WOMAN AS SHE SHOULD BE;
MARY E. HERBERT,
AUTHOR OF "AEOLIAN HARP," "SCENES IN THE LIFE OF A HALIFAX BELLE," &c.
I saw her on a nearer view, A Spirit, yet a Woman, too; Her household motions light and free,— And steps of virgin liberty; A countenance in which did meet Sweet records, promises as sweet; A creature not too bright or good, For human nature's daily food, For transient pleasures, artless wiles, Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.
HALIFAX, N.S.: PUBLISHED BY MARY E. HERBERT. 1861.
CAMBRIDGE, MASS.: MILES & DILLINGHAM. Printers and Stereotypers
The Sabbath day was drawing to a close, as Agnes Wiltshire sat at her chamber window, absorbed in deep and painful thought. The last rays of the sun lighted up the garden overlooked by the casement,—if garden it could be called,—a spot that had once been most beautiful, when young and fair hands plucked the noxious weed, and took delight in nursing into fairest life, flowers, whose loveliness might well have vied with any; but, long since, those hands had mouldered into dust, and the spot lay neglected; yet, in spite of neglect, beautiful still. There was no enclosure to mark it from the fields beyond, that stretched, far as the eye could discern, till lost in a rich growth of woods, but a few ornamental trees and graceful shrubs, with here and there a plot, now gay, with autumn flowers, alone kept alive, in the heart of the beholder, a remembrance of its purpose. A quiet scene of rural beauty it was, and so thought the maiden, as, rousing from her reverie, she gazed on garden, fields, and distant woods, but more lovingly and lingeringly dwelt her glance on a lake that lay embosomed between the meadow and the grove, partly skirted by trees that grew even to its edge, and partly by the rich grass, whose vivid color betrayed the influence of those placid waters, that now reflected every glowing tint, and every delicate hue of the peerless sunset sky.
Quiet at all times, the stillness of the scene was now unbroken, save by the twittering of some belated swallow, the chirp of the cricket, or the evening hymn of the forest songsters, ere they sank to grateful rest. All was peace without, but troubled and anxious was the heart of the solitary occupant of that apartment, who, though for a moment aroused from deep, and, as it appeared from the expression of her countenance, painful thought, by the beauty of the landscape, again summoned her wandering thoughts, and returned to the theme which had so deeply engrossed her.
A slight tap at the door once more aroused her, and in answer to her invitation, "Walk in," a lady entered the room, and affectionately addressed the young girl.
"Forgive my intrusion, my dear Miss Wiltshire, but I feared, from your remaining so long in your room, that you were not well, and have come to ascertain whether I am correct or not."
"I am much obliged for your kindness, but I am quite well, in body, at least," was the reply, while the lips quivered, and the eyes were suffused with tears.
There was silence for a few moments between them, for Mrs. Gordon was too delicate to allude to emotions, which her companion evidently strove to conceal, and with the nature of which she was totally unacquainted. At length, however, she broke the quiet that had reigned for some moments in the apartment, by an observation on the service they had both that day attended.
"Accustomed, as you are, to city churches and city congregations, it could scarcely be expected that our unpretending house of prayer, with its humble worshippers, could have found much favor in your eyes, Miss Wiltshire?"
"And yet, strange to say," exclaimed Agnes, lifting her fine dark eyes to Mrs. Gordon's sweet, though pensive face, "that unpretending church, those earnest worshippers, and, above all, that simple, faithful discourse, affected me far more deeply than any heard from the lips of the most eloquent divine, in a gorgeous edifice crowded with the elite of the city, and where the solemn notes of the full-toned organ ought, perhaps, to have filled the soul with sacred and heavenly thoughts. Those words, so thrillingly pronounced, shall I ever forget them? 'To whom much is given, of him shall much be required.' They seem still to ring in my ears, for I, alas, am among those who have received much, yet rendered back nothing."
The speaker paused, overcome with emotion, but the countenance of the listener grew radiant with delight,—not that delight which arises from the realization of some worldly hope, but, rather, a heavenly joy, which lent to the pale and pensive face a beauty not of this world; it beamed in the sunken, yet soft blue eye, and flushed the hollow cheek; it was the joy of a saint, nay, it was the joy of an angel, at the return of the stray sheep to its Father's fold. But it soon found expression in words.
"I cannot tell you how happy you make me, in speaking thus, dear Agnes," said she, affectionately clasping her hand. "Since you first came here, I have been thinking so much about you, and praying, too, that you, so rich in all that makes woman lovely and beloved, might possess that grace, which will but add lustre to every other endowment, qualifying you for extensive usefulness here, and glorious happiness hereafter."
"But you know not, my kind friend, what mental struggles I have passed through this afternoon, nor how conflicting feelings are yet agitating my soul. I hear the voice of duty, but it calls me to tread a rugged path. Could I always remain with you, secluded from the gay world, far removed from its temptations and allurements, then, indeed, would I gladly make my choice, and say, 'This people shall be my people, and their God my God;' but in a few days I must depart, and, again, in the haunts of the busy city, and surrounded by the gayeties of fashionable life, I fear I shall feel no more those sweet and sacred influences, which have been as the breath of heaven to my soul."
"'My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest!' Is not that a sufficiently encouraging promise, dear Agnes? Had you nought but your own strength to rely on, you might well fear; but forget not Him who has declared, 'If any lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given.'"
Agnes Wiltshire was an orphan. Her father had died during her infancy, her mother during her childhood; but a happy home had been thrown open to her, by a kind uncle and aunt, who gladly adopted her as their own, and lavished on her every tenderness. Mr. and Mrs. Denham were generous and warm-hearted people; their dwelling was elegant and commodious; the society in which they mingled, as far as wealth and fashion is concerned, unexceptionable. What more was wanting? Alas, they were thoroughly worldly; their standard was the fashionable world; their maxims were derived from the same source; and while regularly attending the stated ordinances of the church, and esteeming themselves very devout,—for were not their lives strictly moral?—they, in reality, knew as little of heart religion, as the dwellers in a heathen land.
Such was the character of the people among whom Agnes Wiltshire had attained the age of eighteen; and, surrounded by such influences, what wonder, that she, too, partook of the same spirit, and was content to sail down the sunny stream of life, without one thought of its responsibilities, without one glance at the future that awaited her. Long might she have continued thus, still pursuing the phantom of pleasure, seeking ever for happiness, but never seeking aright, had she not been suddenly startled, in the midst of worldly pursuits, by the unexpected death of a gay and favorite companion, who, surrounded by all of earthly happiness, was torn from her embrace. In the agony of delirium, Agnes had beheld her, gliding, unconsciously, down the dark valley and the shadow of death, and she trembled, when she felt how totally unprepared she was to meet the King of Terrors, and yet how soon she might be called to do so. In the midst of the gay dance, at the festive board, where mirth ruled the hour, and honeyed flatteries were poured into her ear, she was still haunted by that pallid, agonized countenance, and by the voice, whose heart-rending accents she still seemed to hear, as distinctly as when it cried, in imploring tones, "Save me, oh save me, from the deep, dark waters. They surround me on every side; have pity on me, for I sink, I sink, I sink."
So deep an effect had the loss of her young companion, and the remembrance of her last hours, produced on Agnes, that she fell into a dejection, from which nothing could rouse her, and her physical powers soon gave unmistakable evidences of their sympathy with the mind, by alarming prostration of strength. The physician, on being applied to, recommended the usual restorative, change of air and scene; and a pleasant summer's retreat was selected as Agnes's residence, for a few weeks. Mrs. Denham would fain have accompanied her niece, but a violent attack of the gout, to which Mr. Denham was subject, rendered it impossible for her to leave him, and with many tender charges and injunctions, Agnes was consigned to the care of a friend, travelling in that direction.
Great was the change to Agnes, yet not the less beneficial on that account. The absence of the glitter and show of fashionable life, the quiet that reigned around, the beauty of the scenery, the kindness and simplicity of the scattered inhabitants,—all delighted her; and the group of admirers, who were wont to surround her, would scarcely have recognized, in the warm-hearted, enthusiastic girl, who, in simple attire, might daily be seen rambling through the fields, or, with a book in hand, seated beneath a favorite oak, the accomplished and fashionable Miss Wiltshire.
The lady with whom she resided was a clergyman's widow, who, deprived by an untimely death of her natural protector and provider, sought to augment her scanty means, by opening her house during the summer months to casual visitors. She had been beautiful once, and she was young still; but the glow and the freshness of life's youth had vanished, not so much before time as sorrow, for peculiarly distressing circumstances had attended the loss of her dearest friend, and now, disease had almost, unsuspected, commenced its insidious ravages on a naturally delicate constitution.
A mutual friendship was speedily formed between these two, so strangely thrown together by circumstances. Agnes was charmed with Mrs. Goodwin's sweet, pensive face, and gentle manners, while her character, so beautifully exemplifying the power of religion to give support and happiness, under all circumstances, won her deepest regard. On the other hand, the genuine warmth, the unsophisticated manners, still uncorrupted by daily flatteries and blandishments, the lofty and gifted mind, all delighted Mrs. Goodwin, who had never before formed an acquaintance with a female possessing so many attractions, and she gazed at her with wonder and admiration, not unmixed with a sentiment of tenderness and pity, as she thought of life's slippery paths, and of the injurious influences of worldly pursuits and worldly gayeties.
But to the city Agnes must again return, for the roses have come back to her cheeks, her previous dejection has vanished under the kind and salutary ministrations of her friend, and she has no reasonable excuse for remaining longer; besides, her friends have become impatient at her stay,—the light and life of their dwelling,—how can they consent to her tarrying longer; so the long and interesting conversations on high and holy themes, which she had scarcely ever before heard alluded to but in church, must be relinquished, and the quiet scenes of Nature exchanged for the bustle and show of city life.
A twelvemonth has elapsed, since the events recorded in our first chapter. In the drawing-room of a spacious mansion, in the suburbs of the city where Agnes Wiltshire resided, is seated a young man, apparently perusing a volume which he holds in his hand, but, in reality, listening to a gay group of young girls, who are chattering merrily with his sister at the other end of the apartment. Scarcely heedful of his presence, for he is partly concealed by the thick folds of a rich damask curtain,—or, perhaps, careless of the impression produced, they rattled gaily on, for not one of them but in her heart had pronounced him a woman-hater; for were he not such, could he have been insensible to the sweetest and most fascinating smiles of beauty?
But the last sound of their retreating footsteps, the echo of their merry laugh, has died away, and Arthur Bernard emerges from his retreat, in the enclosure of the window.
"I declare, Arthur, it is positively too bad," exclaimed Ella, his sister, a gay and pretty young girl; "you are certainly the most agreeable company in the world. Not a syllable to say beyond 'yes,' or 'no,' 'good morning,' or 'good evening.' I am really ashamed of you. You are a woman-hater, I really believe. I am sure the girls all set you down as such."
"I am much obliged for their good opinion, and shall endeavor to deserve it," was the smiling reply. "But, can you imagine what I have been thinking about, while you and your merry companions have been talking all sorts of nonsense?"
"No, indeed. I should like to hear your wise meditations, most grave and potent seigneur. Doubtless, they will prove very edifying, as the theme, of course, was woman's foibles."
"I have been thinking rather of what woman might be, than of what she is. What an exalted part she might perform in the regeneration of the world, did she but fulfil her mission. An archangel might almost envy her opportunities of blessing and benefiting others; and yet, with so many spheres of usefulness open to her, with influence so potent for good or evil, the majority of your sex do nothing, or, worse than nothing, injure others by their example. I am not a woman-hater, Ella; but I must deplore that so many are unmindful utterly of their high calling, and careless of everything but how to spend the present hour the most agreeably, instead of being found actively sustaining, as far as in their power, every good word and work; and ever with a smile and a word of encouragement to the weary toilers in the path of duty. That there are such women, I have not the least doubt; but I have never met with one yet. When I do so, and remain insensible to her charms, you may then call me a woman-hater,"—and a smile concluded the sentence.
A merry, mocking laugh from his, sister rang through the room.
"I thought as much. We, poor women, are not good enough for your most serene highness; nothing short of one endowed with angelic qualities will suit you. I must really try if, in my long list of acquaintances, I cannot find one to come up to your standard; though I am afraid it would be rather a difficult task. And now, in reply to that grave lecture of yours, (what a pity the girls were not here to be edified,) for my part, I always imagined that woman's mission was to be as charming as possible, and I am quite content with being that,"—and Ella looked up into her brother's face, with an irresistible smile.
"But may you not be charming and useful both?"
"Well, I don't know about that; I should like to know what you would have us do."
Do! what might you not do, if you were disposed? What an incalculable amount of good, and that in the most unobtrusive manner. Society takes its tone from you, and waits to be fashioned by your hand. But, I verily believe, running the risk of speaking very ungallantly, that there is not one in thirty, fifty, or perhaps a hundred of your sex, who have the slightest idea of exerting their talents for the benefit of others. You laugh and talk, and enjoy yourselves, careless of the impression your example may produce, and conform to the usages of society, without one inquiry, as to whether in those usages may not, sometimes, lurk frightful dangers, if not to yourselves, to others who follow admiringly in your steps."
"Frightful dangers! Really, brother, you are growing enigmatical. I should like to have that sentence made a little plainer, for I certainly do not understand you."
"Perhaps an incident that occurred not long ago, which I will relate to you, may explain more clearly my meaning. I can vouch for its correctness, for it came under my own observation. You have frequently heard me speak of Henry Leslie, my room-mate at college, one of the noblest and most gifted of young men, but who unfortunately had contracted a taste for intoxicating liquors. Unfortunately for himself, his agreeable manners and fine qualities rendered him a great favorite with the ladies, and no party seemed complete without him; and thus constantly exposed to the seducing influence of the wine-cup, the habit of imbibing largely grew so strong, that he scarcely had any restraining power left. I remonstrated with him, and, as I trusted, with some success, for he solemnly promised to abstain totally from the intoxicating beverage,—but the very next day we found, on returning home from a walk, an invitation to an evening party lying on our table. It was from the mother of the young lady to whom report alleged he was deeply attached, and whatever influence I might have possessed in dissuading him from attending any other social gathering, I found I was powerless in this case. But he again renewed his determination to abstain from intoxicating stimulants.
"'I know what you fear, Arthur, but I have made the resolution to "touch not, taste not, handle not," as the teetotallers say, and I am determined not to break it.'
"I made no answer, but prepared to accompany him, with a heavy heart; for I felt certain, in my own mind, of the result, at least to some extent, of that evening's visit. I need not enter into particulars; suffice it to say, that Henry Leslie bravely withstood all solicitations, from our sex, to partake of the destroying beverage, and I was beginning to hope that my fears would prove unfounded, when the daughter of our hostess, the young lady to whom I before alluded, approached him with a glass of sparkling wine in her hand. She was beautiful,—I cannot but acknowledge that,—and I shall never forget her appearance as she stood there, a fascinating smile lighting up her animated countenance, and, in her sweetest tones, begged him to take a glass of wine with her. I thought of Satan, disguised as an angel of light, and trembled for the result, as I stood anxiously listening for his answer. It came in the negative, but the hesitating, half-apologetic tone was very different from the firm and decided one, in which he had resisted all other solicitations. But she was not yet satisfied. Womanly vanity must triumph, no matter how dearly the victory may be purchased.
"'You surely will not be so ungallant as to refuse a lady so small a favor,'—and her eyes added, as plainly as words,—'but much less can you refuse me.'
"'You see how society is degenerating, Mr. Bernard,' she said, turning to me, 'there was a time when a lady's request was deemed sacred, now we poor women have little or no influence over your sex.'
"'I devoutly wish you had less, Madam,' was my uncourteous reply; but she scarcely heard me, for Henry, taking the proffered glass, and in a low tone, murmuring, 'For your sake alone,' quaffed its contents. A flush of gratified vanity passed over the lady's countenance, for she had laid a challenge with some of her friends, who had observed his previous abstinence, that she would make him drink a glass of wine with her, before the evening was over. That night week I sat, a lonely watcher, by the corpse of Henry Leslie. He had died in the horrors of delirium tremens, and his last cry had been for brandy.
"Oh, it stings me almost to madness," exclaimed Arthur, rising and pacing the apartment with hurried steps, "when I reflect that that woman, knowing well his fatal propensity,—knowing, too, how powerful was her influence over him, for, poor fellow, I believe he would have laid down his life for her sake, was the immediate instrument of leading to destruction one who might,—had she encouraged him in his resolution to abstain, instead of luring him to depart from it,—have been an honored ornament to society, not filling, as he does to-day, a drunkard's grave, 'unhonored and unsung.'"
There was silence for a few moments in the apartment, for even the volatile Ella seemed affected at the narration. At length she spoke in a subdued tone.
"That is certainly a melancholy story, Arthur, and I shall not be able to get it out of my mind soon. But now that I think of it, have you seen Agnes Wiltshire since your return?"
"No; but I have been about to inquire several times where she is, and why have I not seen her before?"
"Simply, because she has abjured society."
"Abjured society!" and Arthur looked up, with a glance full of astonishment. "What do you mean, Ella? Has she become a nun?"
"Not exactly; but she certainly is a Sister of Charity, in the fullest sense of the term. It was only yesterday morning she passed our windows quite early, followed by a servant carrying a large basket, and I can easily imagine it was on some charitable mission. You must know, Arthur, for I see by your looks that you are impatient to hear all about her,—by the bye, it is singular that you should take any interest in her, considering she is a woman,"——
"Dear Ella, do go on with your story."
"It is well for you, Mr. Arthur, that I am very good-natured, for I should have an excellent opportunity now of retaliation, for all the unkind things you have been saying about our sex. But I can be generous, and will forgive you this time,—so now to our story. You must know, then, that a great change has taken place in Agnes, ever since the sudden death of poor Lelia Amberton, the particulars of which I wrote to you at the time it occurred. Agnes grew very low-spirited, and in consequence lost her health, and was ordered by the physician to the country, to recruit her failing strength. On her return, her dejection had entirely vanished; but still she was very different to what she had formerly been. To the great astonishment, and even displeasure of her relatives, she gently but firmly declined all invitations to balls, or gay parties, refused to attend the theatre, and, to her friends' earnest expostulations and inquiries as to the reasons for such a course, declared 'that she had, at length, become convinced of the vanity and sinfulness of such pursuits, and no longer dared to peril her immortal interests by engaging in them.'"
"But, Edward Lincoln, how does he approve of this strange alteration?" inquired Arthur, in a tone which, in spite of himself, could not conceal his evident interest.
"Oh, poor Edward has been discarded long ago."
"Discarded! What do you mean, Ella, that she has broken her engagement with him?"
"Yes; or, rather, they mutually agreed in the matter, and thereby caused fresh disappointment to Agnes's friends, whose opposition has risen to such a height, that I believe they have almost threatened to expel her from home."
"Barbarous!" exclaimed Arthur, hastily, his eye flashing with indignation. "But I suspect they would hardly carry that threat into effect. And what reason was assigned for the breaking of the engagement?"
"Oh, nothing more than non-agreement of sentiment. When I was reasoning with Agnes about it, one day, she said to me, 'How can two walk together except they be agreed? I grant, dear Ella, that Mr. Lincoln is all you have said, handsome, intelligent, and possesses many estimable qualities; but these qualities, to be permanent, must be based on principles drawn from the Word of Truth. Do not think, my friend, that it was without a struggle I have resigned him. No, the conflict was long and bitter; but I was enabled, at last, to yield to my convictions of duty. And, indeed, he himself has confessed, that whatever I might have done once, I should never have suited him now. Our views are diametrically opposed; the gayeties of life, which I have gladly resigned, he still takes delight in, and when I have endeavored feebly, but earnestly, to lead him to seek for more enduring joys, his only reply is a merry laugh at my enthusiasm, which, he predicts, will soon evaporate. No, Ella, there is little in unison between us, and it is far better to break our engagement now, than to find, when too late, that we had entered into a union productive of misery to us both.'"
"Agnes is certainly a singular girl," said Arthur, musingly.
"Oh, but I have not told you all. She has been a Sabbath-school teacher, has established a day school for poor children, which she superintends, and there is no fear of her tempting a gentleman to take a glass of wine, for last, but not least, she has become a teetotaller. There, what think you of that? and yet, I do not know how it happens, but in spite of her singular ways, I seem to like her better than ever. There is nothing in her manner that indicates a consciousness of superior merit, but she is so truly kind, and her countenance wears so peaceful and heavenly an expression, that I can never weary of gazing at her, and in my sober moods, which occur once or twice in a twelvemonth, have some idea of following her example. And now, Arthur," Ella added playfully, "if Miss Wiltshire comes not up to your standard of female excellence, I should despair of ever finding one that did."
Arthur was about to reply, but was interrupted by the announcement of a visitor. Slightly annoyed, for he had become really interested in the conversation, and, resolving to slip away the first convenient opportunity, he turned to salute the lady, whose name he had not heard, when, Ella's exclamation of surprise and pleasure fell on his ear.
"Why, Agnes, have you came at last? I almost thought I was never to see you again. I called twice, but you were out."
"Yes, I was very sorry, but a particular engagement called me from home."
"Arthur, have you forgotten your old friend, Miss Wiltshire?" inquired Ella of her brother, who was waiting an opportunity to address her.
"It would be a difficult task to do that," was the reply, while the cordial clasp of the hand and kindly tone, told how pleasant was that meeting to one of the party at least. "You should rather have inquired if Miss Wiltshire had forgotten me, which is far more probable."
"I never forget my friends," said Agnes, with a slight emphasis on the word friends.
"And to be numbered among Miss Wiltshire's friends, I consider no ordinary privilege," was Arthur's reply, as he insisted on her occupying an easy chair by the blazing fire, which the clear but chilly air of autumn rendered indispensable to comfort.
"I am afraid you have learned the art of flattery in your travels, Mr. Bernard."
"Flattery!" exclaimed Ella, drawing up a chair close to her friend, and smiling at her brother, who was seated opposite; "I only wish you had heard him, Agnes, a little while ago, in what terms he spoke of our sex, for if you had, you would agree with me, that the title of woman-hater would be far more appropriate than flatterer."
"Ella, Ella, that is hardly fair," said Arthur, while his cheek became slightly flushed.
"But what did he say about us, Ella?" Agnes inquired, smiling half mischievously at his evident embarrassment.
"Say, all sorts of things; he declared that the great majority of us care for little else but pleasure; that the idea of exerting our influence for good is one that we seldom ever entertain, and he wound up his exceedingly edifying lecture by a dismal story of a lady, whose persuasions induced a friend of his to break a promise which he had made to abstain from intoxicating liquors, and was, thereby, led to an untimely death."
"You have been bringing very grave charges against our sex, Mr. Bernard," said Agnes, with a sweet seriousness, that, however unusual, well became her fair youthful face; "and I am afraid we should have to plead guilty in too many instances. Still, even those who appear the most thoughtless, have their hours of reflection, no doubt, when they feel the utter insipidity of a life of pleasure—false pleasure—and form many resolutions to abandon it; but habit is strong, and example powerful, and once immersed in the gayeties of life, nothing short of strength from above can make them to 'come out from the world, and to become separate.'"
A deeper shade of seriousness passed over Agnes's expressive countenance as she uttered these words. It was evident they had evoked some painful recollections, and, as Arthur gazed on the down-cast face, on the long silken eyelashes that but half concealed the tear that unhidden rose to the lustrous eye, and observed her lip quivering with suppressed emotion, he easily divined, from his previous conversation with his sister, the cause of her agitation.
"She has suffered, and in the cause of truth," was his mental ejaculation. Oh, to have the privilege of cheering and sustaining one so lovely! but
"Man may not hope her heart to win, Be his of common mould."
A few select friends had assembled at Mrs. Bernard's, to celebrate Ella's birthday.
"It will not do to have a dancing-party, Mamma," said Ella, when they were making the necessary arrangements, "it will not do to have a dancing-party, or Agnes will refuse to come, and I have set my heart on having her, and I strongly suspect somebody else has done the same," glancing mischievously at her brother, who had just entered the room. "I am sure, too, I shall enjoy myself a great deal better with a few select friends, than if we had a large, gay party."
"Have it your own way, my dear," said the mother, fondly kissing her daughter's fair upturned brow; "if it pleases you, I am sure it will satisfy me."
"Thank you, dear Mamma, and now I have nothing to do but to write my invitations, and send them. But, Arthur, I declare you have not said a word; one would imagine, only I know better, that you do not feel at all interested in the matter."
"Interested, why should I, in your foolish parties? Do you not know I have something better to think of?"
"Doubtless, and you do not care in the least who accepts the invitations. Now, confess, for you may as well, that when I proposed, a few evenings ago, having a small select gathering of friends for Agnes's sake, your very eyes shone with joy, for all you did wear that provoking grave look. Confess, too, that you have thought of little else ever since. I am sure you dreamed about it last night, for you looked very smiling as you entered the breakfast room this morning."
"You are an incorrigible little rattle-brain, Ella, and, to punish you, I have a great mind to declare I will not enter your party. How would you like that?"
"I am not in the least alarmed, brother dear, that that threat will be carried into execution, for the very good and sufficient reason, that you would thus punish yourself worse than me. But if I stand talking any longer, my invitations will not be written in season, so I must defer our very edifying conversation till another opportunity,"—and, humming a favorite air, the lively girl danced gaily out of the room.
Arthur, left alone, stood for a moment musing, half amused and half vexed with his sister. He scarcely had ever mentioned Agnes's name, and yet, he could not conceal from himself that he felt an interest in her, beyond that he had ever experienced for any other woman.
"Absence is love's food," so poets say, and Arthur proved the truth of the observation. While spending his college vacations at home, he had often met with her before; and, even then, she charmed him as no other woman ever did, but when report told of her engagement to Edward Lincoln, honor forbade him any longer to cherish hopes which he had allowed to tint with their bright hues his dreams of the future.
He had shunned her society as far as possible from that time while at home, and striven, while at college and during his year's sojourn in foreign lands, to banish her image from his remembrance, and vainly imagined he had succeeded; but the flame, though it may be dimmed, was by no means quenched, and was ready, at the slightest encouragement, to burst forth with renewed vigor.
But we have digressed. Mrs. Bernard's drawing-room presented a picture of comfort and elegance as Agnes entered it on the evening of Ella's party. A few select friends were gathered there, all apparently perfectly at home, and amusing themselves without restraint, according to their diversified inclinations. Some were examining the choice engravings that lay scattered on the tables; others were standing in a group round the piano, admiring some new music which Ella had that day received; while the elder members of the party were gathered round the fireside, enjoying its cheerful blaze, and merrily discussing the events of the season. Innocent amusement seemed to be the rule of the evening, and Agnes, though she had left home unusually depressed in spirits, felt a glow of pleasure thrill through her heart as she contemplated the scene, and responded with her usual sweet, though, latterly, pensive smile, the kind greetings of her friends.
"How pale Miss Wiltshire looks to-night," observed one young lady to another who was seated at the piano as Agnes entered the apartment.
"She does, indeed, pale and sad both," was the response.
Arthur, who had overheard the remark, could not help admitting to himself its correctness, as he crossed the room to pay his respects to Agnes, and as, unobserved, he watched her closely, it was evident to him that, while with her usual unselfishness, she strove to promote the happiness of others by entering cheerfully into conversation, from the half suppressed sigh, and the shadow that at intervals stole over her face, some painful subject, very foreign from the scene around, occupied her thoughts.
"I am afraid you are not well to-night, Miss Wiltshire," he at length said, in a tone low and gentle as a woman's, for Agnes, seated on a corner of the sofa, and imagining herself unobserved by the rest of the company, had for a moment closed her eyes, as though to shut out surrounding objects, while an expression of mental anguish flitted across her features.
How precious to the aching heart is human sympathy. The words were nothing in themselves, but the tenderness of tone in which they were spoken, told plainly that it was anything but a matter of indifference to the speaker, and Agnes, blushing deeply as she met Arthur's compassionate glance, felt the conviction, darting like a ray of sunbeam through her mind, that to at least one person in the world she was dearer than aught else beside.
"I have only a slight headache," was her reply to his kind inquiry, and one which was strictly correct, for the headache was the result of mental agitation during the day.
"I shall recommend you, then, to sit quite still, while I constitute myself, for the evening, your devoted knight; and shall, therefore, remain here, ready to obey your slightest behests, be they what they may."
"I shall certainly then insist, in the first place, that others be not deprived of the pleasure of your company for my gratification. I should be selfish, indeed, if I allowed you to do so."
"Notwithstanding, here I am, and here I intend to remain until I am forced away," said Arthur, smiling as, seating himself comfortably beside her on the sofa, he drew a portfolio from the centre table, which contained some sketches taken during his recent tour, and, in pointing out the different places and relating his adventures in each, Agnes became so much interested as to forget her headache, and even the anxiety which had weighed down her mind but a short time before.
There was one picture that seemed particularly to attract her attention. It was the sketch of a small church, whose white walls peeped out from the midst of thick foliage, and whose opened doors seemed to welcome the worshippers that in every direction were seen apparently wending their way towards it.
Agnes gazed at it long and earnestly. She laid it down and took it up again, while Arthur, who could not imagine why she seemed to admire this sketch in preference to others whose artistic merits were far superior, gazed on her with some surprise.
"I see you are wondering, Mr. Bernard," she said, as she marked the inquiring expression of his countenance, "why this scene should particularly attract me. It is because it reminds me of the happiest hours of my life, for, in a church, whose situation and appearance exactly resembles this, I first learned where true bliss was to be found."
"A valuable lesson truly, Miss Wiltshire, and one which I would feel thankful if you could impart to me, for I assure you I am sadly in need of it. Dissatisfied with the world, I still see so much hypocrisy in the church,—there are so many, even among those who minister in holy things, who seem by their actions wedded to the vanities which they profess to renounce, that I turn away with a feeling akin to disgust, and am almost ready to believe that the piety which characterized the first professors of Christianity has totally disappeared."
"Perhaps you have not been looking for it in the right place, Mr. Bernard. There are many whose religion consists in outward observances, while the heart is given up to its idol; but, granting there was not one in the world who was really the possessor of true religion, 'What is that to thee?' The claims of Heaven are not less binding on you, because not recognized or responded to by the multitude, for each must render an account of himself, whether the offering of the heart, the only acceptable one, has been presented, or whether we have turned coldly away from the voice of the charmer, charm it ever so wisely."
There was silence for a few moments, which was broken by an observation from Arthur.
"Do you know of whom you remind me, Miss Wiltshire? Of a distant relative of my mother's, who resided with us for a time, when I was but a boy. She was a young woman then; I, a wild, heedless boy; but her look, her smile, her very words, are indelibly impressed on my mind. What a lovely example of all Christian graces was she, for in her they seemed blended, like the exquisite tints of the rainbow, into a perfect whole. Her gentle reproof,—her winning manner ever alluring us to that which was right,—her unwearied endeavor to make all around her happy,—these, combined with every womanly charm, made her appear, in my eyes, more than human; and when death came, much and deeply as I lamented the loss, I could scarcely wonder that Heaven had reclaimed its own."
There was a pause, and then Arthur added,—"That I have not gone to the same extent in folly as others, I believe I owe to her, for when tempted, by my gay companions at college, to join them in the pleasures of sin, her look of mild entreaty seemed ever before me, deterring me from ill; and I often think, had she lived, I might to-day have been a better and more useful man."
Agnes had been an attentive listener. "I do not wonder," she said, as he ceased speaking, "that you so highly estimate woman's influence, for you have largely benefited by it; but though dead, she yet speaketh. Do you remember what Young says respecting dying friends? That they are
'Angels sent on errands full of love, For us they sicken, and for us they die.'
We sometimes wonder at the mysterious Providence which often suddenly removes the excellent from earth; while the wicked are allowed to remain; but may it not be graciously ordered thus, to excite in us an ardent desire for that preparation which shall enable us to greet our friends on the shores of the better land. Oh, without such a hope what would life be.
'It lifts the fainting spirit up, It brings to life the dead.'
How often should I be ready to sink in despair," and Agnes's lips quivered with emotion, "were it not that I am permitted to look forward to that inheritance which is incorruptible and undefiled, and which shall prove an abundant recompense for those 'light afflictions which are but for a moment.'"
"But you," said Arthur, half inquiringly, "are, I trust, a stranger to those afflictions.
'Rose-leaved from the cold, And meant, verily, to hold Life's pure pleasures manifold.'"
"My childhood and youth has, indeed, passed amid flowers and sunshine," was the reply; "and if the future appears now to point to a more gloomy and thornier path, I will not repine to tread it, for
'Here little, and hereafter much, Is true from age to age.'"
Arthur, as he was about making a reply, was interrupted by his sister, who came to request Agnes to play for her a favorite tune, and their conversation, with the exception of an occasional word now and then, was ended for that evening.
"The only son of his mother, and she was a widow,—" Arthur Bernard, as he attained to manhood, seemed to realize, in person and character, all a fond mother's fondest anticipations. His stately form, as he mingled among his compeers, did not tower more above them, than did his lofty mind, stored with sound principles, and embellished with varied learning, seem to soar above their grovelling ideas, and to breathe a higher and purer atmosphere. A glance at his countenance would have sufficed for the most casual observer to have read, in every lineament, the impress of a noble and chivalrous nature. Yes, gentle reader, start not at the word chivalrous. It may be, from his previous conversation on woman's foibles, that you have been, ready to form a very different opinion,—but you are mistaken; and so will you often find yourself in the journey of life, should you thus estimate character in general. Deceit frequently lurks beneath the smile and honeyed words of the flatterers, and he who believes that the avenues to woman's heart are only accessible by such means, proves, beyond a doubt, that he has associated with none but the frivolous, the vain and weak-minded of the sex. Poor, indeed, is that compliment which man pays to woman, when he expatiates on her sparkling eyes, her flowing tresses, and ruby lips, as though she were only a beautifully fashioned creature of clay, while he virtually ignores the existence of those higher and holier powers which she shares in common with man, and which make her, in proportion to their wise and careful development, akin to the angels.
Arthur Bernard was no flatterer, it is true, but chivalrous in every sense of the word. A keen appreciator of all that is honorable and high-minded, he could not stoop to those petty meanesses, which too often characterize the conduct of those who flatter themselves with the name of gentleman,—a title which Tennyson forcibly describes as
"Usurped by every charlatan, And soiled with all ignoble use."
Courage to meet any emergency, firmness to resist temptation when presented in its most alluring form, was blended with that genuine kindness of manner, that deference towards the weak and defenceless, which renders its fortunate possessor not only esteemed, but beloved. Yet with so much that was admirable in mind and heart, of him it might be said, as it was of one of old, "One thing thou lackest." Strange, that the subject of the greatest importance should be, too often, the one most seldom dwelt on, too frequently thrust aside, until, in the season of affliction and the hour of death, its terrible magnitude is first realized—realized, perhaps, forever too late. Regular in his attendance on all the ordinances of worship, his heart had remained unaffected; but this indifference was owing, it may be, in a measure, to the discourses to which he was in the habit of listening from Sabbath to Sabbath,—discourses which, while they portrayed in fairest colors the beauty of a moral life, seemed to forget the natural depravity of the human heart, and the necessity of the mind being fully renewed, in order that it might carry those principles into effect.
Mrs. Bernard, though a devoted mother, and, in many respects, an excellent woman, had never realized, for herself, "the blessedness of things unseen." She had been contented to sail smoothly along the stream of life, which for the most part had been ruffled by few storms, and she almost forgot, as day after day and week after week glided past, they were bearing her frail bark swiftly on to the ocean of eternity. There was a time,—it seemed to her now like a dream as she looked back,—that she had thought more of these things, for they were presented to her in a living form, embracing, as it were, in the daily walk and conversation of a relative, who had been for some time an inmate of her dwelling. The lovely traits developed in the character of this lady, had won the matron's heart, and especially had she appreciated the unbounded care and tenderness which her friend exercised towards her children, Ella and Arthur. But this messenger of peace passed away to a brighter clime, and the impression made by her brief sojourn seemed to have become erased from the memory; like the morning cloud and the early dew, it soon passed away. Yet was she not altogether forgotten, nor had her labors of love been entirely in vain. To her it was that Arthur had alluded in his conversation with Miss Wiltshire, for childhood's heart is tender and impressible, and from her instructions he had imbided many of those lofty and noble sentiments which now characterized him; and often, when the tide of worldliness rushed in to bear him away on its fierce current, that gentle form would seem to stand before him, and he would hear again, in fancy, the soft tones of that voice, beseeching him to pause, and consider his doings.
Oh, woman, woman, how potent is thy influence, which thou exercisest, in thy apparently limited sphere, over the human race. Thy tender hand moulds the plastic mind of childhood; thy gentle rebuke checks the wayward impulses of impetuous youth; thy loving sympathy and voice counsel, cheer, and stimulate manhood; and to thee age and infirmity look up with confidence and delight, assured that thy unwearied care will not be wanting to smooth their passage to the tomb. Blessed office! High and holy ministration! Well, indeed, for mankind, if woman were but truly alive to the onerous duties and responsibilities that devolve upon her; well for her, and those by whom she is surrounded, if instead of being as, alas, she too often is, the encourager of man in evil, she would ever prove the supporter and upholder of that which is good, and by her example and persuasion,
"Allure to brighter worlds, and lead the way."
Arthur Bernard on leaving college had spent some years in travelling through Europe, and had but just returned when our story commences. Left in affluent circumstances at the death of his father, which had taken place while he was yet a child, there was little necessity for exertion; but of an active and energetic disposition, he could not remain comparatively unemployed; and obtaining a situation in one of the principal banks in the city, he devoted the income, acquired by it, to aid in the diffusion of useful knowledge among his fellow-townsmen, and for the alleviation of the wants of the helpless and distressed, for never did the needy apply to him in vain. He looked not with a captious eye upon their faults and follies,—did not harshly repel them because sin had, in many instances, led to their distress, but first relieving their bodily necessities, strove, by wise counsel, kindly administered, to raise the fallen, cheer the hopeless, and assist the outcast and degraded in retrieving their position, and again becoming useful members of society.
Ella, his sister, a light-hearted girl of eighteen, over whose fair head prosperity had hitherto scattered its richest blossoms, resembled her brother in kindness of disposition; but her gay and volatile temper formed a charming contrast to his grave and subdued manner. Five years her elder, Arthur's brotherly affection was mingled with an air of almost fatherly protection; and to him, next to her mother, she had been in the habit of appealing, and never in vain, for advice and assistance in any emergency; and while his gravity checked, in some measure, the mirth which might have degenerated into frivolity, her light-heartedness, in its turn, exercised a wholesome influence over him, and, like the gentle breeze, scattered the clouds which sometimes brooded darkly over his spirit.
But the declaration of Sacred Writ is, "One event happeneth to all." None, as they beheld that united and happy family, the centre of a numerous circle of friends, admired and beloved in the community, imagined the change which was so soon to "come o'er the spirit of their dream."
A few weeks only had elapsed, after the festive scene we have portrayed in a former chapter, when one morning Ella, on entering her mother's chamber, which adjoined her own, was surprised to find, for the hour was unusually late, that she had not yet risen. With noiseless step she approached the couch, and with gentle hand drew back the curtain, thinking to wake her by a kiss, when, terrible spectacle to her affectionate heart, she beheld her idolized mother, not sleeping as she had expected, but every lineament transfixed and motionless in death! An apoplectic fit,—so the physician affirmed,—must have seized her during the watches of the night, and thus, suddenly and fearfully, had she been called to her final account. We draw a veil over that mournful scene, for "too sacred is it for a stranger's eye."
On her children its effect was deep and lasting. Ella especially seemed sinking beneath the blow, and her brother, fearing for her reason, if not her life, with gentle violence almost compelled her to bid adieu to her native city, and, accompanied by him, seek, in change of scene, some alleviation for the grief that preyed so deeply on her spirit.
The steamboat wharf of the town of Elton was truly a scene of busy life. The steamer was making full preparations for the embarkation of passengers to a distant city; and the wharf was crowded with bales of goods, casks of water, cabs, trucks, &c. Business men were hurrying to and fro, sailors were shouting to each other, and friends were hastily clambering up the plank and springing on deck to remain a few minutes longer, if possible, with those from, whom they were so soon to be severed, "it might be for years, and it might be forever."
But the bell has rung once, twice, its warning note, and now, for the third time, it peals out on the clear air. The last clasp of the hand, the hurried embrace, the fervent "God bless you," is given, and those who are to remain have trodden the plank, regained the wharf, and now turn, before departing to their respective homes, to take a farewell glance at the steamer, as she moves slowly and gracefully away, bearing, it may be, from many their heart's most cherished idols. The passengers are assembled on deck, watching the receding shores, and many handkerchiefs are waving a last response to those eager glances, an adieu which, alas, few there dream shall prove final to so many.
At the farther end of the deck, close by the railing, is seated a lady in travelling costume. She is alone, for her companion, an elderly gentleman, has left her to salute a friend whose face he had just recognized among the crowd of passengers.
"A lady accompanies you, I see," was the remark made to Mr. Cameron by his friend, the Rev. Mr. Dunseer, after the first salutations were over.
"Yes, Miss Wiltshire, from B——.
"Miss Wiltshire? I thought I recognized the countenance as one I had seen before."
"Ah, so you have had a previous acquaintance with her."
"Yes; for I am sure it is the same person. She is the niece, is she not, of Mr. Denham, of B——; but I first met her when she was visiting the part of the country in which I was stationed for a year or two."
"I remember perfectly the time," was the reply. "Her relatives had become alarmed at her failing health, and change of air had been ordered by the physician."
"And so she is going to H——."
"Yes, on a visit to her mother's brother, Mr. Edwards. His only daughter is about to be married, and they have sent for her to be bride's maid. Miss Wiltshire has never seen any of the family as yet, with the exception of Mr. Edwards, who came to B——, on business, and then, for the first time, had an opportunity of becoming acquainted with his niece."
"It is rather singular," was the reply, while a smile lighted up the fine countenance of the speaker, "that I am on a somewhat similar errand. The groom, who for many years has been an intimate friend of mine, insisted on my performing the marriage ceremony. I maintained that it was the lady's privilege to select a clergyman, but, as he said that their wishes were one in that respect, I was compelled to concede, and am on my way thither for that purpose."
"I am heartily glad of it," said Mr. Cameron. "Miss Wiltshire will, I am sure, be pleased to see you again, and she will now have more agreeable company than an old man like me can possibly be; so if you have no objection we will join her, for she appears to be engaged in a converse with solitude."
"I was about proposing to do so, for to renew my acquaintance with one whom I had learned, during her brief sojourn, so highly to esteem, will indeed be an agreeable episode in my journey."
While this conversation was carried on between the two friends, Agnes had risen from her seat, and with one hand on the railing was leaning slightly over the side of the steamer, watching the ebb and flow of the transparent waves, or gazing fondly on the shores fast fading in the distance. She was not apt to be melancholy; indeed, she seldom allowed herself to indulge in a mood so opposed to that cheerfulness which should characterize a Christian; but as she stood there gazing on the mingled beauties of sea and land, more beautiful than ever at this hour, when the golden hues of sunset were reflected in the placid waters, and touched with fresh glory the distant hills, dark and gloomy shadows stole over her spirit.
And, indeed, distressing to youth, so dependent on the kindness and sympathy of others, were the circumstances under which she was now placed. She had bade adieu to the friends who had watched over her from childhood, not as hitherto, during her brief visits, with the loving farewell and the earnest injunction to speedily return; but cold looks and colder words had marked that parting, with the very distant intimation, on the part of her uncle, that if, on the expiration of her sojourn among strangers, her fanatical views; as he termed them, remained unchanged, she must expect to find herself banished from the home of her childhood. Poor Agnes! a painful decision awaited her. With all the affection of her warm and unsophisticated spirit, had she repaid the tenderness that had been lavished upon her, and now to find herself charged with having acted a foolish and ungrateful part,—to be thrust forth from a home of luxury,—from the attention and sympathy of friends,—to battle with a world that has but little kindness, in general, to spare for those who need it most; these were painful and harassing thoughts, and what wonder they weighed down that gentle and timid spirit, and suffused those lustrous eyes which, until lately, had seldom shed the tear of sorrow, except for other's woes.
But as, lost in these troubled reflections, she glanced at the giant waves beneath her, suddenly a sweet promise of Holy Writ was applied to her agitated mind, "When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee, and through the floods, they shall not overflow thee,"—and immediately her spirit grew calmer, while a sense of peace, comfort and security, quelled each rising doubt.
"I have nothing to fear," she murmured.
"His voice commands the tempest forth, And stills the stormy wave,— And though his arm be strong to smite, 'Tis also strong to save."
Agnes was aroused from her reverie by Mr. Cameron's cheerful voice.
"My dear Miss Wiltshire, allow me to present to you an old friend."
She turned to salute the stranger, but what was her surprise and delight to find in him the clergyman under whose ministrations she had so largely profited. The pleasure, indeed, seemed mutual, for though Mr. Dunseer, having shortly after Agnes's departure for the city left that part of the country, had consequently heard nothing more of her, he still remembered his young and attentive hearer, and had often since then desired to see her again, and ascertain if indeed the impressions made were lasting, or had been obliterated amid the whirl and gayety of fashionable life.
Still more delighted was Agnes when she learned of his destination; it seemed a link binding her to those with whom, with the exception of Mr. Edwards, she was totally unacquainted; and from the depth of her heart she silently thanked the kind Providence who had thus directed her steps, and permitted a meeting so fraught with comfort and encouragement at the very time most needed.
Long and pleasant was the converse of friends that evening, and it was not until some time after the sun had set, and dark and heavy clouds, sweeping across the sky like armies gathering to battle, had obscured the light of the rising moon, that Agnes, with a heart peaceful and trusting, retired to her state-room, and in spite of the dash of waves, and the wail of the rising wind, resigned herself to slumbers calm and blest.
But from pleasant dreams of home and friends, she was suddenly aroused by the confusion and hurried tramping of feet above her head, mingled with the shrieks of women and children, and the fearful ejaculations of terrified men. Agnes started up, scarcely realizing that she was indeed "on the wide billows of the raging sea." Drawing aside the curtains from her berth, she glanced out into the cabin. It was not day, for the lights were burning brightly, but the place was a scene of wild dismay; women wringing their hands; children clinging to their mothers; all bespoke such terror and despair, that for a moment Agnes felt bewildered; but quickly recovering herself, and hastily rising, she was soon in the midst of the terrified group, where she was immediately joined by Mr. Cameron and his friend.
"What is the matter?" was her first ejaculation.
"The steamer is on fire," was the fearful reply. "Quick, my dear girl, secure whatever you find to be most necessary, while they are getting the boats ready."
With that self-possession so invaluable in the time of danger, Agnes hastily, but calmly, equipped herself comfortably, secured about her person a small purse of money, and then aided the other lady passengers in their frantic efforts to prepare for this trying emergency. Very soon the Captain's stentorian voice was heard,—"The boats are ready, ladies, there is no time to be lost."
With a face pallid as death, yet serene in its very paleness, Agnes, accompanied by her two friends, and followed by a number of the other passengers, ascended the staircase, and, having gained the deck, glanced for an instant at the fearful scene.
There was, indeed, as the Captain had affirmed, no time to be lost. The fire, which had originated in the engine-room, from the carelessness of one of the hands, was now making fearful headway, in spite of the continued efforts of the sailors by deluging it with buckets of water, to mitigate in a measure, its ravages. All the fore-part of the vessel was burning, and awfully sublime was the spectacle as the flames mounted higher and higher, casting their lurid glare over the intensely dark waste of waters, whose turbid and sullen waves, lashed into fury by a fierce north-eastern blast, seemed warning the unhappy sufferers of the fearful fate that awaited them, should they commit themselves more immediately to its mercy.
But the danger of embarkation in those frail boats, on an ocean that every moment grew more tempestuous, was almost lost sight of in contemplation of the nearer and more fearful fate that awaited them should they linger; and quickly, and with scarce a murmur of apprehension, the boat was filled.
While Mr. Cameron was assisting Agnes into the frail boat, Mr. Dunseer, who had secured a life-preserver, as soon as she was safely seated handed it to her, observing that if the boat should be upset, by clinging to it she might be preserved from a watery grave.
Thanking him for his kind consideration at such a time, Agnes inquired anxiously of the two gentlemen whether they were not to accompany her.
"No;" was the reply of Mr. Cameron. "I fear we must be separated, but only I trust for a time. This boat is not sufficiently large to hold more than the lady passengers and the sailors who are to manage it. We are to embark, as soon as you are safely off, in another, but as both will steer for the same shore, and keep near each other as much as possible, I trust, by the mercy of Providence, we shall meet again on terra firma.
"Yes," responded the minister, who had been for a moment silent, and his clear voice sounded like the spirit of peace above the roaring flames and raging billows, "we are steering, I trust, for the same shore, and should we never meet again on earth, may it be our happy lot to greet each other in the haven of eternal rest, haven to take the shipwrecked in."
Agnes's heart was for a moment too full to speak, but controlling herself, she said to Mr. Cameron in a hurried whisper, "If anything should happen to me, and you again behold my friends, tell them, oh, tell them, that my last thoughts were for them; tell them not to lament for me, for I shall be at rest, but, oh, I charge, I implore them to meet me in heaven!"
A burst of tears closed the sentence; she could no longer restrain her feelings.
"We must leave you now, my dear child," said Mr. Cameron, after promising compliance with her request. "May heaven bless and help you."
"And may He who holds the winds and the waves in the hollow of his hand, preserve you, and all, through the hours of this terrible night," was the solemn ejaculation of Mr. Dunseer, as pressing for the last time her hand, the final order was given, the boat pushed out from the side of the burning vessel, and she was left in the midst of strangers; strangers personally, yet linked together by the sympathy arising from mutual danger.
"Letters from home at last," said Arthur Bernard, as he entered the private salon of an hotel, located in a pretty town in the south of France.
"I had begun to think our friends had quite forgotten us," he continued, addressing his sister, who, seated in a recess formed by a large bow-window, had been anxiously watching for his return.
"You have not opened any of them yet," she said, as she came eagerly forward to receive her share.
"No;" was the reply. "I knew how anxiously you were waiting, and hastened that we might read them together."
"Always thoughtful, dear brother, of my comfort, you quite spoil me," said Ella, with an affectionate smile, but in a tone, whose subdued sound, proved a striking contrast to her former vivacity.
For the next few moments silence reigned in the apartment, for each were busily engaged in perusing their respective epistles.
It was broken at length by an exclamation from Ella, which arrested her brother's attention, and looking up from the opened sheet he held in his hand, he ejaculated with alarm,—
"For pity's sake, Ella, what is the matter?" for his sister's cheek had become colorless as marble, and sinking into a seat, she burst into a passion of tears.
Still more alarmed, he laid down the letter, and advancing to her, implored her to tell him the cause of her agitation.
"Read for yourself," she said, "for I cannot bear to speak of it. Oh, Agnes, Agnes!"
A fresh mist of tears followed these words.
"Agnes, what of her?" and Arthur's cheek became almost as blanched as his sister's, and his hand trembled as he grasped the fatal manuscript. He seemed to forget that the name might belong to some other than Miss Wiltshire, for among the circle of their acquaintance there were two or three with a similar designation, but in his inmost thoughts, though he had never thus addressed her, he had been so accustomed to associate it with the remembrance of herself, that it had become dear and sacred as a household word, and when his sister's ejaculation of "Agnes, Agnes," met his ear, he never dreamed of other, for
"There was but one such name for him So soft, so kind, so eloquent."
The letter was from a lady acquaintance of Ella's, written in a fine Italian hand, not very intelligible, and crossed and re-crossed in a most elaborate manner.
"Commend me to a lady's epistle," he said, in a tone more nearly approaching to bitterness than his sister had ever heard from him before. And, indeed, trying to the patience at any time, its perusal, just now, seemed a hopeless task; but at length, at the foot of the closing page, the writer having largely expatiated on the loss she had sustained in the departure of her dear friend Ella, and how eagerly she had looked forward to her return, and having exhausted all other items of information which "she hoped," she added, "might not prove uninteresting to her friend and Mr. Bernard," very coolly wound up by remarking, "By the bye, I suppose you have not heard of Miss Wiltshire's unhappy fate. I think it was a week or two after you left B——, that she embarked in one of the steamers, ostensibly on a visit to a relative who resided in H——, to act as bridesmaid for his daughter, but with an intimation from her uncle, so I understand, that unless she relinquished her fanatic notions, she must no longer expect a home beneath his roof. The vessel in which she embarked sailed at the appointed time, but never reached its destination. It took fire the night after leaving the harbor, and all efforts to quench the flames were unavailing. The passengers, of whom there were a large number on board, attempted to escape in boats; some were fortunate enough to succeed, but the ladies, among whom was Miss Wiltshire, without exception, found a watery grave. It appears that the females had been first placed in one of the boats manned by two or three sailors, and then another boat received the male passengers and crew. They had hoped to keep near each other, but were separated by the dark and tempestuous night. The gentlemen were fortunate enough to gain land, after a good deal of sailing, and from thence, having endured much fatigue, at length arrived here in safety; but of the missing ones no intelligence was gained, until yesterday, when a boat, identified by the passengers, from the name printed on its stern, was picked up by some vessel, and brought into our harbor. It had drifted nearly as far as the coast of Newfoundland, and, strange to say, a woman's bonnet was found floating near it, which being also conveyed here, was immediately recognized by Mrs. Denham, as the very one Miss Wiltshire wore on leaving home, thus proving, beyond the slightest doubt, the terrible fate which befell her and her unfortunate companions. Mr. and Mrs. Denham seem almost bereft of their senses,—they refuse to be comforted,—and blame themselves as the sole cause of their niece's death; but, for my part, and I am sure you will agree with me, I think Miss Wiltshire's singular conduct was quite sufficient to warrant the anger of her relatives, who had always treated her with such indulgence; for it seems to me a great presumption, for a young person to set up her own ideas, in opposition to those who certainly are far more capable of judging of what is right and wrong.
"Poor thing, she has gone now, so it would not be right to speak too harshly; but I cannot help telling you, that she was never a favorite of mine, for I do dislike that pretending to be so much better than others, and she had such a soft, winning way with her, that I believe some almost thought her an angel, but she couldn't thus have imposed on me."
Arthur read no further. He forgot his sister's presence; forgot that the epistle belonged to her, and with an impulse of indignation he could not control, he tore it in pieces, scattering its contents to the winds; while with open, wondering eyes, the tears suddenly checked, Ella looked on without speaking, almost ready to conclude that her brother had taken leave of his senses. He turned from the open casement, and as he met her inquiring and troubled gaze, instantly became himself again.
"Forgive me, dear sister," he said, in a tone of mingled anger and grief, "that I have destroyed that precious manuscript," laying an emphasis on the word precious; "but oh, Ella, Ella, is it possible that such fearful intelligence can be true? It almost seems," he added, in a tone of anguish and despair, "that heaven could not permit one so young, so lovely, to perish in such a heart-rending manner,"—he stopped abruptly,—and Ella was spared replying by a gentle tap at the door.
"Come in," she said in a low, faint voice, and, in compliance with the invitation, an elderly American lady, who was on a visit to some friends that resided opposite, and with whom Ella had become quite intimate during her sojourn in the place, entered the apartment.
"I have been wanting so much to see you, my dear child," she said, affectionately, "and have been looking for you all the morning, and finding you did not make your appearance, concluded to come in search of you. But what is the matter," said she, pausing, and glancing first at Ella, and then at her brother, "I trust you have not heard any bad news?"
"We have, indeed, dear Madam," replied Arthur, with an effort to control his voice, "the loss of a very dear friend,"—here the tones visibly faltered,—"by the burning of a vessel at sea, and the subsequent upsetting of a boat, in which some of the passengers were endeavoring to make their escape."
"That is indeed very, very sad news," said the old lady, affectionately clasping Ella's hand, "and I, my friends, can sympathize with you, for five years ago to-day, my son, my darling son, the pride of my heart, the charm and ornament of our dwelling, set sail from his native shores, for a distant land, and from that moment unto this, no tidings ever reached me of his fate, for the vessel was heard of never after."
"Do you know," she said to Ella, a few moments after, as Arthur, with some murmured apology left the room, for he felt that human sympathy, however precious at other times, seemed but to madden him now, and he longed to be alone—"Do you know," she repeated, as the young girl's eyes, swollen with weeping, were upraised to her benevolent countenance, "that I was standing at the window right opposite, when you drove up to the door, and as your brother quickly alighted from the carriage, and tenderly assisted you out, my heart beat quick; the blood forsook my cheeks, and my whole frame was convulsed with emotion, for so strikingly did he resemble my lost one in look and manner, that, for the moment, I wildly dreamed that he had come back to bless me."
The old lady's tears flowed freely.
"I miss him so much, so very much," she said, "and especially on the anniversary of that fatal day which tore him from my fond embrace, and I can well appreciate the emotion which lent intensity to David's pathetic exclamation, 'Oh my son, my son, would to heaven I had died for thee, oh, my son, my son.'"
While Mrs. Cartwright was thus, by a relation of her own trials, endeavoring to divert, in some measure, Ella's mind, and prevent her from dwelling too exclusively on this painful event, Arthur, having gained his chamber, was now pacing the floor with restless steps, his whole soul a prey to the most intense emotions of grief, such as he had never before experienced. At one moment he felt stupefied, at the suddenness of the blow; the next, aroused again to the consciousness of its terrible reality. At length a hope, that seemed to up-spring from the depth of his despair, shed a faint light over the chaotic darkness that reigned within. "The information may be exaggerated," was his mental solving, "for it is plain that the writer, in penning it, was actuated by no feelings of good-will, and there may yet exist a hope of Anges's escape." With this idea, he opened another epistle, which he had received, but not yet read. It was from an elderly gentleman, who had always held Agnes in the deepest esteem, and with a trembling hand he broke the seal. Alas for his futile hopes! Not at the close of the page, as in the one received by Ella, but at the very commencement of the letter, was the mournful intelligence communicated, and while the narrator deeply deplored the event, he intimated, at the same time, that not a doubt existed in his own mind, or in the minds of her friends, as to the certainty of her untimely fate.
Arthur laid the letter aside, and again commenced his restless pacing. Alas, he had once almost imagined himself a Christian, for had he not been sedulous in the discharge of every duty, and, like the young man referred to in Scripture, could have said, with reference to the moral law as far as outward observances are concerned, "All these have I kept from my youth up." But now, mitigating, soothing, extracting from grief, however mighty, some portion of its bitterness, where was the resignation of the Christian? Not, certainly, in that heart so full of bitterness, that was ready to contend with heaven for having reclaimed its own; its power, its goodness, its wisdom, were almost, unconsciously, arraigned, and finite man presumed to pass judgment on the acts of infinite benevolence, until, at length, shocked at his own rebellious feelings,—and startled, nay, terrified, at this the deepest insight he had ever obtained of the natural depravity of his heart, he sank into a chair, and in utter recklessness abandoned himself to the tide of grief which seemed waiting to overwhelm him.
Oh there are terrible moments in human experience, moments when even the Christian is so haunted by the demon of unbelief, when the dire enemy of God and man takes advantage of some unpropitious circumstance, some painful affliction, to taunt the soul, already almost crushed, and to inquire, with fiendish malignity, "Where is now thy God?" that if not wholly overcome, he, at least, escapes alone with fearful wounds from the trying conflict; how then can that one sustain the assault who is totally unprepared, and who knows but little of the source from whence alone help can come? Well, indeed, for frail humanity, that there is a tender, pitying Father, who "knoweth our frame, and remembereth we are dust," and oftentimes, when our need is sorest, sends, in his own good way, unexpected relief.
With his face buried in his hands, heedless of the lapse of time, and of anything save his own absorbing emotion, Arthur still sat in the armchair, into which he had thrown himself, his thoughts dwelling, with strange pertinacity, upon the past,—the past that seemed to mock him now.
They expected very shortly to have returned home, and he had anticipated so much pleasure in that return. He had never analyzed the source of that pleasure, but now that it was removed, he saw it too clearly; it was the hope, the expectation, of meeting with her. He recalled to mind the hours he had passed with her,—happy hours, all too quickly flown; her winning smile, the sweetly persuasive tones of her voice, her earnest and thoughtful manner, all came back to haunt him with their memory. Oh, how distinctly he remembered one of the last conversations he had with her, when, in her own mellifluous tones, she had repeated Young's exquisite lines,—
"Stricken friends Are angels sent on errands full of love,— For us they languish, and for us they die."
Never had he felt their beauty as now, for the storm of passion had in a measure subsided, and the still small voice of conscience once more asserted its power.
"Oh, Agnes, Agnes," he murmured, "you tarried on our earth as an angel of light, and now you have but returned to your native sphere, and rejoined your sister spirits, but could you see my rebellious heart, how infinitely removed from the resignation and purity that can alone find admission into the haven of bliss, how should I sink in your esteem, if, indeed, surrounded by the spirits of the blessed, your thoughts ever turn to so miserable an inhabitant of earth."
A book lay on the table beside him. He took it up mechanically, scarcely knowing what he did. It was an elegant edition of Mrs. Hemans' poems, and had been the gift of Agnes to his sister a few weeks previous to her leaving home.
On the fly-leaf she had inscribed Ella's name, and the sight of her hand-writing sent a fresh thrill of agony to his heart. But last evening, on borrowing the book from his sister, he had contemplated it with such delight; now, it was but the fatal reminder of "what had been, but never more could be." With the restlessness of a weary heart, he turned over page after page, until his glance was arrested by some lines she had evidently marked. How bitterly appropriate they seemed now as he read,—
"Go, to a voice such magic influence give Thou canst not lose its melody and live; And make an eye the load-star of thy soul; And let a glance the springs of thought control. Gaze on a mortal form with fond delight, Till the fair vision mingles with thy sight; There seek thy blessings; there repose thy trust Lean on the willow, idolize the dust! Then, when thy treasure best repays thy care, Think on that dread 'forever,' and despair."
It is true these lines, evidently addressed to an unbeliever in our holy Christianity, were not, in that respect, applicable to him, yet he felt that the reproof came home to his own conscience; for earth had too much engrossed his vision, and while from childhood he had been taught that life and immortality are brought to light by the Gospel, in his despairing grief he had almost lost sight of the blessed possibility of being re-united to her, whom he now contemplated as a sinless spirit in the regions of eternal bliss.
Far reaching as Eternity were the results of these hours of affliction, and with higher and holier aims, and the determination to consecrate life's remaining days, weeks, or years, to that service which is alone worthy of being engaged in by immortal beings, Arthur Bernard returned once more to the battle of life, with a heart crushed and bleeding, it is true, but not destitute of Peace, that celestial visitant, or of heavenly hope, pointing to a brighter and more enduring inheritance.
The winter had set in unusually early. Along the bleak coast of Newfoundland, and through its dreary and sparsely inhabited islands, November blasts raged fiercely, lashing to fury the crested waves that beat against the giant rocks, which, standing sentinel-like on the shore, seemed to frown defiantly on them; or laving, far and wide, the long, flat sand beach, that afforded less obstruction to their impetuous progress. To a remote part of this dreary coast we would now direct the attention of our reader. Scarcely fair, even when Summer lavished upon it her fairest smiles, there, no traces of beauty invited the weary pilgrim to tarry and rest within their refreshing shade; no garden, gay with flowers, rang with childish laughter, as the little ones plucked their fragrant blossoms; but rugged hills, frowning rocks, and desolate sand beaches, assumed the place of waving woods, smiling corn-fields, and blooming orchards; while for the melodious notes of woodland songsters, was heard the wild cry of the stormy petrel, or the shrill scream of the large sea-gull.
But "Nature never fails the heart that loves her," and while destitute of the exuberant charms of more genial climes, the spot to which we allude was not without attraction to an admirer of the sublime and picturesque.
Nor was there wanting wild beauty in the scene which greeted the spectator, who might perchance on some lovely summer's morning ascend the steep hills, or pause for rest on one of the rocky eminences jutting out into the sea. Before him lay the wide expanse of ocean, reaching far beyond the keenest vision, calm at that moment as though it had never been lashed to fury by wailing tempests, and reflecting in its mirror-like surface the azure heavens that smiled brightly above. Beneath his feet the stunted herbage assumed its liveliest hue of emerald green, diversified here and there by some tiny, hardy wild flowers, while the distant sail, gleaming in the sunlight, and then passing beyond the eager vision,—the fishermen's huts, scattered here and there on the rugged and uneven land,—the fishing shallops, and boats of every variety, that dotted the waters, with their owners, some standing on the beach, and some in their vessels, but all engaged in the one occupation of securing and preserving the finny tribe, their only source of wealth, gave an air of animation to the scene, while the merry laugh of children, and the cheerful tones of women, as they hurried to the beach to assist the parent or husband, spoke of social ties, and seemed to say, that peace and contentment were not alone the associates of refinement, education, and luxury.
But quite a different aspect did that barren coast present when chilly Autumn and relentless Winter resumed their dreaded reign. Then, indeed, to the inhabitant of the city, dreary beyond description would a residence within one of its small yet hospitable huts appear, and he must possess resources in himself of no common order, or be sustained by a lofty sense of duty, who could cheerfully and contentedly remain through those cheerless seasons.
Standing somewhat isolated, and at a distance from the shore, yet commanding a fine view of the sea, was a cottage of larger dimensions, and of neater appearance than the generality of the fishermen's dwellings. It was built on an irregular tract of land, that sloped down to the shore, and behind it rose a ragged hill, in summer partially covered with coarse grass, that concealed its jagged rocks, and lent it an air of cheerfulness; but now its rude outline, no longer softened by the verdure and sunshine, presented a weird and desolate appearance. In front of the cottage, which contained four or five rooms, with a small attic above, used for storing away provisions, &c., was a piece of ground, enclosed by a wooden railing, where a few vegetables were planted each spring; but these had long ago been gathered in, and the land was now enjoying its Sabbath, to be continued for six long months, before it would again yield of its productions, for the benefit of its hardy and thrifty owners.
The interior of the dwelling, though roughly fashioned, and furnished in the most simple manner, was not uninviting, for there was that atmosphere of cleanliness and neatness about it, which renders the rudest spot more attractive than luxurious habitations, where it is found wanting. Through the centre ran a narrow hall, out of which opened the different rooms. On the right hand, just as you entered, was a door leading into a good-sized apartment, fulfilling the united duties of kitchen, parlor, and sitting-room, while at the opposite side were several chambers, small, but clean and airy.
In the sitting-room,—for by that term we shall designate the principal apartment,—a bright coal fire was blazing cheerily in the large open fire-place, casting its pleasant light over the spotless and carefully sanded floor, gleaming on the plastered walls, and lingering to see itself gaily reflected on the shining pewter, and brightly colored delf, that, neatly arranged on the bowed shelves of the snowy dresser, were evidently the pride of the housekeeper.
A white cloth covered the rude wooden table that stood in the centre of the room, and the mistress of the dwelling was hurrying to and fro, evidently intent on preparing the evening repast, while from the bake-kettle, that had just been taken from the fire, the fragrance of newly-baked bread ascended, filling the place with its odor; an odor by no means ungrateful to appetites, sharpened by manly labor and healthy sea-breezes.
While the busy matron was thus happily employed in her labors of love,—for such they emphatically were to her,—the daughter, a girl of eighteen years of age, and two younger sons, were with their father on the beach, assisting him in sorting, and putting in barrels, a quantity of fish, designed for the family's use during the winter.
"It will be a fearful night, father," said the girl, pausing from her labors, and looking out on the black, swollen waves, while the wind, as it swept furiously by, more than once obliged her to cling to the rock for support.
"It will be a fearful night, father," she repeated,—and, hesitating for a moment, she added, "and brother William is at sea."
"Ay," responded the brawny, stalwart, and good-humored looking man, "it will be, as you say, lass, a stormy night, and a terrible one, I reckon, to poor seamen,—for there is more than William on the ocean."