The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 7/The Minister's Wooing
|The Atlantic Monthly
The Minister's Wooing
Mrs. Katy Scudder had invited Mrs. Brown, and Mrs. Jones, and Deacon Twitchel's wife to take tea with her on the afternoon of June second, A.D. 17—.
When one has a story to tell, one is always puzzled which end of it to begin at. You have a whole corps of people to introduce that you know and your reader doesn't; and one thing so presupposes another, that, whichever way you turn your patchwork, the figures still seem ill-arranged. The small item that I have given will do as well as any other to begin with, as it certainly will lead you to ask, "Pray, who was Mrs. Katy Scudder?"—and this will start me systematically on my story.
You must understand that in the then small seaport-town of Newport, at that time unconscious of its present fashion and fame, there lived nobody in those days who did not know "the Widow Scudder."
In New England settlements a custom has obtained, which is wholesome and touching, of ennobling the woman whom God has made desolate, by a sort of brevet rank which continually speaks for her as a claim on the respect and consideration of the community. The Widow Jones, or Brown, or Smith, is one of the fixed institutions of every New England village,—and doubtless the designation acts as a continual plea for one whom bereavement, like the lightning of heaven, has made sacred.
The Widow Scudder, however, was one of the sort of women who reign queens in whatever society they move in; nobody was more quoted, more deferred to, or enjoyed more unquestioned position than she. She was not rich,—a small farm, with a modest, "gambrel-roofed," one-story cottage, was her sole domain; but she was one of the much-admired class who, in the speech of New England, are said to have "faculty,"—a gift which, among that shrewd people, commands more esteem than beauty, riches, learning, or any otherworldly endowment. Faculty is Yankee for savoir faire, and the opposite virtue to shiftlessness. Faculty is the greatest virtue, and shiftlessness the greatest vice, of Yankee man and woman. To her who has faculty nothing shall be impossible. She shall scrub floors, wash, wring, bake, brew, and yet her hands shall be small and white; she shall have no perceptible income, yet always be handsomely dressed; she shall have not a servant in her house,—with a dairy to manage, hired men to feed, a boarder or two to care for, unheard-of pickling and preserving to do,—and yet you commonly see her every afternoon sitting at her shady parlor-window behind the lilacs, cool and easy, hemming muslin cap-strings, or reading the last new book. She who hath faculty is never in a hurry, never behindhand. She can always step over to distressed Mrs. Smith, whose jelly won't come,—and stop to show Mrs. Jones how she makes her pickles so green,—and be ready to watch with poor old Mrs. Simpkins, who is down with the rheumatism.
Of this genus was the Widow Scudder,—or, as the neighbors would have said of her, she that was Katy Stephens. Katy was the only daughter of a shipmaster, sailing from Newport harbor, who was wrecked off the coast one cold December night and left small fortune to his widow and only child. Katy grew up, however, a tall, straight, black-eyed girl, with eyebrows drawn true as a bow, a foot arched like a Spanish woman's, and a little hand which never saw the thing it could not do,—quick of speech, ready of wit, and, as such girls have a right to be, somewhat positive withal. Katy could harness a chaise, or row a boat; she could saddle and ride any horse in the neighborhood; she could cut any garment that ever was seen or thought of; make cake, jelly, and wine, from her earliest years, in most precocious style;—all without seeming to derange a sort of trim, well-kept air of ladyhood that sat jauntily on her.
Of course, being young and lively, she had her admirers, and some well-to-do in worldly affairs laid their lands and houses at Katy's feet; but, to the wonder of all, she would not even pick them up to look at them. People shook their heads, and wondered whom Katy Stephens expected to get, and talked about going through the wood to pick up a crooked stick,—till one day she astonished her world by marrying a man that nobody ever thought of her taking.
George Scudder was a grave, thoughtful young man,—not given to talking, and silent in the society of women, with that kind of reverential bashfulness which sometimes shows a pure, unworldly nature. How Katy came to fancy him everybody wondered,—for he never talked to her, never so much as picked up her glove when it fell, never asked her to ride or sail; in short, everybody said she must have wanted him from sheer wilfulness, because he of all the young men of the neighborhood never courted her. But Katy, having very sharp eyes, saw some things that nobody else saw. For example, you must know she discovered by mere accident that George Scudder always was looking at her, wherever she moved, though he looked away in a moment, if discovered,—and that an accidental touch of her hand or brush of her dress would send the blood into his cheek like the spirit in the tube of a thermometer; and so, as women are curious, you know, Katy amused herself with investigating the causes of these little phenomena, and, before she knew it, got her foot caught in a cobweb that held her fast, and constrained her, whether she would or no, to marry a poor man that nobody cared much for but herself.
George was, in truth, one of the sort who evidently have made some mistake in coming into this world at all, as their internal furniture is in no way suited to its general courses and currents. He was of the order of dumb poets,—most wretched when put to the grind of the hard and actual; for if he who would utter poetry stretches out his hand to a gainsaying world, he is worse off still who is possessed with the desire of living it. Especially is this the case, if he be born poor, and with a dire necessity upon him of making immediate efforts in the hard and actual. George had a helpless invalid mother to support; so, though he loved reading and silent thought above all things, he put to instant use the only convertible worldly talent he possessed, which was a mechanical genius, and shipped at sixteen as a ship-carpenter. He studied navigation in the forecastle, and found in its calm diagrams and tranquil eternal signs food for his thoughtful nature, and a refuge from the brutality and coarseness of sea-life. He had a healthful, kindly animal nature, and so his inwardness did not ferment and turn to Byronic sourness and bitterness; nor did he needlessly parade to everybody in his vicinity the great gulf which lay between him and them. He was called a good fellow,—only a little lumpish,—and as he was brave and faithful, he rose in time to be a shipmaster. But when came the business of making money, the aptitude for accumulating, George found himself distanced by many a one with not half his general powers.
What shall a man do with a sublime tier of moral faculties, when the most profitable business out of his port is the slave-trade? So it was in Newport in those days. George's first voyage was on a slaver, and he wished himself dead many a time before it was over,—and ever after would talk like a man beside himself, if the subject was named. He declared that the gold made in it was distilled from human blood, from mothers' tears, from the agonies and dying groans of gasping, suffocating men and women, and that it would scar and blister the soul of him that touched it; in short, he talked as whole-souled unpractical fellows are apt to talk about what respectable people sometimes do. Nobody had ever instructed him that a slave-ship, with a procession of expectant sharks in its wake, is a missionary institution, by which closely-packed heathens are brought over to enjoy the light of the gospel.
So, though George was acknowledged to be a good fellow, and honest as the noon-mark on the kitchen floor, he let slip so many chances of making money as seriously to compromise his reputation among thriving folks. He was wastefully generous,—insisted on treating every poor dog that came in his way, in any foreign port, as a brother,—absolutely refused to be party in cheating or deceiving the heathen on any shore, or in skin of any color,—and also took pains, as far as in him lay, to spoil any bargains which any of his subordinates founded on the ignorance or weakness of his fellow-men. So he made voyage after voyage, and gained only his wages and the reputation among his employers of an incorruptibly honest fellow.
To be sure, it was said that he carried out books in his ship, and read and studied, and wrote observations on all the countries he saw, which Parson Smith told Miss Dolly Persimmon would really do credit to a printed book; but then they never were printed, or, as Miss Dolly remarked of them, they never seemed to come to anything,—and coming to anything, as she understood it, meant standing in definite relations to bread and butter.
George never cared, however, for money. He made enough to keep his mother comfortable, and that was enough for him, till he fell in love with Katy Stephens. He looked at her through those glasses which such men carry in their souls, and she was a mortal woman no longer, but a transfigured, glorified creature,—an object of awe and wonder. He was actually afraid of her; her glove, her shoe, her needle, thread, and thimble, her bonnet-string, everything, in short, she wore or touched, became invested with a mysterious charm. He wondered at the impudence of men that could walk up and talk to her,—that could ask her to dance with such an assured air. Now he wished he were rich; he dreamed impossible chances of his coming home a millionnaire to lay unknown wealth at Katy's feet; and when Miss Persimmon, the ambulatory dress-maker of the neighborhood, in making up a new black gown for his mother, recounted how Captain Blatherem had sent Katy Stephens "'most the splendidest India shawl that ever she did see," he was ready to tear his hair at the thought of his poverty. But even in that hour of temptation he did not repent that he had refused all part and lot in the ship by which Captain Blatherem's money was made, for he knew every timber of it to be seasoned by the groans and saturated with the sweat of human agony. True love is a natural sacrament; and if ever a young man thanks God for having saved what is noble and manly in his soul, it is when he thinks of offering it to the woman he loves. Nevertheless, the India-shawl story cost him a night's rest; nor was it till Miss Persimmon had ascertained, by a private confabulation with Katy's mother, that she had indignantly rejected it, and that she treated the Captain "real ridiculous," that he began to take heart. "He ought not," he said, "to stand in her way now, when he had nothing to offer. No, he would leave Katy free to do better, if she could; he would try his luck, and if, when he came home from the next voyage, Katy was disengaged, why, then he would lay all at her feet."
And so George was going to sea with a secret shrine in his soul, at which he was to burn unsuspected incense.
But, after all, the mortal maiden whom he adored suspected this private arrangement, and contrived—as women will—to get her own key into the lock of his secret temple; because, as girls say, "she was determined to know what was there." So, one night, she met him quite accidentally on the sea-sands, struck up a little conversation, and begged him in such a pretty way to bring her a spotted shell from the South Sea like the one on his mother's mantel-piece, and looked so simple and childlike in saying it, that our young man very imprudently committed himself by remarking, that, "When people had rich friends to bring them all the world from foreign parts, he never dreamed of her wanting so trivial a thing."
Of course Katy "didn't know what he meant,—she hadn't heard of any rich friends." And then came something about Captain Blatherem; and Katy tossed her head, and said, "If anybody wanted to insult her, they might talk to her about Captain Blatherem,"—and then followed this, that, and the other till finally, as you might expect, out came all that never was to have been said; and Katy was almost frightened at the terrible earnestness of the spirit she had evoked. She tried to laugh, and ended by crying, and saying she hardly knew what; but when she came to herself in her own room at home, she found on her finger a ring of African gold that George had put there, which she did not send back like Captain Blatherem's presents.
Katy was like many intensely matter-of-fact and practical women, who have not in themselves a bit of poetry or a particle of ideality, but who yet worship these qualities in others with the homage which the Indians paid to the unknown tongue of the first whites. They are secretly weary of a certain conscious dryness of nature in themselves, and this weariness predisposes them to idolize the man who brings them this unknown gift. Naturalists say that every defect of organization has its compensation, and men of ideal natures find in the favor of women the equivalent for their disabilities among men.
Do you remember, at Niagara, a little cataract on the American side, which throws its silver sheeny veil over a cave called the Grot of Rainbows? Whoever stands on a rock in that grotto sees himself in the centre of a rainbow-circle, above, below, around. In like manner, merry, chatty, positive, busy, housewifely Katy saw herself standing in a rainbow-shrine in her lover's inner soul, and liked to see herself so. A woman, by-the-by, must be very insensible, who is not moved to come upon a higher plane of being, herself, by seeing how undoubtingly she is insphered in the heart of a good and noble man. A good man's, faith in you, fair lady, if you ever have it, will make you better and nobler even before you know it.
Katy made an excellent wife; she took home her husband's old mother and nursed her with a dutifulness and energy worthy of all praise, and made her own keen outward faculties and deft handiness a compensation for the defects in worldly estate. Nothing would make Katy's black eyes flash quicker than any reflections on her husband's want of luck in the material line. "She didn't know whose business it was, if she was satisfied. She hated these sharp, gimlet, gouging sort of men that would put a screw between body and soul for money. George had that in him that nobody understood. She would rather be his wife on bread and water than to take Captain Blatherem's house, carriages, and horse, and all,—and she might have had 'em fast enough, dear knows. She was sick of making money when she saw what sort of men could make it,"—and so on. All which talk did her infinite credit, because at bottom she did care, and was naturally as proud and ambitious a little minx as ever breathed, and was thoroughly grieved at heart at George's want of worldly success; but, like a nice little Robin Redbreast, she covered up the grave of her worldliness with the leaves of true love, and sung a "Who cares for that?" above it.
Her thrifty management of the money her husband brought her soon bought a snug little farm, and put up the little brown gambrel-roofed cottage to which we directed your attention in the first of our story. Children were born to them, and George found, in short intervals between voyages, his home an earthly paradise. Ho was still sailing, with the fond illusion, in every voyage, of making enough to remain at home,—when the yellow fever smote him under the line, and the ship returned to Newport without its captain.
George was a Christian man;—he had been one of the first to attach himself to the unpopular and unworldly ministry of the celebrated Dr. H., and to appreciate the sublime ideality and unselfishness of those teachings which then were awakening new sensations in the theological mind of New England. Katy, too, had become a professor with her husband in the same church, and his death, in the midst of life, deepened the power of her religious impressions. She became absorbed in religion, after the fashion of New England, where devotion is doctrinal, not ritual. As she grew older, her energy of character, her vigor and good judgment, caused her to be regarded as a mother in Israel; the minister boarded at her house, and it was she who was first to be consulted in all matters relating to the well-being of the church. No woman could more manfully breast a long sermon, or bring a more determined faith to the reception of a difficult doctrine. To say the truth, there lay at the bottom of her doctrinal system this stable corner-stone,—"Mr. Scudder used to believe it,—I will." And after all that is paid about independent thought, isn't the fact, that a just and good soul has thus or thus believed, a more respectable argument than many that often are adduced? If it be not, more's the pity,—since two-thirds of the faith in the world is built on no better foundation.
In time, George's old mother was gathered to her son, and two sons and a daughter followed their father to the invisible,—one only remaining of the flock and she a person with whom you and I, good reader, have joint concern in the further unfolding of our story.
As I before remarked, Mrs. Katy Scudder had invited company to tea. Strictly speaking, it is necessary to begin with the creation of the world, in order to give a full account of anything. But, for popular use, something less may serve one's turn, and therefore I shall let the past chapter suffice to introduce my story, and shall proceed to arrange my scenery and act my little play on the supposition you know enough to understand things and persons.
Being asked to tea in our New England in the year 17— meant something very different from the same invitation in our more sophisticated days. In those times, people held to the singular opinion, that the night was made to sleep in; they inferred it from a general confidence they had in the wisdom of Mother Nature, supposing that she did not put out her lights and draw her bed-curtains and hush all noise in her great world-house without strongly intending that her children should go to sleep; and the consequence was, that very soon after sunset the whole community very generally set their faces bedward, and the toll of the nine-o'clock evening-bell had an awful solemnity in it, sounding to the full. Good society in New England in those days very generally took its breakfast at six, its dinner at twelve, and its tea, at six. "Company tea," however, among thrifty, industrious folk, was often taken an hour earlier, because each of the invitées had children to put to bed, or other domestic cares at home, and, as in those simple times people were invited because you wanted to see them, a tea-party assembled themselves at three and held session till sundown, when each matron rolled up her knitting-work and wended soberly home.
Though Newport, even in those early times, was not without its families which affected state and splendor, rolled about in carriages with armorial emblazonments, and had servants in abundance to every turn within-doors, yet there, as elsewhere in New England, the majority of the people lived with the wholesome, thrifty simplicity of the olden time, when labor and intelligence went hand in hand, in perhaps a greater harmony than the world has ever seen.
Our scene opens in the great old-fashioned kitchen, which, on ordinary occasions, is the family dining and sitting-room of the Scudder family. I know fastidious moderns think that the working-room, wherein are carried on the culinary operations of a large family, must necessarily be an untidy and comfortless sitting-place; but it is only because they are ignorant of the marvellous workings which pertain to the organ of "faculty," on which we have before insisted. The kitchen of a New England matron was her throne-room, her pride; it was the habit of her life to produce the greatest possible results there with the slightest possible discomposure; and what any woman could do, Mrs. Katy Scudder could do par excellence. Everything there seemed to be always done and never doing. Washing and baking, those formidable disturbers of the composure of families, were all over with in those two or three morning-hours when we are composing ourselves for a last nap,—and only the fluttering of linen over the green yard, on Monday mornings, proclaimed that the dreaded solemnity of a wash had transpired. A breakfast arose there as by magic; and in an incredibly short space after, every knife, fork, spoon, and trencher, clean and shining, was looking as innocent and unconscious in its place as if it never had been used and never expected to be.
The floor,—perhaps, Sir, you remember your grandmother's floor, of snowy boards sanded with whitest sand; you remember the ancient fireplace stretching quite across one end,—a vast cavern, in each corner of which a cozy seat might be found, distant enough to enjoy the crackle of the great jolly wood-fire; across the room ran a dresser, on which was displayed great store of shining pewter dishes and plates, which always shone with the same mysterious brightness; and by the side of the fire, a commodious wooden "settee," or settle, offered repose to people too little accustomed to luxury to ask for a cushion. Oh, that kitchen of the olden times, the old, clean, roomy New England kitchen!—who that has breakfasted, dined, and supped in one has not cheery visions of its thrift, its warmth, its coolness? The noon-mark on its floor was a dial that told of some of the happiest days; thereby did we right up the shortcomings of the solemn old clock that tick-tacked in the corner, and whose ticks seemed mysterious prophecies of unknown good yet to arise out of the hours of life. How dreamy the winter twilight came in there,—as yet the candles were not lighted,—when the crickets chirped around the dark stone hearth, and shifting tongues of flame flickered and cast dancing shadows and elfish lights on the walls, while grandmother nodded over her knitting-work, and puss purred, and old Rover lay dreamily opening now one eye and then the other on the family group! With all our ceiled houses, let us not forget our grandmothers' kitchens!
But we must pull up, however, and back to our subject-matter, which is in the kitchen of Mrs. Katy Scudder, who has just put into the oven, by the fireplace, some wondrous tea-rusks, for whose composition she is renowned. She has examined and pronounced perfect a loaf of cake, which has been prepared for the occasion, and which, as usual, is done exactly right. The best room, too, has been opened and aired,—the white window-curtains saluted with a friendly little shake, as when one says, "How d'ye do?" to a friend;—for you must know, clean as our kitchen is, we are genteel, and have something better for company. Our best room in here has a polished little mahogany tea-table, and six mahogany chairs, with claw talons grasping balls; the white sanded floor is crinkled in curious little waves, like those on the sea-beach; and right across the corner stands the "buffet," as it is called, with its transparent glass doors, wherein are displayed the solemn appurtenances of company tea-table. There you may see a set of real China teacups, which George bought in Canton, and had marked with his and his wife's joint initials,—a small silver cream-pitcher, which has come down as an heirloom from unknown generations,—silver spoons and delicate China cake-plates, which have been all carefully reviewed and wiped on napkins of Mrs. Scudder's own weaving.
Her cares now over, she stands drying her hands on a roller-towel in the kitchen, while her only daughter, the gentle Mary, stands in the doorway with the afternoon sun streaming in spots of flickering golden light on her smooth pale-brown hair,—a petite figure in a full stuff petticoat and white short gown, she stands reaching up one hand and cooing to something among the apple-blossoms,—and now a Java dove comes whirring down and settles on her finger,—and we, that have seen pictures, think, as we look on her girlish face, with its lines of statuesque beauty, on the tremulous, half-infantine expression of her lovely mouth, and the general air of simplicity and purity, of some old pictures of the girlhood of the Virgin. But Mrs. Scudder was thinking of no such Popish matter, I can assure you,—not she! I don't think you could have done her a greater indignity than to mention her daughter in any such connection. She had never seen a painting in her life, and therefore was not to be reminded of them; and furthermore, the dove was evidently, for some reason, no favorite,—for she said, in a quick, imperative tone, "Come, come, child! don't fool with that bird,—it's high time we were dressed and ready,"—and Mary, blushing, as it would seem, even to her hair, gave a little toss, and sent the bird, like a silver fluttering cloud, up among the rosy apple-blossoms. And now she and her mother have gone to their respective little bedrooms for the adjustment of their toilettes, and while the door is shut and nobody hears us, we shall talk to you about Mary.
Newport at the present day blooms like a flower-garden with young ladies of the best ton,—lovely girls, hopes of their families, possessed of amiable tempers and immensely large trunks, and capable of sporting ninety changes of raiment in thirty days and otherwise rapidly emptying the purses of distressed fathers, and whom yet travellers and the world in general look upon as genuine specimens of the kind of girls formed by American institutions.
We fancy such a one lying in a rustling silk négligée, and, amid a gentle generality of rings, ribbons, puffs, laces, beaux, and dinner-discussion, reading our humble sketch;—and what favor shall our poor heroine find in her eyes? For though her mother was a world of energy and "faculty," in herself considered, and had bestowed on this one little lone chick all the vigor and all the care and all the training which would have sufficed for a family of sixteen, there were no results produced which could be made appreciable in the eyes of such company. She could not waltz or polk, or speak bad French or sing Italian songs; but, nevertheless, we must proceed to say what was her education and what her accomplishments.
Well, then, she could both read and write fluently in the mother-tongue. She could spin both on the little and the great wheel, and there were numberless towels, napkins, sheets, and pillow-cases in the household store that could attest the skill of her pretty fingers. She had worked several samplers of such rare merit, that they hung framed in different rooms of the house, exhibiting every variety and style of possible letter in the best marking-stitch. She was skilful in all sewing and embroidery, in all shaping and cutting, with a quiet and deft handiness that constantly surprised her energetic mother, who could not conceive that so much could be done with so little noise. In fact, in all household lore she was a veritable good fairy; her knowledge seemed unerring and intuitive; and whether she washed or ironed, or moulded biscuit or conserved plums, her gentle beauty seemed to turn to poetry all the prose of life.
There was something in Mary, however, which divided her as by an appreciable line from ordinary girls of her age. From her father she had inherited a deep and thoughtful nature, predisposed to moral and religious exaltation. Had she been born in Italy, under the dissolving influences of that sunny, dreamy clime, beneath the shadow of cathedrals, and where pictured saints and angels smiled in clouds of painting from every arch and altar, she might, like fair St. Catherine of Siena, have seen beatific visions in the sunset skies, and a silver dove descending upon her as she prayed; but, unfolding in the clear, keen, cold New England clime, and nurtured in its abstract and positive theologies, her religious faculties took other forms. Instead of lying entranced in mysterious raptures at the foot of altars, she read and ponder treatises on the Will, and listened in rapt attention while her spiritual guide, the venerated Dr. H., unfolded to her the theories of the great Edwards on the nature of true virtue. Womanlike, she felt the subtile poetry of these sublime abstractions which dealt with such infinite and unknown quantities,—which spoke of the universe, of its great Architect, of man, of angels, as matters of intimate and daily contemplation; and her teacher, a grand-minded and simple-hearted man as ever lived, was often amazed at the tread with which this fair young child walked through these high regions of abstract thought,—often comprehending through an ethereal clearness of nature what he had laboriously and heavily reasoned out; and sometimes, when she turned her grave, childlike face upon him with some question or reply, the good man started as if an angel had looked suddenly out upon him from a cloud. Unconsciously to himself, he often seemed to follow her, as Dante followed the flight of Beatrice, through the ascending circles of the celestial spheres.
When her mother questioned him, anxiously, of her daughter's spiritual estate, he answered, that she was a child of a strange graciousness of nature, and of a singular genius; to which Katy responded, with a woman's pride, that she was all her father over again. It is only now and then that a matter-of-fact woman is sublimated by a real love; but if she is, it is affecting to see how impossible it is for death to quench it; for in the child the mother feels that she has a mysterious and undying repossession of the father.
But, in truth, Mary was only a recast in feminine form of her father's nature. The elixir of the spirit that sparkled within, her was of that quality of which the souls of poets and artists are made; but the keen New England air crystalizes emotions into ideas, and restricts many a poetic soul to the necessity of expressing itself only in practical living.
The rigid theological discipline of New England is fitted to produce rather strength and purity than enjoyment. It was not fitted to make a sensitive and thoughtful nature happy, however it might ennoble and exalt.
The system of Dr. H. was one that could have had its origin in a soul at once reverential and logical,—a soul, moreover, trained from its earliest years in the habits of thought engendered by monarchical institutions. For although he, like other ministers, took an active part as a patriot in the Revolution, still he was brought up under the shadow of a throne, and a man cannot ravel out the stitches in which early days have knit him. His theology was, in fact, the turning to an invisible Sovereign of that spirit of loyalty and unquestioning subjugation which is one of the noblest capabilities of our nature. And as a gallant soldier renounces life and personal aims in the cause of his king and country, and holds himself ready to be drafted for a forlorn hope, to be shot down, or help make a bridge of his mangled body, over which the more fortunate shall pass to victory and glory, so he regarded himself as devoted to the King Eternal, ready in His hands to be used to illustrate and build up an Eternal Commonwealth, either by being sacrificed as a lost spirit or glorified as a redeemed one, ready to throw not merely his mortal life, but his immortality even, into the forlorn hope, to bridge with a never-dying soul the chasm over which white-robed victors should pass to a commonwealth of glory and splendor whose vastness dwarf the misery of all the lost infinitesimal.
It is not in our line to imply the truth or the falsehood of those systems of philosophic theology which seem for many years to have been the principal outlet for the proclivities of the New England mind, but as psychological developments they have an intense interest. He who does not see a grand side to these strivings of the soul cannot understand one of the noblest capabilities of humanity.
No real artist or philosopher ever lived who has not at some hours risen to the height of utter self-abnegation for the glory of the invisible. There have been painters who would have been crucified to demonstrate the action of a muscle,—chemists who would gladly have melted themselves and all humanity in their crucible, if so a new discovery might arise out of its fumes. Even persons of mere artistic sensibility are at times raised by music, painting, or poetry to a momentary trance of self-oblivion, in which they would offer their whole being before the shrine of an invisible loveliness. These hard old New England divines were the poets of metaphysical philosophy, who built systems in an artistic fervor, and felt self exhale from beneath them as they rose into the higher regions of thought. But where theorists and philosophers tread with sublime assurance, woman often follows with bleeding footsteps;—women are always turning from the abstract to the individual, and feeling where the philosopher only thinks.
It was easy enough for Mary to believe in self-renunciation, for she was one with a born vocation for martyrdom; and so, when the idea was put to her of suffering eternal pains for the glory of God and the good of being in general, she responded to it with a sort of sublime thrill, such as it is given to some natures to feel in view of uttermost sacrifice. But when she looked around on the warm, living faces of friends, acquaintances, and neighbors, viewing them as possible candidates for dooms so fearfully different, she sometimes felt the walls of her faith closing round her as an iron shroud,—she wondered that the sun could shine so brightly, that flowers could flaunt such dazzling colors, that sweet airs could breathe, and little children play, and youth love and hope, and a thousand intoxicating influences combine to cheat the victims from the thought that their next step might be into an abyss of horrors without end. The blood of youth and hope was saddened by this great sorrow, which lay ever on her heart,—and her life, unknown to herself, was a sweet tune in the minor key; it was only in prayer, or deeds of love and charity, or in rapt contemplation of that beautiful millennial day which her spiritual guide most delighted to speak of, that the tone of her feelings ever rose to the height of joy.
Among Mary's young associates was one who had been as a brother to her childhood. He was her mother's cousin's son,—and so, by a sort of family immunity, had always a free access to her mother's house. He took to the sea, as the most bold and resolute young men will, and brought home from foreign parts those new modes of speech, those other eyes for received opinions and established things, which so often shock established prejudices,—so that he was held as little better than an infidel and a castaway by the stricter religious circles in his native place. Mary's mother, now that Mary was grown up to woman's estate, looked with a severe eye on her cousin. She warned her daughter against too free an association with him,—and so——We all know what comes to pass when girls are constantly warned not to think of a man. The most conscientious and obedient little person in the world, Mary resolved to be very careful. She never would think of James, except, of course, in her prayers; but as these were constant, it may easily be seen it was not easy to forget him.
All that was so often told her of his carelessness, his trifling, his contempt of orthodox opinions, and his startling and bold expressions, only wrote his name deeper in her heart,—for was not his soul in peril? Could she look in his frank, joyous fate and listen to his thoughtless laugh, and then think that a fall from mast-head, or one night's storm, might——Ah, with what images her faith filled the blank! Could she believe all this and forget him?
You see, instead of getting our tea ready, as we promised at the beginning of this chapter, we have filled it with descriptions and meditations, and now we foresee that the next chapter will be equally far from the point. But have patience with us; for we can write only as we are driven, and never know exactly where we are going to land.
A quiet, maiden-like place was Mary's little room. The window looked out under the overarching boughs of a thick apple-orchard, now all in a blush with blossoms and pink-tipped buds, and the light came golden-green, strained through flickering leaves,—and an ever-gentle rustle and whirr of branches and blossoms, a chitter of birds, and an indefinite whispering motion, as the long heads of orchard-grass nodded and bowed to each other under the trees, seemed to give the room the quiet hush of some little side-chapel in a cathedral, where green and golden glass softens the sunlight, and only the sigh and rustle of kneeling worshippers break the stillness of the aisles. It was small enough for a nun's apartment, and dainty in its neatness as the waxen cell of a bee. The bed and low window were draped in spotless white, with fringes of Mary's own knotting. A small table under the looking-glass bore the library of a well-taught young woman of those times. "The Spectator," "Paradise Lost," Shakspeare, and "Robinson Crusoe" stood for the admitted secular literature, and beside them the Bible and the works then published of Mr. Jonathan Edwards. Laid a little to one side, as if of doubtful reputation, was the only novel which the stricter people in those days allowed for the reading of their daughters: that seven-volumed, trailing, tedious, delightful old bore, "Sir Charles Grandison,"—a book whose influence in those times was so universal, that it may be traced in the epistolary style even of the gravest divines. Our little heroine was mortal, with all her divinity, and had an imagination which sometimes wandered to the things of earth; and this glorious hero in lace and embroidery, who blended rank, gallantry, spirit, knowledge of the world, disinterestedness, constancy, and piety, sometimes walked before her, while she sat spinning at her wheel, till she sighed, she hardly knew why, that no such men walked the earth now. Yet it is to be confessed, this occasional raid of the romantic into Mary's balanced and well-ordered mind was soon energetically put to rout, and the book, as we have said, remained on her table under protest,—protected by being her father's gift to her mother during their days of courtship. The small looking-glass was curiously wreathed with corals and foreign shells, so disposed as to indicate an artistic eye and skilful hand; and some curious Chinese paintings of birds and flowers gave rather a piquant and foreign air to the otherwise homely neatness of the apartment.
Here in this little retreat Mary spent those few hours which her exacting conscience would allow her to spare from her busy-fingered household-life; here she read and wrote and thought and prayed;—and here she stands now, arraying herself for the tea company that afternoon. Dress, which in our day is becoming in some cases the whole of woman, was in those times a remarkably simple affair. True, every person of a certain degree of respectability had state and festival robes; and a certain camphor-wood brass-bound trunk, which was always kept solemnly locked in Mrs. Katy Scudder's apartment, if it could have spoken, might have given off quite a catalogue of brocade satin and laces. The wedding-suit there slumbered in all the unsullied whiteness of its stiff ground broidered with heavy knots of flowers; and there were scarfs of wrought India muslin and embroidered crape, each of which had its history,—for each had been brought into the door with beating heart on some return voyage of one who, alas, should return no more! The old trunk stood with its histories, its imprisoned remembrances,—and a thousand tender thoughts seemed to be shaping out of every rustling fold of silk and embroidery, on the few yearly occasions when all were brought out to be aired, their history related, and then solemnly locked up again. Nevertheless, the possession of these things gave to the women of an establishment a certain innate dignity, like a good conscience; so that in that larger portion of existence commonly denominated among them "every day," they were content with plain stuff and homespun. Mary's toilette, therefore, was sooner made than those of Newport belles of the present day; it simply consisted in changing her ordinary "short gown and petticoat" for another of somewhat nicer materials,—a skirt of India chintz and a striped jacconet short-gown. Her hair was of the kind which always lies like satin; but, nevertheless, girls never think their toilette complete unless the smoothest hair has been shaken down and rearranged. A few moments, however, served to braid its shining folds and dispose them in their simple knot on the back of the head; and having given a final stroke to each side with her little dimpled hands, she sat down a moment at the window, thoughtfully watching where the afternoon sun was creeping through the slats of the fence in long lines of gold among the tall, tremulous orchard-grass, and unconsciously she began warbling, in a low, gurgling voice, the words of a familiar hymn, whose grave earnestness accorded well with the general tone of her life and education:—
"Life is the time to serve the Lord, The time to insure the great reward."
There was a swish and rustle in the orchard-grass, and a tramp of elastic steps; then the branches were brushed aside, and a young man suddenly emerged from the trees a little behind Mary. He was apparently about twenty-five, dressed in the holiday rig of a sailor on shore, which well set off his fine athletic figure, and accorded with a sort of easy, dashing, and confident air which sat not unhandsomely on him. For the rest, a high forehead shaded by rings of the blackest hair, a keen, dark eye, a firm and determined mouth, gave the impression of one who had engaged to do battle with life, not only with a will, but with shrewdness and ability.
He introduced the colloquy by stepping deliberately behind Mary, putting his arms round her neck, and kissing her.
"Why, James!" said Mary, starting up, and blushing. "Come, now!"
"I have come, haven't I?" said the young man, leaning his elbow on the window-seat and looking at her with an air of comic determined frankness, which yet had in it such wholesome honesty that it was scarcely possible to be angry. "The fact is, Mary," he added, with a sudden earnest darkening of the face, "I won't stand this nonsense any longer. Aunt Katy has been holding me at arm's length ever since I got home; and what have I done? Haven't I been to every prayer-meeting and lecture and sermon, since I got into port, just as regular as a psalm-book? and not a bit of a word could I get with you, and no chance even so much as to give you my arm. Aunt Kate always comes between us and says, 'Here, Mary, you take my arm.' What does she think I go to meeting for, and almost break my jaws keeping down the gapes? I never even go to sleep, and yet I'm treated in this way! It's too bad! What's the row? What's anybody been saying about me? I always have waited on you ever since you were that high. Didn't I always draw you to school on my sled? didn't we always use to do our sums together? didn't I always wait on you to singing-school? and I've been made free to run in and out as if I were your brother;—and now she is as glum and stiff, and always stays in the room every minute of the time that I am there, as if she was afraid I should be in some mischief. It's too bad!"
"Oh, James, I am sorry that you only go to meeting for the sake of seeing me; you feel no real interest in religious things; and besides, mother thinks now I'm grown so old, that——Why, you know things are different now,—at least, we mustn't, you know, always do as we did when we were children. But I wish you did feel more interested in good things."
"I am interested in one or two good things, Mary,—principally in you, who are the beat I know of. Besides," he said quickly, and scanning her face attentively to see the effect of his words, "don't you think there is more merit in my sitting out all these meetings, when they bore me so confoundedly, than there is in your and Aunt Katy's doing it, who really seem to find something to like in them? I believe you have a sixth sense, quite unknown to me; for it's all a maze,—I can't find top, nor bottom, nor side, nor up, nor down to it,—it's you can and you can't, you shall and you sha'n't, you will and you won't,"——
"You needn't look at me so. I'm not going to say the rest of it. But, seriously, it's all anywhere and nowhere to me; it don't touch me, it don't help me, and I think it rather makes me worse; and then they tell me it's because I'm a natural man, and the natural man understandeth not the things of the Spirit. Well, I am a natural man,—how's a fellow to help it?"
"Well, James, why need you talk everywhere as you do? You joke, and jest, and trifle, till it seems to everybody that you don't believe in anything. I'm afraid mother thinks you are an infidel, but I know that can't be; yet we hear of all sorts of things that you say."
"I suppose you mean my telling Deacon Twitchel that I had seen as good Christians among the Mahometans as any in Newport. Didn't I make him open his eyes? It's true, too!"
"In every nation, he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted of Him," said Mary; "and if there are better Christians than us among the Mahometans, I am sure I'm glad of it. But, after all, the great question is, 'Are we Christians ourselves?' Oh, James, if you only were a real, true, noble Christian!"
"Well, Mary, you have got into that harbor, through all the sandbars and rocks and crooked channels; and now do you think it right to leave a fellow beating about outside, and not go out to help him in? This way of drawing up, among you good people, and leaving us sinners to ourselves, isn't generous. You might care a little for the soul of an old friend, anyhow!"
"And don't I care, James? How many days and nights have been one prayer for you! If I could take my hopes of heaven out of my own heart and give them to you, I would. Dr. H. preached last Sunday on the text, 'I could wish myself accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen'; and he went on to show how we must be willing to give up even our own salvation, if necessary, for the good of others. People said it was hard doctrine, but I could feel my way through it very well. Yes, I would give my soul for yours; I wish I could."
There was a solemnity and pathos in Mary's manner which checked the conversation. James was the more touched because he felt it all so real, from one whose words were always yea and nay, so true, so inflexibly simple. Her eyes filled with tears, her face kindled with a sad earnestness, and James thought, as he looked, of a picture he had once seen in a European cathedral, where the youthful Mother of Sorrows is represented,
"Radiant and grave, as pitying man's decline; All youth, but with an aspect beyond time; Mournful, but mournful of another's crime; She looked as if she sat by Ellen's door, And grieved for those who should return no more."
James had thought he loved Mary; he had admired her remarkable beauty, he had been proud of a certain right in her before that of other young men, her associates; he had thought of her as the keeper of his home; he had wished to appropriate her wholly to himself;—but in all this there had been, after all, only the thought of what she was to be to him; and this, for this poor measure of what he called love, she was ready to offer, an infinite sacrifice.
As a subtile flash of lightning will show in a moment a whole landscape, tower, town, winding stream, and distant sea, so that one subtile ray of feeling seemed in a moment to reveal to James the whole of his past life; and it seemed to him so poor, so meagre, so shallow, by the side of that childlike woman, to whom the noblest of feelings were unconscious matters of course, that a sort of awe awoke in him; like the Apostles of old, he "feared as he entered into the cloud"; it seemed as if the deepest string of some eternal sorrow had vibrated between them.
After a moment's pause, he spoke in a low and altered voice:—
"Mary, I am a sinner. No psalm or sermon ever taught it to me, but I see it now. Your mother is quite right, Mary; you are too good for me; I am no mate for you. Oh, what would you think of me, if you knew me wholly? I have lived a mean, miserable, shallow, unworthy life. You are worthy, you are a saint, and walk in white! Oh, what upon earth could ever make you care so much for me?"
"Well, then, James, you will be good? Won't you talk with Dr. H.?"
"Hang Dr. H.!" said James. "Now, Mary, I beg your pardon, but I can't make head or tail of a word Dr. H. says. I don't get hold of it, or know what he would be at. You girls and women don't know your power. Why, Mary, you are a living gospel. You have always had a strange power over us boys. You never talked religion much, but I have seen high fellows come away from being with you as still and quite as one feels when one goes into a church. I can't understand all the hang of predestination, and moral ability, and natural ability, and God's efficiency, and man's agency, which Dr. H. is so engaged about; but I can understand you, you can do me good!"
"Oh, James, can I?"
"Mary, I'm going to confess my sins. I saw, that, somehow or other, the wind was against me in Aunt Katy's quarter, and you know we fellows who take up the world in both fists don't like to be beat. If there's opposition, it sets us on. Now I confess I never did care much about religion, but I thought, without being really a hypocrite, I'd just let you try to save my soul for the sake of getting you; for there's nothing surer to hook a woman than trying to save a fellow's soul. It's a dead-shot, generally, that. Now our ship sails to-night, and I thought I'd just come across this path in the orchard to speak to you. You know I used always to bring you peaches and juneatings across this way, and once I brought you a ribbon."
"Yes, I've got it yet, James."
"Well, now, Mary, all this seems mean to me, mean, to try and trick and snare you, who are so much too good for me. I felt very proud this morning that I was to go out first mate this time, and that I should command a ship next voyage. I meant to have asked you for a promise, but I don't. Only, Mary, just give me your little Bible, and I'll promise to read it all through soberly, and see what it all comes to. And pray for me; and if, while I'm gone, a good man comes who loves you, and is worthy of you, why, take him, Mary,—that's my advice."
"James, I am not thinking of any such things; I don't ever mean to be married. And I'm glad you don't ask me for any promise,—because it would be wrong to give it; mother don't even like me to be much with you. But I'm sure all I have said to you to-day is right; I shall tell her exactly all I have said."
"If Aunt Katy knew what things we fellows are pitched into, who take the world headforemost, she wouldn't be so selfish. Mary, you girls and women don't know the world you live in; you ought to be pure and good: you are not as we are. You don't know what men, what women—no, they're not women!—what creatures, beset us in every foreign port, and boarding-houses that are gates of hell; and then, if a fellow comes back from all this and don't walk exactly straight, you just draw up the hems of your garments and stand close to the wall, for fear he should touch you when he passes. I don't mean you, Mary, for you are different from most; but if you would do what you could, you might save us. But it's no use talking, Mary. Give me the Bible; and please be kind to my dove,—for I had a hard time getting him across the water, and I don't want him to die."
If Mary had spoken all that welled up in her little heart at that moment, she might have said too much; but duty had its habitual seal upon her lips. She took the little Bible from her table and gave it with a trembling hand, and James turned to go. In a moment he turned back, and stood irresolute.
"Mary," he said, "we are cousins; I may never come back; you might kiss me this once."
The kiss was given and received in silence, and James disappeared among the thick trees.
"Come, child," said Aunt Katy, looking in, "there is Deacon Twitchel's chaise in sight,—are you ready?"
[To be continued.]