The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Clara Moore/The Young Minister's Choice
THE YOUNG MINISTER’S CHOICE.
Alone in her chamber, Gertrude Leslie sat, reading in bitterness of spirit the once cherished testimonials of her early love. Years had passed since those glowing words had been penned, and yet the fountains of her heart were stirred as violently as upon their first perusal. Still burned upon its altar-shrine the love which years of estrangement had not the power to destroy; and like a guilty creature she hid her face within her hands, when she remembered that her heart was now promised to another.
Too well she knew that no promise bore the power of recalling that love from the worshipped idol of her youth, and that with false hopes she had deceived herself, as well as the noble and trusting heart now resting its happiness upon hers.
For a long time Gertrude sat motionless, her white hands pressed tightly over her colourless face, and her mind far away in the dreamy past. Sweet memories of that olden time came thronging to her brain, and again she was the guileless, happy child of “long ago”—again, in fancy, her light feet crushed the grass of the valley home where her childhood had been passed—again leaning upon the arm of one most tenderly beloved, she strayed along the banks of the moonlit river, her young heart as pure as the clear depths of the stream which reflected the golden gleaming stars of the azure sky. So in her heart did the stars of love then shed round a golden glow, but years had passed, and dimmer, still dimmer had grown their lustre, until at last she had fancied that the light of that early love had died away for ever. Vain fancy, when those written words had power to waken such strong emotions!
Rising from her seat, Gertrude with a quick impatience tore into shreds letter after letter, and one by one cast them upon the glowing grate before her.
“So perish all memory of the past,” she said, “all memory of the misplaced attachment of my youth; yet not misplaced, for he would have been true to me, I know he would, had I been worthy of such love as his once was.” For a long time did Gertrude thus commune with her own thoughts—then kneeling beside her couch, her bruised spirit poured itself out in broken words.
Thanks to the Author of our being, that always the prayer of the earnest heart is answered—answered by the serene happiness which ever follows aspirations after truth—by the guiding light which dawns upon the mind—by the renewed strength which gives power to trample down all obstacles, and follow without faltering that beacon light.
This light now dawned upon Gertrude’s mind, showing her plainly the path of duty which led to her own happiness—the only path which could bring her peace.
Her resolution being once taken she knew no faltering, and that evening, when her affianced husband, Julien Neville, resumed his accustomed seat beside her, in the brilliantly-lighted parlours of her father’s splendid mansion, she met him, nerved to carry out her firm convictions of duty.
They were alone in those large apartments, filled with every luxury. The light from the massive chandeliers flashed back from polished mirrors and costly frames of rare paintings, and from the gilded cornices of the rich curtains woven in foreign looms which shrouded the lofty windows, and fell in heavy folds to the tufted carpeting, where stainless lilies and glowing roses were blooming side by side in loving rivalry. They were alone—hope beating high in Julien’s heart, although the fingers which he essayed to clasp within his own were cold and tremulous. Twice Gertrude had attempted to answer his loving words of greeting, and twice had the echo of her own thoughts died away upon her heart without leaving a vibration to the ear.
“Ah, Julien,” at length she gasped, “you will cease to care for me, cease to respect me, and yet I must tell you all.”
“Never, my own—my sweetest, I know all that you would say. It has been told me this day, and I have come to urge a speedy union—to offer your father a home with us. Oh! Gertrude, you wronged me by imagining for a moment, that the deep devotion of my heart could ever from such a cause know decay or change.”
“My father! Julien, what do you mean? Surely he needs no other home!” she said, and her quick eyes glanced over the elegant rooms, and rested in inquiry upon those of her lover.
Julien Neville sighed heavily as he answered—
“I had hoped, my dearest, that your father’s misfortunes had already been broken to you, but surely no one could do it more tenderly than myself. Trust in me, darling, and do not fear for the future. I have wealth enough for all—more than enough, thank God; and this house, Gertrude, everything herein shall remain untouched. So do not look so wildly, my own, you shall know no change; and your father shall not miss the luxuries to which he has always been accustomed.”
“My father! change! misfortunes! you cannot mean, Julien, that he, that my father is a bankrupt!”
“You have guessed but too truly, dear Gertrude.”
Overcome by the unexpectedness of the blow, Gertrude buried her head in the cushions of the lounge—refusing all the sympathy which Julien so tenderly proffered. Her heart bled at the thought of her father’s disappointments, but not even for one moment did she swerve from her purpose. In days that were past she had deceived herself, but no longer was the calm affection which she had felt for Julien Neville to be mistaken for love. When she raised her face to his, it was as he had ever been wont to see it—there were mirrored there no traces of the wild torrent of emotions now deluging her bosom, and Julien gazed with pride upon her queenly beauty. The silence of that moment was broken by these words—
“Julien, you will hate me for what I have to say this night, but it must be said. You must not reproach me—you must not call me fickle until you hear the whole. Oh! Julien, my love for you is but as a sister’s love, I cannot be more to you.” She veiled her eyes with one hand, as if to hide the anguished expression of her companion’s face, and continued—
“To you, Julien, I owe a confession which I thought should have died with me. When I was young—scarcely sixteen, my mother died. My father could not endure the mournful loneliness of our village home after she had gone, and in the bustle and excitement of business in the city he strove to forget all sad memories. It was then that I parted from Howard Beauchamp, the only child of our village minister. His mother had died in his infancy, and we had been almost constantly together from our childhood. Upon the evening of our parting we exchanged promises of eternal constancy.
“Months passed—his letters brought me the only happiness that I knew, for my father could in no way replace to me the love which in my mother’s death I lost. At length the letters ceased entirely. I heard of his father’s death, and of his own illness, and still I wrote, for I could not believe that he was false to me. One day a note was brought to me—the handwriting was strange. I broke the seal. It was from a cousin of his whom I had never seen, but of whom he had often spoken to me as a prodigy of beauty and talent. She wrote me that she had nursed him during his illness—that change of air had been prescribed by the physician, and that he had accompanied her to her Southern home, where it was now his intention to reside. In delicate and sympathizing words she wrote of the transferral of Howard’s love from me, to her, his cousin—of their strong attachment for each other, and her earnest wish that I would not tell him that she had written. ‘Not for my sake do I write this,’ she said, ‘but for his, whose happiness is dearer to me than life itself.’ There was but one course before me. I summoned all my pride, and wrote to him what I imagined I ought to feel, not what I did. I made no allusion to his cousin. I told him that I loved him no longer; I wrote a great deal that was false, but I fully intended to make it truth. Years passed—we travelled all over the United States, and I heard no more from Howard Beauchamp. When at Newport you saved my life, and added to it the offering of your own, I felt toward you more affection than had been awakened for years; but I was deceived with regard to my true feelings; for, Julien, they can never be more than those of a sister.”
Bitter, indeed, were these words to Julien Neville—doubly bitter because he knew Gertrude too well to doubt the strength of an attachment which would enable so proud a spirit to endure the mortification of such a confession. Yet with all his disappointment, he could find no heart to blame, even for an instant, the stricken form before him.
“Oh! Gertrude,” he said, “nothing can change my love for you, and I will not even ask yours in return. I will strive to be satisfied with a sister’s affection, only give me the blessed privilege of ever remaining near you to cherish and protect.”
“It cannot be, Julien. I know how free from selfishness your love is; and I know that could you see the wild emotions which the recalled memories of those hours have this day awakened, you would never wish me to be other to you than I am. This must be our last meeting, Julien, unless you will promise not to use one persuasion to induce me to change—not that I fear my own strength, but because every effort which you make will only increase the misery which I now feel.”
Hours passed before that promise was given.
Poor Julien Neville! He left Gertrude that night with the full belief that in all the world there was no balm for a heart so wounded as his own.
When Gertrude entered her father’s library early the next morning, she found him sleeping lethargically in his large arm-chair. Wondering that he should be up so much sooner than his custom—or that he could thus sleep when he knew of his utter ruin, she looked in surprise upon him.
She knew not that all the weary night he had paced the room, weeping in bitter agony over the loss of his worshipped wealth.
Drawing closer to him, she said—“Father, I have something to say to you, will you listen?” There was no answering sound, save those of his heavy breathings. Alarmed, she took hold of him by the shoulder.
“Father! father!” she screamed.
The piercing tones of her voice aroused him—he started, looked around, passed one hand hurriedly over his eyes, and then with a long sigh sank back in his chair again.
Relieved from her anxiety, Gertrude drew a seat beside him.
“I have come, father, to converse with you about your misfortunes—perhaps they are not so bad as you imagine.”
“All is lost! every cent!” replied Mr. Leslie, in a husky tone of voice; “but it will make no difference to you, Gertrude, for Julien is a noble fellow; but it is hard for me in my old age to be dependent upon my child.”
“We will not be dependent upon Julien, father—we will go back to our old place at Elmwood, and I can teach music and drawing in the village academy, and we shall be as happy as we have ever been here; for, father, I do not love Julien as I ought to love him, and I have told him so, and we have parted to meet only hereafter as friends.”
The words which she had so dreaded to say had now escaped her lips, and her father’s stern gaze was fixed steadily upon her.
“Gertrude! what have you done?—taken away my only hope!—turned us both out into the world as beggars! I tell you every cent is gone: beggars! beggars!” he repeated in a low, deep tone. He arose from his seat—his face crimsoning with excitement—stepped but one foot forward, then fell over heavily upon the floor.
Gertrude’s screams brought the servants to her. Physicians were immediately summoned, and Mr. Leslie was borne in an unconscious state to his room. They pronounced him in an apoplectic fit, but the usual remedies were tried in vain. Gertrude sat constantly beside him, watching for hours for some sign of returning consciousness. At length the hand which she held moved slightly.
“Oh, father!” she cried, “speak to me once more: do not leave me alone! oh, father! father!”
The agonized tones of her voice seemed to arouse him. His lips moved. She bent her head to listen, and caught the words, “God bless my poor child; God bless thee, Ger——,” his lips still moved, but there came no audible sound.
Poor Gertrude! She was now alone!
At twilight, when Gertrude entered the lonely grave-yard, she met Howard Beauchamp just emerging from an avenue of cedars. He paused for a moment, and then advancing said—
“We were friends once; may I hope that we still are?”
Gertrude could not speak, but she stretched out her hand to answer his greeting.
“Time has brought many changes to both of us,” he continued; “in this place of graves, your sainted mother and my revered father sleeps; but since I have become an orphan—alone and desolate in the world, I have heard but little of you, excepting of your marriage; I trust for your sake, Gertrude, that the mourning garments which you now wear are not a widow’s weeds.”
Gertrude Leslie looked in surprise upon him as she answered—
“I have never been married, Howard; it is for my father that I mourn.”
A sudden ray of joy illuminated his fine face, then died away as he said in sad, low tones—
“And you are an orphan, too; but oh! not so desolate an one, I trust, as myself.”
“And why should I not be, Howard?—the blow which deprived me of my father left me penniless—well-nigh friendless; but you in your cousin’s love have found a happiness which I can never hope.”
She saw the crimson glow which spread over the marble features of her companion.
“Then you too know of her unfortunate attachment—poor Ellen! I have tried in vain to feel more than a brother’s attachment to her; the memory of my youthful love, Gertrude, is too strong to bear to be replaced, even in imagination,” said Howard, as he bent his dark eyes searchingly upon hers.
“And you—you, Howard—are not you married?” questioned Gertrude, almost breathless, as her eyelids drooped under the steadiness of his gaze.
“No, Gertrude; the vows which I plighted to you were too solemn ever to be broken, even though you gave them back with scornful words and bitter mockings. Do you not remember that on the evening of our parting I promised ever to love you, and you alone?”
As Gertrude raised her eyes to answer, she saw the figure of a graceful female gliding toward them in the dim twilight.
“It is my cousin, Ellen Beauchamp,” Howard said.
They were leaning upon the marble tomb of Mrs. Leslie; and Ellen advancing stood beside them. Her cheeks were pale and transparent; and the large, brilliant eyes were sunken, yet there were many traces of exceeding beauty.
“You must neither of you curse me, for I have suffered enough,” she said.
“Why should we curse you, dear Ellen?” said Howard, tenderly—“my poor cousin is not well, Gertrude—she was the most faithful of nurses to me when I was so ill that my life was despaired of, and she has never been well since—we are travelling now with her—her mother and myself, in hopes of restoring her health—poor Ellen!”
“Yes, poor Ellen!” echoed the hollow voice of the emaciated form beside him—“poor Ellen needs pity. Gertrude, will you promise to pity me if I tell you all?”
“No, Ellen, not pity; but my heart’s warmest sympathy I will offer to you.” Tears dropped like rain from Ellen’s large eyes as she clasped the hand which Gertrude had extended.
“Oh, Gertrude! I wrote falsely to you, when I told you that Howard no longer loved you. I was mad with love for him—so mad that I forgot that you had a heart which could be crushed even as mine is now. Howard! I burned the letters which you penned in your first sickness—I burned all which she wrote to you. I wrote to her, and told her that you loved her not, that you waited but a release from your vows to breathe them to me; and then I told you that she was married, and I showed you the letter which I had goaded her on to write. In the relapse which followed your reading of that letter I would have told you all, but you looked so gently and tenderly upon me, I could not bear to tell you what a wretch I was. Has my repentance come too late to either of you? Have I sinned past forgiveness? Oh! believe me, I have suffered enough in the agony of my unloved life—in the memory of those false words, which I fear have perjured my soul for ever.”
“No, Ellen; not for ever. Repentance never comes too late. God will forgive you, even as I know Gertrude and myself have already done—have we not, dear Gertrude?”
It was the first word of love, and Gertrude bent her head to conceal the warm blushes which crimsoned her face; but as she did so, she kissed the delicate hand of Ellen, which she still retained.
When they passed out of the grave-yard, Ellen and Gertrude each leaned upon an arm of Howard Beauchamp—Ellen still “sowing in tears,” and Gertrude and Howard “reaping in joy.”