The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Alice B. Neal/The Child Love
|←Alice B. Neal||The Child Love
|published in The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings|
“He prayeth best, who loveth best
“Love you?—oh, so dearly!” And, as if her childish words needed a stronger confirmation, she put her arms caressingly about his neck and laid her head upon his bosom. Her face was very lovely as she looked up to him in all the winning truthfulness of an affectionate heart. Large gray eyes, with lashes so long and deep as almost to give them a sorrowful expression at times, and a mouth now smiling, and so disclosing small pearly teeth, and then the crimson lips would meet in pouting fullness—
“I am sure you love me, little Miriam?”
“As though a rose should shut,
So thought the student as he bent down to return the fond caress, and mingled his darker locks with the light floating curls that were thrown back over his shoulder.
“And will you always love me, Miriam?”
“But when I am gone—for I may not be with you long; and then, when you do not see me every day, and you have other friends who love you better, and can make you more beautiful presents?”
She seemed to be pained, as if she understood the worldliness thus imputed to her, young as she was.
“But why must you go? and where will you go? Home?”
“Home! Ah, no, my child; I have not had a home these many years.”
And then they were both silent for a little while; she pitying him because he had no home, and he dwelling on thoughts and recollections which the word had called up. The low brown farmhouse where his boyish days were passed, with the mossy bank around the well; the little garden at the entrance of the orchard; the orchard itself, white with blossoms at this very season of the year. And then there was the brook, gurgling through the alder bushes, and reflecting the tall spires of the crimson cardinal, or the field lily, that sprung among the rich grass. He seemed once more to lie, an idle, careless boy, watching the clouds floating lazily overhead, while the summer insects sang around him, and the wind came gently to lift the hair from his sunburnt forehead.
This brought a recollection of his mother’s kiss. It always seemed to him like the summer wind, so quiet, so warm, so loving. Her kiss and blessing, as she bent over his pillow, and then she would kneel and pray so earnestly for her son, her only child. How unlike his father was that gentle woman! He had wondered at that even when a boy. His stern, rigid parent, who rarely smiled, and made self-denial and never-ceasing labour his religion, as though he felt the curse of Cain ever upon his rugged fields. They were united only in one thing, their love for him, and the zealous prayer that he might be, like Samuel, called even in childhood to the service of the Temple. So they had dedicated him; and, when he saw the grass springing upon their graves in the churchyard, and took a last look upon that humble home, now passed into other hands, he remembered this strong wish of the hearts that had loved him so, and were now mouldering to dust beneath his feet.
“But where are you going?” said the child, who had been thinking of many other things, and had now returned to this new fear of parting.
“Many, many hundred miles from this, Miriam, away from the busy city and its crowded streets. Far off to the still woods, where there are no church-bells, and even no Sabbaths. I am going to the poor Indians, to teach them where to look for the Great Spirit they worship, and to the settlers of those Western lands, ruder still, and in darker ignorance. They scarcely know there is a God.”
“But they have the sky there, and the sun; and who do they think made them and the little flowers in the grass? They could not make the flowers!”
“But they do not love the flowers and the sky as you do; they are blind: ‘Eyes have they, and they see not; ears, but they do not hear.’ So I am going to them with God’s own word, that will speak more plainly to their hearts. Do you not think it will be a beautiful life”—and his sunken eyes glanced with strange enthusiasm—“devoting every power of soul and body to those benighted people, forgetting this life and its comforts and pleasures in the thoughts of that which is to come?—reaping the broad whitening harvest?”
He forgot that he was speaking to a child. And yet she seemed to understand him, at least to feel that he was swayed by some noble emotion; for she raised her head and listened eagerly, as if a new life of thought was opened to her.
“And will you have a home there?”
“Nay, I shall never have a home on earth; parents, wife, children are not for me. I go forth with neither purse nor scrip, following our Divine Master; I shall not have where to lay my head. But his love constrains me; he will not desert his servant.” And his voice sank, as it were, to a thought of prayer for the strength he would need in the arduous path he had chosen.
“But you will be all alone and sick, and there will be no one to take care of you; then perhaps you will die.” The look of sadness we have spoken of came into the child’s earnest eyes, as she laid her soft head against his cheek, and wondered why he should choose to go away from her.
“We will not talk of this any longer, little one. I have made you so sad and grave. I do not like that look on your face; it is too womanly for such a little maiden. You are too young to understand all these things, and you must not try to; but you must love me, that is all I ask. See, there is your kitten, come to invite you away from me.”
It was with a strong effort that he had shaken off the sombre mood into which he had fallen, and attempted to enter into her childish amusements once more. He was startled by the earnest, dreamy look that she still retained. As he had said, it was too womanly for that young fair face.
She smiled again; obedience to those she loved was the strong principle of her nature, for she had ever been governed by affection. No one ever spoke a harsh word to Miriam, motherless Miriam Arnold, the light of her father’s lonely life, and the pet of the neighbours, who looked out to catch a glimpse of her light figure as she bounded up the dark court like a flitting ray of sunshine. It was a gloomy abode for such a bright young creature, or a stranger would have thought so. The house so old and cheerless, far away from the gay shops and the beautiful women who frequent them. There was not even a green tree or an ivy wreath to refresh the eye, nothing but Miriam’s little pot of mignonette upon the window-sill, fresh and fragrant like herself, and her bird, who sang above it with a carol as light-hearted as her own. The bird, the child, and the flowers, these were the light of that lonely house, since Miriam’s mother had faded in its dreariness. And it was home, too, even if the old servant, who moved with such a cautious tread among the dusty books of her master’s study, was the only companionable creature, save the bird. How carefully she rubbed the dingy furniture, and mended the threadbare curtains, long since faded from their cheerful neatness! It was, perhaps, this still seclusion that had given Miriam, with all her eager childish grace, thoughts above her years; and, after her friend had gone, she put the kitten from her lap and leaned out of the window to watch for her father’s return, musing, as she had never done before, how men could ever live without knowing they had a Father up in Heaven, and who else they could thank for taking care of them through the long dark night? And then her friend—Paul, he had told her to call him, when he first came to read those strange Hebrew words to her father, a daily study of the ancient language of the Bible he reverenced so much—Paul was going away to tell them to love him. How very good he was! She should miss him a great deal though. Perhaps he would take her too. Oh, she had not thought of that before! But, then, there was her father! No, Paul must go alone. Poor Paul, with no one to love him but herself! How gravely he had made her promise to love him, as if she had not always done so from that very first day when he had taken her upon his knee and talked to her as no one else could talk!
The young curate, for such he was, of a wealthy parish church, old and “lukewarm” because of its long prosperity, had gone to his daily duty of reading the evening service to a scattered congregation, half hidden in the high straight pews, that almost stifled their faint responses. He went with a heavy load upon his heart, for he was a stranger among them and to their sympathies. There was no poverty to call such as he to their homes; the rector only was bidden to the rich man’s feasts. He came and went to and from the gilded chancel, with scarce a smile of recognition from those to whom his rich voice had read the “comfortable words” of their Master and his. The Bible told him they were brethren, but his heart said they were utter strangers. It was this cold supineness that had first turned his thoughts to a more earnest, active life among men “ready to perish,” while his present ministry was to those who were “full and had need of nothing.” And, at last, after many a struggle and many a prayer, he had steadfastly turned his face to a mission in the western wilds of his native land.
In all that wide, wide city, there was one only object his heart could cling to—the little child whose arms had circled him, whose kiss had comforted his loneliness. This was perhaps from his own reserve, for he had been solitary even from a boy. He had never attached his playmates to him, he could not seek for sympathy among strangers; opening to them the sorrows of his heart, a gentle heart like the mother who had given him life: but he checked its longing sympathies with a pride inherited from his sterner parent, and turned to fasting and lonely vigils of prayer and meditation. Miriam was the frail golden link that bound him to active human sympathies. He was attracted by her strange loveliness as she came, half pleadingly, half timidly, to prefer some request to her father, and since then she had been the prattling companion of many a lonely hour, when the task was ended, and his teacher had gone forth to impart to other pupils the stores of his great learning.
She was watching for him the next day at the entrance of the court, as he came slowly along, absorbed in one of those abstracted moods which had now become habitual to him. Her eyes brightened as she caught sight of his slender figure, and she ran to place her hand in his with the confidence of an habitual favourite. Something which pleased her very much had evidently occurred; but when she was questioned, she only smiled, and said it was a great secret; even papa was not to be told. Yet it was not naughty: Margery had said so. Every day after that, for a long time, he found the faithful little sentinel at her post; and sometimes their walk was extended, and she would go with him into the busy street, clinging closer to her dear companion, and looking up with smiles into his face, if the crowd jostled her, the embodiment of the spirit of faith.
At last the secret was revealed. It was when he came to tell her that he was going, all was ready for his departure, and he had but one farewell to make. He was later than usual, and she was watching for him with more eagerness than ever. She tripped demurely by his side, looking so beautiful in her clean white dress, and her curls in such rich profusion flowing round her delicate throat. He could not bear to pain her happy heart by the sad news of their parting, so he drew her gently to his bosom for the last time, while he waited for her father’s return; and they were all alone but the kitten purring in the sun, and old Margery bustling in and out, intent on household cares. They did not talk much, but now and then she would pass her hand caressingly over his face, or he would bend down and kiss her tenderly. At last he said—
“I am going, Miriam. This is the last time I shall see you in many a day.”
“Going!” she said, echoing the word sorrowfully.
“Yes, as I told you when the spring first came. To-morrow I shall be on my way to the deep woods and the boundless prairies of the western land.”
He expected at least a burst of passionate sobs; but she only nestled closer to his heart, and twined her arm more tightly about his neck.
After a little time, she slid from his knee, still sorrowful, and came back to him holding a little picture. It was a miniature of herself, exceedingly lifelike, and it had the dreamy, serious gaze which he had first noticed when speaking of his mission. This was her innocent little secret. It had been painted by a poor artist, with more talent than friends, who had his home in the same dark court. He had thought her so beautiful, that he begged her to sit to him, intending a surprise to her father, who, in his unostentatious way, had once been of service to his poorer neighbour. That very day she had brought it home, so she told Paul, and laid it in a book before him.
“And he was pleased,” said Paul, “and kissed you, and thought it was very like you, as I do?”
“I don’t believe he liked it so very much. I don’t think he likes pictures at all,” answered the child. “He never looks at my sweet mother, with the blue dress and the rose in her hair. But he smiled, and told me to give it to the person I loved best in the world.”
“And you gave it to Margery, perhaps?” Paul smiled at the thought of bestowing such a gem upon Margery’s dark little kitchen.
“No, I don’t love her best, and that would not be right. I kept it for you, because there is no one but papa and you I ever dream about. Sometimes I have such lovely dreams, and think you are never going away. But you are, and you must take this, and keep it always. I’m sure you will, Paul.”
A tear, yes, a tear, fell upon the beautiful picture—so touched was he by the earnestness and sincerity of her affection, and the thought that he was so soon to leave her.
Her father came, a mild, benevolent-looking man; but, nevertheless, with the air of one who had no strong hopes or desires. He was sorry to part with his favourite pupil, but blessed him in God’s name; for he, too, had been “a minister about holy things,” and knew the burning zeal which had filled the heart of the young devotee.
The morrow came, and Miriam was restless and sad as the hour for their walk drew near, and there was no friend to join her. Many and many a day did she linger at their old trysting-place, her heart beating fast, if she saw in the distance a face or figure that might be his. But one day after another came and went, and he was not there. Then she found other friends, and Time was her consoler.
Years, many years had passed, and the missionary sat at the door of his rude cabin, and leaned his weary head against the rough unhewn beams for support. He was far older, and had a dejected, sorrowful air that had deepened the lines upon his forehead, though his dark clustering hair had not silvered, and his eyes still lighted with the fire of manly thought. Yet the fresh vigour of his youth was spent, and his heart was weary and athirst for closer sympathy than he had found among the rude dwellers of the land. Their numbers had greatly increased since he first came among them, and the Indian haunts had retreated from before approaching civilization. They had prayed him to remain among them, to visit their sick and bury their dead, and they were kind to him in their own way. They had built his cabin, and furnished it with their own rude manufactures, and brought him presents of game from the forest, and fruit from their thriving farms. But, now the zeal of his first consecration was spent, he saw little fruit of all his labours; the wilderness had not yet blossomed as the rose. He longed for some one who could sympathize in his ardent desire to do good, and to encourage him to cast his “bread upon the waters.” He covered his face with his hands and prayed, communing with the only intelligence that could read his heart, and then he looked around him and still sighed.
Perhaps it was that he had seen the cheerful blaze from the fireside of some of his people, as he came homewards, and stopped to speak some playful word with the urchins before the door; but, as he sighed, he wondered if he could have been happier had he not denied to his starving heart all human, household love. “Perhaps I have wronged my nature,” he thought. “It may not be required of me to lead this lonely life.” And then—he never could tell what brought the recollection so vividly before him at that moment—there came a yearning thought of the little Miriam of years ago—his child-friend.
She must be a woman now, and beautiful and good. Perhaps she had already a home of her own, and her children about her. At any rate, she had forgotten him. If she had not, if she still remembered her childish promise to love him always—but no, he would not be so mad, so selfish, as to ask her to sacrifice her youth and beauty to his life of lonely privation. But he could not banish her from his mind, and he went in and unclasped the miniature he had not seen for many a day. It was a little faded now; but there were the earnest, serious look, and the soft curls, and the fond smile. How she had loved him! and he could almost feel her arms about his neck and her heart beating close to his. It was the isolation of spirit as well as outward life which had impressed these remembrances so forcibly upon him. Everything seemed as if yesterday. Again that yearning thought; and even before a resolve, he had smothered a fear, and was pouring out to her, or what he felt to be her now, all that was in his heart.
After the letter was gone, there were weeks of anxious suspense; and then he began to wonder at his own madness and folly. Sometimes he would try to calm himself with thinking that they had left their old home, and it would never reach Miriam; and then he almost wished it would be so, for she would never learn his presumption. But at last the answer came, when he had quite ceased to expect it; and he knew only by the tumult of his emotions, as he broke the seal, how much he had perilled upon what would now be revealed. He did not think to glance at the signature to see if she was still unmarried, but, as one resolved to drain to the dregs a bitter cup, he tore open the sheet, allowing himself no hope.
“Paul—dear Paul!”—he was so dizzy that he could scarcely see the words—“you will think me strange, unmaidenly, when I tell you that my pen trembles in my hand for very happiness. I have heard from you once more! The dream of my youth, of many, many years, has at last been fulfilled! I knew you had not forgotten me; and I have kept you ever in my mind, mingled with all that I counted good and noble. I have kept the promise which you recall, unconsciously, for I had forgotten it was ever required. I have ‘loved you always,’ Paul.
“No doubt much of this has been wild imagination, nursed in the lonely life I have ever led. I mean the seclusion; for we are still here as when you left us, except that my father is older and more feeble, and I have assumed Margery’s household duties, for we are very poor. You have sought a portionless bride. But we will come to you, as you have asked, for we know you cannot leave your people, and your heart will grow strong again and be comforted by my father’s gentle counsels; and I will be your ‘home.’ I can remember asking you if you were going home.
“Do not fear that I shall not be content. I am strong and well; I have never been accustomed to luxuries; and am I unwomanly in telling you how my very heart has gone out to you, at your first bidding? I have never lost trace of your labours. I have seen what you have done for those scattered people. I read of the consecration of your little church; and once I have seen one who had met you, and who told me of your fervour, and that you were wearing yourself out by your never-ceasing labour. He said your eyes were large and dark, though sunken, and that you looked too frail for so rude a life. You see it was not all imagination.
“Yes, we will come. My father has said so with his blessing, and he will renew his youth living among the beautiful things of nature; and I shall know you there face to face as I know you now in spirit, gentle, patient, unselfish.”
The promise was kept, strange as it may seem to those who walk ever in the beaten track of cold formalities. It was again evening on those broad prairie lands, and Paul Stanbridge waited the approaching twilight, pondering on the new revelation of life, the seals of which another day would open. He wondered if it were not a blessed dream, and then he turned to look once more at the few comforts he had recently gathered in his little cabin for her who was henceforth to be its mistress. She had always loved flowers. How fortunate that he had twined the prairie rose and the clematis over the misshapen walls of his dwelling! and the smooth lawn-like slope to the river-side, how peaceful it all seemed as it slept in the sun’s last rays!
Suddenly, he felt rather than saw an approach, and he turned to find two coming slowly towards him. No, no, it was a dream—they could not reach even the village before the morrow—and the strangers were alone, and coming as if they knew the foot-path.
It was no dream; one more glance, and he knew that venerable form; an instant, and that noble woman was clasped in a welcoming embrace. There was no coldness, no formality in that greeting. She was all that he had dreamed and pictured; she was much more than he had dared to hope; and she had bound him for ever by her trustful confidence, her womanly devotion. So they were united for life or death. Her father blessed them as he had done before, calling them by that holiest and dearest of titles, “man and wife,” and, for the first time in many years, the missionary had a home.
You will wonder if there was no sad awaking when the romance of youthful girlhood had passed, and Miriam knew that the step was irrevocable. You would need no other answer than a glance at the peace and happiness which sprung up in that quiet dwelling, a light that was diffused among all his little flock; for he had found the key to their hearts—his creed was no longer gloomy and morose, looking coldly on all their social joy. And every one loved Miriam, who became, young as she was, a guide and a friend to many beside her husband.
But did she truly love him?
Her father, happy in his serene old age, did not doubt it, as he saw her place their first born, Paul, in his arms, and look up to him with the trusting confidence of old, mingled with a deeper, because wifelike, tenderness.