Part 1 out of 5
THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.
VOL. VII.--APRIL, 1861.--NO. XLII.
"Can trouble dwell with April days?"
In our methodical New England life, we still recognize some magic in
summer. Most persons reluctantly resign themselves to being decently
happy in June, at least. They accept June. They compliment its weather.
They complained of the earlier months as cold, and so spent them in
the city; and they will complain of the later months as hot, and so
refrigerate themselves on some barren sea-coast. God offers us yearly a
necklace of twelve pearls; most men choose the fairest, label it June,
and cast the rest away. It is time to chant a hymn of more liberal
There are no days in the whole round year more delicious than those
which often come to us in the latter half of April. On these days one
goes forth in the morning, and an Italian warmth broods over all the
hills, taking visible shape in a glistening mist of silvered azure, with
which mingles the smoke from many bonfires. The sun trembles in his
own soft rays, till one understands the old English tradition, that he
dances on Easter-Day. Swimming in a sea of glory, the tops of the hills
look nearer than their bases, and their glistening watercourses seem
close to the eye, as is their liberated murmur to the ear. All across
this broad interval the teams are ploughing. The grass in the meadow
seems all to have grown green since yesterday. The blackbirds jangle
in the oak, the robin is perched upon the elm, the song-sparrow on the
hazel, and the bluebird on the apple-tree. There rises a hawk and sails
slowly, the stateliest of airy things, a floating dream of long and
languid summer-hours. But as yet, though there is warmth enough for a
sense of luxury, there is coolness enough for exertion. No tropics can
offer such a burst of joy; indeed, no zone much warmer than our Northern
States can offer a genuine spring. There can be none where there is no
winter, and the monotone of the seasons is broken only by wearisome
rains. Vegetation and birds being distributed over the year, there is no
burst of verdure nor of song. But with us, as the buds are swelling, the
birds are arriving; they are building their nests almost simultaneously;
and in all the Southern year there is no such rapture of beauty and of
melody as here marks every morning from the last of April onward.
But days even earlier than these in April have a charm,--even days that
seem raw and rainy, when the sky is dull and a bequest of March-wind
lingers, chasing the squirrel from the tree and the children from the
meadows. There is a fascination in walking through these bare early
woods,--there is such a pause of preparation, winter's work is so
cleanly and thoroughly done. Everything is taken down and put away;
throughout the leafy arcades the branches show no remnant of last year,
save a few twisted leaves of oak and beech, a few empty seed-vessels of
the tardy witch-hazel, and a few gnawed nutshells dropped coquettishly
by the squirrels into the crevices of the bark. All else is bare, but
prophetic: buds everywhere, the whole splendor of the coming summer
concentrated in those hard little knobs on every bough; and clinging
here and there among them, a brown, papery chrysalis, from which shall
yet wave the superb wings of the Luna moth. An occasional shower patters
on the dry leaves, but it does not silence the robin on the outskirts of
the wood: indeed, he sings louder than ever, though the song-sparrow and
the bluebird are silent.
Then comes the sweetness of the nights in latter April. There is as yet
no evening-primrose to open suddenly, no cistus to drop its petals;
but the May-flower knows the hour, and becomes more fragrant in the
darkness, so that one can then often find it in the woods without
aid from the eye. The pleasant night-sounds are begun; the hylas are
uttering their shrill _peep_ from the meadows, mingled soon with hoarser
toads, who take to the water at this season to deposit their spawn. The
tree-toads soon join them; but one listens in vain for bullfrogs, or
katydids, or grasshoppers, or whippoorwills, or crickets: we must wait
for them until the delicious June.
The earliest familiar token of the coming season is the expansion of the
stiff catkins of the alder into soft, drooping tresses. These are so
sensitive, that, if you pluck them at almost any time during the winter,
a day's bright sunshine will make them open in a glass of water, and
thus they eagerly yield to every moment of April warmth. The blossom
of the birch is more delicate, that of the willow more showy, but the
alders come first. They cluster and dance everywhere upon the bare
boughs above the watercourses; the blackness of the buds is softened
into rich brown and yellow; and as this graceful creature thus comes
waving into the spring, it is pleasant to remember that the Norse Eddas
fabled the first woman to have been named Embla, because she was created
from an alder-bough.
The first wild-flower of the spring is like land after sea. The two
which, throughout the Northern Atlantic States, divide this interest are
the _Epigaea repens_ (May-flower, ground-laurel, or trailing-arbutus)
and the _Hepatica triloba_ (liverleaf, liverwort, or blue anemone). Of
these two, the latter is perhaps more immediately exciting on first
discovery; because it does not, like the epigaea, exhibit its buds all
winter, but opens its blue eyes almost as soon as it emerges from the
ground. Without the rich and delicious odor of its compeer, it has
an inexpressibly fresh and earthy scent, that seems to bring all the
promise of the blessed season with it; indeed, that clod of fresh turf
with the inhalation of which Lord Bacon delighted to begin the day must
undoubtedly have been full of the roots of our little hepatica. Its
healthy sweetness belongs to the opening year, like Chaucer's poetry;
and one thinks that anything more potent and voluptuous would be less
enchanting,--until one turns to the May-flower. Then comes a richer
fascination for the senses. To pick the May-flower is like following in
the footsteps of some spendthrift army which has scattered the contents
of its treasure-chest among beds of scented moss. The fingers sink in
the soft, moist verdure, and make at each instant some superb discovery
unawares; again and again, straying carelessly, they clutch some new
treasure; and, indeed, all is linked together in bright necklaces by
secret threads beneath the surface, and where you grasp at one, you hold
many. The hands go wandering over the moss as over the keys of a piano,
and bring forth fragrance for melody. The lovely creatures twine and
nestle and lay their glowing faces to the very earth beneath withered
leaves, and what seemed mere barrenness becomes fresh and fragrant
beauty. So great is the charm of the pursuit, that the epigaea is really
the one wild-flower for which our country-people have a hearty passion.
Every village child knows its best haunts, and watches for it eagerly
in the spring; boys wreathe their hats with it, girls twine it in their
hair, and the cottage-windows are filled with its beauty.
In collecting these early flowers, one finds or fancies singular natural
affinities. I flatter myself with being able always to find hepatica, if
there is any within reach, for I was brought up with it ("Cockatoo
he know me berry well"); but other persons, who were brought up
with May-flower, and remember searching for it with their almost
baby-fingers, can find that better. The most remarkable instance
of these natural affinities was in the case of L.T. and his double
anemones. L. had always a gift for wild-flowers, and used often to bring
to Cambridge the largest white anemones that ever were seen, from a
certain special hill in Watertown; they were not only magnificent in
size and whiteness, but had that exquisite blue on the outside of
the petals, as if the sky had bent down in ecstasy at last over its
darlings, and left visible kisses there. But even this success was
not enough, and one day he came with something yet choicer. It was a
rue-leaved anemone (_A. thalictraides_); and, if you will believe it,
each one of the three white flowers was _double,_ not merely with that
multiplicity of petals in the disk which is common with this species,
but technically and horticulturally double, like the double-flowering
almond or cherry,--the most exquisitely delicate little petals, seeming
like lace-work. He had three specimens,--gave one to the Autocrat of
Botany, who said it was almost or quite unexampled, and another to me.
As the man in the fable says of the chameleon,--"I have it yet, and can
Now comes the marvel. The next winter L. went to New York for a year,
and wrote to me, as spring drew near, with solemn charge to visit his
favorite haunt and find another specimen. Armed with this letter of
introduction, I sought the spot, and tramped through and through its
leafy corridors. Beautiful wood-anemones I found, to be sure, trembling
on their fragile stems, deserving all their pretty names,--Wind-flower,
Easter-flower, Pasque-flower, and homeopathic Pulsatilla; rue-leaved
anemones I found also, rising taller and straighter and firmer in stem,
with the whorl of leaves a little higher up on the stalk than one
fancies it ought to be, as if there were a supposed danger that the
flowers would lose their balance, and as if the leaves must be all ready
to catch them. These I found, but the special wonder was not there for
me. Then I wrote to L. that he must evidently come himself and search;
or that, perhaps, as Sir Thomas Browne avers that "smoke doth follow the
fairest," so his little treasures had followed him towards New York.
Judge of my surprise, when, on opening his next letter, out dropped,
from those folds of metropolitan paper, a veritable double anemone. He
had just been out to Hoboken, or some such place, to spend an afternoon,
and, of course, his pets were there to meet him; and from that day to
this, I have never heard of the thing happening to any one else.
May-Day is never allowed to pass in this community without profuse
lamentations over the tardiness of our spring as compared with that
of England and the poets. Yet it is very common to exaggerate this
difference. Even so good an observer as Wilson Flagg is betrayed into
saying that the epigaea and hepatica "seldom make their appearance until
after the middle of April" in Massachusetts, and that "it is not unusual
for the whole month of April to pass away without producing more than
two or three species of wild-flowers." But I have formerly found the
hepatica in bloom at Mount Auburn, for three successive years, on the
twenty-seventh of March; and last spring it was actually found, farther
inland, where the season is later, on the seventeenth. The May-flower is
usually as early, though the more gradual expansion of the buds renders
it less easy to give dates. And there are nearly twenty species which I
have noted, for five or six years together, as found before May-Day, and
which may therefore be properly assigned to April. The list includes
bloodroot, cowslip, houstonia, saxifrage, dandelion, chickweed,
cinquefoil, strawberry, mouse-ear, bellwort, dog's-tooth violet, five
species of violet proper, and two of anemone. These are all common
flowers, and easily observed; and the catalogue might be increased by
rare ones, as the white corydalis, the smaller yellow violet, (_V.
rotundifolia_,) and the claytonia or spring-beauty.
But in England the crocus and the snowdrop--neither being probably an
indigenous flower, since neither is mentioned by Chaucer--usually open
before the first of March; indeed, the snowdrop was formerly known by
the yet more fanciful name of "Fair Maid of February." Chaucer's daisy
comes equally early; and March brings daffodils, narcissi, violets,
daisies, jonquils, hyacinths, and marsh-marigolds. This is altogether in
advance of our season, so far as the flowers give evidence,--though we
have plucked snowdrops in February. But, on the other hand, it would
appear, that, though a larger number of birds winter in England than in
Massachusetts, yet the return of those which migrate is actually earlier
among us. From journals kept during sixty years in England, and an
abstract of which is printed in Hone's "Every-Day Book," it appears that
only two birds of passage revisit England before the fifteenth of April,
and only thirteen more before the first of May; while with us the
song-sparrow and the bluebird appear about the first of March, and quite
a number more by the middle of April. This is a peculiarity of the
English spring which I have never seen explained or even mentioned.
After the epigaea and the hepatica have opened, there is a slight pause
among the wild-flowers,--these two forming a distinct prologue for their
annual drama, as the brilliant witch-hazel in October brings up its
separate epilogue. The truth is, Nature attitudinizes a little, liking
to make a neat finish with everything, and then to begin again with
_eclat_. Flowers seem spontaneous things enough, but there is evidently
a secret marshalling among them, that all may be brought out with due
effect. As the country-people say that so long as any snow is left on
the ground more snow may be expected, it must all vanish simultaneously
at last,--so every seeker of spring-flowers has observed how accurately
they seem to move in platoons, with little straggling. Each species
seems to burst upon us with a united impulse; you may search for them
day after day in vain, but the day when you find one specimen the spell
is broken and you find twenty. By the end of April all the margins
of the great poem of the woods are illuminated with these exquisite
Most of the early flowers either come before the full unfolding of their
leaves or else have inconspicuous ones. Yet Nature always provides for
her bouquets the due proportion of green. The verdant and graceful
sprays of the wild raspberry are unfolded very early, long before its
time of flowering. Over the meadows spread the regular Chinese-pagodas
of the equisetum, (horsetail or scouring-rush,) and the rich coarse
vegetation of the veratrum, or American hellebore. In moist copses the
ferns and osmundas begin to uncurl in April, opening their soft coils
of spongy verdure, coated with woolly down, from which the humming-bird
steals the lining of her nest.
The early blossoms represent the aboriginal epoch of our history: the
blood-root and the May-flower are older than the white man, older
perchance than the red man; they alone are the true Native Americans. Of
the later wild plants, many of the most common are foreign importations.
In our sycophancy we attach grandeur to the name _exotic_: we call
aristocratic garden-flowers by that epithet; yet they are no more exotic
than the humbler companions they brought with them, which have become
naturalized. The dandelion, the buttercup, duckweed, celandine, mullein,
burdock, yarrow, whiteweed, nightshade, and most of the thistles,--these
are importations. Miles Standish never crushed these with his heavy heel
as he strode forth to give battle to the savages; they never kissed the
daintier foot of Priscilla, the Puritan maiden. It is noticeable that
these are all of rather coarser texture than our indigenous flowers; the
children instinctively recognize this, and are apt to omit them, when
gathering the more delicate native blossoms of the woods.
There is something touching in the gradual retirement before
civilization of these delicate aborigines. They do not wait for the
actual brute contact of red bricks and curbstones, but they feel the
danger miles away. The Indians called the low plantain "the white man's
footstep"; and these shy creatures gradually disappear, the moment
the red man gets beyond their hearing. Bigelow's delightful "Florula
Bostoniensis" is becoming a series of epitaphs. Too well we know it,--we
who in happy Cambridge childhood often gathered, almost within a stone's
throw of Professor Agassiz's new Museum, the arethusa and the gentian,
the cardinal-flower and the gaudy rhexia,--we who remember the last
secret hiding-place of the rhodora in West Cambridge, of the yellow
violet and the _Viola debilis_ in Watertown, of the _Convallaria
trifolia_ near Fresh Pond, of the _Hottonia_ beyond Wellington's Hill,
of the _Cornus florida_ in West Roxbury, of the _Clintonia_ and the
dwarf ginseng in Brookline,--we who have found in its one chosen nook
the sacred _Andromeda polyfolia_ of Linnaeus. Now vanished almost or
wholly from city-suburbs, these fragile creatures still linger in
more rural parts of Massachusetts; but they are doomed everywhere,
unconsciously, yet irresistibly; while others still more shy, as the
_Linnoea_, the yellow _Cypripedium_, the early pink _Azalea_, and the
delicate white _Corydalis_ or "Dutchman's breeches," are being chased
into the very recesses of the Green and the White Mountains. The relics
of the Indian tribes are supported by the legislature at Martha's
Vineyard, while these precursors of the Indian are dying unfriended
And with these receding plants go also the special insects which haunt
them. Who that knew that pure enthusiast, Dr. Harris, but remembers the
accustomed lamentations of the entomologist over the departure of these
winged companions of his lifetime? Not the benevolent Mr. John Beeson
more tenderly mourns the decay of the Indians than he the exodus of
these more delicate native tribes. In a letter which I happened to
receive from him a short time previous to his death, he thus renewed
the lament:--"I mourn for the loss of many of the beautiful plants
and insects that were once found in this vicinity. _Clethra, Rhodora,
Sanguinaria, Viola debilis, Viola acuta, Dracoena borealis, Rhexia,
Cypripedium, Corallorhiza verna, Orchis spectabilis_, with others of
less note, have been rooted out by the so-called hand of improvement.
_Cicindela rugifrons, Helluo proeusta, Sphoeroderus stenostomus,
Blethisa quadricollis, (Americana mi,) Carabus, Horia_, (which for
several years occurred in profusion on the sands beyond Mount Auburn,)
with others, have entirely disappeared from their former haunts, driven
away, or exterminated perhaps, by the changes effected therein. There
may still remain in your vicinity some sequestered spots, congenial
to these and other rarities, which may reward the botanist and the
entomologist who will search them carefully. Perhaps you may find there
the pretty coccinella-shaped, silver-margined _Omophron_, or the still
rarer _Panagoeus fasciatus_, of which I once took two specimens on
Wellington's Hill, but have not seen it since." Is not this indeed
handling one's specimens "gently as if you loved them," as Isaak Walton
bids the angler do with his worm?
There is this merit, at least, among the coarser crew of imported
flowers, that they bring their own proper names with them, and we know
precisely whom we have to deal with. In speaking of our own native
flowers, we must either be careless and inaccurate, or else resort
sometimes to the Latin, in spite of the indignation of friends. There
is something yet to be said on this point. In England, where the old
household and monkish names adhere, they are sufficient for popular
and poetic purposes, and the familiar use of scientific names seems an
affectation. But here, where many native flowers have no popular names
at all, and others are called confessedly by wrong ones,--where
it really costs less trouble to use Latin names than English, the
affectation seems the other way. Think of the long list of wild-flowers
where the Latin name is spontaneously used by all who speak of
the flower: as, Arethusa, Aster, Cistus, ("after the fall of the
cistus-flower,") Clematis, Clethra, Geranium, Iris, Lobdia, Bhodora,
Spirtea, Tiarella, Trientalis, and so on. Even those formed from proper
names (the worst possible system of nomenclature) become tolerable at
last, and we forget the man in the more attractive flower. Are those
who pick the Houstonia to be supposed thereby to indorse the Texan
President? Or are the deluded damsels who chew Cassia-buds to be
regarded as swallowing the late Secretary of State? The names have long
since been made over to the flowers, and every questionable aroma has
vanished. When the godfather happens to be a botanist, there is a
peculiar fitness in the association; the Linaea, at least, would not
smell so sweet by any other name.
In other cases the English name is a mere modification of the Latin
one, and our ideal associations have really a scientific basis: as with
Violet, Lily, Laurel, Gentian, Vervain. Indeed, our enthusiasm for
vernacular names is like that for Indian names, one-sided: we enumerate
only the graceful ones, and ignore the rest. It would be a pity to
Latinize Touch-me-not, or Yarrow, or Gold-Thread, or Self-Heal, or
Columbine, or Blue-Eyed-Grass,--though, to be sure, this last has an
annoying way of shutting up its azure orbs the moment you gather it, and
you reach home with a bare, stiff blade, which deserves no better
name than _Sisyrinchium anceps._ But in what respect is Cucumber-Root
preferable to Medeola, or Solomon's-Seal to Convallaria, or Rock-Tripe
to Umbilicaria, or Lousewort to Pedicularis? In other cases the merit
is divided: Anemone may dispute the prize of melody with Windflower,
Campanula with Harebell, Neottia with Ladies'-Tresses, Uvularia with
Bellwort and Strawbell, Potentilla with Cinquefoil, and Sanguinaria with
Bloodroot. Hepatica may be bad, but Liverleaf is worse. The pretty name
of May-flower is not so popular, after all, as that of Trailing-Arbutus,
where the graceful and appropriate adjective redeems the substantive,
which happens to be Latin and incorrect at the same time. It does seem a
waste of time to say _Chrysanthemum leucanthemum_ instead of Whiteweed;
though, if the long scientific name were an incantation to banish the
intruder, our farmers would gladly consent to adopt it.
But the great advantage of a reasonable use of the botanical name is,
that it does not deceive us. Our primrose is not the English primrose,
any more than it was our robin who tucked up the babes in the wood;
our cowslip is not the English cowslip, it is the English
marsh-marigold,--Tennyson's "wild marsh-marigold shines like fire in
swamps and hollows gray." The pretty name of Azalea means something
definite; but its rural name of Honeysuckle confounds under that name
flowers without even an external resemblance,--Azalea, Diervilla,
Lonioera, Aquilegia,--just as every bird which sings loud in deep woods
is popularly denominated a thrush. The really rustic names of both
plants and animals are very few with us,--the different species are
many; and as we come to know them better and love them more, we
absolutely require some way to distinguish them from their half-sisters
and second-cousins. It is hopeless to try to create new popular
epithets, or even to revive those which are thoroughly obsolete. Miss
Cooper may strive in vain, with benevolent intent, to christen her
favorite spring-blossoms "May-Wings" and "Gay-Wings," and "Fringe-Cup"
and "Squirrel-Cup," and "Cool-Wort" and "Bead-Ruby"; there is no
conceivable reason why these should not be the familiar appellations,
except the irresistible fact that they are not. It is impossible to
create a popular name: one might as well attempt to invent a legend or
compose a ballad. _Nascitur, non fit_.
As the spring comes on, and the densening outlines of the elm give daily
a new design for a Grecian urn,--its hue, first brown with blossoms,
then emerald with leaves,--we appreciate the vanishing beauty of the
bare boughs. In our favored temperate zone, the trees denude themselves
each year, like the goddesses before Paris, that we may see which
unadorned loveliness is the fairest. Only the unconquerable delicacy of
the beech still keeps its soft vestments about it: far into spring, when
worn to thin rags and tatters, they cling there still; and when they
fall, the new appear as by magic. It must be owned, however, that the
beech has good reasons for this prudishness, and possesses little beauty
of figure; while the elms, maples, chestnuts, walnuts, and even oaks,
have not exhausted all their store of charms for us, until we have seen
them disrobed. Only yonder magnificent pine-tree,--that pitch-pine,
nobler when seen in perfection than white-pine, or Norwegian, or Norfolk
Islander,--that pitch-pine, herself a grove, _una nemus_, holds her
unchanging beauty throughout the year, like her half-brother, the ocean,
whose voice she shares; and only marks the flowing of her annual tide of
life by the new verdure that yearly submerges all trace of last year's
How many lessons of faith and beauty we should lose, if there were no
winter in our year! Sometimes, in following up a watercourse among our
hills, in the early spring, one comes to a weird and desolate place,
where one huge wild grapevine has wreathed its ragged arms around a
whole thicket and brought it to the ground,--swarming to the tops of
hemlocks, clenching a dozen young maples at once and tugging them
downward, stretching its wizard black length across the underbrush, into
the earth and out again, wrenching up great stones in its blind, aimless
struggle. What a piece of chaos is this! Yet come here again, two months
hence, and you shall find all this desolation clothed with beauty
and with fragrance, one vast bower of soft green leaves and graceful
tendrils, while summer-birds chirp and flutter amid these sunny arches
all the livelong day. "Out of the strong cometh forth sweetness."
To the end of April, and often later, one still finds remains of
snowbanks in sheltered woods, especially those consisting of evergreen
trees; and this snow, like that upon high mountains, has become hardened
by the repeated thawing and freezing of the surface, till it is more
impenetrable than ice. But the snow that actually falls during April is
usually only what Vermonters call "sugar-snow,"--falling in the night
and just whitening the surface for an hour or two, and taking its name,
not so much from its looks as from the fact that it denotes the
proper weather for "sugaring," namely, cold nights and warm days. Our
saccharine associations, however, remain so obstinately tropical, that
it seems almost impossible for the imagination to locate sugar in New
England trees; though it is known that not the maple only, but the birch
and the walnut even, afford it in appreciable quantities.
Along our maritime rivers the people associate April, not with
"sugaring," but with "shadding." The pretty _Amelanchier Canadensis_ of
Gray--the _Aronia_ of Whittler's song--is called Shad-bush or Shad-blow
in Essex County, from its connection with this season; and there is a
bird known as the Shad-spirit, which I take to be identical with the
flicker or golden-winged woodpecker, whose note is still held to
indicate the first day when the fish ascend the river. Upon such slender
wings flits our New England romance!
In April the creative process described by Thales is repeated, and the
world is renewed by water. The submerged creatures first feel the touch
of spring, and many an equivocal career, beginning in the ponds and
brooks, learns later to ignore this obscure beginning, and hops or
flutters in the dusty daylight. Early in March, before the first male
canker-moth appears on the elm-tree, the whirlwig beetles have begun to
play round the broken edges of the ice, and the caddis-worms to
crawl beneath it; and soon come the water-skater _(Gerris)_ and the
water-boatman _(Notonecta)_. Turtles and newts are in busy motion when
the spring-birds are only just arriving. Those gelatinous masses in
yonder wayside-pond are the spawn of water-newts or tritons: in the
clear transparent jelly are imbedded, at regular intervals, little
blackish dots; these elongate rapidly, and show symptoms of head and
tail curled up in a spherical cell; the jelly is gradually absorbed for
their nourishment, until on some fine morning each elongated dot gives
one vigorous wriggle, and claims thenceforward all the privileges
attendant on this dissolution of the union. The final privilege is often
that of being suddenly snapped up by a turtle or a snake: for Nature
brings forth her creatures liberally, especially the aquatic ones,
sacrifices nine-tenths of them as food for their larger cousins, and
reserves only a handful to propagate their race, on the same profuse
scale, next season.
It is surprising, in the midst of our Museums and Scientific Schools,
how little we yet know of the common things before our eyes. Our
_savans_ still confess their inability to discriminate with certainty
the egg or tadpole of a frog from that of a toad; and it is strange that
these hopping creatures, which seem so unlike, should coincide so nearly
in their juvenile career, while the tritons and salamanders, which
border so closely on each other in their maturer state as sometimes to
be hardly distinguishable, yet choose different methods and different
elements for laying their eggs. The eggs of our salamanders or
land-lizards are deposited beneath the moss on some damp rock, without
any gelatinous envelope; they are but few in number, and the anxious
mamma may sometimes be found coiled in a circle around them, like the
symbolic serpent of eternity.
The small number of birds yet present in early April gives a better
opportunity for careful study,--more especially if one goes armed with
that best of fowling-pieces, a small spy-glass: the best,--since how
valueless for purposes of observation is the bleeding, gasping, dying
body, compared with the fresh and living creature, as it tilts,
trembles, and warbles on the bough before you! Observe that robin in the
oak-tree's top: as he sits and sings, every one of the dozen different
notes which he flings down to you is accompanied by a separate flirt and
flutter of his whole body, and, as Thoreau says of the squirrel, "each
movement seems to imply a spectator," and to imply, further, that the
spectator is looking through a spy-glass. Study that song-sparrow: why
is it that he always goes so ragged in spring, and the bluebird so
neat? is it that the song-sparrow is a wild artist, absorbed in the
composition of his lay, and oblivious of ordinary proprieties, while the
smooth bluebird and his ash-colored mate cultivate their delicate warble
only as a domestic accomplishment, and are always nicely dressed before
sitting down to the piano? Then how exciting is the gradual arrival of
the birds in their summer-plumage! to watch it is as good as sitting at
the window on Easter Sunday to observe the new bonnets. Yonder, in that
clump of alders by the brook, is the delicious jargoning of the first
flock of yellow-birds; there are the little gentlemen in black and
yellow, and the little ladies in olive-brown; "sweet, sweet, sweet" is
the only word they say, and often they will so lower their ceaseless
warble, that, though almost within reach, the little minstrels seem far
away. There is the very earliest cat-bird, mimicking the bobolink before
the bobolink has come: what is the history of his song, then? is it a
reminiscence of last year? or has the little coquette been practising it
all winter, in some gay Southern society, where cat-birds and bobolinks
grow intimate, just as Southern fashionables from different States
may meet and sing duets at Saratoga? There sounds the sweet, low,
long-continued trill of the little hair-bird, or chipping-sparrow, a
suggestion of insect sounds in sultry summer, and produced, like them,
by a slight fluttering of the wings against the sides: by-and-by we
shall sometimes hear that same delicate rhythm burst the silence of the
June midnights, and then, ceasing, make stillness more still. Now watch
that woodpecker, roving in ceaseless search, travelling over fifty trees
in an hour, running from top to bottom of some small sycamore, pecking
at every crevice, pausing to dot a dozen inexplicable holes in a row
upon an apple-tree, but never once intermitting the low, querulous
murmur of housekeeping anxiety: now she stops to hammer with all her
little life at some tough piece of bark, strikes harder and harder
blows, throws herself back at last, flapping her wings furiously as she
brings down her whole strength again upon it; finally it yields, and
grub after grub goes down her throat, till she whets her beak after the
meal as a wild beast licks its claws, and off on her pressing business
It is no wonder that there is so little substantial enjoyment of Nature
in the community, when we feed children on grammars and dictionaries
only, and take no pains to train them to see that which is before
their eyes. The mass of the community have "summered and wintered" the
universe pretty regularly, one would think, for a good many years; and
yet nine persons out of ten in the town or city, and two out of three
even in the country, seriously suppose, for instance, that the buds upon
trees are formed in the spring; they have had them before their eyes
all winter, and never seen them. As large a proportion suppose, in good
faith, that a plant grows at the base of the stem, instead of at the
top: that is, if they see a young sapling in which there is a crotch
at five feet from the ground, they expect to see it ten feet from the
ground by-and-by,--confounding the growth of a tree with that of a man
or animal. But perhaps the best of us could hardly bear the severe test
unconsciously laid down by a small child of my acquaintance. The boy's
father, a college-bred man, had early chosen the better part, and
employed his fine faculties in rearing laurels in his own beautiful
nursery-gardens, instead of in the more arid soil of court-rooms or
state-houses. Of course the young human scion knew the flowers by name
before he knew his letters, and used their symbols more readily; and
after he got the command of both, he was one day asked by his younger
brother what the word _idiot_ meant,--for somebody in the parlor had
been saying that somebody else was an idiot. "Don't you know?" quoth
Ben, in his sweet voice: "an idiot is a person who doesn't know an
arbor-vitae from a pine,--he doesn't know anything." When Ben grows up
to maturity, bearing such terrible tests in his unshrinking hands, who
of us will be safe?
The softer aspects of Nature, especially, require time and culture
before man can enjoy them. To rude races her processes bring only
terror, which is very slowly outgrown. Humboldt has best exhibited the
scantiness of finer natural perceptions in Greek and Roman literature,
in spite of the grand oceanic anthology of Homer, and the delicate
water-coloring of the Greek Anthology and of Horace. The Oriental and
the Norse sacred books are full of fresh and beautiful allusions; but
the Greek saw in Nature only a framework for Art, and the Roman only
a camping-ground for men. Even Virgil describes the grotto of Aeneas
merely as a "black grove" with "horrid shade,"--"_Horrenti atrum
nemus imminet umbra_." Wordsworth points out, that, even in English
literature, the "Windsor Forest" of Anne, Countess of Winchelsea, was
the first poem which represented Nature as a thing to be consciously
enjoyed; and as she was almost the first English poetess, we might be
tempted to think that we owe this appreciation, like some other good
things, to the participation of woman in literature. But, on the other
hand, it must be remembered that the voluminous Duchess of Newcastle, in
her "Ode on Melancholy," describes among the symbols of hopeless gloom
"the still moonshine night" and "a mill where rushing waters run
about,"--the sweetest natural images. So woman has not so much to claim,
after all. In our own country, the early explorers seemed to find only
horror in its woods and waterfalls. Josselyn, in 1672, could only
describe the summer splendor of the White Mountain region as "dauntingly
terrible, being full of rocky hills, as thick as mole-hills in a meadow,
and full of infinite thick woods." Father Hennepin spoke of Niagara,
in the narrative still quoted in the guide-books, as a "frightful
cataract"; though perhaps his original French phrase was softer. And
even John Adams could find no better name than "horrid chasm" for the
gulf at Egg Rock, where he first saw the sea-anemone.
But we are lingering too long, perhaps, with this sweet April of smiles
and tears. It needs only to add that all her traditions are beautiful.
Ovid says well, that she was not named from _aperire_, to open, as some
have thought, but from _Aphrodite_, goddess of beauty. April holds
Easter-time, St. George's Day, and the Eve of St. Mark's. She has not,
like her sister May in Germany, been transformed to a verb and made a
synonyme for joy,--"_Deine Seele maiet den trueben Herbst_"--but April
was believed in early ages to have been the birth-time of the world.
According to Venerable Bede, the point was first accurately determined
at a council held at Jerusalem about A.D. 200, when, after much profound
discussion, it was finally decided that the world's birthday occurred on
Sunday, April eighth,--that is, at the vernal equinox and the full moon.
But April is certainly the birth-time of the year, at least, if not of
the planet. Its festivals are older than Christianity, older than the
memory of man. No sad associations cling to it, as to the month of June,
in which month, says William of Malmesbury, kings are wont to go to
war,--"_Quando solent reges ad arma procedere_,"--but it holds the Holy
Week, and it is the Holy Month. And in April Shakspeare was born, and in
April he died.
THE PROFESSOR'S STORY.
THE WHITE ASH.
When Helen returned to Elsie's bedside, it was with a new and still
deeper feeling of sympathy, such as the story told by Old Sophy might
well awaken. She understood, as never before, the singular fascination
and as singular repulsion which she had long felt in Elsie's presence.
It had not been without a great effort that she had forced herself to
become the almost constant attendant of the sick girl; and now she was
learning, but not for the first time, the blessed truth which so many
good women have found out for themselves, that the hardest duty bravely
performed soon becomes a habit, and tends in due time to transform
itself into a pleasure.
The old Doctor was beginning to look graver, in spite of himself. The
fever, if such it was, went gently forward, wasting the young girl's
powers of resistance from day to day; yet she showed no disposition
to take nourishment, and seemed literally to be living on air. It was
remarkable that with all this her look was almost natural, and her
features were hardly sharpened so as to suggest that her life was
burning away. He did not like this, nor various other unobtrusive signs
of danger which his practised eye detected. A very small matter might
turn the balance which held life and death poised against each other.
He surrounded her with precautions, that Nature might have every
opportunity of cunningly shifting the weights from the scale of death
to the scale of life, as she will often do, if not rudely disturbed or
Little tokens of good-will and kind remembrance were constantly coming
to her from the girls in the school and the good people in the village.
Some of the mansion-house people obtained rare flowers which they sent
her, and her table was covered with fruits--which tempted her in vain.
Several of the school-girls wished to make her a basket of their own
handiwork, and, filling it with autumnal flowers, to send it as a joint
offering. Mr. Bernard found out their project accidentally, and, wishing
to have his share in it, brought home from one of his long walks some
boughs full of variously tinted leaves, such as were still clinging
to the stricken trees. With these he brought also some of the already
fallen leaflets of the white ash, remarkable for their rich olive-purple
color, forming a beautiful contrast with some of the lighter-hued
leaves. It so happened that this particular tree, the white ash, did not
grow upon The Mountain, and the leaflets were more welcome for their
comparative rarity. So the girls made their basket, and the floor of it
they covered with the rich olive-purple leaflets. Such late flowers as
they could lay their hands upon served to fill it, and with many kindly
messages they sent it to Miss Elsie Venner at the Dudley mansion-house.
Elsie was sitting up in her bed when it came, languid, but tranquil, and
Helen was by her, as usual, holding her hand, which was strangely cold,
Helen thought, for one who--was said to have some kind of fever. The
school-girls' basket was brought in with its messages of love and hopes
for speedy recovery. Old Sophy was delighted to see that it pleased
Elsie, and laid it on the bed before her. Elsie began looking at the
flowers and taking them from the basket, that she might see the leaves.
All at once she appeared to be agitated; she looked at the basket,--then
around, as if there were some fearful presence about her which she was
searching for with her eager glances. She took out the flowers, one
by one, her breathing growing hurried, her eyes staring, her hands
trembling,--till, as she came near the bottom of the basket, she flung
out all the rest with a hasty movement, looked upon the olive-purple
leaflets as if paralyzed for a moment, shrunk up, as it were, into
herself in a curdling terror, dashed the basket from her, and fell back
senseless, with a faint cry which chilled the blood of the startled
listeners at her bedside.
"Take it away!--take it away!--quick!" said Old Sophy, as she hastened
to her mistress's pillow. "It's the leaves of the tree that was always
death to her,--take it away! She can't live wi' it in the room!"
The poor old woman began chafing Elsie's hands, and Helen to try to
rouse her with hartshorn, while a third frightened attendant gathered up
the flowers and the basket and carried them out of the apartment. She
came to herself after a time, but exhausted and then wandering. In her
delirium, she talked constantly as if she were in a cave, with such
exactness of circumstance that Helen could not doubt at all that she had
some such retreat among the rocks of The Mountain, probably fitted up in
her own fantastic way, where she sometimes hid herself from all human
eyes, and of the entrance to which she alone possessed the secret.
All this passed away, and left her, of course, weaker than before. But
this was not the only influence the unexplained paroxysm had left behind
it. From this time forward there was a change in her whole expression
and her manner. The shadows ceased flitting over her features, and the
old woman, who watched her from day to day and from hour to hour as a
mother watches her child, saw the likeness she bore to her mother coming
forth more and more, as the cold glitter died out of the diamond eyes,
and the scowl disappeared from the dark brows and low forehead.
With all the kindness and indulgence her father had bestowed upon her,
Elsie had never felt that he loved her. The reader knows well enough
what fatal recollections and associations had frozen up the springs of
natural affection in his breast. There was nothing in the world he would
not do for Elsie. He had sacrificed his whole life to her. His very
seeming carelessness about restraining her was all calculated; he knew
that restraint would produce nothing but utter alienation. Just so
far as she allowed him, he shared her studies, her few pleasures, her
thoughts; but she was essentially solitary and uncommunicative. No
person, as was said long ago, could judge him,--because his task was not
merely difficult, but simply impracticable to human powers. A nature
like Elsie's had necessarily to be studied by itself, and to be followed
in its laws where it could not be led.
Every day, at different hours, during the whole of his daughter's
illness, Dudley Venner had sat by her, doing all he could to soothe and
please her: always the same thin film of some emotional non-conductor
between them; always that kind of habitual regard and family-interest,
mingled with the deepest pity on one side and a sort of respect on the
other, which never warmed into outward evidences of affection.
It was after this occasion, when she had been so profoundly agitated
by a seemingly insignificant cause, that her father and Old Sophy were
sitting, one at one side of her bed and one at the other. She had fallen
into a light slumber. As they were looking at her, the same thought came
into both their minds at the same moment. Old Sophy spoke for both, as
she said, in a low voice,--
"It's her mother's look,--it's her mother's own face right over
again,--she never look' so before,--the Lord's hand is on her! His will
When Elsie woke and lifted her languid eyes upon her father's face, she
saw in it a tenderness, a depth of affection, such as she remembered
at rare moments of her childhood, when she had won him to her by some
unusual gleam of sunshine in her fitful temper.
"Elsie, dear," he said, "we were thinking how much your expression was
sometimes like that of your sweet mother. If you could but have seen
her, so as to remember her!"
The tender look and tone, the yearning of the daughter's heart for the
mother she had never seen, save only with the unfixed, undistinguishing
eyes of earliest infancy, perhaps the under-thought that she might soon
rejoin her in another state of being,--all came upon her with a sudden
overflow of feeling which broke through all the barriers between her
heart and her eyes, and Elsie wept. It seemed to her father as if the
malign influence,--evil spirit it might almost be called,--which had
pervaded her being, had at last been driven forth or exorcised, and that
these tears were at once the sign and the pledge of her redeemed nature.
But now she was to be soothed, and not excited. After her tears she
slept again, and the look her face wore was peaceful as never before.
Old Sophy met the Doctor at the door and told him all the circumstances
connected with the extraordinary attack from which Elsie had suffered.
It was the purple leaves, she said. She remembered that Dick once
brought home a branch of a tree with some of the same leaves on it, and
Elsie screamed and almost fainted then. She, Sophy, had asked her, after
she had got quiet, what it was in the leaves that made her feel so bad.
Elsie couldn't tell her,--didn't like to speak about it,--shuddered
whenever Sophy mentioned it.
This did not sound so strangely to the old Doctor as it does to some
who listen to this narrative. He had known some curious examples of
antipathies, and remembered reading of others still more singular.
He had known those who could not bear the presence of a cat, and
recollected the story, often told, of a person's hiding one in a chest
when one of these sensitive individuals came into the room, so as not to
disturb him; but he presently began to sweat and turn pale, and cried
out that there must be a cat hid somewhere. He knew people who were
poisoned by strawberries, by honey, by different meats,--many who could
not endure cheese,--some who could not bear the smell of roses. If he
had known all the stories in the old books, he would have found that
some have swooned and become as dead men at the smell of a rose,--that
a stout soldier has been known to turn and run at the sight or smell of
rue,--that cassia and even olive-oil have produced deadly faintings in
certain individuals,--in short, that almost everything has seemed to be
a poison to somebody.
"Bring me that basket, Sophy," said the old Doctor, "if you can find
Sophy brought it to him,--for he had not yet entered Elsie's apartment.
"These purple leaves are from the white ash," he said. "You don't know
the notion that people commonly have about that tree, Sophy?"
"I know they say the Ugly Things never go where the white ash grows,"
Sophy answered. "Oh, Doctor dear, what I'm thinkin' of a'n't true, is
The Doctor smiled sadly, but did not answer. He went directly to Elsie's
room. Nobody would have known by his manner that he saw any special
change in his patient. He spoke with her as usual, made some slight
alteration in his prescriptions, and left the room with a kind, cheerful
look. He met her father on the stairs.
"Is it as I thought?" said Dudley Venner.
"There is everything to fear," the Doctor said, "and not much, I am
afraid, to hope. Does not her face recall to you one that you remember,
as never before?"
"Yes," her father answered,--"oh, yes! What is the meaning of this
change which has come over her features, and her voice, her temper, her
whole being? Tell me, oh, tell me, what is it? Can it be that the curse
is passing away, and my daughter is to be restored to me,--such as her
mother would have had her,--such as her mother was?"
"Walk out with me into the garden," the Doctor said, "and I will tell
you all I know and all I think about this great mystery of Elsie's
They walked out together, and the Doctor began:--
"She has lived a twofold being, as it were,--the consequence of the
blight which fell upon her in the dim period before consciousness. You
can see what she might have been but for this. You know that for these
eighteen years her whole existence has taken its character from that
influence which we need not name. But you will remember that few of the
lower forms of life last as human beings do; and thus it might have been
hoped and trusted with some show of reason, as I have always suspected
you hoped and trusted, perhaps more confidently than myself, that the
lower nature which had become ingrafted on the higher would die out and
leave the real woman's life she inherited to outlive this accidental
principle which had so poisoned her childhood and youth. I believe it
is so dying out; but I am afraid,--yes, I must say it, I fear it has
involved the centres of life in its own decay. There is hardly any pulse
at Elsie's wrist; no stimulants seem to rouse her; and it looks as if
life were slowly retreating inwards, so that by-and-by she will sleep as
those who lie down in the cold and never wake."
Strange as it may seem, her father heard all this not without deep
sorrow, and such marks of it as his thoughtful and tranquil nature, long
schooled by suffering, claimed or permitted, but with a resignation
itself the measure of his past trials. Dear as his daughter might become
to him, all he dared to ask of Heaven was that she might be restored to
that truer self which lay beneath her false and adventitious being. If
he could once see that the icy lustre in her eyes had become a soft,
calm light,--that her soul was at peace with all about her and with Him
above,--this crumb from the children's table was enough for him, as it
was for the Syro-Phoenician woman who asked that the dark spirit might
go out from her daughter.
There was little change the next day, until all at once she said in a
clear voice that she should like to see her master at the school,
Mr. Langdon. He came accordingly, and took the place of Helen at her
bedside. It seemed as if Elsie had forgotten the last scene with him.
Might it be that pride had come in, and she had sent for him only to
show how superior she had grown to the weakness which had betrayed her
into that extraordinary request, so contrary to the instincts and usages
of her sex? Or was it that the singular change which had come over her
had involved her passionate fancy for him and swept it away with her
other habits of thought and feeling? Or perhaps, rather, that she felt
that all earthly interests were becoming of little account to her, and
wished to place herself right with one to whom she had displayed a
wayward movement of her unbalanced imagination? She welcomed Mr.
Bernard as quietly as she had received Helen Darley. He colored at the
recollection of that last scene, when he came into her presence; but
she smiled with perfect tranquillity. She did not speak to him of any
apprehension; but he saw that she looked upon herself as doomed. So
friendly, yet so calm did she seem through all their interview, that Mr.
Bernard could only look back upon her manifestation of feeling towards
him on their walk from the school as a vagary of a mind laboring
under some unnatural excitement, and wholly at variance with the true
character of Elsie Venner, as he saw her before him in her subdued,
yet singular beauty. He looked with almost scientific closeness of
observation into the diamond eyes; but that peculiar light which he knew
so well was not there. She was the same in one sense as on that first
day when he had seen her coiling and uncoiling her golden chain, yet how
different in every aspect which revealed her state of mind and emotion!
Something of tenderness there was, perhaps, in her tone towards him;
she would not have sent for him, had she not felt more than an ordinary
interest in him. But through the whole of his visit she never lost her
gracious self-possession. The Dudley race might well be proud of the
last of its daughters, as she lay dying, but unconquered by the feeling
of the present or the fear of the future.
As for Mr. Bernard, he found it very hard to look upon her and listen to
her unmoved. There was nothing that reminded him of the stormy-browed,
almost savage girl he remembered in her fierce loveliness,--nothing of
all her singularities of air and of costume. Nothing? Yes, one thing.
Weak and suffering as she was, she had never parted with one particular
ornament, such as a sick person would naturally, as it might be
supposed, get rid of at once. The golden cord which she wore round her
neck at the great party was still there. A bracelet was lying by her
pillow; she had unclasped it from her wrist.
Before Mr. Bernard left her, she said,--"I shall never see you again.
Some time or other, perhaps, you will mention my name to one whom you
love. Give her this from your scholar and friend Elsie."
He took the bracelet, raised her hand to his lips, then turned his face
away; in that moment he was the weaker of the two.
"Good-bye," she said; "thank you for coming."
His voice died away in his throat, as he tried to answer her. She
followed him with her eyes as he passed from her sight through the door,
and when it closed after him sobbed tremulously once or twice,--but
stilled herself, and met Helen, as she entered, with a composed
"I have had a very pleasant visit from Mr. Langdon," Elsie said. "Sit
by me, Helen, awhile without speaking; I should like to sleep, if I
can,--and to dream."
THE GOLDEN CORD IS LOOSED.
The Reverend Chauncy Fairweather, hearing that his parishioner's
daughter, Elsie, was very ill, could do nothing less than come to the
mansion-house and tender such consolations as he was master of. It was
rather remarkable that the old Doctor did not exactly approve of his
visit. He thought that company of every sort might be injurious in her
weak state. He was of opinion that Mr. Fairweather, though greatly
interested in religious matters, was not the most sympathetic person
that could be found; in fact, the old Doctor thought he was too much
taken up with his own interests for eternity to give himself quite so
heartily to the need of other people as some persons got up on a rather
more generous scale (our good neighbor Dr. Honeywood, for instance)
could do. However, all these things had better be arranged to suit her
wants; if she would like to talk with a clergyman, she had a great
deal better see one as often as she liked, and run the risk of the
excitement, than have a hidden wish for such a visit and perhaps find
herself too weak to see him by-and-by.
The old Doctor knew by sad experience that dreadful mistake against
which all medical practitioners should be warned. His experience may
well be a guide for others. Do not overlook the desire for spiritual
advice and consolation which patients sometimes feel, and, with the
frightful _mauvaise honte_ peculiar to Protestantism, alone among all
human beliefs, are ashamed to tell. As a part of medical treatment, it
is the physician's business to detect the hidden longing for the food of
the soul, as much as for any form of bodily nourishment. Especially in
the higher walks of society, where this unutterably miserable false
shame of Protestantism acts in proportion to the general acuteness of
the cultivated sensibilities, let no unwillingness to suggest the sick
person's real need suffer him to languish between his want and his
morbid sensitiveness. What an infinite advantage the Mussulmans and the
Catholics have over many of our more exclusively spiritual sects in the
way they keep their religion always by them and never blush for it! And
besides this spiritual longing, we should never forget that
"On some fond breast the parting soul relies,"
and the minister of religion, in addition to the sympathetic nature
which we have a right to demand in him, has trained himself to the art
of entering into the feelings of others.
The reader must pardon this digression, which introduces the visit of
the Reverend Chauncy Fairweather to Elsie Venner. It was mentioned
to her that he would like to call and see how she was, and she
consented,--not with much apparent interest, for she had reasons of her
own for not feeling any very deep conviction of his sympathy for persons
in sorrow. But he came, and worked the conversation round to religion,
and confused her with his hybrid notions, half made up of what he had
been believing and teaching all his life, and half of the new doctrines
which he had veneered upon the surface of his old belief. He got so
far as to make a prayer with her,--a cool, well-guarded prayer, which
compromised his faith as little as possible, and which, if devotion were
a game played against Providence, might have been considered a cautious
and sagacious move.
When he had gone, Elsie called Old Sophy to her.
"Sophy," she said, "don't let them send that cold-hearted man to me any
more. If your old minister comes to see you, I should like to hear him
talk. He looks as if he cared for everybody, and would care for me. And,
Sophy, if I should die one of these days, I should like to have that old
minister come and say whatever is to be said over me. It would comfort
Dudley more, I know, than to have that hard man here, when you're in
trouble: for some of you will be sorry when I'm gone,--won't you,
The poor old black woman could not stand this question. The cold
minister had frozen Elsie until she felt as if nobody cared for her or
would regret her,--and her question had betrayed this momentary feeling.
"Don' talk so! don' talk so, darlin'!" she cried, passionately. "When
you go, Ol' Sophy'll go; 'n' where you go, Ol' Sophy'll go: 'n' we'll
both go t' th' place where th' Lord takes care of all his children,
whether their faces are white or black. Oh, darlin', darlin'! if th'
Lord should let me die fus', you shall fin' all ready for you when you
come after me. On'y don' go 'n' leave poor Ol' Sophy all 'lone in th'
Helen came in at this moment and quieted the old woman with a look. Such
scenes were just what were most dangerous, in the state in which Elsie
was lying: but that is one of the ways in which an affectionate friend
sometimes unconsciously wears out the life which a hired nurse, thinking
of nothing but her regular duties and her wages, would have spared from
all emotional fatigue.
The change which had come over Elsie's disposition was itself the cause
of new excitements. How was it possible that her father could keep away
from her, now that she was coming back to the nature and the very look
of her mother, the bride of his youth? How was it possible to refuse
her, when she said to Old Sophy that she should like to have her
minister come in and sit by her, even though his presence might perhaps
prove a new source of excitement?
But the Reverend Doctor did come and sit by her, and spoke such soothing
words to her, words of such peace and consolation, that from that hour
she was tranquil as never before. All true hearts are alike in the
hour of need; the Catholic has a reserved fund of faith for his
fellow-creature's trying moment, and the Calvinist reread those springs
of human brotherhood and chanty in his soul which are only covered over
by the iron tables inscribed with the harder dogmas of his creed. It was
enough that the Reverend Doctor knew all Elsie's history. He could not
judge her by any formula, like those which have been moulded by past
ages out of their ignorance. He did not talk with her as if she were an
outside sinner, worse than himself. He found a bruised and languishing
soul, and bound up its wounds. A blessed office,--one which is confined
to no sect or creed, but which good men in all times, under various
names and with varying ministries, to suit the need of each age, of each
race, of each individual soul, have come forward to discharge for their
After this there was little change in Elsie, except that her heart beat
more feebly every day,--so that the old Doctor himself, with all his
experience, could see nothing to account for the gradual failing of the
powers of life, and yet could find no remedy which seemed to arrest its
progress in the smallest degree.
"Be very careful," he said, "that she is not allowed to make any
muscular exertion. Any such effort, when a person is so enfeebled, may
stop the heart in a moment; and if it stops, it will never move again."
Helen enforced this rule with the greatest care. Elsie was hardly
allowed to move her hand or to speak above a whisper. It seemed to be
mainly the question now, whether this trembling flame of life would be
blown out by some light breath of air, or whether it could be so nursed
and sheltered by the hollow of these watchful hands that it would have a
chance to kindle to its natural brightness.
--Her father came in to sit with her in the evening. He had never talked
so freely with her as during the hour he had passed at her bedside,
telling her little circumstances of her mother's life, living over with
her all that was pleasant in the past, and trying to encourage her with
some cheerful gleams of hope for the future. A faint smile played over
her face, but she did not answer his encouraging suggestions. The hour
came for him to leave her with those who watched by her.
"Good-night, my dear child," he said, and, stooping down, kissed her
Elsie rose by a sudden effort, threw her arms round his neck, kissed
him, and said, "Good-night, my dear father!"
The suddenness of her movement had taken him by surprise, or he would
have checked so dangerous an effort. It was too late now. Her arms
slid away from him like lifeless weights,--her head fell back upon her
pillow,--a long sigh breathed through her lips.
"She is faint," said Helen, doubtfully; "bring me the hartshorn, Sophy."
The old woman had started from her place, and was now leaning over her,
looking in her face, and listening for the sound of her breathing.
"She's dead! Elsie's dead! My darlin' 's dead!" she cried aloud, filling
the room with her utterance of anguish.
Dudley Venner drew her away and silenced her with a voice of authority,
while Helen and an assistant plied their restoratives. It was all in
The solemn tidings passed from the chamber of death through the family.
The daughter, the hope of that old and honored house, was dead in the
freshness of her youth, and the home of its solitary representative was
hereafter doubly desolate.
A messenger rode hastily out of the avenue. A little after this the
people of the village and the outlying farm-houses were startled by the
sound of a bell.
They stopped in every house, as far as the wavering vibrations reached,
It was not the little child which had been lying so long at the point of
death; that could not be more than three or four years old--
--eight,--nine,--ten,--and so on to
The pulsations seemed to keep on,--but it was the brain, and not the
bell, that was throbbing now.
"Elsie's dead!" was the exclamation at a hundred firesides.
"Eighteen year old," said old Widow Peake, rising from her chair.
"Eighteen year ago I laid two gold eagles on her mother's eyes,--he
wouldn't have anything but gold touch her eyelids,--and now Elsie's to
be straightened,--the Lord have mercy on her poor sinful soul!"
Dudley Venner prayed that night that he might be forgiven, if he had
failed in any act of duty or kindness to this unfortunate child of his,
now freed from all the woes born with her and so long poisoning her
soul. He thanked God for the brief interval of peace which had been
granted her, for the sweet communion they had enjoyed in these last
days, and for the hope of meeting her with that other lost friend in a
Helen mingled a few broken thanks and petitions with her tears: thanks
that she had been permitted to share the last days and hours of this
poor sister in sorrow; petitions that the grief of bereavement might be
lightened to the lonely parent and the faithful old servant.
Old Sophy said almost nothing, but sat day and night by her dead
darling. But sometimes her anguish would find an outlet in strange
sounds, something between a cry and a musical note,--such as none had
ever heard her utter before. These were old remembrances surging up from
her childish days,--coming through her mother from the cannibal chief,
her grandfather,--death-wails, such as they sing in the mountains of
Western Africa, when they see the fires on distant hill-sides and know
that their own wives and children are undergoing the fate of captives.
The time came when Elsie was to be laid by her mother in the small
square marked by the white stone.
It was not unwillingly that the Reverend Chauncy Fairweather had
relinquished the duty of conducting the service to the Reverend Doctor
Honeywood, in accordance with Elsie's request. He could not, by any
reasoning, reconcile his present way of thinking with a hope for the
future of his unfortunate parishioner. Any good old Roman Catholic
priest, born and bred to his faith and his business, would have found a
loop-hole into some kind of heaven for her, by virtue of his doctrine of
"invincible ignorance," or other special proviso; but a recent convert
cannot enter into the working conditions of his new creed. Beliefs must
be lived in for a good while, before they accommodate themselves to the
soul's wants, and wear loose enough to be comfortable.
The Reverend Doctor had no such scruples. Like thousands of those who
are classed nominally with the despairing believers, he had never prayed
over a departed brother or sister without feeling and expressing a
guarded hope that there was mercy in store for the poor sinner, whom
parents, wives, children, brothers and sisters could not bear to give up
to utter ruin without a word,--and would not, as he knew full well,
in virtue of that human love and sympathy which nothing can ever
extinguish. And in this poor Elsie's history he could read nothing
which the tears of the recording angel might not wash away. As the good
physician of the place knew the diseases that assailed the bodies of men
and women, so he had learned the mysteries of the sickness of the soul.
So many wished to look upon Elsie's face once more, that her father
would not deny them; nay, he was pleased that those who remembered her
living should see her in the still beauty of death. Helen and those with
her arrayed her for this farewell-view. All was ready for the sad or
curious eyes which were to look upon her. There was no painful change to
be concealed by any artifice. Even her round neck was left uncovered,
that she might be more like one who slept. Only the golden cord was left
in its place: some searching eye might detect a trace of that birth-mark
which it was whispered she had always worn a necklace to conceal.
At the last moment, when all the preparations were completed, Old Sophy
stooped over her, and, with trembling hand, loosed the golden cord. She
looked intently, for some little space: there was no shade nor blemish
where the ring of gold had encircled her throat. She took it gently away
and laid it in the casket which held her ornaments.
"The Lord be praised!" the old woman cried, aloud. "He has taken away
the mark that was on her; she's fit to meet his holy angels now!"
So Elsie lay for hours in the great room, in a kind of state, with
flowers all about her,--her black hair braided, as in life,--her
brows smooth, as if they had never known the scowl of passion,--and
on her lips the faint smile with which she had uttered her last
"Good-night." The young girls from the school looked at her, one after
another, and passed on, sobbing, carrying in their hearts the picture
that would be with them all their days. The great people of the place
were all there with their silent sympathy. The lesser kind of gentry,
and many of the plainer folk of the village, half-pleased to find
themselves passing beneath the stately portico of the ancient
mansion-house, crowded in, until the ample rooms were overflowing. All
the friends whose acquaintance we have made were there, and many from
remoter villages and towns.
There was a deep silence at last. The hour had come for the parting
words to be spoken over the dead. The good old minister's voice rose out
of the stillness, subdued and tremulous at first, but growing firmer and
clearer as he went on, until it reached the ears of the visitors who
were in the far, desolate chambers, looking at the pictured hangings and
the old dusty portraits. He did not tell her story in his prayer. He
only spoke of our dear departed sister as one of many whom Providence in
its wisdom has seen fit to bring under bondage from their cradles. It
was not for us to judge them by any standard of our own. He who made the
heart alone knew the infirmities it inherited or acquired. For all that
our dear sister had presented that was interesting and attractive in her
character we were to be grateful; for whatever was dark or inexplicable
we must trust that the deep shadow which rested on the twilight dawn of
her being might render a reason before the bar of Omniscience; for the
grace which had lightened her last days we should pour out our hearts in
thankful acknowledgment. From the life and the death of this our dear
sister we should learn a lesson of patience with our fellow-creatures in
their inborn peculiarities, of charity in judging what seem to us wilful
faults of character, of hope and trust, that, by sickness or affliction,
or such inevitable discipline as life must always bring with it, if by
no gentler means, the soul which had been left by Nature to wander into
the path of error and of suffering might be reclaimed and restored to
its true aim, and so led on by divine grace to its eternal welfare. He
closed his prayer by commending each member of the afflicted family to
the divine blessing.
Then all at once rose the clear sound of the girls' voices, in the
sweet, sad melody of a funeral hymn,--one of those which Elsie had
marked, as if prophetically, among her own favorites.
And so they laid her in the earth, and showered down flowers upon her,
and filled her grave, and covered it with green sods. By the side of it
was another oblong ridge, with a white stone standing at its head. Mr.
Bernard looked upon it, as he came close to the place where Elsie was
laid, and read the inscription,--
WIFE TO DUDLEY VENNER
OCTOBER 13TH 1840
AGED XX YEARS.
A gentle rain fell on the turf after it was laid. This was the beginning
of a long and dreary autumnal storm, a deferred "equinoctial," as many
considered it. The mountain-streams were all swollen and turbulent, and
the steep declivities were furrowed in every direction by new channels.
It made the house seem doubly desolate to hear the wind howling and the
rain beating upon the roofs. The poor relation who was staying at the
house would insist on Helen's remaining a few days: Old Sophy was in
such a condition, that it kept her in continual anxiety and there were
many cares which Helen could take off from her.
The old black woman's life was buried in her darling's grave. She did
nothing but moan and lament for her. At night she was restless, and
would get up and wander to Elsie's apartment and look for her and call
her by name. At other times she would lie awake and listen to the wind
and the rain,--sometimes with such a wild look upon her face, and with
such sudden starts and exclamations, that it seemed, as if she heard
spirit-voices and were answering the whispers of unseen visitants. With
all this were mingled hints of her old superstition,--forebodings of
something fearful about to happen,--perhaps the great final catastrophe
of all things, according to the prediction current in the kitchens of
"Hark!" Old Sophy would say,--"don' you hear th' crackin' 'n' th'
snappin' up in 'Th' Mountain, 'n' th' rollin' o' th' big stones? The' 's
somethin' stirrin' among th' rocks; I hear th' soun' of it in th' night,
when th' wind has stopped blowin'. Oh, stay by me a little while, Miss
Darlin'! stay by me! for it's th' Las' Day, may be, that's close on us,
'n' I feel as if I couldn' meet th' Lord all alone!"
It was curious,--but Helen did certainly recognize sounds, during the
lull of the storm, which were not of falling rain or running streams,
--short snapping sounds, as of tense cords breaking,--long uneven
sounds, as of masses rolling down steep declivities. But the morning
came as usual; and as the others said nothing of these singular noises,
Helen did not think it necessary to speak of them. All day long she
and the humble relative of Elsie's mother, who had appeared, as poor
relations are wont to in the great crises of life, were busy in
arranging the disordered house, and looking over the various objects
which Elsie's singular tastes had brought together, to dispose of them
as her father might direct. They all met together at the usual hour for
tea. One of the servants came in, looking very blank, and said to the
"The well is gone dry; we have nothing but rain-water."
Dudley Venner's countenance changed; he sprang to his feet and went to
assure himself of the fact, and, if he could, of the reason of it. For
a well to dry up during such a rain-storm was extraordinary,--it was
He came back, looking very anxious.
"Did any of you notice any remarkable sounds last night," he said,--
"or this morning? Hark! do you hear anything now?"
They listened in perfect silence for a few moments. Then there came a
short cracking sound, and two or three snaps, as of parting cords.
Dudley Venner called all his household together.
"We are in danger here, as I think, to-night," he said,--"not very
great danger, perhaps, but it is a risk I do not wish you to run. These
heavy rains have loosed some of the rocks above, and they may come down
and endanger the house. Harness the horses, Elbridge, and take all the
family away. Miss Darley will go to the Institute; the others will pass
the night at the Mountain House. I shall stay here, myself: it is not
at all likely that anything will come of these warnings; but if there
should, I choose to be here and take my chance."
It needs little, generally, to frighten servants, and they were all
ready enough to go. The poor relation was one of the timid sort, and was
terribly uneasy to be got out of the house. This left no alternative, of
course, for Helen, but to go also. They all urged upon Dudley Venner to
go with them: if there was danger, why should he remain to risk it, when
he sent away the others?
Old Sophy said nothing until the time came for her to go with the second
of Elbridge's carriage-loads.
"Come, Sophy," said Dudley Venner, "get your things and go. They will
take good care of you at the Mountain House; and when we have made sure
that there is no real danger, you shall come back at once."
"No, Massa!" Sophy answered. "I've seen Elsie into th' ground, 'n' I
a'n't goin' away to come back 'n' fin' Massa Venner buried under th'
rocks. My darlin' 's gone; 'n' now, if Massa goes, 'n' th' ol' place
goes, it's time for Ol' Sophy to go, too. No, Massa Venner, we'll both
stay in th' ol' mansion 'n' wait for th' Lord!"
Nothing could change the old woman's determination; and her master, who
only feared, but did not really expect the long-deferred catastrophe,
was obliged to consent to her staying. The sudden drying of the well at
such a time was the most alarming sign; for he remembered that the same
thing had been observed just before great mountain-slides. This long
rain, too, was just the kind of cause which was likely to loosen the
strata of rock piled up in the ledges; if the dreaded event should ever
come to pass, it would be at such a time.
He paced his chamber uneasily until long past midnight. If the morning
came without accident, he meant to have a careful examination made of
all the rents and fissures above, of their direction and extent, and
especially whether, in case of a mountain-slide, the huge masses would
be like to reach so far to the east and so low down the declivity as the
At two o'clock in the morning he was dozing in his chair. Old Sophy had
lain down on her bed, and was muttering in troubled dreams.
All at once a loud crash seemed to rend the very heavens above them: a
crack as of the thunder that follows close upon the bolt,--a rending and
crushing as of a forest snapped through all its stems, torn, twisted,
splintered, dragged with all its ragged boughs into one chaotic ruin.
The ground trembled under them as in an earthquake; the old mansion
shuddered so that all its windows chattered in their casements; the
great chimney shook off its heavy cap-stones, which came down on the
roof with resounding concussions; and the echoes of The Mountain roared
and bellowed in long reduplication, as if its whole foundations were
rent, and this were the terrible voice of its dissolution.
Dudley Venner rose from his chair, folded his arms, and awaited his
fate. There was no knowing where to look for safety; and he remembered
too well the story of the family that was lost by rushing out of the
house, and so hurrying into the very jaws of death.
He had stood thus but for a moment, when he heard the voice of Old Sophy
in a wild cry of terror:--
"It's the Las' Day! It's the Las' Day! The Lord is comin' to take us
"Sophy!" he called; but she did not hear him or heed him, and rushed out
of the house.
The worst danger was over. If they were to be destroyed, it would
necessarily be in a few seconds from the first thrill of the terrible
convulsion. He waited in awful suspense, but calm. Not more than one or
two minutes could have passed before the frightful tumult and all its
sounding echoes had ceased. He called Old Sophy; but she did not answer.
He went to the western window and looked forth into the darkness. He
could not distinguish the outlines of the landscape, but the white stone
was clearly visible, and by its side the new-made mound. Nay, what was
that which obscured its outline, in shape like a human figure? He flung
open the window and sprang through. It was all that there was left of
poor Old Sophy, stretched out, lifeless, upon her darling's grave.
He had scarcely composed her limbs and drawn the sheet over her, when
the neighbors began to arrive from all directions. Each was expecting to
hear of houses overwhelmed and families destroyed; but each came with
the story that his own household was safe. It was not until the morning
dawned that the true nature and extent of the sudden movement was
ascertained. A great seam had opened above the long cliff, and the
terrible Rattlesnake Ledge, with all its envenomed reptiles, its
dark fissures and black caverns, was buried forever beneath a mighty
incumbent mass of ruin.
MR. SILAS PECKHAM RENDERS HIS ACCOUNT.
The morning rose clear and bright. The long storm was over, and the calm
autumnal sunshine was now to return, with all its infinite repose and
sweetness. With the earliest dawn exploring parties were out in every
direction along the southern slope of The Mountain, tracing the ravages
of the great slide and the track it had followed. It proved to be not so
much a slide as the breaking off and falling of a vast line of cliff,
including the dreaded Ledge. It had folded over like the leaves of a
half-opened book when they close, crushing the trees below, piling its
ruins in a glacis at the foot of what had been the overhanging wall of
the cliff, and filling up that deep cavity above the mansion-house which
bore the ill-omened name of Dead Man's Hollow. This it was which had
saved the Dudley mansion. The falling masses, or huge fragments
breaking off from them, would have swept the house and all around it to
destruction but for this deep shelving dell, into which the stream of
ruin was happily directed. It was, indeed, one of Nature's conservative
revolutions; for the fallen masses made a kind of shelf, which
interposed a level break between the inclined planes above and below it,
so that the nightmare-fancies of the dwellers in the Dudley mansion, and
in many other residences under the shadow of The Mountain, need not keep
them lying awake hereafter to listen for the snapping of roots and the
splitting of the rocks above them.
Twenty-four hours after the falling of the cliff, it seemed as if it had
happened ages ago. The new fact had fitted itself in with all the old
predictions, forebodings, fears, and acquired the solidarity belonging
to all events which have slipped out of the fingers of Time and
dissolved in the antecedent eternity.
Old Sophy was lying dead in the Dudley mansion. If there were tears shed
for her, they could not be bitter ones; for she had lived out her full
measure of days, and gone--who could help fondly believing it?--to
rejoin her beloved mistress. They made a place for her at the foot of
the two mounds. It was thus she would have chosen to sleep, and not to
have wronged her humble devotion in life by asking to lie at the side of
those whom she had served so long and faithfully. There were very few
present at the simple ceremony. Helen Darley was one of these few. The
old black woman had been her companion in all the kind offices of which
she had been the ministering angel to Elsie.
After it was all over, Helen was leaving with the rest, when Dudley
Venner begged her to stay a little, and he would send her back: it was
a long walk; besides, he wished to say some things to her, which he had
not had the opportunity of speaking. Of course Helen could not refuse
him; there must be many thoughts coming into his mind which he would
wish to share with her who had known his daughter so long and been with
her in her last days.
She returned into the great parlor with the wrought cornices and the
medallion-portraits on the ceiling.
"I am now alone in the world," Dudley Venner said.
Helen must have known that before he spoke. But the tone in which he
said it had so much meaning, that she could not find a word to answer
him with. They sat in silence, which the old tall clock counted out in
long seconds; but it was a silence which meant more than any words they
had ever spoken.
"Alone in the world! Helen, the freshness of my life is gone, and there
is little left of the few graces which in my younger days might have
fitted me to win the love of women. Listen to me,--kindly, if you can;
forgive me, at least. Half my life has been passed in constant fear and
anguish, without any near friend to share my trials. My task is done
now; my fears have ceased to prey upon me; the sharpness of early
sorrows has yielded something of its edge to time. You have bound me to
you by gratitude in the tender care you have taken of my poor child.
More than this. I must tell you all now, out of the depth of this
trouble through which I am passing. I have loved you from the moment
we first met; and if my life has anything left worth accepting, it is
yours. Will you take the offered gift?"
Helen looked in his face, surprised, bewildered.
"This is not for me,--not for me," she said. "I am but a poor faded
flower, not worth the gathering of such a one as you. No, no,--I have
been bred to humble toil all my days, and I could not be to you what
you ought to ask. I am accustomed to a kind of loneliness and
self-dependence. I have seen nothing, almost, of the world, such as you
were born to move in. Leave me to my obscure place and duties; I shall
at least have peace;--and you--you will surely find in due time some one
better fitted by Nature and training to make you happy."
"No, Miss Darley!" Dudley Venner said, almost sternly. "You must not
speak to a man who has lived through my experiences of looking about for
a new choice after his heart has once chosen. Say that you can never
love me; say that I have lived too long to share your young life; say
that sorrow has left nothing in me for Love to find his pleasure in; but
do not mock me with the hope of a new affection for some unknown object.
The first look of yours brought me to your side. The first tone of your
voice sunk into my heart. From this moment my life must wither out or
bloom anew. My home is desolate. Come under my roof and make it bright
once more,--share my life with me,--or I shall give the halls of the old
mansion to the bats and the owls, and wander forth alone without a hope
or a friend!"
To find herself with a man's future at the disposal of a single word of
hers!--a man like this, too, with a fascination for her against which
she had tried to shut her heart, feeling that he lived in another sphere
than hers, working as she was for her bread, a poor operative in the
factory of a hard master and jealous overseer, the salaried drudge of
Mr. Silas Peckham! Why, she had thought he was grateful to her as a
friend of his daughter; she had even pleased herself with the feeling
that he liked her, in her humble place, as a woman of some cultivation
and many sympathetic! points of relation with himself; but that he
_loved_ her,--that this deep, fine nature, in a man so far removed from
her in outward circumstance, should have found its counterpart in one
whom life had treated so coldly as herself,--that Dudley Venner should
stake his happiness on a breath of hers,--poor Helen Darley's,--it was
all a surprise, a confusion, a kind of fear not wholly fearful. Ah, me!
women know what it is,--that mist over the eyes, that trembling in the
limbs, that faltering of the voice, that sweet, shame-faced, unspoken
confession of weakness which does not wish to be strong, that sudden
overflow in the soul where thoughts loose their hold on each other and
swim single and helpless in the flood of emotion,--women know what it
No doubt she was a little frightened and a good deal bewildered, and
that her sympathies were warmly excited for a friend to whom she had
been brought so near, and whose loneliness she saw and pitied. She lost
that calm self-possession she had hoped to maintain.
"If I thought that I could make you happy,--if I should speak from my
heart, and not my reason,--I am but a weak woman,--yet if I can be to
you--What can I say?"
What more could this poor, dear Helen say?
* * * * *
"Elbridge, harness the horses and take Miss Darley back to the school."
What conversation had taken place since Helen's rhetorical failure is
not recorded in the minutes from which this narrative is constructed.
But when the man who had been summoned had gone to get the carriage
ready, Helen resumed something she had been speaking of.
"Not for the world! Everything must go on just as it has gone on, for
the present. There are proprieties to be consulted. I cannot be
hard with you, that out of your very affliction has sprung
this--this--well--you must name it for me,--but the world will never
listen to explanations. I am to be Helen Darley, lady assistant in Mr.
Silas Peckham's school, as long as I see fit to hold my office. And I
mean to attend to my scholars just as before; so that I shall have very
little time for visiting or seeing company. I believe, though, you are
one of the Trustees and a Member of the Examining Committee; so that, if
you should happen to visit the school, I shall try to be civil to you."
Every lady sees, of course, that Helen was quite right; but perhaps here
and there one will think that Dudley Venner was all wrong,--that he was
too hasty,--that he should have been too full of his recent grief for
such a confession as he has just made, and the passion from which it
sprung. Perhaps they do not understand the sudden recoil of a strong
nature long compressed. Perhaps they have not studied the mystery of
_allotropism_ in the emotions of the human heart. Go to the nearest
chemist and ask him to show you some of the dark-red phosphorus which
will not burn, without fierce heating, but at 500 deg., Fahrenheit, changes
back again to the inflammable substance we know so well. Grief seems
more like ashes than like fire; but as grief has been love once, so it
may become love again. This is emotional allotropism.
Helen rode back to the Institute and inquired for Mr. Peckham. She had
not seen him during the brief interval between her departure from the
mansion-house and her return to Old Sophy's funeral. There were various
questions about the school she wished to ask.
"Oh, how's your haaelth, Miss Darley?" Silas began. "We've missed you
consid'able. Glad to see you back at the post of dooty. Hope the Squire
treated you hahnsomely,--liberal pecooniary compensation,--hey? A'n't
much of a loser, I guess, by acceptin' his propositions?"
Helen blushed at this last question, as if Silas had meant something by
it beyond asking what money she had received; but his own double-meaning
expression and her blush were too nice points for him to have taken
cognizance of. He was engaged in a mental calculation as to the amount
of the deduction he should make under the head of "damage to the
institootion,"--this depending somewhat on that of the "pecooniary
compensation" she might have received for her services as the friend of
So Helen slid back at once into her routine, the same faithful, patient
creature she had always been. But what was this new light which seemed
to have kindled in her eyes? What was this look of peace, which nothing
could disturb, which smiled serenely through all the little meannesses
with which the daily life of the educational factory surrounded
her,--which not only made her seem resigned, but overflowed all her
features with a thoughtful, subdued happiness? Mr. Bernard did not
know,--perhaps he did not guess. The inmates of the Dudley mansion were
not scandalized by any mysterious visits of a veiled or unveiled lady.
The vibrating tongues of the "female youth" of the Institute were not
set in motion by the standing of an equipage at the gate, waiting for
their lady teacher. The servants at the mansion did not convey numerous
letters with superscriptions in a bold, manly hand, sealed with the arms
of a well-known house, and directed to Miss Helen Darley; nor, on the
other hand, did Hiram, the man from the lean streak in New Hampshire,
carry sweet-smelling, rose-hued, many-layered, criss-crossed,
fine-stitch-lettered packages of note-paper directed to Dudley Venner,
Esq., and all too scanty to hold that incredible expansion of the famous
three words which a woman was born to say,--that perpetual miracle which
astonishes all the go-betweens who wear their shoes out in carrying a
woman's infinite variations on the theme, "I love you."
But the reader must remember that there are walks in country-towns where
people are liable to meet by accident, and that the hollow of an old
tree has served the purpose of a post-office sometimes; so that he has
her choice (to divide the pronouns impartially) of various hypotheses to
account for the new glory of happiness which seemed to have irradiated
our poor Helen's features, as if her dreary life were awakening in the
dawn of a blessed future.
With all the alleviations which have been hinted at, Mr. Dudley Venner
thought that the days and the weeks had never moved so slowly as through
the last period of the autumn that was passing. Elsie had been a
perpetual source of anxiety to him, but still she had been a companion.
He could not mourn for her; for he felt that she was safer with her
mother, in that world where there are no more sorrows and dangers, than
she could have been with him. But as he sat at his window and looked at
the three mounds, the loneliness of the great house made it seem more
like the sepulchre than these narrow dwellings where his beloved and her
daughter lay close to each other, side by side,--Catalina, the bride
of his youth, and Elsie, the child whom he had nurtured, with poor Old
Sophy, who had followed them like a black shadow, at their feet, under
the same soft turf, sprinkled with the brown autumnal leaves. It was not
good for him to be thus alone. How should he ever live through the long
months of November and December?
The months of November and December did, in some way or other, get
rid of themselves at last, bringing with them the usual events of
village-life and a few unusual ones. Some of the geologists had been up
to look at the great slide, of which they gave those prolix accounts
which everybody remembers who read the scientific journals of the time.
The engineers reported that there was little probability of any further
convulsion along the line of rocks which overhung the more thickly
settled part of the town. The naturalists drew up a paper on the
"Probable Extinction of the _Crotalus Durissus_ in the Township of
Rockland." The engagement of the Widow Rowens to a Little Millionville
merchant was announced,--"Sudding 'n' onexpected," Widow Leech
said,--"waaelthy, or she wouldn't ha' looked at him,--fifty year old, if
he is a day, _'n' ha'n't got a white hair in his head."_ The Reverend
Chauncy Fairweather had publicly announced that he was going to join the
Roman Catholic communion,--not so much to the surprise or consternation
of the religious world as he had supposed. Several old ladies forthwith
proclaimed their intention of following him; but, as one or two of them
were deaf, and another had been threatened with an attack of that mild,
but obstinate complaint, _dementia senilis_, many thought it was not so
much the force of his arguments as a kind of tendency to jump as the
bellwether jumps, well known in flocks not included in the Christian
fold. His bereaved congregation immediately began pulling candidates on
and off, like new boots, on trial. Some pinched in tender places; some
were too loose; some were too square-toed; some were too coarse, and
didn't please; some were too thin, and wouldn't last;--in short, they
couldn't possibly find a fit. At last people began to drop in to hear
old Doctor Honeywood. They were quite surprised to find what a human old
gentleman he was, and went back and told the others, that, instead of
being a case of confluent sectarianism, as they supposed, the good old
minister had been so well vaccinated with charitable virus that he was
now a true, open-souled Christian of the mildest type. The end of all
which was, that the liberal people went over to the old minister almost
in a body, just at the time that Deacon Shearer and the "Vinegar-Bible"
party split off, and that not long afterwards they sold their own
meeting-house to the malecontents, so that Deacon Soper used often to
remind Colonel Sprowle of his wish that "our little man and him [the
Reverend Doctor] would swop pulpits," and tell him it had "pooty nigh
come trew."--But this is anticipating the course of events, which were
much longer in coming about; for we have but just got through that
terribly long month, as Mr. Dudley Venner found it, of December.
On the first of January, Mr. Silas Peckham was in the habit of settling
his quarterly accounts, and making such new arrangements as his
convenience or interest dictated. New-Year was a holiday at the
Institute. No doubt this accounted for Helen's being dressed so
charmingly,--always, to be sure, in her own simple way, but yet with
such a true lady's air that she looked fit to be the mistress of any
mansion in the land.
She was in the parlor alone, a little before noon, when Mr. Peckham came
"I'm ready to settle my account with you now, Miss Darley," said Silas.
"As you please, Mr. Peckham," Helen answered, very graciously.
"Before payin' you your selary," the Principal continued, "I wish to
come to an understandin' as to the futur'. I consider that I've been
payin' high, very high, for the work you do. Women's wages can't be
expected to do more than feed and clothe 'em, as a gineral thing, with
a little savin', in case of sickness, and to bury 'em, if they
break daown, as all of 'em are liable to do at any time. If I a'n't
misinformed, you not only support yourself out of my establishment, but
likewise relatives of yours, who I don't know that I'm called upon to
feed and clothe. There is a young woman, not burdened with destitoot
relatives, has signified that she would be glad to take your dooties for
less pecooniary compensation, by a consid'able amaount, than you now
receive. I shall be willin', however, to retain your services at sech
redooced rate as we shall fix upon,--provided sech redooced rate be as
low or lower than the same services can be obtained elsewhere."
"As you please, Mr. Peckham," Helen answered, with a smile so sweet that
the Principal (who of course had trumped up this opposition-teacher for
the occasion) said to himself she would stand being cut down a quarter,
perhaps a half, of her salary.
"Here is your accaount, Miss Darley, and the balance doo you,"
said Silas Peckham, handing her a paper and a small roll of
infectious-flavored bills wrapping six poisonous coppers of the old
She took the paper and began looking at it. She could not quite make up
her mind to touch the feverish bills with the cankering copper in them,
and left them airing themselves on the table.
The document she held ran as follows:
_Silas Peckham, Esq., Principal of the Apollinean Institute,
In Account with Helen Darley, Assist. Teacher._
To Salary for quarter ending Jan. 1st,
@ $75 per quarter . . . . . . $75.00
By Deduction for absence, 1 week 8
days . . . . . . . . . . $10.00
" Board, lodging, etc., for 10 days,
@ 75 cts. per day . . . . . . 7.50
" Damage to Institution by absence
of teacher from duties, say . . . 25.00
" Stationery furnished . . . . . 43
" Postage-stamp . . . . . . . 01
" Balance due Helen Darley . . $32.06
ROCKLAND, Jan. 1st, 1859.
Now Helen had her own private reasons for wishing to receive the
small sum which was due her at this time without any unfair
deduction,--reasons which we need not inquire into too particularly,
as we may be very sure that they were right and womanly. So, when she
looked over this account of Mr. Silas Peckham's, and saw that he had
contrived to pare down her salary to something less than half its
stipulated amount, the look which her countenance wore was as near to
that of righteous indignation as her gentle features and soft blue eyes
would admit of its being.
"Why, Mr. Peckham," she said, "do you mean this? If I am of so much
value to you that you must take off twenty-five dollars for ten days'
absence, how is it that my salary is to be cut down to less than
seventy-five dollars a quarter, if I remain here?"
"I gave you fair notice," said Silas. "I have a minute of it I took down
immed'ately after the intervoo."
He lugged out his large pocket-book with the strap going all round it,
and took from it a slip of paper which confirmed his statement.
"Besides," he added, slyly, "I presoom you have received a liberal
pecooniary compensation from Squire Venner for nussin' his daughter."
Helen was looking over the bill while he was speaking.
"Board and lodging for ten days, Mr. Peckham,--_whose_ board and
The door opened before Silas Peckham could answer, and Mr. Bernard
walked into the parlor. Helen was holding the bill in her hand, looking
as any woman ought to look who has been at once wronged and insulted.
"The last turn of the thumbscrew!" said Mr. Bernard to himself. "What is
it, Helen? You look troubled."
She handed him the account.
He looked at the footing of it. Then he looked at the items. Then he
looked at Silas Peckham.
At this moment Silas was sublime. He was so transcendency unconscious of
the emotions going on in Mr. Bernard's mind at the moment, that he had
only a single thought.
"The accaount's correc'ly cast, I presoom;--if the' 's any mistake
of figgers or addin' 'em up, it'll be made all right. Everything's
accordin' to agreement. The minute written immed'ately after the
intervoo is here in my possession."
Mr. Bernard looked at Helen. Just what would have happened to Silas
Peckham, as he stood then and there, but for the interposition of a
merciful Providence, nobody knows or ever will know; for at that moment
steps were heard upon the stairs, and Hiram threw open the parlor-door
for Mr. Dudley Venner to enter.
He saluted them all gracefully with the good-wishes of the season, and
each of them returned his compliment,--Helen blushing fearfully, of
course, but not particularly noticed in her embarrassment by more than
Silas Peckham reckoned with perfect confidence on his Trustees, who had
always said what he told them to, and done what he wanted. It was a good
chance now to show off his power, and, by letting his instructors know
the unstable tenure of their offices, make it easier to settle his
accounts and arrange his salaries. There was nothing very strange in Mr.
Venner's calling; he was one of the Trustees, and this was New Year's
Day. But he had called just at the lucky moment for Mr. Peckham's
"I have thought some of makin' changes in the department of
instruction," he began. "Several accomplished teachers have applied to
me, who would be glad of sitooations. I understand that there never have
been so many fust-rate teachers, male and female, out of employment as
doorin' the present season. If I can make sahtisfahctory arrangements
with my present corpse of teachers, I shall be glad to do so; otherwise
I shell, with the permission of the Trustees, make sech noo arrangements
as circumstahnces compel."
"You may make arrangements for a new assistant in my department, Mr.
Peckham," said Mr. Bernard, "at once,--this day,--this hour. I am not
safe to be trusted with your person five minutes out of this lady's
presence,--of whom I beg pardon for this strong language. Mr. Venner, I
must beg you, as one of the Trustees of this Institution, to look at the
manner in which its Principal has attempted to swindle this faithful
teacher, whose toils and sacrifices and self-devotion to the school
have made it all that it is, in spite of this miserable trader's
incompetence. Will you look at the paper I hold?"
Dudley Venner took the account and read it through, without changing a
feature. Then he turned to Silas Peckham.
"You may make arrangements for a new assistant in the branches this lady
has taught. Miss Helen Darley is to be my wife. I had hoped to announce
this news in a less abrupt and ungraceful manner. But I came to tell
you with my own lips what you would have learned before evening from my
friends in the village."
Mr. Bernard went to Helen, who stood silent, with downcast eyes, and
took her hand warmly, hoping she might find all the happiness she
deserved. Then he turned to Dudley Venner, and said,--
"She is a queen, but has never found it out. The world has nothing
nobler than this dear woman, whom you have discovered in the disguise of
a teacher. God bless her and you!"
Dudley Venner returned his friendly grasp, without answering a word in
Silas remained dumb and aghast for a brief space. Coming to himself
a little, he thought there might have been some mistake about the
items,--would like to have Miss Darley's bill returned,--would make it
all right,--had no idee that Squire Venner had a special int'rest in
Miss Darley,--was sorry he had given offence,--if he might take that
bill and look it over--
"No, Mr. Peckham," said Mr. Dudley Venner; "there will be a full meeting
of the Board next week, and the bill, and such evidence with reference
to the management of the Institution and the treatment of its
instructors as Mr. Langdon sees fit to bring forward, will be laid
Miss Helen Darley became that very day the guest of Miss Arabella
Thornton, the Judge's daughter. Mr. Bernard made his appearance a week
or two later at the Lectures, where the Professor first introduced him
to the reader.
He stayed after the class had left the room.
"Ah, Mr. Langdon! how do you do? Very glad to see you back again. How
have you been since our correspondence on Fascination and other curious
It was the Professor who spoke,--whom the reader will recognize as
myself, the teller of this story.
"I have been well," Mr. Bernard answered, with a serious look which
invited a further question.
"I hope you have had none of those painful or dangerous experiences you
seemed to be thinking of when you wrote; at any rate, you have escaped
having your obituary written."
"I have seen some things worth remembering. Shall I call on you this
evening and tell you about them?"
"I shall be most happy to see you."
* * * * *
This was the way in which I, the Professor, became acquainted with some
of the leading events of this story. They interested me sufficiently
to lead me to avail myself of all those other extraordinary methods of
obtaining information well known to writers of narrative.
Mr. Langdon seemed to me to have gained in seriousness and strength of
character by his late experiences. He threw his whole energies into
his studies with an effect which distanced all his previous efforts.
Remembering my former hint, he employed his spare hours in writing for
the annual prizes, both of which he took by a unanimous vote of the
judges. Those who heard him read his Thesis at the Medical Commencement
will not soon forget the impression made by his fine personal appearance
and manners, nor the universal interest excited in the audience, as
he read, with his beautiful enunciation, that striking paper entitled
"Unresolved Nebulas in Vital Science." It was a general remark of the
Faculty,--and old Doctor Kittredge, who had come down on purpose to hear
Mr. Langdon, heartily agreed to it,--that there had never been a diploma
filled up, since the institution which conferred upon him the degree of
_Doctor Medicinae_ was founded, which carried with it more of promise to
the profession than that which bore the name of
Bernardus Caryl Langdon
Mr. Bernard Langdon had no sooner taken his degree, than, in accordance
with the advice of one of his teachers whom he frequently consulted, he
took an office in the heart of the city where he had studied. He had
thought of beginning in a suburb or some remoter district of the city
"No," said his teacher,--to wit, myself,--"don't do any such thing. You
are made for the best kind of practice; don't hamper yourself with an
outside constituency, such as belongs to a practitioner of the second
class. When a fellow like you chooses his beat, he must look ahead a
little. Take care of all the poor that apply to you, but leave the
half-pay classes to a different style of doctor,--the people who spend
one half their time in taking care of their patients, and the other half
in squeezing out their money. Go for the swell-fronts and south-exposure
houses; the folks inside are just as good as other people, and the
pleasantest, on the whole, to take care of. They must have somebody, and
they like a gentleman best. Don't throw yourself away. You have a
good presence and pleasing manners. You wear white linen by inherited
instinct. You can pronounce the word _view_. You have all the elements
of success; go and take it. Be polite and generous, but don't undervalue
yourself. You will be useful, at any rate; you may just as well be
happy, while you are about it. The highest social class furnishes
incomparably the best patients, taking them by and large. Besides, when
they won't get well and bore you to death, you can send 'em off to
travel. Mind me now, and take the tops of your sparrowgrass. Somebody
must have 'em,--why shouldn't you? If you don't take your chance, you'll
get the butt-ends as a matter of course."
Mr. Bernard talked like a young man full of noble sentiments. He wanted
to be useful to his fellow-beings. Their social differences were nothing
to him. He would never court the rich,--he would go where he was called.
He would rather save the life of a poor mother of a family than that of
half a dozen old gouty millionnaires whose heirs had been yawning and
stretching these ten years to get rid of them.
"Generous emotions!" I exclaimed. "Cherish 'em; cling to 'em till you
are fifty,--till you are seventy,--till you are ninety! But do as I tell
you,--strike for the best circle of practice, and you'll be sure to get
Mr. Langdon did as I told him,--took a genteel office, furnished it
neatly, dressed with a certain elegance, soon made a pleasant circle
of acquaintances, and began to work his way into the right kind of
business. I missed him, however, for some days, not long after he had
opened his office. On his return, he told me he had been up at Rockland,
by special invitation, to attend the wedding of Mr. Dudley Venner and
Miss Helen Darley. He gave me a full account of the ceremony, which
I regret that I cannot relate in full. "Helen looked like an
angel,"--that, I am sure, was one of his expressions. As for her dress,
I should like to give the details, but am afraid of committing blunders,
as men always do, when they undertake to describe such matters. White
dress, anyhow,--that I am sure of,--with orange-flowers, and the most
wonderful lace veil that was ever seen or heard of. The Reverend Doctor
Honeywood performed the ceremony, of course. The good people seemed to
have forgotten they ever had had any other minister,--except Deacon
Shearer and his set of malecontents, who were doing a dull business in
the meeting-house lately occupied by the Reverend Mr. Fairweather.
"Who was at the wedding?"
"Everybody, pretty much. They wanted to keep it quiet, but it was of no
use. Married at church. Front pews, old Doctor Kittredge and all the
mansion-house people and distinguished strangers,--Colonel Sprowle and
family, including Matilda's young gentleman, a graduate of one of
the fresh-water colleges,--Mrs. Pickins (late Widow Rowens) and
husband,--Deacon Soper and numerous parishioners. A little nearer the
door, Abel, the Doctor's man, and Elbridge, who drove them to church in,
the family-coach. Father Fairweather, as they all call him now, came in
late, with Father McShane."
"And Silas Peckham?"
"Oh, Silas had left The School and Rockland. Cut up altogether too
badly in the examination instituted by the Trustees. Had moved over
to Tamarack, and thought of renting a large house and 'farming' the
* * * * *
Some time after this, as I was walking with a young friend along by the
swell-fronts and south-exposures, whom should I see but Mr. Bernard
Langdon, looking remarkably happy, and keeping step by the side of a
very handsome and singularly well-dressed young lady? He bowed and
lifted his hat as we passed.
"Who is that pretty girl my young doctor has got there?" I said to my
"Who is that?" he answered. "You don't know? Why, that is neither more
nor less than Miss Letitia Forester, daughter of--of--why, the great
banking-firm, you know, Bilyuns Brothers & Forester. Got acquainted with
her in the country, they say. There's a story that they're engaged, or