A New England Tale/Chapter XV

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A New England Tale by Catharine Maria Sedgwick
Chapter XV
CHAPTER XV.


———————Even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison'd
Chalice, to our own lips.
 Macbeth


David Wilson, not long after the affair of the robbery of his mother's desk, went to New- York, in order to see bis comrades, who were imprisoned there, and, if possible, to abate their demands on his purse. He succeeded in doing this; but having fallen in (attracted doubtless by natural afinities) with other companions as wicked, and more desperate, he soon spent in that city, which affords remarkable facilities for ridding men of their money, all that remained of the five hundred dollars. He preyed on others for a little time, as he had been their prey; and, finally reduced to extreme want, he joined two of his new associates in the attempt on the southern mail, which ended in his detection and commitment to jail in Philadelphia, where he was now awaiting a capital trial. A particular account of the whole affair, accompanied with letters from her son, was transmitted to Mrs. Wilson, who seemed now to be visited on every side with the natural and terrible retribution of her maternal sins.

After Elvira's departure, with all the profits of her little school, Jane did not delay another moment to go to her aunt's, in order to communicate to her Mr. Lloyd's kind offer of assistance, and to extend to her any aid or consolation in her own power.

She found Mrs. Wilson alone, but not in a frame of mind that indicated any just feelings. She received her niece coldly. After a silence of a few moments, which Jane wished but knew not how to break, she inquired of Mrs. Wilson, whether she had any more information respecting David than was public?

Her aunt replied, she had not. She understood the particulars were all in the paper, even to his name; she thought that might have been omitted; but people always seemed to delight in publishing every one's misfortunes.

Jane asked if the letters expressed any doubt that David would be convicted?

"None," Mrs. Wilson said. "To be sure," she added, "I have a letter from David, in which he begs me to employ counsel for him; so I suppose he thinks it possible that he might be cleared; but a drowning man catches at straws."

"Do you know," inquired Jane, "the names of the eminent lawyers in Philadelphia? Mr. Lloyd will be best able to inform you whom to select among them. I will go to him immediately."

"No, no, child; I have made up my mind upon that subject. It would be a great expense. There is no conscience in city lawyers; they would devour all my substance, and do me no good after all. No, no—I shall leave David entirely in the hands of Providence."

"And can you, aunt," said Jane, "acquiesce in your son's being cut off in the spring of life, without an effort to save him—without an effort to procure him a space for repentance and reformation?"

"Do not presume, Jane Elon," replied Mrs. Wilson, "to instruct me in my duties. A space for repentance! A day—an hour—a moment is as good as an eternity for the operations of the Spirit. Many, at the foot of the gallows, have repented, and have died exulting in their pardon and new-born hope."

"Yes," replied Jane; "and there have been many who have thus repented and rejoiced, and then been reprieved; and have they then shown the only unquestionable proof of genuine penitence—a renewed spirit? Have they kept the commandments, for by this shall ye know that they are the disciples of Christ? No; they have returned to their old sins, and been tenfold worse than at first."

"I tell you," said Mrs. Wilson, impatiently, "you are ignorant, child; you are still in the bond of iniquity; you cannot spiritually discern. There is more hope, and that is the opinion of some of our greatest divines, of an open outrageous transgressor, than of one of a moral life."

"Then," replied Jane, "there is more hope of a harvest from a hard bound, neglected field, than from that which the owner has carefully ploughed and sowed, and prepared for the sun and the rains of heaven."

"The kingdom of grace is very different from the kingdom of nature," answered Mrs. Wilson. "The natural man can do nothing towards his own salvation. Every act he performs, and every prayer he offers, but provokes more and more the wrath of the Almighty."

Jane made no reply; but she raised her hands and eyes as if she deprecated so impious a doctrine, and Mrs. Wilson went on: "Do not think my children are worse than others; you, Jane, are as much a child of wrath, and so is every son and daughter of Adam, as he is—all totally depraved—totally corrupt. You may have been under more restraint, and not acted out your sins; but no thanks to you;" and she continued, fixing her large gray eyes stedfastly on Jane, "there are beside my son who would not seem better, if they had not friends to keep their secrets for them." Mrs. Wilson had, for very good reasons, never before alluded to the robbery of her desk, since the morning it was committed; but she was now provoked to foul means to support her argument, tottering under the assault of facts.

Jane did not condescend to notice the insinuation; she felt too sincere a pity for the miserable self-deluded woman; but, still anxious that some effort should be made for David, she said to Mrs. Wilson, "Is there, then, nothing to be done for your unhappy son?"

"Nothing, child, nothing; he has gone out from me, and he is not of me; his blood be upon his own head; I am clear of it. My 'foot standeth on an even place.' My case is not an uncommon one," she continued, as if she would by this vain babbling, silence the voice within. "The saints of old—David, and Samuel, and Eli, were afflicted as I am, with rebellious children, I have planted and I have watered, and if it is the Lord's will to withhold the increase, I must submit."

"Oh, aunt!" exclaimed Jane, interrupting and advancing towards her, "do not—do not, for your soul's sake, indulge any longer this horrible delusion. You have more children," she continued, falling on her knees, and taking one of her aunt's hands in both hers, and looking like a rebuking messenger from Heaven, "be pitiful to them; be merciful to your own soul. You deceive yourself. You may deceive others; but God is not mocked."

Mrs. Wilson was conscience stricken. She sat as motionless as a statue; and Jane went on with the courage of an Apostle to depicture, in their true colours, her character and conduct. She made her realize, for a few moments at least, the peril of her soul. She made her feel, that her sound faith, her prayers, her pretences, her meeting-goings, were nothing—far worse than nothing in his sight, who cannot be deceived by the daring hypocrisies, the self-delusions, the refuge of lies, of his creatures. She described the spiritual disciple of Jesus; and then presented to Mrs. Wilson so true an image of her selfishness, her pride, her domestic tyranny, and her love of money, that she could not but see that it was her very self. There was that in Jane's looks, and voice, and words, that was not to be resisted by the wretched woman; and like the guilty king, when he saw the record on the wall, her "countenance was changed, her thoughts were troubled, and her knees smote one against the other."

At this moment they were interrupted by the entrance of Mr. Lloyd. Jane rose, embarrassed for her aunt and herself, and walked to the window. Mrs. Wilson attempted to speak, to rise; she could do neither, and she sunk back on her chair, convulsed with misery and passion. Mr. Lloyd mistook her agitation for the natural wailings of a mother, and with instinctive benevolence he advanced to her, and kindly taking her hand, said, "Be composed, I pray; I have intelligence that will comfort thee."

"What is it ?" inquired Jane, eager to allay the storm she had raised.

Mrs. Wilson was still unable to speak.

"Thy son has escaped, Mrs. Wilson, and is, before this, beyond the reach of his country's laws. Here is a letter addressed to thee, which came enclosed in one to me." Mr. Lloyd laid the letter on Mrs. Wilson's lap, but she was unable to open it or even to hold it. Her eyes were fixed, her hands firmly closed, and she continued to shiver with uncontrollable emotion. "She is quite unconscious," he said, "she does not hear a word I say to her."

Jane flew to her assistance, spoke to her, entreated her to answer, bathed her temples and her hand—but all without effect. "Oh!" she exclaimed, terrified and dismayed, " I have killed her."

"Do not be so alarmed," said Mr. Lloyd, "there is no occasion for it; the violence of her emotion has overcome her, it is the voice of nature; let us convey her to her bed."

Jane called assistants, and they removed her to her own room, and placed her on her bed.

"See," whispered Mr. Lloyd to Jane, after a few moments, "she is becoming composed already; leave her for a little time with this domestic—I have much to say to thee."

Jane followed him to the parlour. He took both her hands, and said, his face radiant with joy. "Jane, many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all. Nay, do not tremble, unless it be for the sin of having kept from me so long the blessed intelligence of this morning."

Poor Jane tried to stammer out an apology for her reserve, but Mr. Lloyd interrupted her by saying playfully, "I understand it all; I am too old, too rigid, too—quakerish; to be a young lady confidant."

"Oh, say not so," exclaimed Jane, gathering courage from his kindness; "you have been my benefactor, my guardian, my kindest friend; forgive my silence—I feel it all—I have always felt it; perhaps most, when I seemed most insensible, most reckless." Mr. Lloyd looked gratified beyond expression; it cost him an effort to interrupt her, for there is perhaps nothing more delightful than the merited praises of those we love. But he said, "Nay, my sweet friend, it will be my turn next, if thou dost not stop, and we shall indeed be, as the French name my brethren, a house of Trembleurs. I have a great deal to tell thee; our joys have clustered. What sayest thou Jane, to another walk to old John's, with as strange, and a more welcome guide, than your fitful night wanderer? I have no time to lose in enigmas; our despatches were brought by a sailor, a fine good-natured, hardy looking fellow, who came to my house this morning. I was wondering what he could be doing so far from his element, when Mary, who returned to us yesterday, opened the door for him, and exclaimed, with a ludicrous mixture of terror and joy, "The Lord have mercy on us! is it you, or your ghost. Jemmy?" The sailor gave her a truly professional, and most unghostly, smack, and replied between crying and laughing, "I am no ghost, Mary, as you may see; but excuse me, Mary, (for Mary had stepped back, a little embarrassed by the involuntary freedom of her friend) I was so glad, I could not help it. No, no, Mary, I am no ghost, but a prodigal that's come back, thanks to the Lord! a little better than I went," James, who is indeed the long lost son of our good friend John of the Mountain, went on to detail his experiences to Mary, who by turns raised her hands and eyes in wonder and devout thankfulness. The amount of it is, for their joy overflowed all barriers of reserve, he left here ten years ago in despair, because Mary would not marry him) and sailed to the Mediterranean; the poor fellow was taken by the Algerines, and after suffering almost incredibly for six years, he was so happy as to procure his freedom along with some English captives. After his release, he said he could not endure the thought of coming to his father and mother quite destitute, for, as he said to Mary, though he was a wild lad, and had a fancy to follow the sea, her cruelty would not have driven him to leave them, if he had not hoped to get something to comfort their old age with, He wrote them an account of his sufferings, and of an engagement be had made to go to Calcutta in the service of an English merchantman. The letters it seems never reached here. He went to India; many circumstances occurred to advance him in the favour of his employer; his integrity, which, he said, the tears streaming from his eyes, was "all owing to the teachings and examples of his good old parents," and his intelligence, "thanks to his country, which took care to give the poor man learning," occasioned his being employed in the company's service, and sent with some others into the interior of India on business of great hazard and importance, the success of which his employers attributed to him, and rewarded him most liberally. All these facts came out inevitably, in the course of his oarrative, for he spoke not boastfully, but with simplicity and gratitude. He has returned with enough to purchase a farm, and give to his parents all that they want of this world; and, what our friend Mary thinks best of all, be has come home a Methodist) having been made, one by a missionary of that zealous sect in India. If I have not misinterpreted Mary's glistening eye, this fact will cost me my housekeeper."

"Dear, dear Mary!" exclaimed Jane, brushing away the tears of sympathy and joy that Mr. Lloyd's narrative had brought to her eyes, "and John, and old Sarah. Oh, it is as beautiful a conclusion of their lives, as if it had been conjured up by a poet."

"Ah, Jane," replied Mr. Lloyd, "there are realities in the kind dispositions of Providence more blessed than a poet can dream of; and there are virtues in real life," he continued, smiling, "that might lend a persuasive grace to the page of a moralist, it is of those I must now speak."

"Not now," said Jane, hastily rising, "I must go to my aunt."

"At least then, take these letters with thee, the levity of one will give thee some pain; in the other, the wretched Wilson has done thee late justice. Now go, my blessed friend, to thy aunt; would that thou couldst minister to her mind, distracted by these terrible events. Oh that power might be given to the voice to awaken her conscience from its deep, oblivious steep!"

It was a remarkable proof of Mr. Lloyd's habitual grace, that he did not forget, at this moment, that Jane could not work miracles without supernatural assistance.

There is not a happier moment of existence than that which a benevolent being enjoys, when he knows that the object of his solicitude and love has passed safely through trial, is victorious over temptation, and has overcome the world. This was the joy that now a thousand fold requited Mr. Lloyd for all his sufferings in the cause of our heroine. Would Mr. Lloyd have been equally happy in the proved virtue of his favourite, if hope had not brightened his dim future with her sweetest visions? Certainly not. He who hath wonderfully made us, has, in wisdom, implanted the principle of self-love in our bosoms; and let the enthusiast rave as he will, it is neither the work of grace nor of discipline to eradicate it; but it may, and if we would be good, it must be modified, controlled, and made subservient to the benefit and happiness of others.

Mr. Lloyd had no very definite plans for the future; but his horizon was brightening with a coming day; and, without vanity or presumption, he trusted all would be well.

Jane returned to her aunt's apartment, and found her in a sullen stupor. She did not seem to notice; at any rate, she made no reply to Jane's kind inquiries, and she, after drawing the curtains and dismissing the attendant, sat down to the perusal of the letters Mr. Lloyd had given to her. The first she read was from Erskine to Mr. Lloyd, and as it was not long, and was rather characteristic, we shall take the liberty to transcribe it for the benefit of our readers.

"Dear Sir,
 In returning to my lodgings, late last evening, I was accosted by a man, muffled in a cloak. I recognised his voice at once. It was our unfortunate townsman, Wilson. He has succeeded à merveille in an ingenious plan of escape from durance, and sails in the morning for one of the West India islands, where he will, no doubt, make his debût as pirate, or in some other character for which his training has equally qualified him. A precious rascal he is indeed; but, allow me a phrase of your fraternity. Sir, I had no light to give him up to justice, after he had trusted to me; and more than that, for he informs me, that he had, since his confinement, written to the Woodhulls to engage me as counsel, and through them he learnt the fact of my being in this city. This bound me, in some sort, to look upon the poor devil as my client; and, as it would have been my duty to get him out of the clutches of the law, it would have been most ungracious to have put him into them you know, since his own cleverness, instead of mine, has extricated him. He has explained to me, and he informs me has communicated to you, (for he says he cannot trust his mother to make them public,) the particulars of the sequestration of the old woman's money. I think Miss Elton never imparted to you the event that led to the sudden engagement, from which she has chosen to absolve me; and you have yet to learn, that there is generosity, disinterestedness in the world, that may rival the virtue which reposes under the shadow of the broad-brim. But, your pardon. I have wiped out all scores. The reception I have met with in this finest of cities has been such as to make me look upon the incidents of an obscure village as mere bagatelles, not worthy of a sigh from one who can bask in the broad sunshine of ladies favour and fortune's gifts. One word more, en passant, of Wilson's explanation. I rejoice in it sincerely, on Miss Elton's account. She deserved to have suffered a little for her childishness in holding herself bound by an exacted promise, for having put herself in a situation in which her guilt would have seemed apparent to any one but a poor dog whom love had hood-winked——pro tempore. She is too young and too beautiful a victim for the altar of conscience. However, I forgive her, her scruples, her fanaticism, and her cruelties; and wish her all happiness in this world and the next, advising her not to turn anchorite here, for the sake of advancement there.

"I know not when I shall return to village life: stale, flat, and unprofitable. This gay metropolis has cured me of my rural tastes; and, as I flatter myself, fashion's cannie band has quite effaced my rusticity.

"By a lucky chance I met the son of your protegé, John, yesterday. The poor dog's 'hairbreadth 'scapes' will make the villagers stare, all unused as they are to the marvellous. I told him, by way of a welcome to his country, I should pay his expenses home. This I hope you, Sir, will accept in expiation of all my sins against the old basket-maker.

"With many wishes that you may find a new and more pliant subject for your mentor genius, I remain, Sir, your most obedient, "humble servant.
"E. Erskine.

"N. B. My regards to Miss Elton. Tell her I look at the windows of our print shops every day, in the expectation of seeing, among their gay show, her lovely figure chosen by one of the sons of Apolio, to personate the stern lady, Justice, (whom few seek and none love) poising her scales in solitary dignity."


"And is this the man," thought Jane, as she folded the letter, "that I have loved—that I fancied loved me?"—and her heart rose in devout thankfulness for the escape she had made from an utter wreck of her happiness.

She next read Wilson's letter to Mr. Lloyd. He began with the particulars of his late escape, which seemed to possess his mind more than any thing else. He then said, that being about to enter on a new voyage, he wished to lighten his soul of as much of its present cargo of sin as possible. He stated, and we believe with sincerity, that he had intended, if it ever became necessary, to assert Jane's innocence; but that, as long as no one believed her guilty, he had thought it fair to slip his neck out of the yoke; and now, that every body might know how good she was, he wished Mr. Lloyd to make known all the particulars of the transaction. He then went on to detail as much as he knew of her visit to the mountain, which had led to her subsequent involvement. He expressed no remorse for the past, no hope of the future. His wish to exculpate Jane had arisen from a deep feeling of her excellence, and seemed to be the last ray of just or kindly feeling that his dark, guilty spirit emitted.

Jane bad scarcely finished reading the letters, when her attention was called to her aunt, who had been thrown into a state of agitation almost amounting to frenzy, by the perusal of her son's farewell letter to herself, which Mr. Lloyd had placed on the pillow beside her, believing that it merely contained such account of David's escape and plans, as would have a tendency to allay the anguish of her mind, which he still supposed arose solely from her apprehensions for her son's life. But Mr. Lloyd was too good even to conceive of the bitterness of a malignant exasperated spirit, wrought to madness, as Wilson's was, by his mother's absolute refusal to make any effort to save his life.

The letter was filled with execrations. "If I have a soul," he said, "eternity will be spent in cursing her who has ruined it;" but he did not fear the future—hell was a bugbear to frighten children. "You," he continued, "neither fear it, nor believe it; for if you did, your religion would be something besides a cloak to hide your hard, cruel heart. Religion! what is it but a dream, a pretence? I might have believed it, if I had seen more like Jane Elton—whom you have trodden on, wrongfully accused, when you knew her innocent. Mother, mother! oh, that I must must call you so!—as I do it, I howl a curse with every breath—you have destroyed me. You, it was, that taught me, when I scarcely knew my right hand from my left, that there was no difference between doing right and doing wrong, in the sight of the God you worship; you taught me, that I could do nothing acceptable to him. If you taught me truly, I have only acted out the nature totally depraved, (your own words,) that he gave to me, and I am not to blame for it. I could do nothing to save my own soul; and according to your own doctrine, I stand now a better chance than my moral cousin, Jane. If you have taught me falsely, I was not to blame; the peril be on your own soul. My mind was a blank, and you put your own impressions on it; God (if there be a God) reward you according to your deeds!"

This horrible letter, of which we have given a brief and comparatively mild specimen; and subtracted from that the curses that pointed every sentence, seemed for a little while to swell the clamours of Mrs. Wilson's newly awakened conscience. But, alas! the impression was transient; the chains of systematic delusion were too firmly rivetted—the habits of self-deception too strong, to be overcome.

Jane, fearful that the violence of her aunt's passion would over destroy her reason, sought only, for the remainder of the day and the following night, to sooth and quiet her. She remained by her bedside, and silently watched, and prayed. Mrs. Wilson's sleep was disturbed, but she awoke somewhat refreshed, and quite composed. Her first action was to tear David's letter into a thousand fragments. She was never known afterwards to allude to its contents, nor to her conversation with Jane. There was a restlessness through the remainder of her life, which betrayed the secret gnawings of conscience. Still it is believed, she quelled her convictions as Cromwell is reported to have done, when, as his historian says, he asked Goodwin, one of his preachers, if the doctrine were true, that the elect should never fall, nor suffer a final reprobation?—"Nothing more certain," replied the preacher. "Then I am safe," said the protector; "for I am sure I was once in a state of grace."

Mrs. Wilson survived these events but a few years. She was finally carried off by the scrofula, a disease from which she had suffered all her life, and which had probably increased the natural asperity of her temper; as all evils, physical as well as moral, certainly make us worse, if they do not make us better. Elvira was summoned to her death-bed; but she arrived too late to receive either the reproaches or forgiveness of her mother. Jane faithfully attended her through her last illness, and most kindly ministered to the diseases of her body. Her mind no human comfort could reach; no earthly skill touch its secret springs. The disease was attended with delirium; and she had no rational communication with any one from the beginning of her illness. This Jane afterwards sincerely deplored to Mr. Lloyd, who replied, "I would not sit like the Egyptians in judgment on the dead. Thy aunt has gone with her record to Him who alone knows the secrets of the heart, and therefore is alone qualified to judge His creatures; but for our own benefit, Jane, and for the sake of those whose probation is not past, let us ever remember the wise saying of William Penn, 'a man cannot be the better for that religion for which his neighbour is the worse.' I have no doubt thy aunt has suffered some natural compunctions for her gross failure in the performance of her duties; but she felt safe in a sound faith. It is reported, that one of the Popes said of himself, that 'as Eneas Sylvius he was a damnable heretic, but as Pius II. an orthodox Pope.'"

"Then you believe," replied Jane, "that my unhappy aunt deceived herself by her clamorous profession?"

"Undoubtedly. Ought we to wonder that she effected that imposition on herself, by the aid of self-love, (of all love the most blinding,) since we have heard, in her funeral sermon, her religious experiences detailed as the triumphs of a saint; her strict attention on religious ordinances commended, as if they were the end and not the means of a religious life; since we (who cannot remember a single gracious act of humility in her whole life) have been told, as a proof of her gracious state, that the last rational words she pronounced were, that she 'was of sinners the chief?' There seems to be a curious spiritual alchymy in the utterance of these words; for we cannot say, that those who use them mean to 'palter in a double sense,' but they are too often spoken and received as the evidence of a hopeful state. Professions and declarations have crept in among the protestants, to take the place of the mortifications and penances of the ancient church; so prone are men to find some easier way to heaven than the toilsome path of obedience."