as our own patois hath it, and his shrewd business capacities pointed him out as serviceable for commissary, at first as deputy, then, being tested, as principal for that district.
That war of the Revolution seems to us now a small matter set beside our own fearful experience, which multiplied those battles and those dead by thousands, and stretched for hundreds of miles beyond what was a century ago savage wilderness. But looking at the population, the resources, the knowledge of warfare, and the momentous results, it was as terrific a crisis to New England as the last bitter conflict; and women were women then of the same type as now; they too had weak and shrinking souls that were tempered to steel in this bath of blood and fire. Mable rose to the occasion: she managed her household with thrift as became its necessities, she opened her doors to receive and administer to the official guests of her husband, she offered gracious hospitality when every possession of life trembled in the balance; little children slipped out of her arms into mother earth’s, and she mourned them silently, for who knew from what evil to come they were taken? Her husband was harassed with work and anxiety, her country was a divided household, her family hung upon her strong character for support, and she met every demand as it arose with ample strength. She may not have been a lovable woman.
I rather doubt it from the little I can gather, but she stood in her lot to the end of her days, stern, self-reliant, generous, and just; neither coaxing for indulgence nor clamoring for “rights.” A few more like her would be something to our advantage in these days!
The war went on, slowly enough. Colonel Wyllys (for by this time he had a military title) did good service, for gathering supplies in a distracted and half-settled country was no light matter.
I remember hearing how he rode once on horseback from Albany to Dartford, a distance of ninety miles, without leaving the saddle, on some great emergency; he was lifted from his horse at his own door and carried to a chair, and so swollen were his legs with the fixed position and dreadful fatigue, that people were obliged to fill his horseman’s boots with brandy before they could be forced off. Here is one letter in which his indignation speaks, that gives some insight into his difficulties: —
DARTFORD, Sept. 18, 1775. To JOSEPH TRUMBULL, ESQ., Commissary General.
DEAR SIR, — I am told that their are People in Tolland — where the Bearer lives that Bid 4/6 for all the Wheat and their is in every Town Purchasers; who employ them I know not perhaps you may learn of him, he has carried some oats and I expect more of him, but perhaps he may meet with some of Your good Nighbours to buy them, but his former punctuality forbids my believing he wou’d disappoint us. When You come this way you will know more about this Matter and all others I believe their is not a Town in this Collony But has some Body to serve the Devel in this way; and ’t is said they are purchasing for the Massachusetts. I am D’r Sir Your Very Humb. Serv’t J. W.
But while the colonel rode and raged about the country, and wrote energetic letters, and abused his “Nighbours” much as we do now, the three children grew up in the old house from dimpled babyhood into childish talk and activity. The three left were “ Helena,” who from being “ wild as you can wish ” developed into a shy, delicate, sensitive little creature; David, an intelligent but sickly boy, with strong affections, though somewhat priggish and fussy, one would think, as might well enough be the result of exclusively feminine training on an only son. Strange enough to me are the revealings of these yellow letters, for I remember him old, bent, harsh of aspect, and with all the thousand notions of a life-long invalid; soured and made suspicious by life, instead of sweetened; a childless, rich old man, who showed always his husk to outsiders, but had within as warm a heart and as just a soul as ever inspired a weak human body. I loved him with all my heart, and I hardly know another creature who could honestly say that; but I was with him in his last years, and knew him as never before. I owe him an inexpressible debt of gratitude and affection, and now he needs them no more.
The last and youngest of the triad was Maria; a rosy, willful, sweet, high-spirited baby, evidently her father’s idol. Here again “ the thing that hath been ” recurs, for her very self has come back to earth in the third generation, romping, blooming, blue-eyed, and bewitching as her great-grandmother, with the same wide, clear eyes, and softly curving lips, the imperious frown, broad white forehead, and careless waving hair, that charmed the eyes of Rochambeau and Washington, and made the gay and gallant French officers clink their glasses in honor of little Molly, when she was set on the dining-table at dessert, to drink the general’s health at a dinner-party. How often has she herself told me of that wonderful experience, and of her disgust at peeping into the kitchen before dinner, and seeing the cook of the French commissariat, a dirty creature addicted to snuff, strain the soup through his filthy apron. Sitting at her feet on a cricket, and looking up at the wrinkled face and ruffled cap above me, it seemed more incredible than my wildest fairy tales, that she should ever have been young and beautiful; but her picture taken in the prime of womanhood attests, with its noble beauty, all that tradition tells.
Now come more indignant letters; but I will not transcribe them; in this war as in all others there was cowardice and treachery and indolence and self-seeking enough to rouse the indignation of a just man and an earnest patriot. The cloud lay heavy on the land; its gloom was smitten with lightning and shaken with thunder, and the people’s hearts failed them; have we not seen the like? The first glitter of day brightens these few lines: —
WILLIAMSBURG 29th Septr 1781.
MY DEAR MABLE, — I am well, and the Sickly season being passed I hope to continue so. Yesterday our army set down before York in which Lord Cornwallis is with 5000 men besides blacks. General Green has obtained a Victory over the Enemy near Charlestown, the particulars in my next — my love to Sisters and the Children. I am my dear very affectionately Yours J. W.
One has to smile to see the distinction between men and blacks even then. One more letter only during the war, and that is “ the beginning of the end; ” it bears the same date of Williamsburg, but October 18th: —
MY DEAR MABLE, — Cornwallis has surrendered! with all his army; this gives us a hope of returning soon. . . .
My love to Sisters and the dear Children. I am in too much haste to be particular but will write again soon. I am my dear Mable your affectionate husband J. W.
Now came, though with delaying steps, the long-looked-for day of peace, and to arrange his accounts as commissary, and obtain a final settlement with the officers of the French army, Colonel Wyllys sailed for France. David was ailing, and had trouble with his eyes; one had been partially blinded by an accident in his childhood, and the other weakened sympathetically; it was thought best to take him abroad. In those times a passage of twenty-seven days was short, and our next letter to the inmates of the old house is from Paris. Only part of it relates to the home life, which is all we have to do with hereafter, since war is over, and prosperous dullness reigns. This father and husband is even such as we are now; only a month in Paris, and his fatherly heart yearns toward his baby, the little maid who danced on the dinner-table before the French officers, and turned up her pretty nose at the French cook. Here is a letter that he writes to her in real father fashion: —
PARIS September 30th 1783.
Well my dear little Moll how do you do, are you well and happy, do you take good care of Your Mamma and aunts — and do you learn fast. Your brother is well and doing well he makes tollerable progress in French and is grown strong healthy and fat. his Eyes are very well and reads a great deal he dances every day at home with a good Master and I think you will see next Spring a very pretty accomplished lad who you love very much he will have many things to tell you, but one thing will give him great trouble if you don’t take care, he finds it is very wrong to Stoop and hold down the Head, the little Girls of his acquaintance here are very streight and he is so well pleased with it that he walks stands sits and dances very reight up, and so must you my love, otherwise you will make me and your brother unhappy. If you find yourself as good a Girl as when I left you try to keep so—if you are less good mend imediately my love or you will grow worse, but learn to be very clean in your Person and dress, dont burn Yourselfe by the fire this Winter nor let Helena do so, clean your teeth well EVERY DAY and tell Helen to do so, if she forgets it remind her of it, if you cou’d persuade Yourselfe to have one or both of those Ugly teeth puled out it wou’d be greatly to your advantage and oblidge me very much, try my dear Molly you will always repent delaying it for sooner or later you will consent and the sooner the better on every account, write me a letter tell me they are out. Your old friend Mr. D’Corney is here and remembers You all very affectionately, he is married to a Widow Lady very amiable and who loves him as he does her very much & they contribute greatly to our happiness. They have a son 20 Years old an officer in the army now here on a Visit an agreeable Young Man & plays the Violin better than his father he is modest and well accomplished, they are our neighbors and our friends, they all join in affectionate good wishes to Your mamma aunts Your sister and you, if you was here you would love Mrs de Corney’s little dog as well as Your cats, it is a clean little beauty. David has seen many agreeable things here and wishes he could send you all some of these Grapes which he eats every day, give my love to all the little Girls of your acquaintance especially the Hopkins, write me a long letter my love and write it very well, goodnight my love if you find yourself angry or ill-natured shut yourselfe up for half an hour which will cure you & keep you from repeating the fault but why shoud I give you this advise you are not apt to be angry or ill-natured There has been very lately a huge Ball filled with inflameable air and it mounted up to the Skies and flew away several Leagues, it was 60 feet high and forty broad made of canvas and covered with wax or gum, and some people here are of the Opinion that in a short time by this kind of Ball we shall travel in the Skies with great ease and rapidity, tell Mr. Strong this Story and ask him not to laugh too much at it. I saw one of these Balls with a Sheep a Duck and a Cock in a cage go up to an immense heighth, but the canvas was not well closed and the inflameable air was let out, it fell gradually and hurt neither of the animals, this progress through the air before y’e wind is rapid beyond description, what a fine thing it will be if we can fly from Europe to America, good night my dear girl Your affectionate parent and sincere friend,
This odd mixture of advice and affection and information — not to say punctuation — seems not to have affected spoiled Miss Molly deeply; perhaps she resented the idea that anything could injure that bloom like the sunny side of a peach, or that her beautiful head needed to be held “ straight.” She certainly did not answer her fond father’s letters, or even write to the “ very pretty accomplished lad,” David; for two months later we find the absent colonel starved for home news. Poor man! his family did behave shabbily. Evidently they were not as apt at letter - writing as their father, whose spelling improves mightily with years; a few words still, the words that try men’s souls, he cannot master, but the average is one of improvement, and here and there he shows symptoms of French that betray his locality. Still his precious Molly does not write, and the next letter is brief enough: —
PARIS Feb 6th 1784.
Not one letter from my dear little Molly, well it is not because she don’t love me. neither is it because she is idle, what then can be the reason — why uncle John Trimble I suppose has got one for me and will keep it till I arrive in London but why not write me by Mr Platt and everybody else that came, was you busy at Captain Hopkins with your dear Anna or was you taking care of your Cat and Kittens, but I am sure you have some good excuse which you shall tell me when I come home, but till then do you hold up your head walk and stand streight, eat no Salmon for breakfast keep your teeth very clean & tell your sister to do so too, dress yourselfe neat clean & elegant keep out of ye Sun, & be very good, learn much but especially to spell & read & write well, take care never to be angry or ill-natured, be cheerfull good humoured and gay but never wild. Your dear little brother is so good that I am afraid I shall love him too much he says he has no such fears nor have all the fine things in Paris made him forget the old red House at Dartford nor all the fine folks detached him from his dear friends at Dartford he learns french fast he sees pretty well with his poorest Eye perfectly well with the other, and has good health, so has your Papa, don’t forget to ride nor to dance, be very good to your Mamma Aunts Sister and everybody especially to ye poor and unhappy, give my love to all your little friends and kiss Anna at least a dozen times for me, tell her you will write me a long letter and send her love to me, adieu my dear child I am
Your affectionate friend and Father
In all these letters there is no word of love for poor Helena; “ unto him that hath shall be given ! ” Molly, the happy, bright, clamorous child, beautiful and brilliant, had her father’s heart; and Helena, fragile, sensitive, full of deep feeling that her shy nature could never express, drooped in the shade and deepened its shadow by drooping. Her face, shadowed out for the future by a painter of those days, ill as it is drawn and colored, still portrays a character so delicate, so introspective, so shrinking, that one cannot regret that the clear cheek, the hollow temple, and the sad gray eye, lit by the scarlet flush on either cheek, tell their true and blessed story, “Whom the gods love die young!” Colonel W— was a good man, with a warm heart. I think it possible he may not even have been aware of his own partiality for Molly, self-evident as it was to others. It is no uncommon thing, but all these years after it makes one’s heart ache to think of that tender, starving soul, whose need was so great, receiving so little. Life offered her its bitterest cup afterward, but she drank it meekly; perhaps the storm that beat upon this lily broke it the more easily for its weak and sunless growth. It is a curious problem in physiological science to see the entire unlikeness of those born of the same parents, in the same place, reared together to maturity. One would expect some vital unity between them, some likeness of soul as well as of feature; but how often are they more widely separated than those of different lands and different races; how often so radically diverse, so incapable of comprehending each other, that to live together is a mutual torture or a mutual martyrdom ! Here comes another letter to Molly, also written from England, for in March Colonel W—had left France, having obtained his money and settled his affairs. I have somewhere a strange old document, with a picture of Versailles at the top of the discolored sheet, that sets forth the merits and successes of David W— at his Parisian school; a sort of diploma that he brought back in triumph to his mamma. For her his affection was always profound, and even in manhood had in it an element of dependence; her picture, taken with a handkerchief thrown over the head, I always supposed in my childhood to be that of an old man, so stern and masculine were the regular features, the set lips, the keen, cold, gray eyes. That chill and steel come out here and there among her descendants, and temper, perhaps desirably, the facile good-nature and bonhommie that her husband bequeathed also among us. But her son, as I have said, loved her to the last hours of his long life. I shall never forget one day sitting alone with him in the great, sombre parlor where he spent his days in winter, when hearing the door open, I rose up suddenly with a joyful exclamation of “ Mother! ” and ran to meet her; as we turned back together, the poor old man was sobbing like a child. I coaxed and caressed him into quiet, and as soon as he could speak he whispered brokenly, “ I shall never say ‘ Mother! ’ again! ”
In this next letter Helena finds a place; one can imagine how this blame, or rather dispraise, falls upon her dejected soul; even her father seems to have thought of it for once, and tried to mend matters in the next page, but there is no proverb truer than that of the Arab, “ There are three things that return not: the spoken word, the spent arrow, and the lost opportunity!” This time Molly has written.
LONDON 24th April 1784.
MY DEAR LITTLE MOLL, — I rec’d your several letters which are written with a great deal of cheerfullness which I admire. I read them all carefully over to see if you had told me that you had pulled out those ugly teeth but don’t find you have, perhaps you chose to surprise me when I returned by shewing me they were gone — or perhaps it hurt you so little that you have forgot it but no matter if they are but out. David says he will learn you french when he comes home he thinks you will attend to it — he don’t seem to be quite so certain about Helen, he thinks she is not quite so steady and persevering as Moll but I hope she is as proud and that may push her on to keep pace with you. Don’t tell Helena of this least she shoud be angry, but on second thought you may for she is too good to be angry with her Brother and Sister, give my love to all hands and tell them I have quite got rid of my Head-ach, & hope to return to America without it — I have not had one hours Headach these twenty days.
Adieu my love hold up your head Wear a Callash & Gloves when you romp out of Doors, I need not tell you to be a good Girl because you are never otherwise — but take care people sometimes grow naughty insensibly therefore watch yourselfe but be good Humoured cheerfull and happy and render your Mamma Aunts Sister and all friends happy, which you have much in your Power
Your affectionate father and Sincere friend & Humble Servant.
Here in England the colonel stayed till July; no further letters are in my hands, but tradition tells me that he had a very good time. He was presented at court, and partook of other less regal festivities; probably tasted the delights of the world, the flesh, and the “ devel,” much as modern travelers do. I well remember the gorgeous garments that lay in a certain garret, and were once in a while displayed to my admiring eyes, on occasion of the great annual housecleaning, when a war of extermination was declared against moths to the very eaves of the house. If one should lay up to-day even the American ambassador’s court suit, would it offer a spectacle of delight ninety years hence ? But how goodly were those ample suits of Genoa velvet! — coats whose skirts would make a modern garment, with silver buttons wherever buttons could be sewed; breeches with paste buckles at the knees, so bright in their silver setting that my childish soul secretly cherished a hope that they might possibly be diamonds after all; and waistcoats of white satin embroidered with gold or silver, tarnished it is true by time, — but what use is an imagination only eight years old if the mere tarnish of eighty years counts for anything in its sight ? These coats were wonderful to me; how wonderful would they not be in the streets to-day! One was of scarlet velvet, with a silvery frost on its pile like the down on a peach, — velvet so thick that I pricked my fingers painfully, attempting to fashion a pincushion out of a fragment thereof; another was purple, with a plum-like bloom on its royal tint, and another sober gray, and glittering only with buttons and buckles of cut steel. Think how a goodly and personable man dazzled the eyes of fair ladies in those days, arrayed like a tulip, with shining silk stockings, and low shoes all of a sparkle with steel, or paste, or diamonds; his shapely hands adorned with rich lace frills, his ample bosom and muscular throat blossoming out with equally soft and costly garniture!
But these gay times were not for long indulgence by a father of a family in a new and unsettled republic, so our gay and gallant colonel betook himself to a ship, and after being tossed therein for fifty-six days, during which, no doubt, he repented any of his peccadilloes abroad, and longed earnestly for his own terra firma, he arrived in Delaware Bay, and perhaps ate salmon for breakfast in his own house a fortnight thereafter, regardless of his advice to Molly; for salmon in those days were far more plentiful than shad now, and I have heard that farmservants hired for the season made it a clause in their agreements that they should not be fed on that unctuous fish more than four days in a week! Now our pater-familias is at home, and busy with Indian treaties, government landwarrants, raising horses, breeding cattle, and general affairs of the town; nevertheless he finds time to look after his family, and the next letter is from Helena, now about sixteen or seventeen, who is in New York, apparently for a little “ finishing,” a little more of the world and its ways than quiet Dartford could offer for her polishing. This is to Molly, and shows us that “ the thing which hath been” is still; for the " fashions,” quaint as they are, form the topic of the epistle.
NEW YORK, March 5th 1785.
How do you do my dear sister are you well and happy, I hope you will forgive me for not writing you befoer, for if you knew how many employments I have I am shure you would.
Methinks I wish I was with you. New York has many charms but Dartford has many more I look around but don't find My Lovely Maria to talk too, and Who with such kind good-nature used to pity and endevour to comfort me when unhappy and bair with me in everything. How does aunt Tapscot, have you heard from her and Aunt Hannah lately, write me everything about everybody, write often my Dear Girl for your letters give Sincere Satisfaction to your Helen. Dont expect me to be punctual in answering your letters for indeed I write every Leasure moment that I have from my Studdys and visits. I must beg you to get me two yards of that pink lutestring at aunt Elery’s thats like my gown — I wish you to send by the first opertunity as I am wating to have my gown altered — Give my love to our Dear David beg him to write me oftner you dont even mention him in your letter. I have bought you a very pritty brown bever hat But it is not yet trimd but as soon as it is and I have a good opertunity I will send it Now for the fashions — the misses of your age were their hair cut on their forehead and Curled in the neck, frocks or little frisquisks with narrow scollopt capes and frils to the frisques — long Sleaves or short as they please, they likewise were Gowns, Habbits they call them here with a pin-up to them put on ither at the top or bottom of the back with long Sleaves and Scollopt capes — and sashes with everything and caps if they are much drest, the ladies of mamas age dress here very much as in Dartford, tell aunt elery that I would have bought her some borders as she desir’d but I have seen none but what I thought too dear to buy for her purpos as they are very much worn Give my love to aunt betsy and Eunice, beg them to write Me adieu My Dear Molly I am your affectionate sister
Here is great field for conjecture in the matter of “ frisquisks ” — what is not in a name! How appropriate would this title be to certain of the garments that astound our modern eyes; how familiar is the “ pin-up behind,” though by another phrase; and what pretty glimpses we get of Helena’s love for Molly, who comforted her when she was “ unhappy,” sweet, sorry soul! and of her thrifty foresight for “ aunt Elery ” in the matter of borders. Here is another letter to her dear David, whom she has renamed as Mr. Hopeful, signing herself D. Gray; but there is no date, and its quaint piety and morality seem premature; or rather, an early warning of the end, like that fragrant “ life-everlasting ” that even in August begins to give out its curious perfume on the high hillsides of New England, where its dull, silvery leaves, and sleek, never-opened buds chill us even in the dog-days, with a sense of autumn and the falling leaf.
My dearest kindest of brothers may you be ever as happy as you were when you finised your dear good letter to me and never let that baneful wretch Spleen oppress those hours of life when it is your duty to make yourself as blest as possible, & you will be so if you attend as well to the religious as well as the Morral Duties of Life which I hope you ever will & to descharge the first will of the All good all Bounteous Creator is to be Contented with your lot (& who has more reason). If you wish to obey his will Drive Every maloncholy thought from your mind, speak act think in short Do everything with alacrity and Cheerfulness & recollect that you can by no means more fully obey the Sovereign of the universe than by enjoying in their greatest extent every blessing he has Kindly given — you will be surprised no doubt at receiving lectures of Morrality from your giddy Helena especially while in the gay disappated City of New York but you know tho’ apparently thoughtless I sometimes have my serious moments. ... I am rejoiced Heaven has so kindly sent in the persons of Mr Cunningham and Mr T. D. friends whose feelings are like your own Alive to every Idea of friendship & who can so kindly Share in all your joys and sorrows, poor Theodore I pitty him sincerely the Heart thats frought with woe has ever a Claim to my simpathy and the uneasiness that arises from grief needs no excuse. May a Sisters folly never embitter your hours of pleasure. . . . Yesterday I was very busy all day and spent the evening at a Miss Caty Dedloms where we Danced I Danced nine or ten Dances came home at two and lay in bed this day untill twelve, finished breakfast at half after one receiv’d morning visits until half past two then put up my Cloaths began to have my hair Drest at three, & a quarter past four seated myself to write to you. . . .
Adieu my Dear Brother may you be Blest prays yours most sincerely
How refreshing it is to have the “ Morrality ” supplemented with this natural youthful enjoyment! We draw a long breath, and wonder where the poor child learned to preach the blessed creed, so hard for her melancholy nature to practice. Perhaps Molly’s overflowing vitality, her mirth and mischief, her rosy, beaming beauty, had helped to drive away from Helena’s heart that “baneful wretch Spleen,” and sung to her the benign gospel of cheerfulness. Certainly a very tender friendship had sprung up between her and her brother since his return from abroad; a friendship so strong that after her death, until his own, he never would speak her name voluntarily or allude to her without tears. Is it blessed to the dead to be so remembered ? Surely it is a perpetually rankling wound to the living who so remember them. Now our Helena comes back to Dartford, but David is away at school in Fairfield, and she must write him at once.
And now, somewhere in the hiatus of two years which occurs in the letters, there comes to our poor girl a new and bitter-sweet experience. In no family legend does this fact figure; it is hid away, like all our skeletons, in a closet. That I ever saw its blanched bones through a crack was owing to the garrulity of an old lady long since dead, who well remembered Helena in her sweet youth, and who lived so near the family that even this strictly guarded bit of gossip reached her ears and was impressed on her mind by the sad and fatal results. There came to Dartford a young physician, poor and a stranger,
“ A youth to fortune and to fame unknown,”
but a man gifted with God’s nobility and a nature so sunny, so genial, so sweet, that it was like the cheer of some spicy cordial to look into his face and hear his voice. Of him I never heard an evil or an unkind, nay an indifferent word spoken; his own family — for in after years they gathered about his hearth — worshiped him, and when he died one stricken daughter followed him at once, for her heart was broken at his loss. Before I lived he died, but he left behind him descendants who vindicate their ancestry; and I count to-day as closer to my heart than almost any friend among the dear circle I possess, one of his children who repeats her father. Looking at her, I know what her father was, and I cannot wonder that Helena, keenly alive to all that was lovely, more keenly sensitive to any affection, was drawn in every fibre of her nature toward this warm and manly soul that showered its treasure of love and devotion upon her. Think what it is to a plant struggling upward after long winter days to bask in the full summer sunshine, to feel in every vein the rush of life and bloom; think what it is to have that sun darkened and snow again cover the earth! Perhaps it is not to be supposed that Colonel W—, the first and richest man in Dartford, would give his lovely daughter to a struggling young physician; it was a “ bad match,” — words that have a far more vital interpretation than the conventional one, but which meant in those days merely a disparity of position. Nor can I give Helena’s mother the benefit of a doubt in this matter; those keen, cold eyes of hers, the indomitable pride and resolution of those lips, do not tell a story of maternal weakness or consideration. That their daughter’s tender, faithful heart would suffer, was nothing to them; their pride must be intact, if it involved a human sacrifice, and the thing was peremptorily put an end to. How far it had proceeded I do not know; nor does it matter. Love that is true is born of full stature, and dies with as dreadful struggles soon as late — if indeed it dies! “Sorrows destroy us or themselves,” and Helena had no strength to fight, no nerve to resist the selfish cruelty of her family. It is hard to set one’s face as a flint against those dearer than your own soul, even to do what your deliberate judgment pronounces right and best; it is impossible, if they have wisdom enough to lavish on you all the love and kindness in their own hearts, to supply the place of that they would have you relinquish for them; and this wisdom Helena’s family seem to have had. They detached her from the dangerous propinquity of this man whose sole want was money, with gentle touches and tender pretext of giving her pleasure. Nothing cruel, no hard words, no bitter accusations, no lies — perhaps no deception. Philadelphia was a pleasant and a gay city; her father was elected to the first Congress: what more natural than that his eldest daughter should go with him? There was no talk, no scene — that was visible; the skeleton was padded and neatly dressed and put up-stairs in a wardrobe; but it was a skeleton, and the death’s-head nodded at them with fleshless grin and awful mockery before long,
There is nothing said, of course, in these letters, of past pain or regret; all the actors in this brief tragedy went to their graves sure that their secret was voiceless as that grave itself; they forgot the “neighbors.”
I almost doubt, on exploring further, if Helena herself were conscious of any intervention on the part of her family, she is so pensively sweet toward them; and charity whispers to me that my judgment of them may be hard; it is so easy for us to think that what we do for our own ends is done for somebody else’s good! She writes from Philadelphia to David, hut the letter I have is short and not especially interesting; the last paragraph runs thus: —
“Adieu my beloved Brother! never shall I forget that ‘there is no love so tender and so true ’ as that which unites me to my familly, and my heart which now beats with the liveliest affection for you all bears me witness that no earthly tie can be dearer.
“ Yours forever, HELENA.”
The next one is to “Dear Mama,” and expresses at first a doubt as to her receiving it in time, " as the ferry’s between this place and New York are almost impassable.” So much for the State of Camden and Amboy in 1791! Her scrap of journal that follows is more entertaining: —
“Sunday evening we spent very happily at Mrs I—’s, Monday we were in the evening at a card party at Mrs K—’s. Our days are all spent in paying visits, shopping, or getting in order what we are to wear in the evening. The party at Mrs K—’s was much the most agreeable of the kind I have ever been at. Tuesday we were all day very busy preparing for the evening when we were to Celebrate the birthnight of the President of the United States, you may be sure there was in this a kind of enthusiasm which led us to go thro’ all the fatigues of dress even with Cheerfullness. Such a crowd I never saw before but a particular account of it must be reserved for the hours when Pen and Paper are not necessary. The President and Mrs Washington were there. Wednesday we dined at Mrs H—’s & drank tea at Mrs P—’s where Also the President was one of the party. . . . You see my Dear Mama in what a round of dissipation your child is engaged and can easily imagine with what a variety of people she has to associate. Your excellent precepts and kind advice are ever present to me and often succour me from many disagreeable situations in which but for them I should be at a loss how to conduct, I rejoice in the hope that a few weeks will restore me to your arms where I shall find tranquillity and rest. We talk of setting out next week on Friday but I have no idea that we shall quit this City till week after next on Monday, & as soon after as the roads will admit we shall reach our Dear home & Dearer friends
“Your dutiful & affectte Daughter
“ H. WYLLYS.”
It is June again before Helena writes, and this time from New Haven, where she had gone on a visit, having long before returned from Philadelphia. No doubt ere this she began to show some symptom of failing flesh as well as sinking heart, and the old remedy of diversion for her mind was again brought to bear. It is touching to see her try to be “ very well and feel no fatigue.” The journey in those days was a long one; from Boston to Philadelphia now would take less time than the heavy stage-coach demanded for thirty miles. Helena speaks of getting hungry as if it were not usual with her : —
“ You guessed right I should have liked a piece of the ' Goose Poy ’ vastly, long before we came to Durham, think then what my disappointment must have been to find at the smart Mr Johnson’s new Tavern a very bad breakfast of mouldy bread and Coffee water however it was Clean and hunger found it much better than nothing. Adieu my brother may heaven reward you for all your goodness to your truly affectionate sister
“ H. WYLLYS.”
It is one of the terrors of life to discover too late that some evils cannot be
averted when once invited; these are the places where hope must be left, and regret, if not remorse, accepted. Helena grew weaker; perhaps, they thought, the keen, dry air of Hermon, the odor of its pine-groves, the gentle ministrations of her friend Hope Endicott, the gentlest and purest of creatures, afterward to be David’s wife, might rally this poor child’s flickering life. So in the heats of August they sent her to Hermon, and from her letter it seems she received injunctions not to write too often. Was it because of an ominous weakness in her chest, or because she might in some spasm of agony betray her sufferings to her brother, who, I think, knew nothing of her heart-ache till it was forever stilled? Who can tell? Here is the letter: —
HERMON August 12th 1791.
I have never seriously regretted the promise I made to Papa with respect to writing because I really believe it was for the best, but I sometimes feel as though it would give me great, pleasure to ask my dear friends at Dartford how they are a little oftener than I do. I have felt all day as tho’ I had some gratification in prospect and a moment’s reflection has told me that I was going to write to you my Dear Brother. Maria’s letter (for which I give her many thanks) informed me you arrived safe at home on Tuesday evening, I hope for one from you to-day and to hear that you are quite well. Hopey and I went to Ipswich on the stage on Wednesday evening and returned in the morning. Aunt Lummis is better than when you left her Aunt Sybil and Aunt Polly much the same. Tell Maria the silk I want is sewing-silk, that the Slippers are to be found either in the Closet or the second draw from the top of my Beaurow. . . , Say everything for me to our best of Mothers that gratitude and affection can inspire give my best love to our Dear Sister and be assured my Brother that no attachment can be stronger than that which binds me to you. H. W.
P. S. Since the above was written I have received my Dear Sister’s letter and cannot express half the gratitude I feel for it ... I should not think it worth while for me to have a white lutestring peticoat till I come home but if for any reason Mama thinks it had better be bought now very well I shall be much obliged to her for it, 6 yards and a quarter and half quarter and a nail is the pattern Goodnight. Hopey’s love to the family.
Think of this! what modest dimensions for a “ peticoat! ” How many could be made out of one modern one of this same “ lutestring ” ? There are few letters now; one can fancy how the fevered and languid hand became more idle and listless, how the dull pain gnawed her side, and the beautiful hectic flush rose high upon her cheek and lit her eye with fatal fire. There is one more little note, in December, the last December whose dreadful drifts and glittering ice javelins should strike their mortal chill to her feeble, fluttering heart; for when that month came round again it found her a meek exile in a foreign island, dying with a divine patience, far away from home. “ Weep ye not for the dead, neither bemoan him, but weep ye sore for him that goeth away, for he shall return no more nor see his native country.” This last letter is to her father, who has taken Molly to Philadelphia, and is delighting himself with the sensation his beautiful and brilliant daughter makes in the high society of the capital.
DARTFORD 17th December 1791.
MY DEAR FATHER, — Accept my sincere thanks for your affectionate letter of the 4th instt you speak to me of my health, I would fain rejoice the heart of my Parent by telling him it is perfect, but I cannot consistent with truth, sometimes I flatter myself that it is a little better than when you left us, my spirits continue good, and I suffer more from the idea that my friends feel anxious for me, and the reflection that I cannot apply myself to those studies in which I am desirous of improving than from any bodily complaint.
I rejoice to hear of Maria’s health and happy situation, to reflect upon that and the satisfaction she must afford you, is one of my sweetest pleasures, I doubt not She will return to us improved in her manners and with a correct knowledge of the world, for a little more use of it was all that was necessary, her own good understanding having provided against any gross errors.
We hope for letters from you this evening, and to hear that you are well and happy, that you may ever be so my Dear Father is the ardent prayer of your dutiful and affectionate daughter
This is the last. Slowly the disease that held her in a closer embrace than that of lover or friend tightened its relentless grasp; by and by danger hung out its scarlet signal—blood dripped from those white and patient lips; her family became at last alarmed, but it was November before they resolved to try the last expedient. In November, 1792, she sailed for Bermuda with her broken-hearted and devoted brother, and a female companion, half friend, half nurse. Nancy Potter writes to Mrs. Wyllys directly on their arrival, and tells her that Helena has borne the voyage well, and seems better. Of the next three months, or four, we know but little. Colonel Wyllys sends by sailing vessels a horse and chaise, money, apples; with the proverbial alacrity of people who try to make amends for their losses or mistakes too late. Whether he takes refuge in a stern sense of duty done, or whether he ever feels a pang of remorse as he sees the sad gravity of that young physician’s face in church or street, and recollects that he has put out his hand to meddle with two lives and made shipwreck of one entirely, we shall never know. By and by there comes a letter from St. George; not from Helena—she is safe, and her dust is turning to blossoms already under that tropic sod; not from David, for he has put his hand on his mouth and his mouth in the dust; but from the kind stranger who entertained this angel not unawares, and who weeps her flight even as if he were one of her kindred. He says, after preliminary flourish, —
“ April 11th 1793.
. . . “ Your daughter died yesterday. . . . She possessed the faculties of her mind to her last moment, informed us that she felt little pain or regret, and expired very easily and I believe very happily. She has left us a great consolation derived from her dignity of conduct throughout her sickness in patience, fortitude, and resignation.”
There are now the proper letters of condolence, written in the proper style. David is exhorted to control his feelings and send an estimate of what money he wants. All the family are resigned and full of fortitude, etc. Aunt Tapscott is informed that “ if our reason was strong enough to control our passions, it would do away our grief;” which is because Aunt Tapscott has written rather a gushing letter of condolence. The world goes on in our old house; the fruit trees bloom and ripen their gracious burdens; the flower-beds flaunt as bravely as ever, though Helena is dead.
Now comes Molly’s turn to have a lover; not the first, by any means, but the first favored one, and no more acceptable to the powers that be than our young doctor, who still, perhaps, remembers Helena, and does not yet solace himself with another. But Molly is a different flower from the lily by whose side she grew and bloomed. This is “ a rosebud set with little willful thorns,” and the man who tries to gather it is a handsome, plucky, brilliant young fellow, poor enough, but with a big brain and heart worth more than money. Molly will have him,
“ Though father and mother and a' should go mad ; ”
and she does have him, and the subjected and overcrowed parent builds them a fine house on a knoll overlooking the great river and the green meadows, where they take up their abode with their first-born, and lead their lives to the end. David prosperously marries to please everybody; for if she had not a dollar in all the world, Hope Endicott is known by everybody who ever saw her to be one of the perfect ones of earth. Her sweet, changeful, spiritual face, with its silken, gold-brown hair and clear gray eyes, is fit expression of the lovely soul within: and when that face was lined with the thousand seams of unselfish care and the long sorrow of a childless life, when the auburn curls were thin and snow-stricken, when the eyes were, sunken and dim, that radiant soul glorified the faded dust it inhabited, and made her more lovely than before.
They too left the old house for a better; but under that odd roof, with its little squat gable-end toward the street, the old folks lived and died one after another, and when they were gone tenants took their places: “ Le roi est mort; vive le roi! ” But now the palace is dead too. Before David died that house was moved away, and its place taken by a great granite pile devoted to arts and literature — such as they are. I remember seeing the white frame, mounted on screws and pegs and what not, move groaningly down the street; and since I have been older I have wondered if it was pure philanthropy that made David Wyllys give that place for a public purpose. I wonder if he did not long to have that garden obliterated, where the very pear-trees outlived the generation that set them, and the old flowers laughed and bloomed when the old faces were gone forever.
I do not know where that old shell abides now; nor do I care. It is probably the nest of Irish hordes in some unpleasant quarter of the town. An old house is a mummy, altogether unpleasant; when its soul is fled, let the body die and go to dust. I have no respect for the Catacombs; they are a human rag-bag. Let me and mine die the death of leaves and flowers, that sink into the grass and sleep unto a yearly resurrection in kind. For “the thing which hath been shall be. ”
Rose Terry Cooke.