THE GUARDIAN ANGEL
by Oliver Wendell Holmes
TO MY READERS.
"A new Preface" is, I find, promised with my story. If there are any among my readers who loved Aesop's Fables chiefly on account of the Moral appended, they will perhaps be pleased to turn backward and learn what I have to say here.
This tale forms a natural sequence to a former one, which some may remember, entitled "Elsie Venner." Like that,—it is intended for two classes of readers, of which the smaller one includes the readers of the "Morals" in Aesop and of this Preface.
The first of the two stories based itself upon an experiment which some thought cruel, even on paper. It imagined an alien element introduced into the blood of a human being before that being saw the light. It showed a human nature developing itself in conflict with the ophidian characteristics and instincts impressed upon it during the pre-natal period. Whether anything like this ever happened, or was possible, mattered little: it enabled me, at any rate, to suggest the limitations of human responsibility in a simple and effective way.
The story which follows comes more nearly within the range of common experience. The successive development of inherited bodily aspects and habitudes is well known to all who have lived long enough to see families grow up under their own eyes. The same thing happens, but less obviously to common observation, in the mental and moral nature. There is something frightful in the way in which not only characteristic qualities, but particular manifestations of them, are repeated from generation to generation. Jonathan Edwards the younger tells the story of a brutal wretch in New Haven who was abusing his father, when the old man cried out, "Don't drag me any further, for I did n't drag my father beyond this tree." [The original version of this often-repeated story may be found in Aristotle's Ethics, Book 7th, Chapter 7th.] I have attempted to show the successive evolution of some inherited qualities in the character of Myrtle Hazard, not so obtrusively as to disturb the narrative, but plainly enough to be kept in sight by the small class of preface-readers.
If I called these two stories Studies of the Reflex Function in its higher sphere, I should frighten away all but the professors and the learned ladies. If I should proclaim that they were protests against the scholastic tendency to shift the total responsibility of all human action from the Infinite to the finite, I might alarm the jealousy of the cabinet-keepers of our doctrinal museums. By saying nothing about it, the large majority of those whom my book reaches, not being preface-readers, will never suspect anything to harm them beyond the simple facts of the narrative.
Should any professional alarmist choose to confound the doctrine of limited responsibility with that which denies the existence of any self-determining power, he may be presumed to belong to the class of intellectual half-breeds, of which we have many representatives in our new country, wearing the garb of civilization, and even the gown of scholarship. If we cannot follow the automatic machinery of nature into the mental and moral world, where it plays its part as much as in the bodily functions, without being accused of laying "all that we are evil in to a divine thrusting on," we had better return at once to our old demonology, and reinstate the Leader of the Lower House in his time-honored prerogatives.
As fiction sometimes seems stranger than truth, a few words may be needed here to make some of my characters and statements appear probable. The long-pending question involving a property which had become in the mean time of immense value finds its parallel in the great De Haro land-case, decided in the Supreme Court while this story was in progress (May 14th, 1867). The experiment of breaking the child's will by imprisonment and fasting is borrowed from a famous incident, happening long before the case lately before one of the courts of a neighboring Commonwealth, where a little girl was beaten to death because she would not say her prayers. The mental state involving utter confusion of different generations in a person yet capable of forming a correct judgment on other matters, is almost a direct transcript from nature. I should not have ventured to repeat the questions of the daughters of the millionaires to Myrtle Hazard about her family conditions, and their comments, had not a lady of fortune and position mentioned to me a similar circumstance in the school history of one of her own children. Perhaps I should have hesitated in reproducing Myrtle Hazard's "Vision," but for a singular experience of his own related to me by the late Mr. Forceythe Willson.
Gifted Hopkins (under various alliasis) has been a frequent correspondent of mine. I have also received a good many communications, signed with various names, which must have been from near female relatives of that young gentleman. I once sent a kind of encyclical letter to the whole family connection; but as the delusion under which they labor is still common, and often leads to the wasting of time, the contempt of honest study or humble labor, and the misapplication of intelligence not so far below mediocrity as to be incapable of affording a respectable return when employed in the proper direction, I thought this picture from life might also be of service. When I say that no genuine young poet will apply it to himself, I think I have so far removed the sting that few or none will complain of being wounded.
It is lamentable to be forced to add that the Reverend Joseph Bellamy Stoker is only a softened copy of too many originals to whom, as a regular attendant upon divine worship from my childhood to the present time, I have respectfully listened, while they dealt with me and mine and the bulk of their fellow-creatures after the manner of their sect. If, in the interval between his first showing himself in my story and its publication in a separate volume, anything had occurred to make me question the justice or expediency of drawing and exhibiting such a portrait, I should have reconsidered it, with the view of retouching its sharper features. But its essential truthfulness has been illustrated every month or two, since my story has been in the course of publication, by a fresh example from real life, stamped in darker colors than any with which I should have thought of staining my pages.
There are a great many good clergymen to one bad one, but a writer finds it hard to keep to the true proportion of good and bad persons in telling a story. The three or four good ministers I have introduced in this narrative must stand for many whom I have known and loved, and some of whom I count to-day among my most valued friends. I hope the best and wisest of them will like this story and approve it. If they cannot all do this, I know they will recognize it as having been written with a right and honest purpose. BOSTON, 1867.
PREFACE TO THE NEW EDITION.
It is a quarter of a century since the foregoing Preface was written, and that is long enough to allow a story to be forgotten by the public, and very possibly by the writer of it also. I will not pretend that I have forgotten all about "The Guardian Angel," but it is long since I have read it, and many of its characters and incidents are far from being distinct in my memory. There are, however, a few points which hold their place among my recollections. The revolt of Myrtle Hazard from the tyranny of that dogmatic dynasty now breaking up in all directions has found new illustrations since this tale was written. I need only refer to two instances of many. The first is from real life. Mr. Robert C. Adams's work, "Travels in Faith from Tradition to Reason," is the outcome of the teachings of one of the most intransigeant of our New England Calvinists, the late Reverend Nehemiah Adams. For an example in fiction,—fiction which bears all the marks of being copied from real life,—I will refer to "The Story of an African Farm." The boy's honest, but terrible outburst, "I hate God," was, I doubt not, more acceptable in the view of his Maker than the lying praise of many a hypocrite who, having enthroned a demon as Lord of the Universe, thinks to conciliate his favor by using the phrases which the slaves of Eastern despots are in the habit of addressing to their masters. I have had many private letters showing the same revolt of reasoning natures against doctrines which shock the more highly civilized part of mankind in this nineteenth century and are leading to those dissensions which have long shown as cracks, and are fast becoming lines of cleavage in some of the largest communions of Protestantism.
The principle of heredity has been largely studied since this story was written. This tale, like "Elsie Venner," depends for its deeper significance on the ante-natal history of its subject. But the story was meant to be readable for those who did not care for its underlying philosophy. If it fails to interest the reader who ventures upon it, it may find a place on an unfrequented bookshelf in common with other "medicated novels."
Perhaps I have been too hard with Gifted Hopkins and the tribe of rhymesters to which he belongs. I ought not to forget that I too introduced myself to the reading world in a thin volume of verses; many of which had better not have been written, and would not be reprinted now, but for the fact that they have established a right to a place among my poems in virtue of long occupancy. Besides, although the writing of verses is often a mark of mental weakness, I cannot forget that Joseph Story and George Bancroft each published his little book, of rhymes, and that John Quincy Adams has left many poems on record, the writing of which did not interfere with the vast and important labors of his illustrious career.
BEVERLY FARMS, MASS., August 7, 1891. O. W. H.
THE GUARDIAN ANGEL
On Saturday, the 18th day of June, 1859, the "State Banner and Delphian Oracle," published weekly at Oxbow Village, one of the principal centres in a thriving river-town of New England, contained an advertisement which involved the story of a young life, and stained the emotions of a small community. Such faces of dismay, such shaking of heads, such gatherings at corners, such halts of complaining, rheumatic wagons, and dried-up, chirruping chaises, for colloquy of their still-faced tenants, had not been known since the rainy November Friday, when old Malachi Withers was found hanging in his garret up there at the lonely house behind the poplars.
The number of the "Banner and Oracle" which contained this advertisement was a fair specimen enough of the kind of newspaper to which it belonged. Some extracts from a stray copy of the issue of the date referred to will show the reader what kind of entertainment the paper was accustomed to furnish its patrons, and also serve some incidental purposes of the writer in bringing into notice a few personages who are to figure in this narrative.
The copy in question was addressed to one of its regular subscribers,—"B. Gridley, Esq." The sarcastic annotations at various points, enclosed in brackets and italicised that they may be distinguished from any other comments, were taken from the pencilled remarks of that gentleman, intended for the improvement of a member of the family in which he resided, and are by no means to be attributed to the harmless pen which reproduces them.
Byles Gridley, A. M., as he would have been styled by persons acquainted with scholarly dignities, was a bachelor, who had been a schoolmaster, a college tutor, and afterwards for many years professor,—a man of learning, of habits, of whims and crotchets, such as are hardly to be found, except in old, unmarried students,—the double flowers of college culture, their stamina all turned to petals, their stock in the life of the race all funded in the individual. Being a man of letters, Byles Gridley naturally rather undervalued the literary acquirements of the good people of the rural district where he resided, and, having known much of college and something of city life, was apt to smile at the importance they attached to their little local concerns. He was, of course, quite as much an object of rough satire to the natural observers and humorists, who are never wanting in a New England village,—perhaps not in any village where a score or two of families are brought together,—enough of them, at any rate, to furnish the ordinary characters of a real-life stock company.
The old Master of Arts was a permanent boarder in the house of a very worthy woman, relict of the late Ammi Hopkins, by courtesy Esquire, whose handsome monument—in a finished and carefully colored lithograph, representing a finely shaped urn under a very nicely groomed willow—hung in her small, well-darkened, and, as it were, monumental parlor. Her household consisted of herself, her son, nineteen years of age, of whom more hereafter, and of two small children, twins, left upon her doorstep when little more than mere marsupial possibilities, taken in for the night, kept for a week, and always thereafter cherished by the good soul as her own; also of Miss Susan Posey, aged eighteen, at school at the "Academy" in another part of the same town, a distant relative, boarding with her.
What the old scholar took the village paper for it would be hard to guess, unless for a reason like that which carried him very regularly to hear the preaching of the Rev. Joseph Bellamy Stoker, colleague of the old minister of the village parish; namely, because he did not believe a word of his favorite doctrines, and liked to go there so as to growl to himself through the sermon, and go home scolding all the way about it.
The leading article of the "Banner and Oracle" for June 18th must have been of superior excellence, for, as Mr. Gridley remarked, several of the "metropolitan" journals of the date of June 15th and thereabout had evidently conversed with the writer and borrowed some of his ideas before he gave them to the public. The Foreign News by the Europa at Halifax, 15th, was spread out in the amplest dimensions the type of the office could supply. More battles! The Allies victorious! The King and General Cialdini beat the Austrians at Palestro! 400 Austrians drowned in a canal! Anti-French feeling in Germany! Allgermine Zeiturg talks of conquest of Allsatia and Loraine and the occupation of Paris! [Vicious digs with a pencil through the above proper names.] Race for the Derby won by Sir Joseph Hawley's Musjid! [That's what England cares for! Hooray for the Darby! Italy be deedeed!] Visit of Prince Alfred to the Holy Land. Letter from our, own Correspondent. [Oh! Oh! A West Minkville?] Cotton advanced. Breadstuffs declining.—Deacon Rumrill's barn burned down on Saturday night. A pig missing; supposed to have "fallen a prey to the devouring element." [Got roasted.] A yellow mineral had been discovered on the Doolittle farm, which, by the report of those who had seen it, bore a strong resemblance to California gold ore. Much excitement in the neighborhood in consequence [Idiots! Iron pyrites!] A hen at Four Corners had just laid an egg measuring 7 by 8 inches. Fetch on your biddies! [Editorial wit!] A man had shot an eagle measuring six feet and a half from tip to tip of his wings.—Crops suffering for want of rain [Always just so. "Dry times, Father Noah!"] The editors had received a liberal portion of cake from the happy couple whose matrimonial union was recorded in the column dedicated to Hymen. Also a superior article of [article of! bah!] steel pen from the enterprising merchant [shopkeeper] whose advertisement was to be found on the third page of this paper.—An interesting Surprise Party [cheap theatricals] had transpired [bah!] on Thursday evening last at the house of the Rev. Mr. Stoker. The parishioners had donated [donated! GIVE is a good word enough for the Lord's Prayer. DONATE our daily bread!] a bag of meal, a bushel of beans, a keg of pickles, and a quintal of salt-fish. The worthy pastor was much affected, etc., etc. [Of course. Call'em. SENSATION parties and done with it!] The Rev. Dr. Pemberton and the venerable Dr. Hurlbut honored the occasion with their presence.—We learn that the Rev. Ambrose Eveleth, rector of St. Bartholomew's Chapel, has returned from his journey, and will officiate to-morrow.
Then came strings of advertisements, with a luxuriant vegetation of capitals and notes of admiration. More of those PRIME GOODS! Full Assortments of every Article in our line! [Except the one thing you want!] Auction Sale. Old furniture, feather-beds, bed-spreads [spreads! ugh!], setts [setts!] crockery-ware, odd vols., ullage bbls. of this and that, with other household goods, etc., etc., etc.,—the etceteras meaning all sorts of insane movables, such as come out of their bedlam-holes when an antiquated domestic establishment disintegrates itself at a country "vandoo."—Several announcements of "Feed," whatever that may be,—not restaurant dinners, anyhow,—also of "Shorts,"—terms mysterious to city ears as jute and cudbear and gunnybags to such as drive oxen in the remote interior districts.—Then the marriage column above alluded to, by the fortunate recipients of the cake. Right opposite, as if for matrimonial ground-bait, a Notice that Whereas my wife, Lucretia Babb, has left my bed and board, I will not be responsible, etc., etc., from this date.—Jacob Penhallow (of the late firm Wibird and Penhallow) had taken Mr. William Murray Bradshaw into partnership, and the business of the office would be carried on as usual under the title Penhallow and Bradshaw, Attorneys at Law. Then came the standing professional card of Dr. Lemuel Hurlbut and Dr. Fordyce Hurlbut, the medical patriarch of the town and his son. Following this, hideous quack advertisements, some of them with the certificates of Honorables, Esquires, and Clergymen.—Then a cow, strayed or stolen from the subscriber.—Then the advertisement referred to in our first paragraph:
MYRTLE HAZARD has been missing from her home in this place since Thursday morning, June 16th. She is fifteen years old, tall and womanly for her age, has dark hair and eyes, fresh complexion, regular features, pleasant smile and voice, but shy with strangers. Her common dress was a black and white gingham check, straw hat, trimmed with green ribbon. It is feared she may have come to harm in some way, or be wandering at large in a state of temporary mental alienation. Any information relating to the missing child will be gratefully received and properly rewarded by her afflicted aunt,
MISS SILENCE WITHERS, Residing at the Withers Homestead, otherwise known as "The Poplars," in this village.
The publication of the advertisement in the paper brought the village fever of the last two days to its height. Myrtle Hazard's disappearance had been pretty well talked round through the immediate neighborhood, but now that forty-eight hours of search and inquiry had not found her, and the alarm was so great that the young girl's friends were willing to advertise her in a public journal, it was clear that the gravest apprehensions were felt and justified. The paper carried the tidings to many who had not heard it. Some of the farmers who had been busy all the week with their fields came into the village in their wagons on Saturday, and there first learned the news, and saw the paper, and the placards which were posted up, and listened, open-mouthed, to the whole story.
Saturday was therefore a day of much agitation in Oxbow Village, and some stir in the neighboring settlements. Of course there was a great variety of comment, its character depending very much on the sense, knowledge, and disposition of the citizens, gossips, and young people who talked over the painful and mysterious occurrence.
The Withers Homestead was naturally the chief centre of interest. Nurse Byloe, an ancient and voluminous woman, who had known the girl when she was a little bright-eyed child, handed over "the baby" she was holding to another attendant, and got on her things to go straight up to The Poplars. She had been holding "the baby" these forty years and more, but somehow it never got to be more than a month or six weeks old. She reached The Poplars after much toil and travail. Mistress Fagan, Irish, house-servant, opened the door, at which Nurse Byloe knocked softly, as she was in the habit of doing at the doors of those who sent for her.
"Have you heerd anything yet, Kitty Fagan?" asked Nurse Byloe.
"Niver a blissed word," said she. "Miss Withers is upstairs with Miss Bathsheby, a cryin' and a lamentin'. Miss Badlam's in the parlor. The men has been draggin' the pond. They have n't found not one thing, but only jest two, and that was the old coffeepot and the gray cat,—it's them nigger boys hanged her with a string they tied round her neck and then drownded her." [P. Fagan, Jr., Aet. 14, had a snarl of similar string in his pocket.]
Mistress Fagan opened the door of the best parlor. A woman was sitting there alone, rocking back and forward, and fanning herself with the blackest of black fans.
"Nuss Byloe, is that you? Well, to be sure, I'm glad to see you, though we 're all in trouble. Set right down, Nuss, do. Oh, it's dreadful times!"
A handkerchief which was in readiness for any emotional overflow was here called on for its function.
Nurse Byloe let herself drop into a flaccid squab chair with one of those soft cushions, filled with slippery feathers, which feel so fearfully like a very young infant, or a nest of little kittens, as they flatten under the subsiding person.
The woman in the rocking-chair was Miss Cynthia Badlam, second-cousin of Miss Silence Withers, with whom she had been living as a companion at intervals for some years. She appeared to be thirty-five years old, more or less, and looked not badly for that stage of youth, though of course she might have been handsomer at twenty, as is often the case with women. She wore a not unbecoming cap; frequent headaches had thinned her locks somewhat of late years. Features a little too sharp, a keen, gray eye, a quick and restless glance, which rather avoided being met, gave the impression that she was a wide-awake, cautious, suspicious, and, very possibly, crafty person.
"I could n't help comin'," said Nurse Byloe, "we do so love our babies,—how can we help it, Miss Badlam?"
The spinster colored up at the nurse's odd way of using the possessive pronoun, and dropped her eyes, as was natural on hearing such a speech.
"I never tended children as you have, Nuss," she said. "But I 've known Myrtle Hazard ever since she was three years old, and to think she should have come to such an end,—'The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked,'"—and she wept.
"Why, Cynthy Badlam, what do y' mean?" said Nurse Byloe. "Y' don't think anything dreadful has come o' that child's wild nater, do ye?"
"Child!" said Cynthia Badlam,—"child enough to wear this very gown I have got on and not find it too big for her neither." [It would have pinched Myrtle here and there pretty shrewdly.]
The two women looked each other in the eyes with subtle interchange of intelligence, such as belongs to their sex in virtue of its specialty. Talk without words is half their conversation, just as it is all the conversation of the lower animals. Only the dull senses of men are dead to it as to the music of the spheres.
Their minds travelled along, as if they had been yoked together, through whole fields of suggestive speculation, until the dumb growths of thought ripened in both their souls into articulate speech, consentingly, as the movement comes after the long stillness of a Quaker meeting.
Their lips opened at the same moment. "You don't mean"—began Nurse Byloe, but stopped as she heard Miss Badlam also speaking.
"They need n't drag the pond," she said. "They need n't go beating the woods as if they were hunting a patridge,—though for that matter Myrtle Hazard was always more like a patridge than she was like a pullet. Nothing ever took hold of that girl,—not catechising, nor advising, nor punishing. It's that dreadful will of hers never was broke. I've always been afraid that she would turn out a child of wrath. Did y' ever watch her at meetin' playing with posies and looking round all the time of the long prayer? That's what I've seen her do many and many a time. I'm afraid—Oh dear! Miss Byloe, I'm afraid to say—what I'm afraid of. Men are so wicked, and young girls are full of deceit and so ready to listen to all sorts of artful creturs that take advantage of their ignorance and tender years." She wept once more, this time with sobs that seemed irrepressible.
"Dear suz!" said the nurse, "I won't believe no sech thing as wickedness about Myrtle Hazard. You mean she's gone an' run off with some good-for-nothin' man or other? If that ain't what y' mean, what do y' mean? It can't be so, Miss Badlam: she's one o' my babies. At any rate, I handled her when she fust come to this village,—and none o' my babies never did sech a thing. Fifteen year old, and be bringin' a whole family into disgrace! If she was thirty year old, or five-an'-thirty or more, and never'd had a chance to be married, and if one o' them artful creturs you was talkin' of got hold of her, then, to be sure,—why, dear me!—law! I never thought, Miss Badlam!—but then of course you could have had your pickin' and choosin' in the time of it; and I don't mean to say it's too late now if you felt called that way, for you're better lookin' now than some that's younger, and there's no accountin' for tastes."
A sort of hysteric twitching that went through the frame of Cynthia Badlam dimly suggested to the old nurse that she was not making her slightly indiscreet personality much better by her explanations. She stopped short, and surveyed the not uncomely person of the maiden lady sitting before her with her handkerchief pressed to her eyes, and one hand clenching the arm of the reeking-chair, as if some spasm had clamped it there. The nurse looked at her with a certain growing interest she had never felt before. It was the first time for some years that she had had such a chance, partly because Miss Cynthia had often been away for long periods,—partly because she herself had been busy professionally. There was no occasion for her services, of course, in the family at The Poplars; and she was always following round from place to place after that everlasting migratory six-weeks or less old baby.
There was not a more knowing pair of eyes, in their way, in a circle of fifty miles, than those kindly tranquil orbs that Nurse Byloe fixed on Cynthia Badlam. The silver threads in the side fold of hair, the delicate lines at the corner of the eye, the slight drawing down at the angle of the mouth,—almost imperceptible, but the nurse dwelt upon it,—a certain moulding of the features as of an artist's clay model worked by delicate touches with the fingers, showing that time or pain or grief had had a hand in shaping them, the contours, the adjustment of every fold of the dress, the attitude, the very way of breathing, were all passed through the searching inspection of the ancient expert, trained to know all the changes wrought by time and circumstance. It took not so long as it takes to describe it, but it was an analysis of imponderables, equal to any of Bunsen's with the spectroscope.
Miss Badlam removed her handkerchief and looked in a furtive, questioning way, in her turn, upon the nurse.
"It's dreadful close here,—I'm 'most smothered," Nurse Byloe said; and, putting her hand to her throat, unclasped the catch of the necklace of gold beads she had worn since she was a baby,—a bead having been added from time to time as she thickened. It lay in a deep groove of her large neck, and had not troubled her in breathing before, since the day when her husband was run over by an ox-team.
At this moment Miss Silence Withers entered, followed by Bathsheba Stoker, daughter of Rev. Joseph Bellamy Stoker.
She was the friend of Myrtle, and had come to comfort Miss Silence, and consult with her as to what further search they should institute. The two, Myrtle's aunt and her friend, were as unlike as they could well be. Silence Withers was something more than forty years old, a shadowy, pinched, sallow, dispirited, bloodless woman, with the habitual look of the people in the funeral carriage which follows next to the hearse, and the tone in speaking that may be noticed in a household where one of its members is lying white and still in a cool, darkened chamber overhead. Bathsheba Stoker was not called handsome; but she had her mother's youthful smile, which was so fresh and full of sweetness that she seemed like a beauty while she was speaking or listening; and she could never be plain so long as any expression gave life to her features. In perfect repose, her face, a little prematurely touched by sad experiences,—for she was but seventeen years old,—had the character and decision stamped in its outlines which any young man who wanted a companion to warn, to comfort, and command him, might have depended on as warranting the courage, the sympathy, and the sense demanded for such a responsibility. She had been trying her powers of consolation on Miss Silence. It was a sudden freak of Myrtle's. She had gone off on some foolish but innocent excursion. Besides, she was a girl that would take care of herself; for she was afraid of nothing, and nimbler than any boy of her age, and almost as strong as any. As for thinking any bad thoughts about her, that was a shame; she cared for none of the young fellows that were round her. Cyprian Eveleth was the one she thought most of; but Cyprian was as true as his sister Olive, and who else was there?
To all this Miss Silence answered only by sighing and moaning, For two whole days she had been kept in constant fear and worry, afraid every minute of some tragical message, perplexed by the conflicting advice of all manner of officious friends, sleepless of course through the two nights, and now utterly broken down and collapsed.
Bathsheba had said all she could in the way of consolation, and hastened back to her mother's bedside, which she hardly left, except for the briefest of visits.
"It's a great trial, Miss Withers, that's laid on you," said Nurse Byloe.
"If I only knew that she was dead, and had died in the Lord," Miss Silence answered,—"if I only knew that but if she is living in sin, or dead in wrong—doing, what is to become of me?—Oh, what is to become of me when 'He maketh inquisition far blood'?"
"Cousin Silence," said Miss Cynthia, "it is n't your fault, if that young girl has taken to evil ways. If going to meeting three times every Sabbath day, and knowing the catechism by heart, and reading of good books, and the best of daily advice, and all needful discipline, could have corrected her sinful nature, she would never have run away from a home where she enjoyed all these privileges. It's that Indian blood, Cousin Silence. It's a great mercy you and I have n't got any of it in our veins! What can you expect of children that come from heathens and savages? You can't lay it to yourself, Cousin Silence, if Myrtle Hazard goes wrong"—
"The Lord will lay it to me,—the Lord will lay it to me," she moaned. "Did n't he say to Cain, 'Where is Abel, thy brother?'"
Nurse Byloe was getting very red in the face. She had had about enough of this talk between the two women. "I hope the Lard 'll take care of Myrtle Hazard fust, if she's in trouble, 'n' wants help," she said; "'n' then look out for them that comes next. Y' 're too suspicious, Miss Badlam; y' 're too easy to believe stories. Myrtle Hazard was as pretty a child and as good a child as ever I see, if you did n't rile her; 'n' d' d y' ever see one o' them hearty lively children, that had n't a sperrit of its own? For my part, I'd rather handle one of 'em than a dozen o' them little waxy, weak-eyed, slim-necked creturs that always do what they tell 'em to, and die afore they're a dozen year old; and never was the time when I've seen Myrtle Hazard, sence she was my baby, but what it's always been, 'Good mornin', Miss Byloe,' and 'How do you do, Miss Byloe? I'm so glad to see you.' The handsomest young woman, too, as all the old folks will agree in tellin' you, s'ence the time o' Judith Pride that was,—the Pride of the County they used to call her, for her beauty. Her great-grandma, y' know, Miss Cynthy, married old King David Withers. What I want to know is, whether anything has been heerd, and jest what's been done about findin' the poor thing. How d' ye know she has n't fell into the river? Have they fired cannon? They say that busts the gall of drownded folks, and makes the corpse rise. Have they looked in the woods everywhere? Don't believe no wrong of nobody, not till y' must,—least of all of them that come o' the same folks, partly, and has lived with yo all their days. I tell y', Myrtle Hazard's jest as innocent of all what y' 've been thinkin' about,—bless the poor child; she's got a soul that's as clean and sweet-well, as a pond-lily when it fust opens of a mornin', without a speck on it no more than on the fust pond-lily God Almighty ever made!"
That gave a turn to the two women's thoughts, and their handkerchiefs went up to their faces. Nurse Byloe turned her eyes quickly on Cynthia Badlam, and repeated her close inspection of every outline and every light and shadow in her figure. She did not announce any opinion as to the age or good looks or general aspect or special points of Miss Cynthia; but she made a sound which the books write humph! but which real folks make with closed lips, thus: m'!—a sort of half-suppressed labio-palato-nasal utterance, implying that there is a good deal which might be said, and all the vocal organs want to have a chance at it, if there is to be any talking.
Friends and neighbors were coming in and out; and the next person that came was the old minister, of whom, and of his colleague, the Rev. Joseph Bellamy Stoker, some account may here be introduced.
The Rev. Eliphalet Pemberton Father Pemberton as brother ministers called him, Priest Pemberton as he was commonly styled by the country people—would have seemed very old, if the medical patriarch of the village had not been so much older. A man over ninety is a great comfort to all his elderly neighbors: he is a picket-guard at the extreme outpost; and the young folks of sixty and seventy feel that the enemy must get by him before he can come near their camp. Dr. Hurlbut, at ninety-two, made Priest Pemberton seem comparatively little advanced; but the college catalogue showed that he must be seventy-five years old, if, as we may suppose, he was twenty at the time of his graduation.
He was a man of noble presence always, and now, in the grandeur of his flowing silver hair and with the gray shaggy brows overhanging his serene and solemn eyes, with the slow gravity of motion and the measured dignity of speech which gave him the air of an old pontiff, he was an imposing personage to look upon, and could be awful, if the occasion demanded it. His creed was of the sternest: he was looked up to as a bulwark against all the laxities which threatened New England theology. But it was a creed rather of the study and of the pulpit than of every-day application among his neighbors. He dealt too much in the lofty abstractions which had always such fascinations for the higher class of New England divines, to busy himself as much as he might have done with the spiritual condition of individuals. He had also a good deal in him of what he used to call the Old Man, which, as he confessed, he had never succeeded in putting off,—meaning thereby certain qualities belonging to humanity, as much as the natural gifts of the dumb creatures belong to them, and tending to make a man beloved by his weak and erring fellow-mortals.
In the olden time he would have lived and died king of his parish, monarch, by Divine right, as the noblest, grandest, wisest of all that made up the little nation within hearing of his meeting-house bell. But Young Calvinism has less reverence and more love of novelty than its forefathers. It wants change, and it loves young blood. Polyandry is getting to be the normal condition of the Church; and about the time a man is becoming a little overripe for the livelier human sentiments, he may be pretty sure the women are looking round to find him a colleague. In this way it was that the Rev. Joseph Bellamy Stoker became the colleague of the Rev. Eliphalet Pemberton.
If one could have dived deep below all the Christian graces—the charity, the sweetness of disposition, the humility—of Father Pemberton, he would have found a small remnant of the "Old Man," as the good clergyman would have called it, which was never in harmony with the Rev. Mr. Stoker. The younger divine felt his importance, and made his venerable colleague feel that he felt it. Father Pemberton had a fair chance at rainy Sundays and hot summer-afternoon services; but the junior pushed him aside without ceremony whenever he thought there was like to be a good show in the pews. As for those courtesies which the old need, to soften the sense of declining faculties and failing attractions, the younger pastor bestowed them in public, but was negligent of them, to say the least, when not on exhibition.
Good old Father Pemberton could not love this man, but he would not hate him, and he never complained to him or of him. It would have been of no use if he had: the women of the parish had taken up the Rev. Mr. Stoker; and when the women run after a minister or a doctor, what do the men signify?
Why the women ran after him, some thought it was not hard to guess. He was not ill-looking, according to the village standard, parted his hair smoothly, tied his white cravat carefully, was fluent, plausible, had a gift in prayer, was considered eloquent, was fond of listening to their spiritual experiences, and had a sickly wife. This is what Byles Gridley said; but he was apt to be caustic at times.
Father Pemberton visited his people but rarely. Like Jonathan Edwards, like David Osgood, he felt his call to be to study-work, and was impatient of the egotisms and spiritual megrims, in listening to which, especially from the younger females of his flock, his colleague had won the hearts of so many of his parishioners. His presence had a wonderful effect in restoring the despondent Miss Silence to her equanimity; for not all the hard divinity he had preached for half a century had spoiled his kindly nature; and not the gentle Melanchthon himself, ready to welcome death as a refuge from the rage and bitterness of theologians, was more in contrast with the disputants with whom he mingled, than the old minister, in the hour of trial, with the stern dogmatist in his study, forging thunderbolts to smite down sinners.
It was well that there were no tithing-men about on that next day, Sunday; for it shone no Sabbath day for the young men within half a dozen miles of the village. They were out on Bear Hill the whole day, beating up the bushes as if for game, scaring old crows out of their ragged nests, and in one dark glen startling a fierce-eyed, growling, bobtailed catamount, who sat spitting and looking all ready to spring at them, on the tall tree where he clung with his claws unsheathed, until a young fellow came up with a gun and shot him dead. They went through and through the swamp at Musquash Hollow; but found nothing better than a wicked old snapping-turtle, evil to behold, with his snaky head and alligator tail, but worse to meddle with, if his horny jaws were near enough to spring their man-trap on the curious experimenter. At Wood-End there were some Indians, ill-conditioned savages in a dirty tent, making baskets, the miracle of which was that they were so clean. They had seen a young lady answering the description, about a week ago. She had bought a basket. Asked them if they had a canoe they wanted to sell.—Eyes like hers (pointing to a squaw with a man's hat on).
At Pocasset the young men explored all the thick woods,—some who ought to have known better taking their guns, which made a talk, as one might well suppose it would. Hunting on a Sabbath day! They did n't mean to shoot Myrtle Hazard, did they? it was keenly asked. A good many said it was all nonsense, and a mere excuse to get away from meeting and have a sort of frolic on pretence that it was a work of necessity and mercy, one or both.
While they were scattering themselves about in this way, some in earnest, some rejoicing in the unwonted license, lifting off for a little while that enormous Sabbath-day pressure which weighs like forty atmospheres on every true-born Puritan, two young men had been since Friday in search of the lost girl, each following a clue of his own, and determined to find her if she was among the living.
Cyprian Eveleth made for the village of Mapleton, where his sister Olive was staying, trusting that, with her aid, he might get a clue to the mystery of Myrtle's disappearance.
William Murray Bradshaw struck for a railroad train going to the great seaport, at a station where it stops for wood and water.
In the mean time, a third young man, Gifted Hopkins by name, son of the good woman already mentioned, sat down, with tears in his eyes, and wrote those touching stanzas, "The Lost Myrtle," which were printed in the next "Banner and Oracle," and much admired by many who read them.
The Withers Homestead was the oldest mansion in town. It was built on the east bank of the river, a little above the curve which gave the name to Oxbow Village. It stood on an elevation, its west gable close to the river's edge, an old orchard and a small pond at the foot of the slope behind it, woods at the east, open to the south, with a great row of Lombardy poplars standing guard in front of the house. The Hon. Selah Withers, Esq., a descendant of one of the first colonists, built it for his own residence, in the early part of the last century. Deeply impressed with his importance in the order of things, he had chosen to place it a little removed from the cluster of smaller dwellings about the Oxbow; and with some vague fancy in his mind of the castles that overlook the Rhine and the Danube, he had selected this eminence on which to place his substantial gambrel roofed dwelling-house. Long afterwards a bay-window, almost a little room of itself, had been thrown out of the second story on the west side, so that it looked directly down on the river running beneath it. The chamber, thus half suspended in the air, had been for years the special apartment of Myrtle Hazard; and as the boys paddling about on the river would often catch glimpses, through the window, of the little girl dressed in the scarlet jacket she fancied in those days, one of them, Cyprian Eveleth had given it a name which became current among the young people, and indeed furnished to Gifted Hopkins the subject of one of his earliest poems, to wit, "The Fire-hang-bird's Nest."
If we would know anything about the persons now living at the Withers Homestead, or The Poplars, as it was more commonly called of late years, we must take a brief inventory of some of their vital antecedents. It is by no means certain that our individual personality is the single inhabitant of these our corporeal frames. Nay, there is recorded an experience of one of the living persons mentioned in this narrative,—to be given in full in its proper place, which, so far as it is received in evidence, tends to show that some, at least, who have long been dead, may enjoy a kind of secondary and imperfect, yet self-conscious life, in these bodily tenements which we are in the habit of considering exclusively our own. There are many circumstances, familiar to common observers, which favor this belief to a certain extent. Thus, at one moment we detect the look, at another the tone of voice, at another some characteristic movement of this or that ancestor, in our relations or others. There are times when our friends do not act like themselves, but apparently in obedience to some other law than that of their own proper nature. We all do things both awake and asleep which surprise us. Perhaps we have cotenants in this house we live in. No less than eight distinct personalities are said to have coexisted in a single female mentioned by an ancient physician of unimpeachable authority. In this light we may perhaps see the meaning of a sentence, from a work which will be repeatedly referred to in this narrative, viz.: "This body in which we journey across the isthmus between the two oceans is not a private carriage, but an omnibus."
The ancestry of the Withers family had counted a martyr to their faith before they were known as Puritans. The record was obscure in some points; but the portrait, marked "Ann Holyoake, burned by ye bloudy Papists, ano 15.." (figures illegible), was still hanging against the panel over the fireplace in the west parlor at The Poplars. The following words were yet legible on the canvas: "Thou hast made a covenant O Lord with mee and my Children forever."
The story had come down, that Ann Holyoake spoke these words in a prayer she offered up at the stake, after the fagots were kindled. There had always been a secret feeling in the family, that none of her descendants could finally fall from grace, in virtue of this solemn "covenant."
There had been also a legend in the family, that the martyred woman's spirit exercised a kind of supervision over her descendants; that she either manifested herself to them, or in some way impressed them, from time to time; as in the case of the first pilgrim before he cast his lot with the emigrants,—of one Mrs. Winslow, a descendant in the third generation, when the Indians were about to attack the settlement where she lived,—and of another, just before he was killed at Quebec.
There was a remarkable resemblance between the features of Ann Holyoake, as shown in the portrait, and the miniature likeness of Myrtle's mother. Myrtle adopted the nearly obsolete superstition more readily on this account, and loved to cherish the fancy that the guardian spirit which had watched over her ancestors was often near her, and would be with her in her time of need.
The wife of Selah Withers was accused of sorcery in the evil days of that delusion. A careless expression in one of her letters, that "ye Parson was as lyke to bee in league with ye Divell as anie of em," had got abroad, and given great offence to godly people. There was no doubt that some odd "manifestations," as they would be called nowadays, had taken place in the household when she was a girl, and that she presented many of the conditions belonging to what are at the present day called mediums.
Major Gideon Withers, her son, was of the very common type of hearty, loud, portly men, who like to show themselves at militia trainings, and to hear themselves shout orders at musters, or declaim patriotic sentiments at town-meetings and in the General Court. He loved to wear a crimson sash and a military cap with a large red feather, in which the village folk used to say he looked as "hahnsome as a piny,"—meaning a favorite flower of his, which is better spelt peony, and to which it was not unnatural that his admirers should compare him.
If he had married a wife like himself, there might probably enough have sprung from the alliance a family of moon-faced children, who would have dropped into their places like posts into their holes, asking no questions of life, contented, like so many other honest folks, with the part of supernumeraries in the drama of being, their wardrobe of flesh and bones being furnished them gratis, and nothing to do but to walk across the stage wearing it. But Major Gideon Withers, for some reason or other, married a slender, sensitive, nervous, romantic woman, which accounted for the fact that his son David, "King David," as he was called in his time, had a very different set of tastes from his father, showing a turn for literature and sentiment in his youth, reading Young's "Night Thoughts," and Thomson's "Seasons," and sometimes in those early days writing verses himself to Celia or to Chloe, which sounded just as fine to him as Effie and Minnie sound to young people now, as Musidora, as Saccharissa, as Lesbia, as Helena, as Adah and Zillah, have all sounded to young people in their time,—ashes of roses as they are to us now, and as our endearing Scotch diminutives will be to others by and by.
King David Withers, who got his royal prefix partly because he was rich, and partly because he wrote hymns occasionally, when he grew too old to write love-poems, married the famous beauty before mentioned, Miss Judith Pride, and the race came up again in vigor. Their son, Jeremy, took for his first wife a delicate, melancholic girl, who matured into a sad-eyed woman, and bore him two children, Malachi and Silence.
When she died, he mourned for her bitterly almost a year, and then put on a ruffled shirt and went across the river to tell his grief to Miss Virginia Wild, there residing. This lady was said to have a few drops of genuine aboriginal blood in her veins; and it is certain that her cheek had a little of the russet tinge which a Seckel pear shows on its warmest cheek when it blushes.—Love shuts itself up in sympathy like a knife-blade in its handle, and opens as easily. All the rest followed in due order according to Nature's kindly programme.
Captain Charles Hazard, of the ship Orient Pearl, fell desperately in love with the daughter of this second wife, married her, and carried her to India, where their first and only child was born, and received the name of Myrtle, as fitting her cradle in the tropics. So her earliest impressions,—it would not be exact to call them recollections,—besides the smiles of her father and mother, were of dusky faces, of loose white raiment, of waving fans, of breezes perfumed with the sweet exhalations of sandal-wood, of gorgeous flowers and glowing fruit, of shady verandas, of gliding palanquins, and all the languid luxury of the South. The pestilence which has its natural home in India, but has journeyed so far from its birth place in these later years, took her father and mother away, suddenly, in the very freshness of their early maturity. A relation of Myrtle's father, wife of another captain, was returning to America on a visit, and the child was sent back, under her care, while still a mere infant, to her relatives at the old homestead. During the long voyage, the strange mystery of the ocean was wrought into her consciousness so deeply, that it seemed to have become a part of her being. The waves rocked her, as if the sea had been her mother; and, looking over the vessel's side from the arms that held her with tender care, she used to watch the play of the waters, until the rhythm of their movement became a part of her, almost as much as her own pulse and breath.
The instincts and qualities belonging to the ancestral traits which predominated in the conflict of mingled lives lay in this child in embryo, waiting to come to maturity. It was as when several grafts, bearing fruit that ripens at different times, are growing upon the same stock. Her earlier impulses may have been derived directly from her father and mother, but all the ancestors who have been mentioned, and more or less obscurely many others, came uppermost in their time, before the absolute and total result of their several forces had found its equilibrium in the character by which she was to be known as an individual. These inherited impulses were therefore many, conflicting, some of them dangerous. The World, the Flesh, and the Devil held mortgages on her life before its deed was put in her hands; but sweet and gracious influences were also born with her; and the battle of life was to be fought between them, God helping her in her need, and her own free choice siding with one or the other. The formal statement of this succession of ripening characteristics need not be repeated, but the fact must be borne in mind.
This was the child who was delivered into the hands of Miss Silence Withers, her mother's half—sister, keeping house with her brother Malachi, a bachelor, already called Old Malachi, though hardly entitled by his years to such a venerable prefix. Both these persons had inherited the predominant traits of their sad-eyed mother. Malachi, the chief heir of the family property, was rich, but felt very poor. He owned this fine old estate of some hundreds of acres. He had moneys in the bank, shares in various companies, wood-lots in the town; and a large tract of Western land, the subject of a lawsuit which seemed as if it would never be settled, and kept him always uneasy.
Some said he hoarded gold somewhere about the old house, but nobody knew this for a certainty. In spite of his abundant means, he talked much of poverty, and kept the household on the narrowest footing of economy. One Irishwoman, with a little aid from her husband now and then, did all their work; and the only company they saw was Miss Cynthia Badlam, who, as a relative, claimed a home with them whenever she was so disposed.
The "little Indian," as Malachi called her, was an awkward accession to the family. Silence Withers knew no more about children and their ways and wants than if she had been a female ostrich. Thus it was that she found it necessary to send for a woman well known in the place as the first friend whose acquaintance many of the little people of the town had made in this vale of tears.
Thirty years of practice had taught Nurse Byloe the art of handling the young of her species with the soft firmness which one may notice in cats with their kittens,—more grandly in a tawny lioness mouthing her cubs. Myrtle did not know she was held; she only felt she was lifted, and borne up, as a cherub may feel upon a white-woolly cloud, and smiled accordingly at the nurse, as if quite at home in her arms.
"As fine a child as ever breathed the breath of life. But where did them black eyes come from? Born in Injy,—that 's it, ain't it? No, it's her poor mother's eyes to be sure. Does n't it seem as if there was a kind of Injin look to 'em? She'll be a lively one to manage, if I know anything about childun. See her clinchin' them little fists!"
This was when Miss Silence came near her and brought her rather severe countenance close to the child for inspection of its features. The ungracious aspect of the woman and the defiant attitude of the child prefigured in one brief instant the history of many long coming years.
It was not a great while before the two parties in that wearing conflict of alien lives, which is often called education, began to measure their strength against each other. The child was bright, observing, of restless activity, inquisitively curious, very hard to frighten, and with a will which seemed made for mastery, not submission.
The stern spinster to whose care this vigorous life was committed was disposed to discharge her duty to the girl faithfully and conscientiously; but there were two points in her character and belief which had a most important bearing on the manner in which she carried out her laudable intentions. First, she was one of that class of human beings whose one single engrossing thought is their own welfare,—in the next world, it is true, but still their own personal welfare. The Roman Church recognizes this class, and provides every form of specific to meet their spiritual condition. But in so far as Protestantism has thrown out works as a means of insuring future safety, these unfortunates are as badly off as nervous patients who have no drops, pills, potions, no doctors' rules, to follow. Only tell a poor creature what to do, and he or she will do it, and be made easy, were it a pilgrimage of a thousand miles, with shoes full of split peas instead of boiled ones; but if once assured that doing does no good, the drooping Little-faiths are left at leisure to worry about their souls, as the other class of weaklings worry about their bodies. The effect on character does not seem to be very different in the two classes. Metaphysicians may discuss the nature of selfishness at their leisure; if to have all her thoughts centring on the one point of her own well-being by and by was selfishness, then Silence Withers was supremely selfish; and if we are offended with that form of egotism, it is no more than ten of the twelve Apostles were, as the reader may see by turning to the Gospel of St. Matthew, the twentieth chapter and the twenty-fourth verse.
The next practical difficulty was, that she attempted to carry out a theory which, whatever might be its success in other cases, did not work kindly in the case of Myrtle Hazard, but, on the contrary, developed a mighty spirit of antagonism in her nature, which threatened to end in utter lawlessness. Miss Silence started from the approved doctrine, that all children are radically and utterly wrong in all their motives, feelings, thoughts, and deeds, so long as they remain subject to their natural instincts. It was by the eradication, and not the education, of these instincts, that the character of the human being she was moulding was to be determined. The first great preliminary process, so soon as the child manifested any evidence of intelligent and persistent self-determination, was to break her will.
There is no doubt that this was a legitimate conclusion from the teaching of Priest Pemberton, but it required a colder and harder nature than his own to carry out many of his dogmas to their practical application. He wrought in the pure mathematics, so to speak, of theology, and left the working rules to the good sense and good feeling of his people.
Miss Silence had been waiting for her opportunity to apply the great doctrine, and it came at last in a very trivial way.
"Myrtle does n't want brown bread. Myrtle won't have brown bread. Myrtle will have white bread."
"Myrtle is a wicked child. She will have what Aunt Silence says she shall have. She won't have anything but brown bread."
Thereupon the bright red lip protruded, the hot blood mounted to her face, the child untied her little "tire," got down from the table, took up her one forlorn, featureless doll, and went to bed without her supper. The next morning the worthy woman thought that hunger and reflection would have subdued the rebellious spirit. So there stood yesterday's untouched supper waiting for her breakfast. She would not taste it, and it became necessary to enforce that extreme penalty of the law which had been threatened, but never yet put in execution. Miss Silence, in obedience to what she felt to be a painful duty, without any passion, but filled with high, inexorable purpose, carried the child up to the garret, and, fastening her so that she could not wander about and hurt herself, left her to her repentant thoughts, awaiting the moment when a plaintive entreaty for liberty and food should announce that the evil nature had yielded and the obdurate will was broken.
The garret was an awful place. All the skeleton-like ribs of the roof showed in the dim light, naked overhead, and the only floor to be trusted consisted of the few boards which bridged the lath and plaster. A great, mysterious brick tower climbed up through it,—it was the chimney, but it looked like a horrible cell to put criminals into. The whole place was festooned with cobwebs,—not light films, such as the housewife's broom sweeps away before they have become a permanent residence, but vast gray draperies, loaded with dust, sprinkled with yellow powder from the beams where the worms were gnawing day and night, the home of old, hairy spiders who had, lived there since they were eggs and would leave it for unborn spiders who would grow old and huge like themselves in it, long after the human tenants had left the mansion for a narrower home. Here this little criminal was imprisoned, six, twelve,—tell it not to mothers,—eighteen dreadful hours, hungry until she was ready to gnaw her hands, a prey to all childish imaginations; and here at her stern guardian's last visit she sat, pallid, chilled, almost fainting, but sullen and unsubdued. The Irishwoman, poor stupid Kitty Fagan, who had no theory of human nature, saw her over the lean shoulders of the spinster, and, forgetting all differences of condition and questions of authority, rushed to her with a cry of maternal tenderness, and, with a tempest of passionate tears and kisses, bore her off to her own humble realm, where the little victorious martyr was fed from the best stores of the house, until there was as much danger from repletion as there had been from famine. How the experiment might have ended but for this empirical and most unphilosophical interference, there is no saying; but it settled the point that the rebellious nature was not to be subjugated in a brief conflict.
The untamed disposition manifested itself in greater enormities as she grew older. At the age of four years she was detected in making a cat's-cradle at meeting, during sermon-time, and, on being reprimanded for so doing, laughed out loud, so as to be heard by Father Pemberton, who thereupon bent his threatening, shaggy brows upon the child, and, to his shame be it spoken, had such a sudden uprising of weak, foolish, grandfatherly feelings, that a mist came over his eyes, and he left out his "ninthly" altogether, thereby spoiling the logical sequence of propositions which had kept his large forehead knotty for a week.
At eight years old she fell in love with the high-colored picture of Major Gideon Withers in the crimson sash and the red feather of his exalted military office. It was then for the first time that her aunt Silence remarked a shade of resemblance between the child and the portrait. She had always, up to this time, been dressed in sad colors, as was fitting, doubtless, for a forlorn orphan; but happening one day to see a small negro girl peacocking round in a flaming scarlet petticoat, she struck for bright colors in her own apparel, and carried her point at last. It was as if a ground-sparrow had changed her gray feathers for the burning plumage of some tropical wanderer; and it was natural enough that Cyprian Eveleth should have called her the fire-hang-bird, and her little chamber the fire-hang-bird's nest,—using the country boy's synonyme for the Baltimore oriole.
At ten years old she had one of those great experiences which give new meaning to the life of a child.
Her uncle Malachi had seemed to have a strong liking for her at one time, but of late years his delusions had gained upon him, and under their influence he seemed to regard her as an encumbrance and an extravagance. He was growing more and more solitary in his habits, more and more negligent of his appearance. He was up late at night, wandering about the house from the cellar to the garret, so that, his light being seen flitting from window to window, the story got about that the old house was haunted.
One dreary, rainy Friday in November, Myrtle was left alone in the house. Her uncle had been gone since the day before. The two women were both away at the village. At such times the child took a strange delight in exploring all the hiding-places of the old mansion. She had the mysterious dwelling-place of so many of the dead and the living all to herself. What a fearful kind of pleasure in its silence and loneliness! The old clock that Marmaduke Storr made in London more than a hundred years ago was clicking the steady pulse-beats of its second century. The featured moon on its dial had lifted one eye, as if to watch the child, as it had watched so many generations of children, while the swinging pendulum ticked them along into youth, maturity, gray hairs, deathbeds,—ticking through the prayer at the funeral, ticking without grief through all the still or noisy woe of mourning,—ticking without joy when the smiles and gayety of comforted heirs had come back again. She looked at herself in the tall, bevelled mirror in the best chamber. She pulled aside the curtains of the stately bedstead whereon the heads of the house had slept until they died and were stretched out upon it, and the sheet shaped itself to them in vague, awful breadth of outline, like a block of monumental marble the sculptor leaves just hinted by the chisel.
She groped her way up to the dim garret, the scene of her memorable punishment. A rusty hook projected from one of the joists a little higher than a man's head. Something was hanging from it,—an old garment, was it? She went bravely up and touched—a cold hand. She did what most children of that age would do,—uttered a cry and ran downstairs with all her might. She rushed out of the door and called to the man Patrick, who was doing some work about the place. What could be done was done, but it was too late.
Uncle Malachi had made away with himself. That was plain on the face of thing. In due time the coroner's verdict settled it. It was not so strange as it seemed; but it made a great talk in the village and all the country round about. Everybody knew he had money enough, and yet he had hanged himself for fear of starving to death.
For all that, he was found to have left a will, dated some years before, leaving his property to his sister Silence, with the exception of a certain moderate legacy to be paid in money to Myrtle Hazard when she should arrive at the age of twenty years.
The household seemed more chilly than ever after this tragical event. Its depressing influence followed the child to school, where she learned the common branches of knowledge. It followed her to the Sabbath-day catechisings, where she repeated the answers about the federal headship of Adam, and her consequent personal responsibilities, and other technicalities which are hardly milk for babes, perhaps as well as other children, but without any very profound remorse for what she could not help, so far as she understood the matter, any more than her sex or stature, and with no very clear comprehension of the phrases which the New England followers of the Westminster divines made a part of the elementary instruction of young people.
At twelve years old she had grown tall and womanly enough to attract the eyes of the youth and older boys, several of whom made advances towards her acquaintance. But the dreary discipline of the household had sunk into her soul, and she had been shaping an internal life for herself, which it was hard for friendship to penetrate. Bathsheba Stoker was chained to the bedside of an invalid mother. Olive Eveleth, a kind, true-hearted girl, belonged to another religious communion; and this tended to render their meetings less frequent, though Olive was still her nearest friend. Cyprian was himself a little shy, and rather held to Myrtle through his sister than by any true intimacy directly with herself. Of the other young men of the village Gifted Hopkins was perhaps the most fervent of her admirers, as he had repeatedly shown by effusions in verse, of which, under the thinnest of disguises, she was the object.
William Murray Bradshaw, ten years older than herself, a young man of striking aspect and claims to exceptional ability, had kept his eye on her of late; but it was generally supposed that he would find a wife in the city, where he was in the habit of going to visit a fashionable relative, Mrs. Clymer Ketchum, of 24 Carat Place. She, at any rate, understood very well that he meant, to use his own phrase, "to go in for a corner lot,"—understanding thereby a young lady with possessions and without encumbrances. If the old man had only given his money to Myrtle, William Murray Bradshaw would have made sure of her; but she was not likely ever to get much of it. Miss Silence Withers, it was understood, would probably leave her money as the Rev. Mr. Stoker, her spiritual director, should indicate, and it seemed likely that most of it would go to a rising educational institution where certain given doctrines were to be taught through all time, whether disproved or not, and whether those who taught them believed them or not, provided only they would say they believed them.
Nobody had promised to say masses for her soul if she made this disposition of her property, or pledged the word of the Church that she should have plenary absolution. But she felt that she would be making friends in Influential Quarters by thus laying up her treasure, and that she would be safe if she had the good-will of the ministers of her sect.
Myrtle Hazard had nearly reached the age of fourteen, and, though not like to inherit much of the family property, was fast growing into a large dower of hereditary beauty. Always handsome, her features shaped themselves in a finer symmetry, her color grew richer, her figure promised a perfect womanly development, and her movements had the grace which high-breeding gives the daughter of a queen, and which Nature now and then teaches the humblest of village maidens. She could not long escape the notice of the lovers and flatterers of beauty, and the time of danger was drawing near.
At this period of her life she made two discoveries which changed the whole course of her thoughts, and opened for her a new world of ideas and possibilities.
Ever since the dreadful event of November, 1854, the garret had been a fearful place to think of, and still more to visit. The stories that the house was haunted gained in frequency of repetition and detail of circumstance. But Myrtle was bold and inquisitive, and explored its recesses at such times as she could creep among them undisturbed. Hid away close under the eaves she found an old trunk covered with dust and cobwebs. The mice had gnawed through its leather hinges, and, as it had been hastily stuffed full, the cover had risen, and two or three volumes had fallen to the floor. This trunk held the papers and books which her great-grandmother, the famous beauty, had left behind her, records of the romantic days when she was the belle of the county,—storybooks, memoirs, novels, and poems, and not a few love-letters,—a strange collection, which, as so often happens with such deposits in old families, nobody had cared to meddle with, and nobody had been willing to destroy, until at last they had passed out of mind, and waited for a new generation to bring them into light again.
The other discovery was of a small hoard of coin. Under one of the boards which formed the imperfect flooring of the garret was hidden an old leather mitten. Instead of a hand, it had a fat fist of silver dollars, and a thumb of gold half-eagles.
Thus knowledge and power found their way to the simple and secluded maiden. The books were hers to read as much as any other's; the gold and silver were only a part of that small provision which would be hers by and by, and if she borrowed it, it was borrowing of herself. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil had shaken its fruit into her lap, and, without any serpent to tempt her, she took thereof and did eat.
BYLES GRIDLEY, A. M.
The old Master of Arts was as notable a man in his outside presentment as one will find among five hundred college alumni as they file in procession. His strong, squared features, his formidable scowl, his solid-looking head, his iron-gray hair, his positive and as it were categorical stride, his slow, precise way of putting a statement, the strange union of trampling radicalism in some directions and high-stepping conservatism in others, which made it impossible to calculate on his unexpressed opinions, his testy ways and his generous impulses, his hard judgments and kindly actions, were characteristics that gave him a very decided individuality.
He had all the aspects of a man of books. His study, which was the best room in Mrs. Hopkins's house, was filled with a miscellaneous-looking collection of volumes, which his curious literary taste had got together from the shelves of all the libraries that had been broken up during his long life as a scholar. Classics, theology, especially of the controversial sort, statistics, politics, law, medicine, science, occult and overt, general literature,—almost every branch of knowledge was represented. His learning was very various, and of course mixed up, useful and useless, new and ancient, dogmatic and rational,—like his library, in short; for a library gathered like his is a looking-glass in which the owner's mind is reflected.
The common people about the village did not know what to make of such a phenomenon. He did not preach, marry, christen, or bury, like the ministers, nor jog around with medicines for sick folks, nor carry cases into court for quarrelsome neighbors. What was he good for? Not a great deal, some of the wiseacres thought,—had "all sorts of sense but common sense,"—"smart mahn, but not prahctical." There were others who read him more shrewdly. He knowed more, they said, than all the ministers put together, and if he'd stan' for Ripresentative they 'd like to vote for him,—they hed n't hed a smart mahn in the Gineral Court sence Squire Wibird was thar.
They may have overdone the matter in comparing his knowledge with that of all the ministers together, for Priest Pemberton was a real scholar in his special line of study,—as all D. D.'s are supposed to be, or they would not have been honored with that distinguished title. But Mr. Byles Gridley not only had more learning than the deep-sea line of the bucolic intelligence could fathom; he had more wisdom also than they gave him credit for, even those among them who thought most of his abilities.
In his capacity of schoolmaster he had sharpened his wits against those of the lively city boys he had in charge, and made such a reputation as "Master" Gridley, that he kept that title even after he had become a college tutor and professor. As a tutor he had to deal with many of these same boys, and others like them, in the still more vivacious period of their early college life. He got rid of his police duties when he became a professor, but he still studied the pupils as carefully as he used once to watch them, and learned to read character with a skill which might have fitted him for governing men instead of adolescents. But he loved quiet and he dreaded mingling with the brawlers of the market-place, whose stock in trade is a voice and a vocabulary. So it was that he had passed his life in the patient mechanical labor of instruction, leaving too many of his instincts and faculties in abeyance.
The alluvium of all this experience bore a nearer resemblance to worldly wisdom than might have been conjectured; much nearer, indeed, than it does in many old instructors, whose eyes get fish-like as their blood grows cold, and who are not fit to be trusted with anything more practical than a gerund or a cosine. Master Gridley not only knew a good deal of human nature, but he knew how to keep his knowledge to himself upon occasion. He understood singularly well the ways and tendencies of young people. He was shrewd in the detection of trickery, and very confident in those who had once passed the ordeal of his well-schooled observing powers. He had no particular tendency to meddle with the personal relations of those about him; but if they were forced upon him in any way, he was like to see into them at least as quickly as any of his neighbors who thought themselves most endowed with practical skill.
In leaving the duties of his office he considered himself, as he said a little despondently, like an old horse unharnessed and turned out to pasture. He felt that he had separated himself from human interests, and was henceforth to live in his books with the dead, until he should be numbered with them himself. He had chosen this quiet village as a place where he might pass his days undisturbed, and find a peaceful resting-place in its churchyard, where the gravel was dry, and the sun lay warm, and the glowing woods of autumn would spread their many-colored counterpane over the bed where he would be taking his rest. It sometimes came over him painfully that he was never more to be of any importance to his fellow-creatures. There was nobody living to whom he was connected by any very near ties. He felt kindly enough to the good woman in whose house he lived; he sometimes gave a few words of counsel to her son; he was not unamiable with the few people he met; he bowed with great consideration to the Rev. Dr. Pemberton; and he studied with no small interest the physiognomy of the Rev. Joseph Bellamy Stoker, to whose sermons he listened, with a black scowl now and then, and a nostril dilating with ominous intensity of meaning. But he said sadly to himself, that his life had been a failure,—that he had nothing to show for it, and his one talent was ready in its napkin to give back to his Lord.
He owed something of this sadness, perhaps, to a cause which many would hold of small significance. Though he had mourned for no lost love, at least so far as was known, though he had never suffered the pang of parting with a child, though he seemed isolated from those joys and griefs which come with the ties of family, he too had his private urn filled with the ashes of extinguished hopes. He was the father of a dead book.
Why "Thoughts on the Universe, by Byles Gridley, A. M.," had not met with an eager welcome and a permanent demand from the discriminating public, it would take us too long to inquire in detail. Indeed; he himself was never able to account satisfactorily for the state of things which his bookseller's account made evident to him. He had read and re-read his work; and the more familiar he became with it, the less was he able to understand the singular want of popular appreciation of what he could not help recognizing as its excellences. He had a special copy of his work, printed on large paper and sumptuously bound. He loved to read in this, as people read over the letters of friends who have long been dead; and it might have awakened a feeling of something far removed from the ludicrous, if his comments on his own production could have been heard. "That's a thought, now, for you!—See Mr. Thomas Babington Macaulay's Essay printed six years after thus book." "A felicitous image! and so everybody would have said if only Mr. Thomas Carlyle had hit upon it." "If this is not genuine pathos, where will you find it, I should like to know? And nobody to open the book where it stands written but one poor old man—in this generation, at least—in this generation!" It may be doubted whether he would ever have loved his book with such jealous fondness if it had gone through a dozen editions, and everybody was quoting it to his face. But now it lived only for him; and to him it was wife and child, parent, friend, all in one, as Hector was all in all to his spouse. He never tired of it, and in his more sanguine moods he looked forward to the time when the world would acknowledge its merits, and his genius would find full recognition. Perhaps he was right: more than one book which seemed dead and was dead for contemporary readers has had a resurrection when the rivals who triumphed over it lived only in the tombstone memory of antiquaries. Comfort for some of us, dear fellow-writer.
It followed from the way in which he lived that he must have some means of support upon which he could depend. He was economical, if not over frugal in some of his habits; but he bought books, and took newspapers and reviews, and had money when money was needed; the fact being, though it was not generally known, that a distant relative had not long before died, leaving him a very comfortable property.
His money matters had led him to have occasional dealings with the late legal firm of Wibird and Penhallow, which had naturally passed into the hands of the new partnership, Penhallow and Bradshaw. He had entire confidence in the senior partner, but not so much in the young man who had been recently associated in the business.
Mr. William Murray Bradshaw, commonly called by his last two names, was the son of a lawyer of some note for his acuteness, who marked out his calling for him in having him named after the great Lord Mansfield. Murray Bradshaw was about twenty-five years old, by common consent good-looking, with a finely formed head, a searching eye, and a sharp-cut mouth, which smiled at his bidding without the slightest reference to the real condition of his feeling at the moment. This was a great convenience; for it gave him an appearance of good-nature at the small expense of a slight muscular movement which was as easy as winking, and deceived everybody but those who had studied him long and carefully enough to find that this play of his features was what a watch maker would call a detached movement.
He had been a good scholar in college, not so much by hard study as by skilful veneering, and had taken great pains to stand well with the Faculty, at least one of whom, Byles Gridley, A. M., had watched him with no little interest as a man with a promising future, provided he were not so astute as to outwit and overreach himself in his excess of contrivance. His classmates could not help liking him; as to loving him, none of them would have thought of that. He was so shrewd, so keen, so full of practical sense, and so good-humored as long as things went on to his liking, that few could resist his fascination. He had a way of talking with people about what they were interested in, as if it were the one matter in the world nearest to his heart. But he was commonly trying to find out something, or to produce some impression, as a juggler is working at his miracle while he keeps people's attention by his voluble discourse and make-believe movements. In his lightest talk he was almost always edging towards a practical object, and it was an interesting and instructive amusement to watch for the moment at which he would ship the belt of his colloquial machinery on to the tight pulley. It was done so easily and naturally that there was hardly a sign of it. Master Gridley could usually detect the shifting action, but the young man's features and voice never betrayed him.
He was a favorite with the other sex, who love poetry and romance, as he well knew, for which reason he often used the phrases of both, and in such a way as to answer his purpose with most of those whom he wished to please. He had one great advantage in the sweepstakes of life: he was not handicapped with any burdensome ideals. He took everything at its marked value. He accepted the standard of the street as a final fact for to-day, like the broker's list of prices.
His whole plan of life was laid out. He knew that law was the best introduction to political life, and he meant to use it for this end. He chose to begin his career in the country, so as to feel his way more surely and gradually to its ultimate aim; but he had no intention of burning his shining talents in a grazing district, however tall its grass might grow. His business was not with these stiff-jointed, slow-witted graziers, but with the supple, dangerous, far-seeing men who sit scheming by the gas-light in the great cities, after all the lamps and candles are out from the Merrimac to the Housatonic. Every strong and every weak point of those who might probably be his rivals were laid down on his charts, as winds and currents and rocks are marked on those of a navigator. All the young girls in the country, and not a few in the city, with which, as mentioned, he had frequent relations, were on his list of possible availabilities in the matrimonial line of speculation, provided always that their position and prospects were such as would make them proper matches for so considerable a person as the future Hon. William Murray Bradshaw.
Master Gridley had made a careful study of his old pupil since they had resided in the same village. The old professor could not help admiring him, notwithstanding certain suspicious elements in his character; for after muddy village talk, a clear stream of intelligent conversation was a great luxury to the hard-headed scholar. The more he saw of him, the more he learned to watch his movements, and to be on his guard in talking with him. The old man could be crafty, with all his simplicity, and he had found out that under his good-natured manner there often lurked some design more or less worth noting, and which might involve other interests deserving protection.
For some reason or other the old Master of Arts had of late experienced a certain degree of relenting with regard to himself, probably brought about by the expressions of gratitude from worthy Mrs. Hopkins for acts of kindness to which he himself attached no great value. He had been kind to her son Gifted; he had been fatherly with Susan Posey, her relative and boarder; and he had shown himself singularly and unexpectedly amiable with the little twins who had been adopted by the good woman into her household. In fact, ever since these little creatures had begun to toddle about and explode their first consonants, he had looked through his great round spectacles upon them with a decided interest; and from that time it seemed as if some of the human and social sentiments which had never leafed or flowered in him, for want of their natural sunshine, had begun growing up from roots which had never lost their life. His liking for the twins may have been an illustration of that singular law which old Dr. Hurlbut used to lay down, namely, that at a certain period of life, say from fifty to sixty and upward, the grand-paternal instinct awakens in bachelors, the rhythms of Nature reaching them in spite of her defeated intentions; so that when men marry late they love their autumn child with a twofold affection,—father's and grandfather's both in one.
However this may be, there is no doubt that Mr. Byles Gridley was beginning to take a part in his neighbors' welfare and misfortunes, such as could hardly have been expected of a man so long lost in his books and his scholastic duties. And among others, Myrtle Hazard had come in for a share of his interest. He had met her now and then in her walks to and from school and meeting, and had been taken with her beauty and her apparent unconsciousness of it, which he attributed to the forlorn kind of household in which she had grown up. He had got so far as to talk with her now and then, and found himself puzzled, as well he might be, in talking with a girl who had been growing into her early maturity in antagonism with every influence that surrounded her.
"Love will reach her by and by," he said, "in spite of the dragons up at the den yonder.
"'Centum fronte oculos, centum cervice gerebat Argus, et hos unus saepe fefellit amor.'"
But there was something about Myrtle,—he hardly knew whether to call it dignity, or pride, or reserve, or the mere habit of holding back brought about by the system of repression under which she had been educated,—which kept even the old Master of Arts at his distance. Yet he was strongly drawn to her, and had a sort of presentiment that he might be able to help her some day, and that very probably she would want his help; for she was alone in the world, except for the dragons, and sure to be assailed by foes from without and from within.
He noticed that her name was apt to come up in his conversations with Murray Bradshaw; and, as he himself never introduced it, of course the young man must have forced it, as conjurers force a card, and with some special object. This set him thinking hard; and, as a result of it, he determined the next time Mr. Bradshaw brought her name up to set him talking.
So he talked, not suspecting how carefully the old man listened.
"It was a demonish hard case," he said, "that old Malachi had left his money as he did. Myrtle Hazard was going to be the handsomest girl about, when she came to her beauty, and she was coming to it mighty fast. If they could only break that will, but it was no use trying. The doctors said he was of sound mind for at least two years after making it. If Silence Withers got the land claim, there'd be a pile, sure enough. Myrtle Hazard ought to have it. If the girl had only inherited that property—whew? She'd have been a match for any fellow. That old Silence Withers would do just as her minister told her,—even chance whether she gives it to the Parson-factory, or marries Bellamy Stoker, and gives it to him after his wife's dead. He'd take it if he had to take her with it. Earn his money, hey, Master Gridley?"
"Why, you don't seem to think very well of the Rev. Joseph Bellamy Stoker?" said Mr. Gridley, smiling.
"Think well of him? Too fond of using the Devil's pitchfork for my fancy! Forks over pretty much all the world but himself and his lot into—the bad place, you know; and toasts his own cheese with it with very much the same kind of comfort that other folks seem to take in that business. Besides, he has a weakness for pretty saints—and sinners. That's an odd name he has. More belle amie than Joseph about him, I rather guess!"
The old professor smiled again. "So you don't think he believes all the mediaeval doctrines he is in the habit of preaching, Mr. Bradshaw?"
"No, sir; I think he belongs to the class I have seen described somewhere. 'There are those who hold the opinion that truth is only safe when diluted,—about one fifth to four fifths lies,—as the oxygen of the air is with its nitrogen. Else it would burn us all up.'"
Byles Gridley colored and started a little. This was one of his own sayings in "Thoughts on the Universe." But the young man quoted it without seeming to suspect its authorship.
"Where did you pick up that saying, Mr. Bradshaw?"
"I don't remember. Some paper, I rather think. It's one of those good things that get about without anybody's knowing who says 'em. Sounds like Coleridge."
"That's what I call a compliment worth having," said Byles Gridley to himself, when he got home. "Let me look at that passage."
He took down "Thoughts on the Universe," and got so much interested, reading on page after page, that he did not hear the little tea-bell, and Susan Posey volunteered to run up to his study and call him down to tea.
Miss Suzan Posey knocked timidly at his door and informed him that tea was waiting. He rather liked Susan Posey. She was a pretty creature, slight, blonde, a little too light, a village beauty of the second or third grade, effective at picnics and by moonlight,—the kind of girl that very young men are apt to remember as their first love. She had a taste for poetry, and an admiration of poets; but, what was better, she was modest and simple, and a perfect sister and mother and grandmother to the two little forlorn twins who had been stranded on the Widow Hopkins's doorstep.
These little twins, a boy and girl, were now between two and three years old. A few words will make us acquainted with them. Nothing had ever been known of their origin. The sharp eyes of all the spinsters had been through every household in the village and neighborhood, and not a suspicion fixed itself on any one. It was a dark night when they were left; and it was probable that they had been brought from another town, as the sound of wheels had been heard close to the door where they were found, had stopped for a moment, then been heard again, and lost in the distance.
How the good woman of the house took them in and kept them has been briefly mentioned. At first nobody thought they would live a day, such little absurd attempts at humanity did they seem. But the young doctor came and the old doctor came, and the infants were laid in cotton-wool, and the room heated up to keep them warm, and baby-teaspoonfuls of milk given them, and after being kept alive in this way, like the young of opossums and kangaroos, they came to a conclusion about which they did not seem to have made up their thinking-pulps for some weeks, namely, to go on trying to cross the sea of life by tugging at the four-and-twenty oars which must be pulled day and night until the unknown shore is reached, and the oars lie at rest under the folded hands.
As it was not very likely that the parents who left their offspring round on doorsteps were of saintly life, they were not presented for baptism like the children of church-members. Still, they must have names to be known by, and Mrs. Hopkins was much exercised in the matter. Like many New England parents, she had a decided taste for names that were significant and sonorous. That which she had chosen for her oldest child, the young poet, was either a remarkable prophecy, or it had brought with it the endowments it promised. She had lost, or, in her own more pictorial language, she had buried, a daughter to whom she had given the names, at once of cheerful omen and melodious effect, Wealthy Amadora.
As for them poor little creturs, she said, she believed they was rained down out o' the skies, jest as they say toads and tadpoles come. She meant to be a mother to 'em for all that, and give 'em jest as good names as if they was the governor's children, or the minister's. If Mr. Gridley would be so good as to find her some kind of a real handsome Chris'n name for 'em, she'd provide 'em with the other one. Hopkinses they shall be bred and taught, and Hopkinses they shall be called. Ef their father and mother was ashamed to own 'em, she was n't. Couldn't Mr. Gridley pick out some pooty sounding names from some of them great books of his. It's jest as well to have 'em pooty as long as they don't cost any more than if they was Tom and Sally.
A grim smile passed over the rugged features of Byles Gridley. "Nothing is easier than that, Mrs. Hopkins," he said. "I will give you two very pretty names that I think will please you and other folks. They're new names, too. If they shouldn't like to keep them, they can change them before they're christened, if they ever are. Isosceles will be just the name for the boy, and I'm sure you won't find a prettier name for the girl in a hurry than Helminthia."