The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Julia C. R. Dorr/Hillside Cottage
There was no spot in all Elmwood that we children so dearly loved to visit as Hillside Cottage. No matter where our wanderings began—whether we started for the meadow, in pursuit of the rich strawberry—for the thick woods, where the wild flowers bloomed so luxuriantly, and the bright scarlet clusters of the partridge-berry, contrasting beautifully with its dark green leaves, sprang up at our feet—for the brook, to gather the shining pebbles, or to watch the speckled trout, as they darted swiftly through the water—no matter where our wanderings began, it was a strange thing if they did not terminate somewhere about the sweet wild place where Aunt Mary lived.
Now, prythee, gentle reader, do not picture to your “mind’s eye” a stately mansion with an unpretending name, when you read of Hillside Cottage. Neither was it a cottage ornée, with piazzas, and columns, and Venetian blinds. It was a low-roofed dwelling, and its walls had never been visited by a single touch of the painter’s brush: but the wild vines had sprung up around it, until their interlacing tendrils formed a beautiful network nearly all over the little building; and the moss upon the roof had been gathering there for many years, growing thicker and greener after the snows of each succeeding winter had rested upon it. It stood, as the name given it by the villagers indicated, upon the hillside, just in the edge of the woods that nearly covered the rounded summit of the hill; a little rivulet danced along, almost beneath the very windows, and at a short distance below fell over a ledge of rocks, forming a small but beautiful cascade, then, tired of its gambols, it flowed onwards as demurely as if it had never leaped gayly in the sunlight, or frolicked, like a child at play, with every flower that bent to kiss its bright waters. We thought there was no place where the birds sang half so sweetly, or where the air was so laden with fragrance; and sure am I there was no place where we were more cordially welcomed than in Aunt Mary’s cottage.
I well remember Aunt Mary’s first arrival in Elmwood. For two or three weeks it had been rumoured that the cottage on the hill was to receive a new tenant. Some slight repairs were going on, and some one had seen a wagon, loaded with furniture, unladen at the door. This was enough to excite village curiosity; and when we assembled in the church, the next Sabbath, I fear that more than one eye wandered from the pulpit to the door, to catch the first glimpse of our new neighbour. Just as our old pastor was commencing the morning service, a lady, entirely unattended, came slowly up the aisle, and entered the pew designated by the sexton. Her tall and graceful figure was robed in deepest black, and it was evident that grief, rather than years, had dimmed the brightness of her eye, and driven the rich colouring of youth and health from her cheek. But there was something in the quiet, subdued glance of those large, thoughtful eyes, in the intellect that seemed throned upon her lofty forehead, and in the sweet and tender expression that played around her small and delicately formed mouth, that more than compensated for the absence of youthful bloom and freshness. I did not think of these things then; but, child that I was, after one glance I shrank back in my seat, awe struck and abashed by the dignity of her bearing. Yet when she rose from her knees, and I caught another glimpse of her pale face, my little heart seemed drawn towards her by some powerful spell; and after service was concluded, as we passed down the aisle side by side, I timidly placed in her hand a wild rose I had gathered on my way to church. She took it with a smile, and in a sweet low voice thanked me for the simple gift. Our homes lay in the same direction, and ere we reached my father’s gate I imagined myself well acquainted with Miss Atherton.
From that hour my visits to Hillside Cottage were neither “few” nor “far between.” My parents laughed at my enthusiastic praises of my new friend; but they soon became assured that they were well grounded: and it was not long before the answer, “Oh, she has only gone to see Aunt Mary,” was the most satisfactory one that could be given to the oft-repeated query, “Where in the world has Jessie gone now?”
She lived almost the life of a recluse; seldom mingling with the villagers, save in the services of the sanctuary, or when, like a ministering angel, she hovered around the couch of the dying. Formed to be an ornament to any circle, and to attract admiration and attention wherever she moved, she yet shrank from public notice, and was rarely seen, except by those who sought her society in her own little cottage. To those few it was evident that her love of seclusion was rather the effect of some deep grief, that had in early life cast its shadow over her pathway, than the constitutional tendency of her mind. Hers was a character singularly lovely and symmetrical. With a mind strong, clear, and discriminating, she yet possessed all those finer shades of fancy and feeling, all that confiding tenderness, all those womanly sympathies, and all that delicacy and refinement of thought and manner which, in the opinion of many, can rarely be found in woman, combined with a high degree of talent. Love of the beautiful and sublime was with her almost a passion, and conversing with her, when animated by her favourite theme, was like reading a page of rare poetry, or gazing upon a series of paintings, the work of a well-skilled hand.
Years passed on. The little village of Elmwood had increased in size, if not in comeliness: the old church had given place to one of statelier mien and prouder vestments, and the winding lane, with its primroses and violets, had become a busy street, with tall rows of brick bordering it on either side. But still the cottage on the hill remained quiet and peaceful as ever, undisturbed by the changes that were at work beneath it. A silver thread might now and then be traced amid the abundant raven tresses that were parted on Aunt Mary’s forehead; and my childish curls had grown darker, and were arranged with more precision than of yore. Yet still the friendship of earlier years remained unbroken, and a week seldom passed without finding me at Hillside Cottage. My visits had of late been more frequent than ever, for the time was drawing near when our intimacy must be interrupted. I was soon to leave my father’s roof, for a new home in a far-off clime, and to exchange the love and tenderness that had ever been lavished upon me there for a nearer and more engrossing attachment.
It was the evening before my bridal. I had stolen away unperceived, for I could not resist the temptation of one more quiet chat with Aunt Mary.
“I scarcely expected you to-night, my dear Jessie,” said she, as I entered, “but you are none the less welcome. Do you know I am very selfish to-night? When I ought to be rejoicing in your happiness, my heart is heavy, because I feel that I can no longer be to you what I have been, chief friend and confidant. Oh! I shall indeed miss my little Jessie.”
“You will always be to me just what you have been, Aunt Mary,” I replied, and tears filled my eyes, as I threw myself upon a low seat at her feet. “You must not think that because I am a wife, I shall love my old friends any the less: and you of all others, you who have been to me as a dear, dear elder sister,—you who have instructed and counselled me, and have shared all my thoughts and feelings since I was a little child; oh! do you think any one can come between our hearts? We may not meet as frequently as we have done, but you will ever find me just the same, and I shall tell you all my thoughts, and all my cares and sorrows, and all my joys too, just as I always have done.”
“No, no, Jessie, say not so. That may not be. You may love me just as well, but you will love another more. Your heart cannot be open to me as it has been, for it will belong to another. Its hopes, its fears, its joys, its sorrows, its cares, its love, will all be so intimately blended with those of another, that they cannot be separated. No wife, provided the relations existing between her husband and herself are what they should be, can be to any other friend exactly what she was before her marriage.”
“Why, Aunt Mary!—you surely do not mean to say that a wife should never have any confidential friends?”
“The history of woman, dear Jessie, is generally simply a record of the workings of her own heart; in ordinary cases, she has little else to consider. ‘The world of affections is her world,’ and there finds she her appropriate sphere of action. What I mean to say is,—not that a wife should have no friend save her husband,—but that, if the hearts of the twain are as closely linked together as they should be, if they always beat in perfect unison, and if their thoughts and feelings harmonize as they ought to do, it will be difficult for her to draw aside the veil from her own heart, and lay it open to the gaze of any other being, without, in some degree, betraying the confidence reposed in her by him who should be nearer and dearer than all the world beside. The heart is like a temple, Jessie. It has its outer and its inner court, and it has also its holy of holies. The outer court is full. Common acquaintances,—those that we call friends, merely because they are not enemies,—are gathered there. The inner court but few may enter,—the few who we feel love us, and to whom we are united by the strong bonds of sympathy; but the sanctum sanctorum, the holy of holies, that must never be profaned by alien footsteps, or by the tread of any, save him to whom the wife hath said, ‘Whither thou goest I will go, thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.’”