Prue and I
George William Curtis
Part 3 out of 3
"Those are the ancestors of the Howards, the Plantagenets, and the
Montmorencis," says Prue, surprising me with her erudition. "Have you
any remoter ancestry, Mr. Sculpin?" she asks Minim, who only smiles
compassionately upon the dear woman, while I am buttoning my coat.
Then we step along the street, and I am conscious of trembling a
little, for I feel as if I were going to court. Suddenly we are
standing before the range of portraits.
"This," says Minim, with unction, "is Sir Solomon Sculpin, the founder
of the family."
"Famous for what?" I ask, respectfully.
"For founding the family," replies Minim gravely, and I have sometimes
thought a little severely.
"This," he says, pointing to a dame in hoops and diamond stomacher,
"this is Lady Sheba Sculpin."
"Ah! yes. Famous for what?" I inquire.
"For being the wife of Sir Solomon."
Then, in order, comes a gentleman in a huge, curling wig, looking
indifferently like James the Second, or Louis the Fourteenth, and
holding a scroll in his hand.
"The Right Honorable Haddock Sculpin, Lord Privy Seal, etc., etc."
A delicate beauty hangs between, a face fair, and loved, and lost,
centuries ago--a song to the eye--a poem to the heart--the Aurelia of
that old society.
"Lady Dorothea Sculpin, who married young Lord Pop and Cock, and died
prematurely in Italy."
Poor Lady Dorothea! whose great grandchild, in the tenth remove, died
last week, an old man of eighty!
Next the gentle lady hangs a fierce figure, flourishing a sword, with
an anchor embroidered on his coat-collar, and thunder and lightning,
sinking ships flames and tornadoes in the background.
"Rear Admiral Sir Shark Sculpin, who fell in the great action off
So Minim goes on through the series, brandishing his ancestors about
my head, and incontinently knocking me into admiration.
And when we reach the last portrait and our own times, what is the
natural emotion? Is it not to put Minim against the wall, draw off at
him with my eyes and mind, scan him, and consider his life, and
determine how much of the Eight Honorable Haddock's integrity, and the
Lady Dorothy's loveliness, and the Admiral Shark's valor, reappears in
the modern man? After all this proving and refining, ought not the
last child of a famous race to be its flower and epitome? Or, in the
case that he does not chance to be so, is it not better to conceal the
I am told, however, that in the higher circles of society, it is
better not to conceal the name, however unworthy the man or woman may
be who bears it. Prue once remonstrated with a lady about the marriage
of a lovely young girl with a cousin of Minim's; but the only answer
she received was, "Well, he may not be a perfect man, but then he is a
Sculpin," which consideration apparently gave great comfort to the
But even Prue grants that Minim has some reason for his pride. Sir
Solomon was a respectable man, and Sir Shark a brave one; and the
Right Honorable Haddock a learned one; the Lady Sheba was grave and
gracious in her way; and the smile of the fair Dorothea lights with
soft sunlight those long-gone summers. The filial blood rushes more
gladly from Minim's heart as he gazes; and admiration for the virtues
of his kindred inspires and sweetly mingles with good resolutions of
Time has its share, too, in the ministry, and the influence. The hills
beyond the river lay yesterday, at sunset, lost in purple gloom; they
receded into airy distances of dreams and faery; they sank softly into
night, the peaks of the delectable mountains. But I knew, as I gazed
enchanted, that the hills, so purple-soft of seeming, were hard, and
gray, and barren in the wintry twilight; and that in the distance was
the magic that made them fair.
So, beyond the river of time that flows between, walk the brave men
and the beautiful women of our ancestry, grouped in twilight upon the
shore. Distance smooths away defects, and, with gentle darkness,
rounds every form into grace. It steals the harshness from their
speech, and every word becomes a song. Far across the gulf that ever
widens, they look upon us with eyes whose glance is tender, and which
light us to success. We acknowledge our inheritance; we accept our
birthright; we own that their careers have pledged us to noble action.
Every great life is an incentive to all other lives; but when the
brave heart, that beats for the world, loves us with the warmth of
private affection, then the example of heroism is more persuasive,
because more personal.
This is the true pride of ancestry. It is founded in the tenderness
with which the child regards the father, and in the romance that time
sheds upon history.
"Where be all the bad people buried?" asks every man, with Charles
Lamb, as he strolls among the rank grave-yard grass, and brushes it
aside to read of the faithful husband, and the loving wife, and the
He finds only praise in the epitaphs, because the human heart is kind;
because it yearns with wistful tenderness after all its brethren who
have passed into the cloud, and will only speak well of the departed.
No offence is longer an offence when the grass is green over the
offender. Even faults then seem characteristic and individual. Even
Justice is appeased when the drop falls. How the old stories and plays
teem with the incident of the duel in which one gentleman falls, and,
in dying, forgives and is forgiven. We turn the page with a tear. How
much better had there been no offence, but how well that death wipes
It is not observed in history that families improve with time. It is
rather discovered that the whole matter is like a comet, of which the
brightest part, is the head; and the tail, although long and luminous,
is gradually shaded into obscurity.
Yet, by a singular compensation, the pride of ancestry increases in
the ratio of distance. Adam was valiant, and did so well at Poictiers
that he was knighted--a hearty, homely country gentleman, who lived
humbly to the end. But young Lucifer, his representative in the
twentieth remove, has a tinder-like conceit because old Sir Adam was
so brave and humble. Sir Adam's sword is hung up at home, and Lucifer
has a box at the opera. On a thin finger he has a ring, cut with a
match fizzling, the crest of the Lucifers. But if he should be at a
Poictiers, he would run away. Then history would be sorry--not only
for his cowardice, but for the shame it brings upon old Adam's name.
So, if Minim Sculpin is a bad young man, he not only shames himself,
but he disgraces that illustrious line of ancestors, whose characters
are known. His neighbor, Mudge, has no pedigree of this kind, and
when he reels homeward, we do not suffer the sorrow of any fair Lady
Dorothy in such a descendant--we pity him for himself alone. But
genius and power are so imperial and universal, that when Minim
Sculpin falls, we are grieved not only for him, but for that eternal
truth and beauty which appeared in the valor of Sir Shark, and the
loveliness of Lady Dorothy. His neighbor Mudge's grandfather may have
been quite as valorous and virtuous as Sculpin's; but we know of the
one, and we do not know of the other.
Therefore, Prue, I say to my wife, who has, by this time, fallen as
soundly asleep as if I had been preaching a real sermon, do not let
Mrs. Mudge feel hurt, because I gaze so long and earnestly upon the
portrait of the fair Lady Sculpin, and, lost in dreams, mingle in a
society which distance and poetry immortalize.
But let the love of the family portraits belong to poetry and not to
politics. It is good in the one way, and bad in the other.
The _sentiment_ of ancestral pride is an integral part of human
nature. Its _organization_ in institutions is the real object of
enmity to all sensible men, because it is a direct preference of
derived to original power, implying a doubt that the world at every
period is able to take care of itself.
The family portraits have a poetic significance; but he is a brave
child of the family who dares to show them. They all sit in
passionless and austere judgment upon himself. Let him not invite us
to see them, until he has considered whether they are honored or
disgraced by his own career--until he has looked in the glass of his
own thought and scanned his own proportions.
The family portraits are like a woman's diamonds; they may flash
finely enough before the world, but she herself trembles lest their
lustre eclipse her eyes. It is difficult to resist the tendency to
depend upon those portraits, and to enjoy vicariously through them a
high consideration. But, after all, what girl is complimented when you
curiously regard her because her mother was beautiful? What attenuated
consumptive, in whom self-respect is yet unconsumed, delights in your
respect for him, founded in honor for his stalwart ancestor?
No man worthy the name rejoices in any homage which his own effort and
character have not deserved. You intrinsically insult him when you
make him the scapegoat of your admiration for his ancestor. But when
his ancestor is his accessory, then your homage would flatter
Jupiter. All that Minim Sculpin does by his own talent is the more
radiantly set and ornamented by the family fame. The imagination is
pleased when Lord John Russell is Premier of England and a whig,
because the great Lord William Russell, his ancestor, died in England
In the same way Minim's sister Sara adds to her own grace the sweet
memory of the Lady Dorothy. When she glides, a sunbeam, through that
quiet house, and in winter makes summer by her presence; when she sits
at the piano, singing in the twilight, or stands leaning against the
Venus in the corner of the room--herself more graceful--then, in
glancing from her to the portrait of the gentle Dorothy, you feel that
the long years between them have been lighted by the same sparkling
grace, and shadowed by the same pensive smile--for this is but one
Sara and one Dorothy, out of all that there are in the world.
As we look at these two, we must own that _noblesse oblige_ in a
sense sweeter than we knew, and be glad when young Sculpin invites us
to see the family portraits. Could a man be named Sidney, and not be a
better man, or Milton, and be a churl?
But it is apart from any historical association that I like to look at
the family portraits. The Sculpins were very distinguished heroes, and
judges, and founders of families; but I chiefly linger upon their
pictures, because they were men and women. Their portraits remove the
vagueness from history, and give it reality. Ancient valor and beauty
cease to be names and poetic myths, and become facts. I feel that they
lived, and loved, and suffered in those old days. The story of their
lives is instantly full of human sympathy in my mind, and I judge them
more gently, more generously.
Then I look at those of us who are the spectators of the portraits. I
know that we are made of the same flesh and blood, that time is
preparing us to be placed in his cabinet and upon canvass, to be
curiously studied by the grandchildren of unborn Prues. I put out my
hands to grasp those of my fellows around the pictures. "Ah! friends,
we live not only for ourselves. Those whom we shall never see, will
look to us as models, as counsellors. We shall be speechless then. We
shall only look at them from the canvass, and cheer or discourage them
by their idea of our lives and ourselves. Let us so look in the
portrait, that they shall love our memories--that they shall say, in
turn, 'they were kind and thoughtful, those queer old ancestors of
ours; let us not disgrace them.'"
If they only recognize us as men and women like themselves, they will
be the better for it, and the family portraits will be family
This is what my grandmother did. She looked at her own portrait, at
the portrait of her youth, with much the same feeling that I remember
Prue as she was when I first saw her, with much the same feeling that
I hope our grandchildren will remember us.
Upon those still summer mornings, though she stood withered and wan in
a plain black silk gown, a close cap, and spectacles, and held her
shrunken and blue-veined hand to shield her eyes, yet, as she gazed
with that long and longing glance, upon the blooming beauty that had
faded from her form forever, she recognized under that flowing hair
and that rosy cheek--the immortal fashions of youth and health--and
beneath those many ruffles and that quaint high waist, the fashions of
the day--the same true and loving woman. If her face was pensive as
she turned away, it was because truth and love are, in their essence,
forever young; and it is the hard condition of nature that they cannot
always appear so.
OUR COUSIN THE CURATE.
"Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The heart ungalled play;
For some must watch while some must sleep;
Thus runs the world away."
Prue and I have very few relations: Prue, especially, says that she
never had any but her parents, and that she has none now but her
children. She often wishes she had some large aunt in the country, who
might come in unexpectedly with bags and bundles, and encamp in our
little house for a whole winter.
"Because you are tired of me, I suppose, Mrs. Prue?" I reply with
dignity, when she alludes to the imaginary large aunt.
"You could take aunt to the opera, you know, and walk with her on
Sundays," says Prue, as she knits and calmly looks me in the face,
without recognizing my observation.
Then I tell Prue in the plainest possible manner that, if her large
aunt should come up from the country to pass the winter, I should
insist upon her bringing her oldest daughter, with whom I would flirt
so desperately that the street would be scandalized, and even the
corner grocery should gossip over the iniquity.
"Poor Prue, how I should pity you," I say triumphantly to my wife.
"Poor oldest daughter, how I should pity her," replies Prue, placidly
counting her stitches.
So the happy evening passes, as we gaily mock each other, and wonder
how old the large aunt should be, and how many bundles she ought to
bring with her.
"I would have her arrive by the late train at midnight," says Prue;
"and when she had eaten some supper and had gone to her room, she
should discover that she had left the most precious bundle of all in
the cars, without whose contents she could not sleep, nor dress, and
you would start to hunt for it."
And the needle clicks faster than ever.
"Yes, and when I am gone to the office in the morning, and am busy
about important affairs--yes, Mrs. Prue, important affairs," I insist,
as my wife half raises her head incredulously--"then our large aunt
from the country would like to go shopping, and would want you for her
escort. And she would cheapen tape at all the shops, and even to the
great Stewart himself, she would offer a shilling less for the
gloves. Then the comely clerks of the great Stewart would look at you,
with their brows lifted, as if they said, Mrs. Prue, your large aunt
had better stay in the country."
And the needle clicks more slowly, as if the tune were changing.
The large aunt will never come, I know; nor shall I ever flirt with
the oldest daughter. I should like to believe that our little house
will teem with aunts and cousins when Prue and I are gone; but how can
I believe it, when there is a milliner within three doors, and a
hair-dresser combs his wigs in the late dining-room of my opposite
neighbor? The large aunt from the country is entirely impossible, and
as Prue feels it and I feel it, the needles seem to click a dirge for
that late lamented lady.
"But at least we have one relative, Prue."
The needles stop: only the clock ticks upon the mantel to remind us
how ceaselessly the stream of time flows on that bears us away from
our cousin the curate.
When Prue and I are most cheerful, and the world looks fair--we talk
of our cousin the curate. When the world seems a little cloudy, and
we remember that though we have lived and loved together, we may not
die together--we talk of our cousin the curate. When we plan little
plans for the boys and dream dreams for the girls--we talk of our
cousin the curate. When I tell Prue of Aurelia whose character is
every day lovelier--we talk of our cousin the curate. There is no
subject which does not seem to lead naturally to our cousin the
curate. As the soft air steals in and envelopes everything in the
world, so that the trees, and the hills, and the rivers, the cities,
the crops, and the sea, are made remote, and delicate, and beautiful;
by its pure baptism, so over all the events of our little lives,
comforting, refining, and elevating, falls like a benediction the
remembrance of our cousin the curate.
He was my only early companion. He had no brother, I had none: and we
became brothers to each other. He was always beautiful. His face was
symmetrical and delicate; his figure was slight and graceful. He
looked as the sons of kings ought to look: as I am sure Philip Sidney
looked when he was a boy. His eyes were blue, and as you looked at
them, they seemed to let your gaze out into a June heaven. The blood
ran close to the skin, and his complexion had the rich transparency of
light. There was nothing gross or heavy in his expression or texture;
his soul seemed to have mastered his body. But he had strong passions,
for his delicacy was positive, not negative: it was not weakness, but
There was a patch of ground about the house which we tilled as a
garden. I was proud of my morning-glories, and sweet peas; my cousin
cultivated roses. One day--and we could scarcely have been more than
six years old--we were digging merrily and talking. Suddenly there was
some kind of difference; I taunted him, and, raising his spade, he
struck me upon the leg. The blow was heavy for a boy, and the blood
trickled from the wound. I burst into indignant tears, and limped
toward the house. My cousin turned pale and said nothing, but just as
I opened the door, he darted by me, and before I could interrupt him,
he had confessed his crime, and asked for punishment.
From that day he conquered himself. He devoted a kind of ascetic
energy to subduing his own will, and I remember no other outbreak. But
the penalty he paid for conquering his will, was a loss of the gushing
expression of feeling. My cousin became perfectly gentle in his
manner, but there was a want of that pungent excess, which is the
finest flavor of character. His views were moderate and calm. He was
swept away by no boyish extravagance, and, even while I wished he
would sin only a very little, I still adored him as a saint. The truth
is, as I tell Prue, I am so very bad because I have to sin for
two--for myself and our cousin the curate. Often, when I returned
panting and restless from some frolic, which had wasted almost all the
night, I was rebuked as I entered the room in which he lay peacefully
sleeping. There was something holy in the profound repose of his
beauty, and, as I stood looking at him, how many a time the tears have
dropped from my hot eyes upon his face, while I vowed to make myself
worthy of such a companion, for I felt my heart owning its allegiance
to that strong and imperial nature.
My cousin was loved by the boys, but the girls worshipped him. His
mind, large in grasp, and subtle in perception, naturally commanded
his companions, while the lustre of his character allured those who
could not understand him. The asceticism occasionally showed itself a
vein of hardness, or rather of severity in his treatment of others. He
did what he thought it his duty to do, but he forgot that few could
see the right so clearly as he, and very few of those few could so
calmly obey the least command of conscience. I confess I was a little
afraid of him, for I think I never could be severe.
In the long winter evenings I often read to Prue the story of some old
father of the church, or some quaint poem of George Herbert's--and
every Christmas-eve, I read to her Milton's Hymn of the Nativity.
Yet, when the saint seems to us most saintly, or the poem most
pathetic or sublime, we find ourselves talking of our cousin the
curate. I have not seen him for many years; but, when we parted, his
head had the intellectual symmetry of Milton's, without the puritanic
stoop, and with the stately grace of a cavalier.
Such a boy has premature wisdom--he lives and suffers prematurely.
Prue loves to listen when I speak of the romance of his life, and I do
not wonder. For my part, I find in the best romance only the story of
my love for her, and often as I read to her, whenever I come to what
Titbottom calls "the crying part," if I lift my eyes suddenly, I see
that Prue's eyes are fixed on me with a softer light by reason of
Our cousin the curate loved, while he was yet a boy, Flora, of the
sparkling eyes and the ringing voice. His devotion was absolute. Flora
was flattered, because all the girls, as I said, worshipped him; but
she was a gay, glancing girl, who had invaded the student's heart with
her audacious brilliancy, and was half surprised that she had subdued
it. Our cousin--for I never think of him as my cousin, only--wasted
away under the fervor of his passion. His life exhaled as incense
before her. He wrote poems to her, and sang them under her window, in
the summer moonlight. He brought her flowers and precious gifts. When
he had nothing else to give, he gave her his love in a homage so
eloquent and beautiful that the worship was like the worship of the
wise men. The gay Flora was proud and superb. She was a girl, and the
bravest and best boy loved her. She was young, and the wisest and
truest youth loved her. They lived together, we all lived together, in
the happy valley of childhood. We looked forward to manhood as
island-poets look across the sea, believing that the whole world
beyond is a blest Araby of spices.
The months went by, and the young love continued. Our cousin and
Flora were only children still, and there was no engagement. The
elders looked upon the intimacy as natural and mutually beneficial. It
would help soften the boy and strengthen the girl; and they took for
granted that softness and strength were precisely what were wanted. It
is a great pity that men and women forget that they have been
children. Parents are apt to be foreigners to their sons and
daughters. Maturity is the gate of Paradise, which shuts behind us;
and our memories are gradually weaned from the glories in which our
nativity was cradled.
The months went by, the children grew older, and they constantly
loved. Now Prue always smiles at one of my theories; she is entirely
sceptical of it; but it is, nevertheless, my opinion, that men love
most passionately, and women most permanently. Men love at first and
most warmly; women love last and longest. This is natural enough; for
nature makes women to be won, and men to win. Men are the active,
positive force, and, therefore, they are more ardent and
I can never get farther than that in my philosophy, when Prue looks at
me, and smiles me into scepticism of my own doctrines. But they are
My day is rather past for such speculations; but so long as Aurelia is
unmarried, I am sure I shall indulge myself in them. I have never made
much progress in the philosophy of love; in fact, I can only be sure
of this one cardinal principle, that when you are quite sure two
people cannot be in love with each other, because there is no earthly
reason why they should be, then you may be very confident that you are
wrong, and that they are in love, for the secret of love is past
finding out. Why our cousin should have loved the gay Flora so
ardently was hard to say; but that he did so, was not difficult to
He went away to college. He wrote the most eloquent and passionate
letters; and when he returned in vacations, he had no eyes, ears, nor
heart for any other being. I rarely saw him, for I was living away
from our early home, and was busy in a store--learning to be
book-keeper--but I heard afterward from himself the whole story.
One day when he came home for the holidays, he found a young foreigner
with Flora--a handsome youth, brilliant and graceful. I have asked
Prue a thousand times why women adore soldiers and foreigners. She
says it is because they love heroism and are romantic. A soldier is
professionally a hero, says Prue, and a foreigner is associated with
all unknown and beautiful regions. I hope there is no worse reason.
But if it be the distance which is romantic, then, by her own rule,
the mountain which looked to you so lovely when you saw it upon the
horizon, when you stand upon its rocky and barren side, has
transmitted its romance to its remotest neighbor. I cannot but admire
the fancies of girls which make them poets. They have only to look
upon a dull-eyed, ignorant, exhausted _roue_, with an impudent
moustache, and they surrender to Italy to the tropics, to the
splendors of nobility, and a court life--and--
"Stop," says Prue, gently; "you have no right to say 'girls' do so,
because some poor victims have been deluded. Would Aurelia surrender
to a blear-eyed foreigner in a moustache?"
Prue has such a reasonable way of putting these things!
Our cousin came home and found Flora and the young foreigner
conversing. The young foreigner had large, soft, black eyes, and the
dusky skin of the tropics. His manner was languid and fascinating,
courteous and reserved. It assumed a natural supremacy, and you felt
as if here were a young prince travelling before he came into
possession of his realm.
It is an old fable that love is blind. But I think there are no eyes
so sharp as those of lovers. I am sure there is not a shade upon
Prue's brow that I do not instantly remark, nor an altered tone in her
voice that I do not instantly observe. Do you suppose Aurelia would
not note the slightest deviation of heart in her lover, if she had
one? Love is the coldest of critics. To be in love is to live in a
crisis, and the very imminence of uncertainty makes the lover
perfectly self-possessed. His eye constantly scours the horizon. There
is no footfall so light that it does not thunder in his ear. Love is
tortured by the tempest the moment the cloud of a hand's size rises
out of the sea. It foretells its own doom; its agony is past before
its sufferings are known.
Our cousin the curate no sooner saw the tropical stranger, and marked
his impression upon Flora, than he felt the end. As the shaft struck
his heart, his smile was sweeter, and his homage even more poetic and
reverential. I doubt if Flora understood him or herself. She did not
know, what he instinctively perceived, that she loved him less. But
there are no degrees in love; when it is less than absolute and
supreme, it is nothing. Our cousin and Flora were not formally
engaged, but their betrothal was understood by all of us as a thing of
course. He did not allude to the stranger; but as day followed day, he
saw with every nerve all that passed. Gradually--so gradually that she
scarcely noticed it--our cousin left Flora more and more with the
soft-eyed stranger, whom he saw she preferred. His treatment of her
was so full of tact, he still walked and talked with her so
familiarly, that she was not troubled by any fear that he saw what she
hardly saw herself. Therefore, she was not obliged to conceal anything
from him or from herself; but all the soft currents of her heart were
setting toward the West Indian. Our cousin's cheek grew paler, and his
soul burned and wasted within him. His whole future--all his dream of
life--had been founded upon his love. It was a stately palace built
upon the sand, and now the sand was sliding away. I have read
somewhere, that love will sacrifice everything but itself. But our
cousin sacrificed his love to the happiness of his mistress. He ceased
to treat her as peculiarly his own. He made no claim in word or manner
that everybody might not have made. He did not refrain from seeing
her, or speaking of her as of all his other friends; and, at length,
although no one could say how or when the change had been made, it was
evident and understood that he was no more her lover, but that both
were the best of friends.
He still wrote to her occasionally from college, and his letters were
those of a friend, not of a lover. He could not reproach her. I do
not believe any man is secretly surprised that a woman ceases to love
him. Her love is a heavenly favor won by no desert of his. If it
passes, he can no more complain than a flower when the sunshine leaves
Before our cousin left college, Flora was married to the tropical
stranger. It was the brightest of June days, and the summer smiled
upon the bride. There were roses in her hand and orange flowers in her
hair, and the village church bell rang out over the peaceful fields.
The warm sunshine lay upon the landscape like God's blessing, and Prue
and I, not yet married ourselves, stood at an open window in the old
meeting-house, hand in hand, while the young couple spoke their
vows. Prue says that brides are always beautiful, and I, who remember
Prue herself upon her wedding-day--how can I deny it? Truly, the gay
Flora was lovely that summer morning, and the throng was happy in the
old church. But it was very sad to me, although I only suspected then
what now I know. I shed no tears at my own wedding, but I did at
Flora's, although I knew she was marrying a soft-eyed youth whom she
dearly loved, and who, I doubt not, dearly loved her.
Among the group of her nearest friends was our cousin the curate. When
the ceremony was ended, he came to shake her hand with the rest. His
face was calm, and his smile sweet, and his manner unconstrained.
Flora did not blush--why should she?--but shook his hand warmly, and
thanked him for his good wishes. Then they all sauntered down the
aisle together; there were some tears with the smiles among the other
friends; our cousin handed the bride into her carriage, shook hands
with the husband, closed the door, and Flora drove away.
I have never seen her since; I do not even know if she be living
still. But I shall always remember her as she looked that June
morning, holding roses in her hand, and wreathed with orange
flowers. Dear Flora! it was no fault of hers that she loved one man
more than another: she could not be blamed for not preferring our
cousin to the West Indian: there is no fault in the story, it is only
Our cousin carried all the collegiate honors--but without exciting
jealousy or envy. He was so really the best, that his companions were
anxious he should have the sign of his superiority. He studied hard,
he thought much, and wrote well. There was no evidence of any blight
upon his ambition or career, but after living quietly in the country
for some time, he went to Europe and travelled. When he returned, he
resolved to study law, but presently relinquished it. Then he
collected materials for a history, but suffered them to lie unused.
Somehow the mainspring was gone. He used to come and pass weeks with
Prue and me. His coming made the children happy, for he sat with
them, and talked and played with them all day long, as one of
themselves. They had no quarrels when our cousin the curate was their
playmate, and their laugh was hardly sweeter than his as it rang down
from the nursery. Yet sometimes, as Prue was setting the tea-table,
and I sat musing by the fire, she stopped and turned to me as we heard
that sound, and her eyes filled with tears.
He was interested in all subjects that interested others. His fine
perception, his clear sense, his noble imagination, illuminated every
question. His friends wanted him to go into political life, to write a
great book, to do something worthy of his powers. It was the very
thing he longed to do himself; but he came and played with the
children in the nursery, and the great deed was undone. Often, in the
long winter evenings, we talked of the past, while Titbottom sat
silent by, and Prue was busily knitting. He told us the incidents of
his early passion--but he did not moralize about it, nor sigh, nor
grow moody. He turned to Prue, sometimes, and jested gently, and often
quoted from the old song of George Withers, I believe:
"If she be not fair for me,
What care I how fair she be?"
But there was no flippancy in the jesting; I thought the sweet humor
was no gayer than a flower upon a grave.
I am sure Titbottom loved our cousin the curate, for his heart is as
hospitable as the summer heaven. It was beautiful to watch his
courtesy toward him, and I do not wonder that Prue considers the
deputy book-keeper the model of a high-bred gentleman. When you see
his poor clothes, and thin, gray hair, his loitering step, and dreamy
eye, you might pass him by as an inefficient man; but when you hear
his voice always speaking for the noble and generous side, or
recounting, in a half-melancholy chant, the recollections of his
youth; when you know that his heart beats with the simple emotion of a
boy's heart, and that his courtesy is as delicate as a girl's modesty,
you will understand why Prue declares that she has never seen but one
man who reminded her of our especial favorite, Sir Philip Sidney, and
that his name is Titbottom.
At length our cousin went abroad again to Europe. It was many years
ago that we watched him sail away, and when Titbottom, and Prue, and
I, went home to dinner, the grace that was said that day was a fervent
prayer for our cousin the curate. Many an evening afterward, the
children wanted him, and cried themselves to sleep calling upon his
name. Many an evening still, our talk flags into silence as we sit
before the fire, and Prue puts down her knitting and takes my hand, as
if she knew my thoughts, although we do not name his name.
He wrote us letters as he wandered about the world. They were
affectionate letters, full of observation, and thought, and
description. He lingered longest in Italy, but he said his conscience
accused him of yielding to the syrens; and he declared that his life
was running uselessly away. At last he came to England. He was charmed
with everything, and the climate was even kinder to him than that of
Italy. He went to all the famous places, and saw many of the famous
Englishmen, and wrote that he felt England to be his home. Burying
himself in the ancient gloom of a university town, although past the
prime of life, he studied like an ambitious boy. He said again that
his life had been wine poured upon the ground, and he felt guilty. And
so our cousin became a curate.
"Surely," wrote he, "you and Prue will be glad to hear it; and my
friend Titbottom can no longer boast that he is more useful in the
world than I. Dear old George Herbert has already said what I would
say to you, and here it is.
"'I made a posy, while the day ran by;
Here will I smell my remnant out, and tie
My life within this band.
But time did beckon to the flowers, and they
My noon most cunningly did steal away,
And wither'd in my hand.
"'My hand was next to them, and then my heart;
I took, without more thinking, in good part,
Time's gentle admonition;
Which did so sweetly death's sad taste convey,
Making my mind to smell my fatal day,
Yet sugaring the suspicion.
"'Farewell, dear flowers, sweetly your time ye spent,
Fit, while ye lived, for smell or ornament,
And after death for cures;
I follow straight without complaints or grief,
Since if my scent be good, I care not if
It be as short as yours.'"
This is our only relation; and do you wonder that, whether our days
are dark or bright, we naturally speak of our cousin the curate? There
is no nursery longer, for the children are grown; but I have seen Prue
stand, with her hand holding the door, for an hour, and looking into
the room now so sadly still and tidy, with a sweet solemnity in her
eyes that I will call holy. Our children have forgotten their old
playmate, but I am sure if there be any children in his parish, over
the sea, they love our cousin the curate, and watch eagerly for his
coming. Does his step falter now, I wonder, is that long, fair hair,
gray; is that laugh as musical in those distant homes as it used to be
in our nursery; has England, among all her good and great men, any man
so noble as our cousin the curate?
The great book is unwritten; the great deeds are undone; in no
biographical dictionary will you find the name of our cousin the
curate. Is his life, therefore, lost? Have his powers been wasted?
I do not dare to say it; for I see Bourne, on the pinnacle of
prosperity, but still looking sadly for his castle in Spain; I see
Titbottom, an old deputy book-keeper, whom nobody knows, but with his
chivalric heart, loyal to whatever is generous and humane, full of
sweet hope, and faith, and devotion; I see the superb Aurelia, so
lovely that the Indians would call her a smile of the Great Spirit,
and as beneficent as a saint of the calendar--how shall I say what is
lost, or what is won? I know that in every way, and by all his
creatures, God is served and his purposes accomplished. How should I
explain or understand, I who am only an old book-keeper in a white
Yet in all history, in the splendid triumphs of emperors and kings, in
the dreams of poets, the speculations of philosophers, the sacrifices
of heroes, and the extacies of saints, I find no exclusive secret of
success. Prue says she knows that nobody ever did more good than our
cousin the curate, for every smile and word of his is a good deed; and
I, for my part, am sure that, although many must do more good in the
world, nobody enjoys it more than Prue and I.
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