The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Emily C. Judson/Lucy Dutton
It was an October morning, warm and sunny, but with even its sunshine subdued into a mournful softness, and its gorgeous drapery chastened by a touch of the dreamy atmosphere into a sympathy with sorrow. And there was a sorrowing one who needed sympathy on that still, holy morning—the sympathy of the great Heart which beats in Nature’s bosom—for she could hope no other. Poor Lucy Dutton!
There was a funeral that morning—a stranger would have judged by the gathering that the great man of the village was dead, and all that crowd had come out to do his ashes honour—but it was not so. Yet the little, old-fashioned church was filled to overflowing. Some there were that turned their eyes devoutly to the holy man that occupied the sacred desk, receiving from his lips the words of life; some looked upon the little coffin that stood, covered with its black pall, upon a table directly below him, and perhaps thought of their own mortality, or that of their bright little ones; while many, very many, gazed with cold curiosity at the solitary mourner occupying the front pew. This was a young creature, in the very spring-time of life,—a frail, erring being, whose only hope was in Him who said, “Neither do I condemn thee—go, and sin no more.” There was a weight of shame upon her head, and woe upon her heart, that together made the bereaved young mother cower almost to the earth before the prying eyes that came to look upon her in her distressing humiliation. Oh! it was a pitiful sight! that crushed, helpless creature’s agony.
But the year before, and this same lone mourner was considered a sweet, beautiful child, whom everybody was bound to protect and love; because, but that she was the pet lamb of a doting old man, she was without friend and protector. Lucy Button was the last blossom on a tree which had boasted many fair ones. When the grave opened to one after another of that doomed family, till none but this bright, beautiful bud was left, she became the all in all, and with the doting affection of age was she cherished. When poverty came to Granny Button’s threshold, she drew her one priceless jewel to her heart, and laughed at poverty. When sorrows of every kind compassed her about, and the sun went down in her heaven of hope, another rose in a holier heaven of love; and Lucy Button was this fountain of love-born light. The old lady and her pretty darling occupied a small, neat cottage, at the foot of the hill, with a garden attached to it, in which the child flitted all day long, like a glad spirit among the flowers. And, next to her child-idol, the simple-hearted old lady loved those flowers, with a love which pure natures ever bear to the beautiful. It was by these, and the fruit produced by the little garden, that the twain lived. Many a fine carriage drew up before the door of the humble cottage, and bright ladies and dashing gentlemen sauntered beneath the shade, while the rosy fingers of Lucy adjusted bouquets for them, her bright lips wreathed with smiles, and her sunny eye turning to her grandmother at the placing of every stem, as though for approbation of her taste. Not a child in all the neighbourhood was so happy as Lucy. Not a child in all the neighbourhood was so beautiful, so gentle, and so good. And nobody ever thought of her as anything but a child. Though she grew to the height of her tallest geranium, and her form assumed womanly proportions, nobody, not even the rustic beaux around her, thought of her as anything but a child. Lucy was so artless, and loved her dear old grandmother so truly, that the two were somehow connected in people’s minds, and it seemed as impossible that the girl should grow older, as that the old lady should grow younger.
Lucy was just booked for fifteen, with the seal of innocence upon her heart, and a rose-leaf on her cheek, when “the Herman property,” a fine summer residence that had been for years unoccupied, was purchased by a widow lady from the metropolis. She came to Alderbrook early in the spring, accompanied by her only son, to visit her new possessions, and finding the spot exceedingly pleasant, she determined to remain there. And so Lucy met the young metropolitan; and Lucy was beautiful and trusting, and thoughtless; and he was gay, selfish, and profligate. Needs the story to be told?
When the Howards went away, Lucy awoke from her dream. She looked about her, and upon herself, with the veil taken from her eyes; and then she turned from all she had ever loved; for, in the breaking up of those dreams, was broken poor Lucy’s heart.
Nay, censor, Lucy was a child—consider how very young, how very untaught—oh! her innocence was no match for the sophistry of a gay city youth! And young Howard stole her unthinking heart the first day he looked in to purchase a bouquet. Poor, poor Lucy!
Before the autumn leaves fell, Granny Button’s bright pet knelt in her little chamber, and upon her mother’s grave, and down by the river-side, where she had last met Justin Howard, and prayed for death. Sweet, joyous Lucy Button, asking to lay her bright head in the grave! Spring came, and shame was stamped upon the cottage at the foot of the hill. Lucy bowed her head upon her bosom, and refused to look upon anything but her baby; and the old lady shrunk, like a shrivelled leaf, before this last and greatest of her troubles. The neighbourhood had its usual gossip. There were taunts, and sneers, and coarse jests, and remarks severely true; but only a little, a very little, pity. Lucy bore all this well, for she knew that it was deserved; but she had worse than this to bear. Every day she knelt by the bed of the one being who had doted upon her from infancy, and begged her blessing, but in vain.
“Oh! that I had laid you in the coffin, with your dead mother, when all around me said that the breath had passed from you!” was the unvarying reply; “then my gray hairs might have gone down to the grave without dishonour from the child that I took from the gate of death, and bore for years upon my bosom. Would you had died, Lucy!”
And Lucy would turn away her head, and, in the bitterness of her heart, echo, “Ay! would that I had died!” Then she would take her baby in her arms, and, while the scalding tears bathed its unconscious face, pray God to forgive the wicked wish, and preserve her life for the sake of this sinless heir to shame. And sometimes Lucy would smile—not that calm, holy smile which usually lingers about an infant’s cradle, but a faint, sicklied play of the love-light within, as though the mother’s fond heart were ashamed of its own throbbings. But, before the autumn passed, Lucy Dutton was fearfully stricken. Death came! She laid her last comfort from her bosom into the coffin, and they were now bearing it to the grave,—she, the only mourner. It mattered but little that the grandmother’s forgiveness and blessing came now; Lucy scarce knew the difference between these words and those last spoken; and most earnestly did she answer, “Would, would that I had died!” Poor, poor, Lucy!
She sat all through the sermon, and the singing, and the prayer, with her head bowed upon the side of the pew; and when at last they bore the coffin to the door, and the congregation began to move forward, she did not raise it until the kind clergyman came and led her out to take a last look at her dead boy. Then she laid her thin, pale face against his within the coffin, and sobbed aloud. And now some began to pity the stricken girl, and whisper to their neighbours that she was more sinned against than sinning. Still none came forward to whisper the little word which might have brought healing, but the holy man whose duty it was. He took her almost forcibly from the infant clay, and strove to calm her, while careless eyes came to look upon that dearer to her than her own heart’s blood. Finally, curiosity was satisfied; they closed the coffin, screwed down the lid, spread the black cloth over it, and the procession began to form. Minister Green left the side of the mourner, and took his station in advance, accompanied by some half dozen others; then four men followed, bearing the light coffin in their hands, and all eyes were turned upon the mourner. She did not move.
“Pass on, madam,” said Squire Field, who always acted the part of marshal on such occasions; and, though little given to the weakness of feeling, he now softened his voice as much as it would bear softening. “This way—right behind the—the—pass on!”
Lucy hesitated a moment, and many a generous one longed to step forward and give her an arm; but selfish prudence forbade. One bright girl, who had been Lucy’s playmate from the cradle, but had not seen her face for many months, drew impulsively towards her; but she met a reproving eye from the crowd, and only whispering, “I do pity you, Lucy!” she shrunk back, and sobbed almost as loud as her erring friend. Lucy started at the words, and, gazing wildly round her, tottered on after the coffin.
Loud, and slow, and fearfully solemn, stroke after stroke, the old church-bell doled forth its tale; and slowly and solemnly the crowd moved on with a measured tread, though there was many a careless eye and many a smiling lip, turning to other eyes and other lips, with something like a jest between them. On moved the crowd after the mourner; while she, with irregular, laboured step, her arms crossed on her bosom, and her head bent to the same resting-place, just kept pace with the body of her dead boy. Winding through the opened gate into the church-yard, they went trailing slowly through the long, dead grass, while some of the children crept slily from the procession, to pick up the tufts of scarlet and yellow leaves, which made this place of graves strangely gay; and several young people wandered off, arm in arm, pausing as they went, to read the rude inscriptions lettered on the stones.
On went the procession, away to the farthermost corner, where slept the stranger and the vagabond. Here a little grave had been dug, and the coffin was now set down beside it, while the long procession circled slowly round. Several went up and looked into the dark, damp cradle of the dead child; one observed to his neighbour that it was very shallow; and another said that Tom Jones always slighted his work when there was nobody to see to it; any how, it was not much matter, the child would stay buried; and another let drop a jest, a hard, but not very witty one, though it was followed by a smothered laugh. All this passed quietly; nothing was spoken above a low murmur; but Lucy heard it all; and, as she heard and remembered, what a repulsive thing seemed to her the human heart! Poor Lucy Dutton!
Minister Green stood at the head of the grave and said a prayer, while Lucy leaned against a sickly-looking tree, alone, and pressed her cold hands against her temples, and wondered if she should ever pray again—if God would hear her if she should. Then they laid the little coffin upon ropes, and gently lowered it. The grave was too short, or the men were careless, for there was a harsh grating against the hard earth, which made Lucy start and extend her arms; but she instantly recollected herself, and, clasping her hands tightly over her mouth, lest her agony should make itself heard, she tried to stand calmly. Then a handful of straw was thrown upon the coffin, and immediately a shovelful of earth followed. Oh! that first sinking of the cold clod upon the bosom we have loved! What a fearful, shivering sensation, does it send to the heart and along the veins! And then the benumbing faintness which follows, as though our own breath were struggling up through that damp covering of earth! Lucy gasped and staggered, and then she twined her arm about the body of the little tree, and laid her cheek against its rough bark, and strove hard to keep herself from falling.
Some thought the men were very long in filling up the grave, but Lucy thought nothing about it. She did not, after that first shovelful, hear the earth as it fell; and when, after all was done and the sods of withered grass had been laid on, Minister Green came to tell her, she did not hear his voice. When she did, she pushed back the hair from her hollowed temples, looked vacantly into his face, and shook her head. Others came up to her—a good-natured man who had been kind to her grandmother; then the deacon’s wife, followed by two or three other women; but Lucy only smiled and shook her head. Glances full of troubled mystery passed from one to another; there was an alarmed look on many faces, which those more distant seemed to comprehend; and still others came to speak to Lucy. It was useless—she could find no meaning in their words—the star of intellect had gone out—the temple was darkened. Poor, poor Lucy Dutton!
They bore her home—for she was passive and helpless—home to the sick old grandmother, who laid her withered hand on those bright locks, and kissed the cold cheek, and took her to her bosom, as though she had been an infant. And Lucy smiled, and talked of playing by the brook, and chasing the runaway bees, and of toys for her baby-house, and wondered why they were all weeping, particularly dear grandmamma, who ought to be so happy. But this lasted only a few days, and then another grave was made, and yet another, in the poor’s corner; and the grandmother and her shattered idol slept together. The grave is a blessed couch and pillow to the wretched. Rest thee there, poor Lucy!