Aunt Phillis's Cabin/Chapter VII
We will go back to the last evening at Exeter, when we left Mr. Weston to witness the result of Bacchus's attendance at the barbecue. There were other hearts busy in the quiet night time. Alice, resisting the offers of her maid to assist her in undressing, threw herself on a lounge by the open window. The night air played with the curtains, and lifted the curls from her brow. Her bloom, which of late had been changeful and delicate, had now left her cheek, and languid and depressed she abandoned herself to thought. So absorbed was she, that she was not aware any one had entered the room, until her mother stood near, gently reproving her for thus exposing herself to the night air. "Do get up and go to bed," she said. "Where is Martha?"
"I did not want her," said Alice; "and am now going to bed myself. What has brought you here?"
"Because I felt anxious about you," said Mrs. Weston, "and came, as I have often before, to be assured that you were well and enjoying repose. I find you still up; and now, my daughter, there is a question I have feared to ask you, but can no longer delay it. By all the love that is between us, by the tie that should bind an only child to a widowed mother, will you tell me what are the thoughts that are oppressing you? I have been anxious for your health, but is there not more cause to fear for your happiness?"
"I am well enough, dear mother," said Alice, with some irritation of manner, "Do not concern yourself about me. If you will go to bed, I will too."
"You cannot thus put me off," said Mrs. Weston. "Alice, I charge you, as in the presence of God, to tell me truly: do you love Walter Lee?"
"It would be strange if I did not," said Alice, in a low voice. "Have we not always been as brother and sister?"
"Not in that sense, Alice; do not thus evade me. Do you love him with an affection which should belong to your cousin, to whom you are solemnly engaged, who has been the companion of your childhood, and who is the son of the best friend that God ever raised up to a widow and a fatherless child?"
Alice turned her head away, and after a moment answered, "Yes, I do, mother, and I cannot help it." But on turning to look at her mother, she was shocked at the expression of agony displayed on her countenance. Her hand was pressed tightly over her heart, her lips quivered, and her whole person trembled. It was dreadful to see her thus agitated; and Alice, throwing her arms around her mother exclaimed, "What is it, dearest mother? Be not look so deathlike. I cannot bear to see you so."
Oh! they speak falsely who say the certainty of evil can be better borne than suspense. Watcher by the couch of suffering, sayest thou so? Now thou knowest there is no hope, thy darling must be given up. There is no mistaking that failing pulse, and that up-turned eye. A few hours ago, there was suspense, but there was hope; death was feared, but not expected; his arm was outstretched, but the blow was not descending; now, there is no hope.
Mrs. Weston had long feared that all was not well with Alice—that while her promise was given to one, her heart had wandered to another; yet she dreaded to meet the appalling certainty; now with her there is no hope. The keen anguish with which she contended was evident to her daughter, who was affrighted at her mother's appearance. So much so, that for the first time for months she entirely forgot the secret she had been hiding in her heart. The young in their first sorrow dream there are none like their own. It is not until time and many cares have bowed us to the earth, that we look around, beholding those who have suffered more deeply than ourselves.
Accustomed to self-control, Mrs. Weston was not long in recovering herself; taking her daughter's hand within her own, and looking up in her fair face, "Alice," she said, "you listened with an unusual interest to the details of suffering of one whom you never saw. I mean Walter Lee's mother; she died. I can tell you of one who has suffered, and lived.
"It is late, and I fear to detain you from your rest, but something impels me that I cannot resist. Listen, then, while I talk to you of myself. You are as yet almost unacquainted with your mother's history."
"Another time, mother; you are not well now," said Alice.
"Yes, my love, now. You were born in the same house that I was; yet your infancy only was passed where I lived until my marriage. I was motherless at an early age; indeed, one of the first remembrances that I recall is the bright and glowing summer evening when my mother was carried from our plantation on James River to the opposite shore, where was our family burial-ground. Can I ever forget my father's uncontrolled grief, and the sorrow of the servants, as they followed, dressed in the deepest mourning. I was terrified at the solemn and dark-looking bier, the black plumes that waved over it, and all the dread accompaniments of death. I remember but little for years after this, save the continued gloom of my father, and his constant affection and indulgence toward me, and occasionally varying our quiet life by a visit to Richmond or Washington.
"My father was a sincere and practical Christian. He was averse to parting with me; declaring, the only solace he had was in directing my education, and being assured of my happiness.
"My governess was an accomplished and amiable lady, but she was too kind and yielding. I have always retained the most grateful remembrance of her care. Thus, though surrounded by good influences, I needed restraint, where there was so much indulgence. I have sometimes ventured to excuse myself on the ground that I was not taught that most necessary of all lessons: the power of governing myself. The giving up of my own will to the matured judgment of others.
"The part of my life that I wish to bring before you now, is the year previous to my marriage. Never had I received an ungentle word from my father; never in all my waywardness and selfwill did he harshly reprove me. He steadily endeavored to impress on my mind a sense of the constant presence of God. He would often say, 'Every moment, every hour of our lives, places its impress on our condition in eternity. Live, then, as did your mother, in a state of waiting and preparation for that account which we must all surely give for the talents entrusted to our care.' Did I heed his advice? You will hardly believe me, Alice, when I tell you how I repaid his tenderness. I was the cause of his death."
"It could never be, mother," said Alice, weeping, when she saw the tears forcing their way down her mother's cheek. "You are excited and distressed now. Do not tell me any more to-night, and forget what I told you."
Mrs. Weston hardly seemed to hear her. After a pause of a few moments, she proceeded:
"It was so, indeed. I, his only child, was the cause of his death; I, his cherished and beloved daughter, committed an act that broke his heart, and laid the foundation of sorrows for me, that I fear will only end with my life.
"Alice, I read not long since of a son, the veriest wretch on earth; he was unwilling to grant his poor aged father a subsistence from his abundance; he embittered the failing years of his life by unkindness and reproaches. One day, after an altercation between them, the son seized his father by his thin, white hair, and dragged him to the corner of the street. Here, the father in trembling tones implored his pity. 'Stop, oh! stop, my son' he said, 'for I dragged my father here, God has punished me in your sin.'
"Alice, can you not see the hand of a just God in this retribution, and do you wonder, when you made this acknowledgment to me to-night, the agony of death overcame me? I thought, as I felt His hand laid heavily upon me, my punishment was greater than I could bear; my sin would be punished in your sorrow; and naught but sorrow would be your portion as the wife of Walter Lee.
"Do not interrupt me, it is time we were asleep, but I shall soon have finished what I have to say. My father and Mr. Weston were friends in early life, and I was thrown into frequent companionship with my husband, from the time when we were very young. His appearance, his talents, his unvaried gayety of disposition won my regard. For a time, the excess of dissipation in which he indulged was unknown to us, but on our return to Virginia after an absence of some months in England, it could no longer be concealed. His own father joined with mine in prohibiting all intercourse between us. For a time his family considered him as lost to them and to himself; he was utterly regardless of aught save what contributed to his own pleasures. I only mention this to excuse my father in your eyes, should you conclude he was too harsh in the course he insisted I should pursue. He forbade him the house, and refused to allow any correspondence between us; at the same time he promised that if he would perfectly reform from the life he was leading, at the end of two years he would permit the marriage. I promised in return to bind myself to these conditions. Will you believe it, that seated on my mother's grave, with my head upon my kind father's breast, I vowed, that as I hoped for Heaven I would never break my promise, never see him again, without my father's permission, until the expiration of this period; and yet I did break it. I have nearly done. I left home secretly. I was married; and I never saw my father's face again. The shock of my disobedience was too hard for him to bear. He died, and in vain have I sought a place of repentance, though I sought it with tears.
"I have suffered much; but though I cannot conceal from you that your father threw away the best portion of his life, his death was not without hope. I cling to the trust that his sins were washed away, and his soul made clean in the blood of the Saviour. Then, by the memory of all that I suffered, and of that father whose features you bear, whose dying words gave testimony to my faithfulness and affection to him, I conjure you to conquer this unfortunate passion, which, if yielded to, will end in your unceasing misery.
"There was little of my large fortune left at your father's death; we have been almost dependant on your uncle. Yet it has not been dependance; he is too generous to let us feel that. On your father's death-bed, he was all in all to him—never leaving him; inducing him to turn his thoughts to the future opening before him. He taught me where to look for comfort, and bore with me when in my impatient grief I refused to seek it. He took you, then almost an infant, to his heart, has cherished you as his own, and now looks forward to the happiness of seeing you his son's wife; will you so cruelly disappoint him?"
"I will do whatever you ask me, dear mother," said Alice. "I will never see Walter again, if that will content you. I have already told him that I can never be to him more than I have always been—a sister. Yet I cannot help loving him."
"Cannot help loving a man whose very birth is attended with shame," said Mrs. Weston; "whose passions are ungovernable, who has already treated with the basest ingratitude his kindest friends? Have you so little pride? I will not reproach you, my darling; promise me you will never see Walter again, after to-morrow, without my knowledge. I can trust you. Oh! give up forever the thought of being his wife, if ever you have entertained it. Time will show you the justice of my fears, and time will bring back your old feelings for Arthur, and we shall be happy again."
"I will make you the promise," said Alice, "and I will keep it; but I will not deceive Arthur. Ungrateful as I may appear, he shall know all. He will then love some one more worthy of him than I am."
"Let us leave the future in the hands of an unerring God, my Alice. Each one must bear her burden, I would gladly bear yours; but it may not be. Forget all this for a while; let me sleep by you to-night."
Alice could not but be soothed by the gentle tone, and dear caress. Oh, blessed tie! uniting mother and child. Earth cannot, and Heaven will not break it.