The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Anne T. Wilbur/Alice Vernon
A pleasant company were assembled around the breakfast-table, and discussing their plans for the day. In some casual conversation, I heard a careless mention of a name very familiar and very dear—“Mrs. Vernon.” I reflected a moment,—it was a name closely associated in my mind with the past, yet how, I could not immediately recall. Suddenly it came like a lightning flash—Alice Vernon, once Alice Maitland. I inquired of the individual who had spoken, and learnt that my early friend had indeed been the subject of conversation. I obtained her address, and sallied forth to find her, sure of a welcome, though we had not met for years.
A great military and civic procession was passing through the streets, and it was with some difficulty that I made my way into a retired street in a distant part of the city. There, in a modest dwelling, I found my old friend Alice. Herself and a widowed mother were the only occupants. It was scantily furnished, but bore the impress of that exquisite taste which a truly refined woman can throw over the meanest abode, giving to poverty attractions which wealth does not always bestow upon its palaces. Alice had, in our school-days, been a favourite,—not that she was beautiful, but her simplicity of character, her upright and truthful mind, her sincere and strong affections, had won friends, lasting and true, such as she well knew how to value. On leaving school we had been separated, and had since rarely met—nevertheless, with that interest which those who have been educated together often continue to feel for each other through life, we had not failed to make inquiries which kept us informed of the after-fate of those most dear to us. That of Alice had been so unlike the even and calm lot which we had planned for her, as to have excited the surprise and wonder of us all.
I found her busily at work, though the street was full of the gathering multitude, and a branch of the procession was forming immediately beneath the window. After the first cordial greetings had passed, I said to her, with the authority which, as somewhat her senior in years, I had been accustomed to exercise: “Come, Alice, put away your work for the day, and let me take you with me. I am alone, and want an escort. Your cheek is pale, and this fresh pure air will give it a little colour.” “Go, Alice,” said her mother, “Florence is right; it will do you good.” A word from her mother was enough, and very soon we were threading our way through the crowded streets, and talking with the freedom and confidence of old times.
“Tell me your whole sad story, dearest,” I said, “while we are alone, for but an allusion to it has now and then reached me, and I would know it all from yourself.” An expression of sudden pain crossed the countenance of my friend, but it passed away, and her full heart was relieved by the recital, and happier, I knew, for my sympathy.
She had married young. One of whom we had often heard her speak as a dear friend and brother, but in a station so far above her, that she had never dreamed of aspiring to share it, or that he could turn from the gay and brilliant flowers which lavished their sweets around him, to cull a modest and humble violet, had found more fragrance and beauty in the latter, and passed by the gorgeous parterre, to pluck this and place it in his bosom. Her married life commenced under the happiest auspices. Ernest Vernon was proud, but his pride took the right direction;—he was proud of his own discernment in having transplanted the floweret which otherwise might have bloomed unheeded, or “wasted its sweetness on the desert air.” All the luxuries which wealth could purchase were lavished upon his fair young wife;—he never seemed happy away from her, and bestowed all his love and confidence where it was gratefully appreciated and returned a thousand-fold. Ernest was, like herself, an only child, and their happiness thus centred in each other. No wonder that Alice almost worshipped him. He had always been her beau ideal of manly beauty, and now that those radiant eyes looked lovingly upon her, her heart often ached with excess of happiness, and with that fear which, in a world of change, comes like a cloud between us and perfect repose,—
That faint sense of parting, such as clings
To earthly love and joy in loveliest things.
Ernest, too, was happy, for his bride was a realization of the description of his favourite poet, the embodiment of his ideas of perfection in woman.
He saw her upon nearer view
A spirit, yet a woman too;
Her household motions bright and free,
And steps of virgin liberty;
A creature not too light or good,
For human nature’s daily food;
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.
But I must pass briefly over those halcyon days, and come to the dark cloud which first and finally intercepted the sunlight. Ernest had, as I have said, the most entire confidence in his wife, and was accustomed to reveal to her every transaction in his business which could awaken her interest or command her sympathy. On one occasion he confided to her a secret in which the welfare and reputation of one of his dearest friends was concerned. Another, who had, through a different channel, got possession of a clue to this, and who supposed Mrs. Vernon must be aware of it, had, in conversation with her, designedly asked a direct question, to which she could not with truth give the denial with which she would gladly have put an end to his suspicions. He immediately made use of his information, and quoted her authority to confirm it.
Ernest returned home from an absence of a few days, to find his cherished secret, involving the honour of his friend, public, coupled with the name of his wife as the authority. He was hasty and passionate; defects which are oftener those of a truly noble and generous soul than a secret and persevering vindictiveness. In his anger he forgot that the silence and passiveness with which Alice received his reproaches might be evidences of suffering rather than of guilt, and used language which, as she thought, proved that his affections were withdrawn from her for ever.
Days passed away, and there was no relenting; Ernest was too proud to ask an explanation, and Alice scarcely knew of what she was accused. It was evident to her that her husband was alienated from her, no matter how, and in silence and in secrecy she formed her plans and executed them.
It was a bright, beautiful summer morning, when Alice Vernon stole softly down in the early twilight to bid adieu to the haunts and associations of her happiest hours. Her flowers looked lovingly upon her, and the tears that gemmed each petal and leaf were those of gratitude only, not sorrow. All was joyous, save the heart of one who was now, like Eve, to say farewell to her Paradise. But, unlike Eve, she went forth alone, with no manly arm to shield her, and no loving heart to interpose between herself and life’s sorrows. The lovely cottage home she was leaving had never seemed more attractive: yet she had scarcely realized that it was her own, so far had it exceeded her wildest expectations. With a few valued relics, and simple articles of clothing, which had been a part of her own poor dowry, she sought her humble city home.
Months, years had passed away. The slight difference which had produced this alienation had been increased by professed friends,—angry words borne to the ears of the parties, and exaggerated in the repetition. Alice’s only defensive weapon had been silence. It may seem strange that such a bond could thus easily be broken. One who is deeply read in the mysteries of love matters has, however, said:
Alas! how slight a cause may move
Dissension between hearts that love;—
Hearts that the world in vain has tried,
And sorrow but more closely tied;
A something light as air, a look,
A word unkind or wrongly taken,
A love! that tempests never shook,
A breath, a touch like this has shaken.<ref>Thomas Moore
We had pursued our way around the common, now one sea of heads, and glittering with military costumes and arms. The excitement was contagious, and we could not but reflect the gayety and animation which shone in every feature of the various physiognomies about us. It was nearly time, however, to begin to look for the grand event of the day—the procession—so we found a quiet spot where we could see the pageant, and sat down by an open window to breathe the cool air, and listen to the distant music.
With thrilling fife and pealing drum,
And clashing horn, they come! they come!
Gay banners waved, and white plumes danced in the breeze; shining arms, and glittering epaulets; regalia gorgeous in purple and gold; noble steeds and noble riders—came thronging and pouring through the narrow street, and, as they passed slowly along often pausing, as impeded by some obstacle, we could read the motto on every banner, and catch the expression of every face. As I looked at Alice I saw that she had given herself wholly to the excitement of the scene; her face was radiant with pleasure; and her cheek but now pale, crimsoned with the flush of unaccustomed interest. One must indeed have been a stoic not to have shared in the general enthusiasm and joy.
My eyes fairly ached with gazing on the brilliant array, and I had turned them for relief once more upon the face of my new found friend, when I saw her lip quiver convulsively, and the bloom which I had but now noticed, suddenly leave her cheek as colourless as before. She moved hastily from the window, and looking up to me imploringly, said: “Take me away, Florence.” As I passed the window I caught a glimpse of a noble-looking horseman in the uniform of one of the principal companies, and the emotion which his fine features revealed, gave me a clue to that of my friend.
Poor Alice! Alone in the parlour, and away from the sights which had just before given her such unwonted pleasure, she threw herself on the sofa, and wept bitterly. “Dear Florence, you will think me childish,” she said, when the violence of the first passionate burst of feeling had spent itself in tears; “but you must have seen him—my Ernest, my noble, my beloved husband. Oh, Florence, you know not how many hours of bitterness and tears I have spent in my solitude for him. I ought not to have come with you to-day, for I had a presentiment of this. Go, dear Florence, and leave me alone with my heart till its wild beatings are hushed.”
There are times when grief is too deep and sacred to endure the presence of a spectator, and solitude is then a luxury to the sorrowing—so I obeyed.
The bright day was drawing to its close, and the last remnant of that long and motley train was filing through the street, when the bell was rung hastily, as if by an impatient hand. The servants were not to be found on an occasion like this, so I opened the door; a face, of which I had before caught a hasty glimpse, once more met my eye, and I knew that Ernest Vernon stood before me. “Is Alice! Mrs. Vernon, here?” asked he, and on my replying in the affirmative, followed me to the room where I had left her. I opened the door, and said gently, “Shall I come, Alice?” Without waiting for her reply, Ernest stepped forward and repeated, “Alice.” She hurriedly looked up, and with a cry of joy, sprang into his arms, and was clasped to his heart. There was no need of an explanation, for each read in the face of the other restored confidence, and full forgiveness of all the past.