The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Lydia H. Sigourney/The Lost Children
THE LOST CHILDREN.
“I ask the moon, so sadly fair,
The night’s cold breath through shadows drawn,
‘Where are they who were mine? and where?’
A void but answers, ‘All are gone.’” Miss H. F. Gould.
There was sickness in the dwelling of the emigrant. Stretched upon his humble bed, he depended on that nursing care which a wife, scarcely less enfeebled than himself, was able to bestow. A child, in its third summer, had been recently laid to its last rest beneath a turf mound under their window. Its image was in the heart of the mother, as she tenderly ministered to her husband.
“Wife, I am afraid I think too much about poor little Thomas. He was so well and rosy when we left our old home, scarcely a year since. Sometimes I feel, if we had but continued there, our darling would not have died.”
The tear which had long trembled, and been repressed by the varieties of conjugal solicitude, burst forth at these words. It freely overflowed the brimming eyes, and relieved the suffocating emotions which had striven for the mastery.
“Do not reproach yourself, dear husband. His time had come. He is happier there than here. Let us be thankful for those that are spared.”
“It seems to me that the little girls are growing pale. I am afraid you confine them too closely to this narrow house, and to the sight of sickness. The weather is growing settled. You had better send them out to change the air, and run about at their will. Mary, lay the baby on the bed by me, and ask mother to let little sister and you go out for a ramble.”
The mother assented, and the children, who were four and six years old, departed, full of delight. A clearing had been made in front of their habitation, and, by ascending a knoll in its vicinity, another dwelling might be seen environed with the dark spruce and hemlock. In the rear of these houses was a wide expanse of ground, interspersed with thickets, rocky acclivities, and patches of forest trees, while far away, one or two lakelets peered up, with their blue eyes deeply fringed. The spirits of the children, as they entered this unenclosed region, were like those of the birds that surrounded them. They playfully pursued each other with merry laughter, and such a joyous sense of liberty, as makes the blood course lightsomely through the veins.
“Little Jane, let us go farther than ever we have before. We will see what lies beyond those high hills, for it is but just past noon, and we can get back long before supper-time.”
“Oh! yes, let us follow that bright blue-bird, and see what he is flying after. But don’t go in among those briers that tear the clothes so, for mother has no time to mend them.”
“Sister, sweet sister, here are some snowdrops in this green hollow, exactly like those in my old, dear garden, so far away. How pure they are, and cool, just like the baby’s face, when the wind blows on it! Father and mother will like us to bring them some.”
Filling their little aprons with the spoil, and still searching for something new or beautiful, they prolonged their ramble, unconscious of the flight of time, or the extent of space they were traversing. At length, admonished by the chilliness, which often marks the declining hours of the early days of spring, they turned their course homeward. But the returning clue was lost, and they walked rapidly, only to plunge more inextricably in the mazes of the wilderness.
“Sister Mary, are these pretty snow-drows good to eat? I am so hungry, and my feet ache, and will not go!”
“Let me lift you over this brook, little Jane; and hold tighter by my hand, and walk as bravely as you can, that we may get home, and help mother set the table.”
“We won’t go so far next time, will we? What is the reason that I cannot see any better?”
“Is not that the roof of our house, dear Jane, and the thin smoke curling up among the trees? Many times before, have I thought so, and found it only a rock or a mist.”
As evening drew its veil, the hapless wanderers, bewildered, hurried to and fro, calling for their parents, or shouting for help, until their strength was exhausted. Torn by brambles, and their poor feet bleeding from the rocks which strewed their path, they sunk down, moaning bitterly. The fears that overpower the heart of a timid child, who, for the first time finds night approaching, without shelter or protection, wrought on the youngest to insupportable anguish. The elder, filled with the sacred warmth of sisterly affection, after the first paroxysms of grief, seemed to forget herself, and sitting upon the damp ground, and folding the little one in her arms, rocked her with a gentle movement, soothing and hushing her like a nursling.
“Don’t cry! oh! don’t cry so, dearest; say your prayers, and fear will fly away.”
“How can I kneel down here in the dark woods, or say my prayers, when mother is not by to hear me? I think I see a large wolf, with sharp ears, and a mouth wide open, and hear noises as of many fierce lions growling.”
“Dear little Jane, do say, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven,’ Be a good girl, and, when we have rested here a while, perhaps He may be pleased to send some one to find us, and to fetch us home.”Harrowing was the anxiety in the lowly hut of the emigrant when day drew towards its close, and the children came not. A boy, their whole assistant in the toils of agriculture, at his return from labour, was sent in search of them, but in vain. As evening drew on, the inmates of the neighbouring house, and those of a small hamlet, at considerable distance, were alarmed, and associated in the pursuit. The agony of the invalid parents, through that night, was uncontrollable; starting at every footstep, shaping out of every breeze the accents of the lost ones returning, or their cries of misery. While the morning was yet gray, the father, no longer to be restrained, and armed with supernatural strength, went forth, amid the ravings of his fever, to take part in the pursuit. With fiery cheeks, his throbbing head bound with a handkerchief, he was seen in the most dangerous and inaccessible spots—caverns—ravines—beetling cliffs—leading the way to every point of peril, in the phrensy of grief and disease.
The second night drew on, with one of those sudden storms of sleet and snow, which sometimes chill the hopes of the young spring. Then was a sadder sight—a woman with attenuated form, flying she knew not whither, and continually exclaiming, “My children! my children!” It was fearful to see a creature so deadly pale, with the darkness of midnight about her. She heeded no advice to take care of herself, nor persuasion to return to her home.
“They call me! Let me go! I will lay them in their bed myself. How cold their feet are! What! is Jane singing her nightly hymn without me? No! no! She cries! Some evil serpent has stung her!” and, shrieking wildly, the poor mother disappeared, like a hunted deer, in the depths of the forest.
Oh! might she but have wrapped them in her arms, as they shivered in their dismal recess, under the roots of a tree, uptorn by some wintry tempest! Yet how could she imagine the spot where they lay, or believe that those little wearied limbs had borne them, through bog and bramble, more than six miles from the parental door? In the niche which we have mentioned, a faint moaning sound might till be heard.
“Sister, do not tell me that we shall never see the baby any more. I see it now, and Thomas, too! dear Thomas! Why do they say he died and was buried? He is close by me, just above my head. There are many more babies with him—a host. They glide by me as if they had wings. They look warm and happy. I should be glad to be with them, and join their beautiful plays. But O, how cold I am! Cover me close, Mary. Take my head into your bosom.”
“Pray do not go to sleep quite yet, dear Jane. I want to hear your voice, and talk with you. It is so very sad to be waking here alone. If I could but see your face when you are asleep, it would be a comfort. But it is so dark, so dark!”
Rousing herself with difficulty, she unties her apron, and spreads it over the head of the child, to protect it from the driving snow; she pillows the cold cheek on her breast, and grasps more firmly the benumbed hand by which she had so faithfully led her, through all their terrible pilgrimage. There they are!—The one moves not. The other keeps vigil, feebly giving utterance, at intervals, to a low suffocating spasm from a throat dried with hunger. Once more she leans upon her elbow, to look on the face of the little one, for whom as a mother she has cared. With love strong as death, she comforts herself that her sister slumbers calmly, because the stroke of the destroyer has silenced her sobbings.
Ah! why come ye not hither, torches that gleam through the wilderness, and men who shout to each other? why come ye not this way? See! they plunge into morasses, they cut their path through tangled thickets, they ford waters, they ascend mountains, they explore forests—but the lost are not found!
The third and fourth nights come and depart. Still the woods are filled with eager searchers. Sympathy has gathered them from remote settlements. Every log-cabin sends forth what it can spare for this work of pity and of sorrow. They cross each other s track. Incessantly they interrogate and reply, but in vain. The lost are not found!
In her mournful dwelling, the mother sat motionless. Her infant was upon her lap. The strong duty to succor its helplessness, grappled with the might of grief, and prevailed. Her eyes were riveted upon its brow. No sound passed her white lips. Pitying women, from distant habitations, gathered around and wept for her. They even essayed some words of consolation. But she answered nothing. She looked not toward them. She had no ear for human voices. In her soul was the perpetual cry of the lost. Nothing overpowered it, but the wail of her living babe. She ministered to its necessities, and that Heaven-inspired impulse saved her. She had no longer any hope for those who had wandered away. Horrid images were in her fancy—the ravening beast—black pits of stagnant water—birds of fierce beak—venomous, coiling snakes. She bowed herself down to them, and travailed as in the birth-hour, fearfully, and in silence. But the hapless babe on her bosom, touched an electric chord, and saved her from despair. Maternal love, with its pillar of cloud and of flame, guided her through the desert, that she perished not.
Sunday came, and the search was unabated. It seemed only marked by a deeper tinge of melancholy. The most serious felt it fitting to go forth at that sacred season to seek the lost, though not, like their master, girded with the power to save. Parents remember that it might have been their own little ones who had thus strayed from the fold, and with their gratitude, took a portion of the mourner’s spirit into their hearts. Even the sad hope of gathering the dead for the sepulchre, the sole hope that now sustained their toil, began to fade into doubt. As they climbed over huge trees, which the winds of winter had prostrated, or forced their way among rending brambles, sharp rocks, and close-woven branches, they marvelled how such fragile forms would have endured hardships by which the vigour of manhood was impeded and perplexed.
The echo of a gun rang suddenly through the forest. It was repeated. Hill to hill bore the thrilling message. It was the concerted signal that their anxieties were ended. The hurrying seekers followed its sound. From a commanding cliff, a white flag was seen to float. It was the herald that the lost was found.
There they were—near the base of a wooded hillock, half cradled among the roots of an uptorn chestnut. There they lay, cheek to cheek, hand clasped in hand. The blasts had mingled in one mesh their dishevelled locks, for they had left home with their poor heads uncovered. The youngest had passed away in sleep. There was no contortion on her brow, though her features were sunk and sharpened by famine.
The elder had borne a deeper and longer anguish. Her eyes were open, though she had watched till death came; watched over that little one, for whom, through those days and nights of terror, she had cared and sorrowed like a mother. Strong and rugged men shed tears when they saw she had wrapped her in her own scanty apron, and striven with her embracing arms to preserve the warmth of vitality, even after the cherished spirit had fled away. The glazed eyeballs were strained, as if, to the last, they had been gazing for her father’s roof, or the wreath of smoke that should guide her there.
Sweet sisterly love! so patient in all adversity, so faithful unto the end, found it not a Father’s house, where it might enter with the little one, and be sundered no more? Found it not a fold whence no lamb can wander and be lost? a mansion where there is no death, neither sorrow nor crying? Forgot it not all its sufferings for joy at that dear Redeemer’s welcome, which, in its cradle, it had been taught to lisp—“Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of Heaven.”