The Complete PG Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (The Physician and Poet)
Part 27 out of 51
sweet cloud of incense rose in soft, fleecy mists, full of
penetrating suggestions of the East and its perfumed altars. The
knees of twenty generations had worn the pavement; their feet had
hollowed the steps; their shoulders had smoothed the columns. Dead
bishops and abbots lay under the marble of the floor in their
crumbled vestments; dead warriors, in rusted armor, were stretched
beneath their sculptured effigies. And all at once all the buried
multitudes who had ever worshipped there came thronging in through
the aisles. They choked every space, they swarmed into all the
chapels, they hung in clusters over the parapets of the galleries,
they clung to the images in every niche, and still the vast throng
kept flowing and flowing in, until the living were lost in the rush
of the returning dead who had reclaimed their own. Then, as his
dream became more fantastic, the huge cathedral itself seemed to
change into the wreck of some mighty antediluvian vertebrate; its
flying-buttresses arched round like ribs, its piers shaped themselves
into limbs, and the sound of the organ-blast changed to the wind
whistling through its thousand-jointed skeleton.
And presently the sound lulled, and softened and softened, until it
was as the murmur of a distant swarm of bees. A procession of monks
wound along through an old street, chanting, as they walked. In his
dream he glided in among them and bore his part in the burden of
their song. He entered with the long train under a low arch, and
presently he was kneeling in a narrow cell before an image of the
Blessed Maiden holding the Divine Child in her arms, and his lips
seemed to whisper,
Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis!
He turned to the crucifix, and, prostrating himself before the spare,
agonizing shape of the Holy Sufferer, fell into a long passion of
tears and broken prayers. He rose and flung himself, worn-out, upon
his hard pallet, and, seeming to slumber, dreamed again within his
dream. Once more in the vast cathedral, with throngs of the living
choking its aisles, amidst jubilant peals from the cavernous depths
of the great organ, and choral melodies ringing from the fluty
throats of the singing boys. A day of great rejoicings,--for a
prelate was to be consecrated, and the bones of the mighty skeleton-
minster were shaking with anthems, as if there were life of its own
within its buttressed ribs. He looked down at his feet; the folds of
the sacred robe were flowing about them: he put his hand to his head;
it was crowned with the holy mitre. A long sigh, as of perfect
content in the consummation of all his earthly hopes, breathed
through the dreamer's lips, and shaped itself, as it escaped, into
the blissful murmur,
Ego sum Episcopus!
One grinning gargoyle looked in from beneath the roof through an
opening in a stained window. It was the face of a mocking fiend,
such as the old builders loved to place under the eaves to spout the
rain through their open mouths. It looked at him, as he sat in his
mitred chair, with its hideous grin growing broader and broader,
until it laughed out aloud, such a hard, stony, mocking laugh, that
he awoke out of his second dream through his first into his common
consciousness, and shivered, as he turned to the two yellow sermons
which he was to pick over and weed of the little thought they might
contain, for the next day's service.
The Reverend Chauncy Fairweather was too much taken up with his own
bodily and spiritual condition to be deeply mindful of others. He
carried the note requesting the prayers of the congregation in his
pocket all day; and the soul in distress, which a single tender
petition might have soothed, and perhaps have saved from despair or
fatal error, found no voice in the temple to plead for it before the
Throne of Mercy!
THE SECRET IS WHISPERED.
The Reverend Chauncy Fairweather's congregation was not large, but
select. The lines of social cleavage run through religious creeds as
if they were of a piece with position and fortune. It is expected of
persons of a certain breeding, in some parts of New England, that
they shall be either Episcopalians or Unitarians. The mansion-house
gentry of Rockland were pretty fairly divided between the little
chapel, with the stained window and the trained rector, and the
meeting-house where the Reverend Mr. Fairweather officiated.
It was in the latter that Dudley Venner worshipped, when he attended
service anywhere,--which depended very much on the caprice of Elsie.
He saw plainly enough that a generous and liberally cultivated nature
might find a refuge and congenial souls in either of these two
persuasions, but he objected to some points of the formal creed of
the older church, and especially to the mechanism which renders it
hard to get free from its outworn and offensive formulae,--
remembering how Archbishop Tillotson wished in vain that it could be
"well rid of" the Athanasian Creed. This, and the fact that the
meeting-house was nearer than the chapel, determined him, when the
new rector, who was not quite up to his mark in education, was
appointed, to take a pew in the "liberal" worshippers' edifice.
Elsie was very uncertain in her feeling about going to church. In
summer, she loved rather to stroll over The Mountain, on Sundays.
There was even a story, that she had one of the caves before
mentioned fitted up as an oratory, and that she had her own wild way
of worshipping the God whom she sought in the dark chasms of the
dreaded cliffs. Mere fables, doubtless; but they showed the common
belief, that Elsie, with all her strange and dangerous elements of
character, had yet strong religious feeling mingled with them. The
hymn-book which Dick had found, in his midnight invasion of her
chamber, opened to favorite hymns, especially some of the Methodist
and Quietist character. Many had noticed, that certain tunes, as
sung by the choir, seemed to impress her deeply; and some said, that
at such times her whole expression would change, and her stormy look
would soften so as to remind them of her poor, sweet mother.
On the Sunday morning after the talk recorded in the last chapter,
Elsie made herself ready to go to meeting. She was dressed much as
usual, excepting that she wore a thick veil, turned aside, but ready
to conceal her features. It was natural enough that she should not
wish to be looked in the face by curious persons who would be staring
to see what effect the occurrence of the past week had had on her
spirits. Her father attended her willingly; and they took their
seats in the pew, somewhat to the surprise of many, who had hardly
expected to see them, after so humiliating a family development as
the attempted crime of their kinsman had just been furnishing for the
astonishment of the public.
The Reverend Mr. Fairweather was now in his coldest mood. He had
passed through the period of feverish excitement which marks a change
of religious opinion. At first, when he had began to doubt his own
theological positions, he had defended them against himself with more
ingenuity and interest, perhaps, than he could have done against
another; because men rarely take the trouble to understand anybody's
difficulties in a question but their own. After this, as he began to
draw off from different points of his old belief, the cautious
disentangling of himself from one mesh after another gave sharpness
to his intellect, and the tremulous eagerness with which he seized
upon the doctrine which, piece by piece, under various pretexts and
with various disguises, he was appropriating, gave interest and
something like passion to his words. But when he had gradually
accustomed his people to his new phraseology, and was really
adjusting his sermons and his service to disguise his thoughts, he
lost at once all his intellectual acuteness and all his spiritual
Elsie sat quietly through the first part of the service, which was
conducted in the cold, mechanical way to be expected. Her face was
hidden by her veil; but her father knew her state of feeling, as well
by her movements and attitudes as by the expression of her features.
The hymn had been sung, the short prayer offered, the Bible read, and
the long prayer was about to begin. This was the time at which the
"notes" of any who were in affliction from loss of friends, the sick
who were doubtful of recovery, those who had cause to be grateful for
preservation of life or other signal blessing, were wont to be read.
Just then it was that Dudley Veneer noticed that his daughter was
trembling,--a thing so rare, so unaccountable, indeed, under the
circumstances, that he watched her closely, and began to fear that
some nervous paroxysm, or other malady, might have just begun to show
itself in this way upon her.
The minister had in his pocket two notes. One, in the handwriting of
Deacon Soper, was from a member of this congregation, returning
thanks for his preservation through a season of great peril, supposed
to be the exposure which he had shared with others, when standing in
the circle around Dick Veneer. The other was the anonymous one, in a
female hand, which he had received the evening before. He forgot
them both. His thoughts were altogether too much taken up with more
important matters. He prayed through all the frozen petitions of his
expurgated form of supplication, and not a single heart was soothed
or lifted, or reminded that its sorrows were struggling their way up
to heaven, borne on the breath from a human soul that was warm with
The people sat down as if relieved when the dreary prayer was
finished. Elsie alone remained standing until her father touched
her. Then she sat down, lifted her veil, and looked at him with a
blank, sad look, as if she had suffered some pain or wrong, but could
not give any name or expression to her vague trouble. She did not
tremble any longer, but remained ominously still, as if she had been
frozen where she sat.
--Can a man love his own soul too well? Who, on the whole,
constitute the nobler class of human beings? those who have lived
mainly to make sure of their own personal welfare in another and
future condition of existence, or they who have worked with all their
might for their race, for their country, for the advancement of the
kingdom of God, and left all personal arrangements concerning
themselves to the sole charge of Him who made them and is responsible
to himself for their safe-keeping? Is an anchorite who has worn the
stone floor of his cell into basins with his knees bent in prayer,
more acceptable than the soldier who gives his life for the
maintenance of any sacred right or truth, without thinking what will
specially become of him in a world where there are two or three
million colonists a month, from this one planet, to be cared for?
These are grave questions, which must suggest themselves to those who
know that there are many profoundly selfish persons who are sincerely
devout and perpetually occupied with their own future, while there
are others who are perfectly ready to sacrifice themselves for any
worthy object in this world, but are really too little occupied with
their exclusive personality to think so much as many do about what is
to become of them in another.
The Reverend Chauncy Fairweather did not, most certainly, belong to
this latter class. There are several kinds of believers, whose
history we find among the early converts to Christianity.
There was the magistrate, whose social position was such that he
preferred a private interview in the evening with the Teacher to
following him--with the street-crowd. He had seen extraordinary
facts which had satisfied him that the young Galilean had a divine
commission. But still he cross-questioned the Teacher himself. He
was not ready to accept statements without explanation. That was the
right kind of man. See how he stood up for the legal rights of his
Master, when the people were for laying hands on him!
And again, there was the government official, intrusted with public
money, which, in those days, implied that he was supposed to be
honest. A single look of that heavenly countenance, and two words of
gentle command, were enough for him. Neither of these men, the early
disciple, nor the evangelist, seems to have been thinking primarily
about his own personal safety.
But now look at the poor, miserable turnkey, whose occupation shows
what he was like to be, and who had just been thrusting two
respectable strangers, taken from the hands of a mob, covered with
stripes and stripped of clothing, into the inner prison, and making
their feet fast in the stocks. His thought, in the moment of terror,
is for himself: first, suicide; then, what he shall do,--not to save
his household,--not to fulfil his duty to his office,--not to repair
the outrage he has been committing,--but to secure his own personal
safety. Truly, character shows itself as much in a man's way of
becoming a Christian as in any other!
--Elsie sat, statue-like, through the sermon. It would not be fair
to the reader to give an abstract of that. When a man who has been
bred to free thought and free speech suddenly finds himself stepping
about, like a dancer amidst his eggs, among the old addled majority-
votes which he must not tread upon, he is a spectacle for men and
angels. Submission to intellectual precedent and authority does very
well for those who have been bred to it; we know that the underground
courses of their minds are laid in the Roman cement of tradition, and
that stately and splendid structures may be reared on such a
foundation. But to see one laying a platform over heretical
quicksands, thirty or forty or fifty years deep, and then beginning
to build upon it, is a sorry sight. A new convert from the reformed
to the ancient faith may be very strong in the arms, but he will
always have weak legs and shaky knees. He may use his hands well,
and hit hard with his fists, but he will never stand on his legs in
the way the man does who inherits his belief.
The services were over at last, and Dudley Venner and his daughter
walked home together in silence. He always respected her moods, and
saw clearly enough that some inward trouble was weighing upon her.
There was nothing to be said in such cases, for Elsie could never
talk of her griefs. An hour, or a day, or a week of brooding, with
perhaps a sudden flash of violence: this was the way in which the
impressions which make other women weep, and tell their griefs by
word or letter, showed their effects in her mind and acts.
She wandered off up into the remoter parts of The Mountain, that day,
after their return. No one saw just where she went,--indeed, no one
knew its forest-recesses and rocky fastnesses as she did. She was
gone until late at night; and when Old Sophy, who had watched for
her, bound up her long hair for her sleep, it was damp with the cold
The old black woman looked at her without speaking, but questioning
her with every feature as to the sorrow that was weighing on her.
Suddenly she turned to Old Sophy.
"You want to know what there is troubling me;" she said. "Nobody
loves me. I cannot love anybody. What is love, Sophy?"
"It's what poor Ol' Sophy's got for her Elsie," the old woman
answered. "Tell me, darlin',--don' you love somebody?---don' you
love? you know,--oh, tell me, darlin', don' you love to see the
gen'l'man that keeps up at the school where you go? They say he's
the pootiest gen'l'man that was ever in the town here. Don' be
'fraid of poor Ol' Sophy, darlin',--she loved a man once,--see here!
Oh, I've showed you this often enough!"
She took from her pocket a half of one of the old Spanish silver
coins, such as were current in the earlier part of this century. The
other half of it had been lying in the deep sea-sand for more than
Elsie looked her in the face, but did not answer in words. What
strange intelligence was that which passed between them through the
diamond eyes and the little beady black ones?---what subtile
intercommunication, penetrating so much deeper than articulate
speech? This was the nearest approach to sympathetic relations that
Elsie ever had: a kind of dumb intercourse of feeling, such as one
sees in the eyes of brute mothers looking on their young. But,
subtile as it was, it was narrow and individual; whereas an emotion
which can shape itself in language opens the gate for itself into the
great community of human affections; for every word we speak is the
medal of a dead thought or feeling, struck in the die of some human
experience, worn smooth by innumerable contacts, and always
transferred warm from one to another. By words we share the common
consciousness of the race, which has shaped itself in these symbols.
By music we reach those special states of consciousness which, being
without form, cannot be shaped with the mosaics of the vocabulary.
The language of the eyes runs deeper into the personal nature, but it
is purely individual, and perishes in the expression.
If we consider them all as growing out of the consciousness as their
root, language is the leaf, music is the flower; but when the eyes
meet and search each other, it is the uncovering of the blanched stem
through which the whole life runs, but which has never taken color or
form from the sunlight.
For three days Elsie did not return to the school. Much of the time
she was among the woods and rocks. The season was now beginning to
wane, and the forest to put on its autumnal glory. The dreamy haze
was beginning to soften the landscape, and the mast delicious days of
the year were lending their attraction to the scenery of The
Mountain. It was not very singular that Elsie should be lingering in
her old haunts, from which the change of season must soon drive her.
But Old Sophy saw clearly enough that some internal conflict was
going on, and knew very well that it must have its own way and work
itself out as it best could. As much as looks could tell Elsie had
told her. She had said in words, to be sure, that she could not
love. Something warped and thwarted the emotion which would have
been love in another, no doubt; but that such an emotion was striving
with her against all malign influences which interfered with it the
old woman had a perfect certainty in her own mind.
Everybody who has observed the working of emotions in persons of
various temperaments knows well enough that they have periods of
incubation, which differ with the individual, and with the particular
cause and degree of excitement, yet evidently go through a strictly
self-limited series of evolutions, at the end of which, their result
--an act of violence, a paroxysm of tears, a gradual subsidence into
repose, or whatever it may be--declares itself, like the last stage
of an attack of fever and ague. No one can observe children without
noticing that there is a personal equation, to use the astronomer's
language, in their tempers, so that one sulks an hour over an offence
which makes another a fury for five minutes, and leaves him or her an
angel when it is over.
At the end of three days, Elsie braided her long, glossy, black hair,
and shot a golden arrow through it. She dressed herself with more
than usual care, and came down in the morning superb in her stormy
beauty. The brooding paroxysm was over, or at least her passion had
changed its phase. Her father saw it with great relief; he had
always many fears for her in her hours and days of gloom, but, for
reasons before assigned, had felt that she must be trusted to
herself, without appealing to actual restraint, or any other
supervision than such as Old Sophy could exercise without offence.
She went off at the accustomed hour to the school. All the girls had
their eyes on her. None so keen as these young misses to know an
inward movement by an outward sign of adornment: if they have not as
many signals as the ships that sail the great seas, there is not an
end of ribbon or a turn of a ringlet which is not a hieroglyphic with
a hidden meaning to these little cruisers over the ocean of
The girls all looked at Elsie with a new thought; for she was more
sumptuously arrayed than perhaps ever before at the school; and they
said to themselves that she had come meaning to draw the young
master's eyes upon her. That was it; what else could it be? The
beautiful cold girl with the diamond eyes meant to dazzle the
handsome young gentleman. He would be afraid to love her; it
couldn't be true, that which some people had said in the village; she
was n't the kind of young lady to make Mr. Langdon happy. Those dark
people are never safe: so one of the young blondes said to herself.
Elsie was not literary enough for such a scholar: so thought Miss
Charlotte Ann Wood, the young poetess. She couldn't have a good
temper, with those scowling eyebrows: this was the opinion of several
broad-faced, smiling girls, who thought, each in her own snug little
mental sanctum, that, if, etc., etc., she could make him so happy!
Elsie had none of the still, wicked light in her eyes, that morning.
She looked gentle, but dreamy; played with her books; did not trouble
herself with any of the exercises,--which in itself was not very
remarkable, as she was always allowed, under some pretext or other,
to have her own way.
The school-hours were over at length. The girls went out, but she
lingered to the last. She then came up to Mr. Bernard, with a book
in her hand, as if to ask a question.
"Will you walk towards my home with me today? "she said, in a very
low voice, little more than a whisper.
Mr. Bernard was startled by the request, put in such a way. He had a
presentiment of some painful scene or other. But there was nothing
to be done but to assure her that it would give him great pleasure.
So they walked along together on their way toward the Dudley mansion.
"I have no friend," Elsie said, all at once. "Nothing loves me but
one old woman. I cannot love anybody. They tell me there is
something in my eyes that draws people to me and makes them faint:
Look into them, will you?"
She turned her face toward him. It was very pale, and the diamond
eyes were glittering with a film, such as beneath other lids would
have rounded into a tear.
"Beautiful eyes, Elsie," he said,--"sometimes very piercing,--but
soft now, and looking as if there were something beneath them that
friendship might draw out. I am your friend, Elsie. Tell me what I
can do to render your life happier."
"Love me!" said Elsie Venner.
What shall a man do, when a woman makes such a demand, involving such
an avowal? It was the tenderest, cruellest, humblest moment of Mr.
Bernard's life. He turned pale, he trembled almost, as if he had
been a woman listening to her lover's declaration.
"Elsie," he said, presently, "I so long to be of some use to you, to
have your confidence and sympathy, that I must not let you say or do
anything to put us in false relations. I do love you, Elsie, as a
suffering sister with sorrows of her own,--as one whom I would save
at the risk of my happiness and life,--as one who needs a true friend
more than--any of all the young girls I have known. More than this
you would not ask me to say. You have been through excitement and
trouble lately, and it has made you feel such a need more than ever.
Give me your hand, dear Elsie, and trust me that I will be as true a
friend to you as if we were children of the same mother."
Elsie gave him her hand mechanically. It seemed to him that a cold
aura shot from it along his arm and chilled the blood running through
his heart. He pressed it gently, looked at her with a face full of
grave kindness and sad interest, then softly relinquished it.
It was all over with poor Elsie. They walked almost in silence the
rest of the way. Mr. Bernard left her at the gate of the mansion-
house, and returned with sad forebodings. Elsie went at once to her
own room, and did not come from it at the usual hours. At last Old
Sophy began to be alarmed about her, went to her apartment, and,
finding the door unlocked, entered cautiously. She found Elsie lying
on her bed, her brows strongly contracted, her eyes dull, her whole
look that of great suffering. Her first thought was that she had
been doing herself a harm by some deadly means or other. But Elsie,
saw her fear, and reassured her.
"No," she said, "there is nothing wrong, such as you are thinking of;
I am not dying. You may send for the Doctor; perhaps he can take the
pain from my head. That is all I want him to do. There is no use in
the pain, that I know of; if he can stop it, let him."
So they sent for the old Doctor. It was not long before the solid
trot of Caustic, the old bay horse, and the crashing of the gravel
under the wheels, gave notice that the physician was driving up the
The old Doctor was a model for visiting practitioners. He always
came into the sick-room with a quiet, cheerful look, as if he had a
consciousness that he was bringing some sure relief with him. The
way a patient snatches his first look at his doctor's face, to see
whether he is doomed, whether he is reprieved, whether he is
unconditionally pardoned, has really something terrible about it. It
is only to be met by an imperturbable mask of serenity, proof against
anything and everything in a patient's aspect. The physician whose
face reflects his patient's condition like a mirror may do well
enough to examine people for a life-insurance office, but does not
belong to the sickroom. The old Doctor did not keep people waiting
in dread suspense, while he stayed talking about the case,--the
patient all the time thinking that he and the friends are discussing
some alarming symptom or formidable operation which he himself is by-
and-by--to hear of.
He was in Elsie's room almost before she knew he was in the house.
He came to her bedside in such a natural, quiet way, that it seemed
as if he were only a friend who had dropped in for a moment to say a
pleasant word. Yet he was very uneasy about Elsie until he had seen
her; he never knew what might happen to her or those about her, and
came prepared for the worst.
"Sick, my child?" he said, in a very soft, low voice.
Elsie nodded, without speaking.
The Doctor took her hand,--whether with professional views, or only
in a friendly way, it would have been hard to tell. So he sat a few
minutes, looking at her all the time with a kind of fatherly
interest, but with it all noting how she lay, how she breathed, her
color, her expression, all that teaches the practised eye so much
without a single question being asked. He saw she was in suffering,
and said presently,
"You have pain somewhere; where is it?"
She put her hand to her head.
As she was not disposed to talk, he watched her for a while,
questioned Old Sophy shrewdly a few minutes, and so made up his mind
as to the probable cause of disturbance and the proper remedies to be
Some very silly people thought the old Doctor did not believe in
medicine, because he gave less than certain poor half-taught
creatures in the smaller neighboring towns, who took advantage of
people's sickness to disgust and disturb them with all manner of ill-
smelling and ill-behaving drugs. In truth, he hated to give anything
noxious or loathsome to those who were uncomfortable enough already,
unless he was very sure it would do good,--in which case, he never
played with drugs, but gave good, honest, efficient doses. Sometimes
he lost a family of the more boorish sort, because they did not think
they got their money's worth out of him, unless they had something
more than a taste of everything he carried in his saddlebags.
He ordered some remedies which he thought would relieve Elsie, and
left her, saying he would call the next day, hoping to find her
better. But the next day came, and the next, and still Elsie was on
her bed, feverish, restless, wakeful, silent. At night she tossed
about and wandered, and it became at length apparent that there was a
settled attack, something like what they called, formerly, a "nervous
On the fourth day she was more restless than common. One of the
women of the house came in to help to take care of her; but she
showed an aversion to her presence.
"Send me Helen Darley," she said, at last.
The old Doctor told them, that, if possible, they must indulge this
fancy of hers. The caprices of sick people were never to be
despised, least of all of such persons as Elsie, when rendered
irritable and exacting by pain and weakness.
So a message was sent to Mr. Silas Peckham at the Apollinean
Institute, to know if he could not spare Miss Helen Darley for a few
days, if required, to give her attention to a young lady who attended
his school and who was now lying ill,--no other person than the
daughter of Dudley Venner.
A mean man never agrees to anything without deliberately turning it
over, so that he may see its dirty side, and, if he can, sweating the
coin he pays for it. If an archangel should offer to save his soul
for sixpence, he would try to find a sixpence with a hole in it. A
gentleman says yes to a great many things without stopping to think:
a shabby fellow is known by his caution in answering questions, for
fear of, compromising his pocket or himself.
Mr. Silas Peckham looked very grave at the request. The dooties of
Miss Darley at the Institoot were important, very important. He paid
her large sums of money for her time,--more than she could expect to
get in any other institootion for the edoocation of female youth. A
deduction from her selary would be necessary, in case she should
retire from the sphere of her dooties for a season. He should be put
to extry expense, and have to perform additional labors himself. He
would consider of the matter. If any arrangement could be made, he
would send word to Squire Venner's folks.
"Miss Darley," said Silas Peckham, "the' 's a message from Squire
Venner's that his daughter wants you down at the mansion-house to see
her. She's got a fever, so they inform me. If it's any kind of
ketchin' fever, of course you won't think of goin' near the mansion-
house. If Doctor Kittredge says it's safe, perfec'ly safe, I can't
object to your goin', on sech conditions as seem to be fair to all'
concerned. You will give up your pay for the whole time you are.
absent,--portions of days to be caounted as whole days. You will be
charged with board the same as if you eat your victuals with the
household. The victuals are of no use after they're cooked but to be
eat, and your bein' away is no savin' to our folks. I shall charge
you a reasonable compensation for the demage to the school by the
absence of a teacher. If Miss Crabs undertakes any dooties belongin'
to your department of instruction, she will look to you for sech
pecooniary considerations as you may agree upon between you. On
these conditions I am willin' to give my consent to your temporary
absence from the post of dooty. I will step down to Doctor
Kittredge's myself, and make inquiries as to the natur' of the
Mr. Peckham took up a rusty and very narrow-brimmed hat, which he
cocked upon one side of his head, with an air peculiar to the rural
gentry. It was the hour when the Doctor expected to be in his
office, unless he had some special call which kept him from home.
He found the Reverend Chauncy Fairweather just taking leave of the
Doctor. His hand was on the pit of his stomach, and his countenance
was expressive of inward uneasiness.
"Shake it before using," said the Doctor; "and the sooner you make up
your mind to speak right out, the better it will be for your
"Oh, Mr. Peckham! Walk in, Mr. Peckham! Nobody sick up at the
school, I hope?"
"The haalth of the school is fust-rate," replied Mr. Peckham. "The
sitooation is uncommonly favorable to saloobrity." (These last words
were from the Annual Report of the past year.) "Providence has spared
our female youth in a remarkable measure. I've come with reference
to another consideration. Dr. Kittredge, is there any ketchin'
complaint goin' about in the village?"
"Well, yes," said the Doctor, "I should say there was something of
that sort. Measles. Mumps. And Sin,--that's always catching."
The old Doctor's eye twinkled; once in a while he had his little
touch of humor.
Silas Peckham slanted his eye up suspiciously at the Doctor, as if he
was getting some kind of advantage over him. That is the way people
of his constitution are apt to take a bit of pleasantry.
"I don't mean sech things, Doctor; I mean fevers. Is there any
ketchin' fevers--bilious, or nervous, or typus, or whatever you call
'em--now goin' round this village? That's what I want to ascertain,
if there's no impropriety."
The old Doctor looked at Silas through his spectacles.
"Hard and sour as a green cider-apple," he thought to himself.
"No,"; he said,--"I don't know any such cases."
"What's the matter with Elsie Venner?" asked Silas, sharply, as if
he expected to have him this time.
"A mild feverish attack, I should call it in anybody else; but she
has a peculiar constitution, and I never feel so safe about her as I
should about most people."
"Anything ketchin' about it?" Silas asked, cunningly.
"No, indeed!" said the Doctor,--"catching? no,--what put that into
your head, Mr. Peckham?"
"Well, Doctor," the conscientious Principal answered, "I naterally
feel a graat responsibility, a very gmaaat responsibility, for the
noomerous and lovely young ladies committed to my charge. It has
been a question, whether one of my assistants should go, accordin' to
request, to stop with Miss Venner for a season. Nothin' restrains my
givin' my full and free consent to her goin' but the fear lest
contagious maladies should be introdooced among those lovely female
youth. I shall abide by your opinion,--I understan' you to say
distinc'ly, her complaint is not ketchin'?---and urge upon Miss
Darley to fulfil her dooties to a sufferin' fellow-creature at any
cost to myself and my establishment. We shall miss her very much;
but it is a good cause, and she shall go,--and I shall trust that
Providence will enable us to spare her without permanent demage to
the interests of the Institootion."
Saying this, the excellent Principal departed, with his rusty narrow-
brimmed hat leaning over, as if it had a six-knot breeze abeam, and
its gunwale (so to speak) was dipping into his coat-collar. He
announced the result of his inquiries to Helen, who had received a
brief note in the mean time from a poor relation of Elsie's mother,
then at the mansion-house, informing her of the critical situation of
Elsie and of her urgent desire that Helen should be with her. She
could not hesitate. She blushed as she thought of the comments that
might be made; but what were such considerations in a matter of life
and death? She could not stop to make terms with Silas Peckham. She
must go. He might fleece her, if he would; she would not complain,--
not even to Bernard, who, she knew, would bring the Principal to
terms, if she gave the least hint of his intended extortions.
So Helen made up her bundle of clothes to be sent after her, took a
book or two with her to help her pass the time, and departed for the
Dudley mansion. It was with a great inward effort that she undertook
the sisterly task which was thus forced upon her. She had a kind of
terror of Elsie; and the thought of having charge of her, of being
alone with her, of coming under the full influence of those diamond
eyes,--if, indeed, their light were not dimmed by suffering and
weariness,--was one she shrank from. But what could she do? It
might be a turning-point in the life of the poor girl; and she must
overcome all her fears, all her repugnance, and go to her rescue.
"Is Helen come?" said Elsie, when she heard, with her fine sense
quickened by the irritability of sickness, a light footfall on the
stair, with a cadence unlike that of any inmate of the house.
"It's a strange woman's step," said Old Sophy, who, with her
exclusive love for Elsie, was naturally disposed to jealousy of a
new-comer. "Let Ol' Sophy set at 'th' foot o' th' bed, if th' young
missis sets by th' piller,--won' y', darlin'? The' 's nobody that's
white can love y' as th' of black woman does;--don' sen' her away,
now, there 's a dear soul!"
Elsie motioned her to sit in the place she had pointed to, and Helen
at that moment entered the room. Dudley Venner followed her.
"She is your patient," he said, "except while the Doctor is here.
She has been longing to have you with her, and we shall expect you to
make her well in a few days."
So Helen Darley found herself established in the most unexpected
manner as an inmate of the Dudley mansion. She sat with Elsie most
of the time, by day and by night, soothing her, and trying to enter
into her confidence and affections, if it should prove that this
strange creature was really capable of truly sympathetic emotions.
What was this unexplained something which came between her soul and
that of every other human being with whom she was in relations?
Helen perceived, or rather felt, that she had, folded up in the
depths of her being, a true womanly nature. Through the cloud that
darkened her aspect, now and then a ray would steal forth, which,
like the smile of stern and solemn people, was all the more
impressive from its contrast with the expression she wore habitually.
It might well be that pain and fatigue had changed her aspect; but,
at any rate, Helen looked into her eyes without that nervous
agitation which their cold glitter had produced on her when they were
full of their natural light. She felt sure that her mother must have
been a lovely, gentle woman. There were gleams of a beautiful nature
shining through some ill-defined medium which disturbed and made them
flicker and waver, as distant images do when seen through the
rippling upward currents of heated air. She loved, in her own way,
the old black woman, and seemed to keep up a kind of silent
communication with her, as if they did not require the use of speech.
She appeared to be tranquillized by the presence of Helen, and loved
to have her seated at the bedside. Yet something, whatever it was,
prevented her from opening her heart to her kind companion; and even
now there were times when she would lie looking at her, with such a
still, watchful, almost dangerous expression, that Helen would sigh,
and change her place, as persons do whose breath some cunning orator
had been sucking out of them with his spongy eloquence, so that, when
he stops, they must get some air and stir about, or they feel as if
they should be half smothered and palsied.
It was too much to keep guessing what was the meaning of all this.
Helen determined to ask Old Sophy some questions which might probably
throw light upon her doubts. She took the opportunity one evening
when Elsie was lying asleep and they were both sitting at some
distance from her bed.
"Tell me, Sophy," she said, "was Elsie always as shy as she seems to
be now, in talking with those to whom she is friendly?"
"Alway jes' so, Miss Darlin', ever sense she was little chil'. When
she was five, six year old, she lisp some,--call me Thophy; that make
her kin' o' 'shamed, perhaps: after she grow up, she never lisp, but
she kin' o' got the way o' not talkin' much. Fac' is, she don' like
talkin' as common gals do, 'xcep' jes' once in a while wi' some
partic'lar folks,--'n' then not much."
"How old is Elsie?"
"Eighteen year this las' September."
"How long ago did her mother die?" Helen asked, with a little
trembling in her voice.
"Eighteen year ago this October," said Old Sophy.
Helen was silent for a moment. Then she whispered, almost
inaudibly,--for her voice appeared to fail her,
"What did her mother die of, Sophy?"
The old woman's small eyes dilated until a ring of white showed round
their beady centres. She caught Helen by the hand and clung to it,
as if in fear. She looked round at Elsie, who lay sleeping, as of
she might be listening. Then she drew Helen towards her and led her
softly out of the room.
"'Sh !---'sh!" she said, as soon as they were outside the door.
"Don' never speak in this house 'bout what Elsie's mother died of!"
she said. "Nobody never says nothin' 'bout it. Oh, God has made
Ugly Things wi' death in their mouths, Miss Darlin', an' He knows
what they're for; but my poor Elsie!---to have her blood changed in
her before--It was in July Mistress got her death, but she liv' till
three week after my poor Elsie was born."
She could speak no more. She had said enough. Helen remembered the
stories she had heard on coming to the village, and among them one
referred to in an early chapter of this narrative. All the
unaccountable looks and tastes and ways of Elsie came back to her in
the light of an ante-natal impression which had mingled an alien
element in her nature. She knew the secret of the fascination which
looked out of her cold, glittering eyes. She knew the significance
of the strange repulsion which she felt in her own intimate
consciousness underlying the inexplicable attraction which drew her
towards the young girl in spite of this repugnance. She began to
look with new feelings on the contradictions in her moral nature,--
the longing for sympathy, as shown by her wishing for Helen's
company, and the impossibility of passing beyond the cold circle of
isolation within which she had her being. The fearful truth of that
instinctive feeling of hers, that there was something not human
looking out of Elsie's eyes, came upon her with a sudden flash of
penetrating conviction. There were two warring principles in that
superb organization and proud soul. One made her a woman, with all a
woman's powers and longings. The other chilled all the currents of
outlet for her emotions. It made her tearless and mute, when another
woman would have wept and pleaded. And it infused into her soul
something--it was cruel now to call it malice--which was still and
watchful and dangerous, which waited its opportunity, and then shot
like an arrow from its bow out of the coil of brooding premeditation.
Even those who had never seen the white scars on Dick Venner's wrist,
or heard the half-told story of her supposed attempt to do a graver
mischief, knew well enough by looking at her that she was one of the
creatures not to be tampered with,--silent in anger and swift in
Helen could not return to the bedside at once after this
communication. It was with altered eyes that she must look on the
poor girl, the victim of such an unheard-of fatality. All was
explained to her now. But it opened such depths of solemn thought in
her awakened consciousness, that it seemed as if the whole mystery of
human life were coming up again before her for trial and judgment.
"Oh," she thought, "if, while the will lies sealed in its fountain,
it may be poisoned at its very source, so that it shall flow dark and
deadly through its whole course, who are we that we should judge our
fellow-creatures by ourselves?" Then came the terrible question, how
far the elements themselves are capable of perverting the moral
nature: if valor, and justice, and truth, the strength of man and the
virtue of woman, may not be poisoned out of a race by the food of the
Australian in his forest, by the foul air and darkness of the
Christians cooped up in the "tenement-houses" close by those who live
in the palaces of the great cities?
She walked out into the garden, lost in thought upon these dark and
deep matters. Presently she heard a step behind her, and Elsie's
father came up and joined her. Since his introduction to Helen at
the distinguished tea-party given by the Widow Rowens, and before her
coming to sit with Elsie, Mr. Dudley Venner had in the most
accidental way in the world met her on several occasions: once after
church, when she happened to be caught in a slight shower and he
insisted on holding his umbrella over her on her way home;--once at a
small party at one of the mansion-houses, where the quick-eyed lady
of the house had a wonderful knack of bringing people together who
liked to see each other;--perhaps at other times and places; but of
this there is no certain evidence.
They naturally spoke of Elsie, her illness, and the aspect it had
taken. But Helen noticed in all that Dudley Venner said about his
daughter a morbid sensitiveness, as it seemed to her, an aversion to
saying much about her physical condition or her peculiarities,
--a wish to feel and speak as a parent should, and yet a shrinking,
as if there were something about Elsie which he could not bear to
dwell upon. She thought she saw through all this, and she could
interpret it all charitably. There were circumstances about his
daughter which recalled the great sorrow of his life; it was not
strange that this perpetual reminder should in some degree have
modified his feelings as a father. But what a life he must have been
leading for so many years, with this perpetual source of distress
which he could not name! Helen knew well enough, now, the meaning of
the sadness which had left such traces in his features and tones, and
it made her feel very kindly and compassionate towards him.
So they walked over the crackling leaves in the garden, between the
lines of box breathing its fragrance of eternity;--for this is one of
the odors which carry us out of time into the abysses of the
unbeginning past; if we ever lived on another ball of stone than
this, it must be that there was box growing on it. So they walked,
finding their way softly to each other's sorrows and sympathies, each
matching some counterpart to the other's experience of life, and
startled to see how the different, yet parallel, lessons they had
been taught by suffering had led them step by step to the same serene
acquiescence in the orderings of that Supreme Wisdom which they both
Old Sophy was at the window and saw them walking up and down the
garden-alleys. She watched them as her grandfather the savage
watched the figures that moved among the trees when a hostile tribe
was lurking about his mountain.
"There'll be a weddin' in the ol house," she said, "before there's
roses on them bushes ag'in. But it won' be my poor Elsie's weddin',
'n' ol' Sophy won' be there."
When Helen prayed in the silence of her soul that evening, it was not
that Elsie's life might be spared. She dared not ask that as a favor
of Heaven. What could life be to her but a perpetual anguish, and to
those about her but an ever-present terror? Might she but be so
influenced by divine grace, that what in her was most truly human,
most purely woman-like, should overcome the dark, cold, unmentionable
instinct which had pervaded her being like a subtile poison that was
all she could ask, and the rest she left to a higher wisdom and
tenderer love than her own.
THE WHITE ASH.
When Helen returned to Elsie's bedside, it was with a new and still
deeper feeling of sympathy, such as the story told by Old Sophy might
well awaken. She understood, as never before, the singular
fascination and as singular repulsion which she had long felt in
Elsie's presence. It had not been without a great effort that she
had forced herself to become the almost constant attendant of the
sick girl; and now she was learning, but not for the first time, the
blessed truth which so many good women have found out for themselves,
that the hardest duty bravely performed soon becomes a habit, and
tends in due time to transform itself into a pleasure.
The old Doctor was beginning to look graver, in spite of himself.
The fever, if such it was, went gently forward, wasting the young
girl's powers of resistance from day to day; yet she showed no
disposition to take nourishment, and seemed literally to be living on
air. It was remarkable that with all this her look was almost
natural, and her features were hardly sharpened so as to suggest that
her life was burning away. He did not like this, nor various other
unobtrusive signs of danger which his practised eye detected. A very
small matter might turn the balance which held life and death poised
against each other. He surrounded her with precautions, that Nature
might have every opportunity of cunningly shifting the weights from
the scale of death to the scale of life, as she will often do if not
rudely disturbed or interfered with.
Little tokens of good-will and kind remembrance were constantly
coming to her from the girls in the school and the good people in the
village. Some of the mansion-house people obtained rare flowers which
they sent her, and her table was covered with fruits which tempted
her in vain. Several of the school-girls wished to make her a basket
of their own handiwork, and, filling it with autumnal flowers, to
send it as a joint offering. Mr. Bernard found out their project
accidentally, and, wishing to have his share in it, brought home from
one of his long walks some boughs full of variously tinted leaves,
such as were still clinging to the stricken trees. With these he
brought also some of the already fallen leaflets of the white ash,
remarkable for their rich olive-purple color, forming a beautiful
contrast with some of the lighter-hued leaves. It so happened that
this particular tree, the white ash, did not grow upon The Mountain,
and the leaflets were more welcome for their comparative rarity. So
the girls made their basket, and the floor of it they covered with
the rich olive-purple leaflets. Such late flowers as they could lay
their hands upon served to fill it, and with many kindly messages
they sent it to Miss Elsie Venner at the Dudley mansion-house.
Elsie was sitting up in her bed when it came, languid, but tranquil,
and Helen was by her, as usual, holding her hand, which was strangely
cold, Helen thought, for one who was said to have some kind of fever.
The school-girls' basket was brought in with its messages of love and
hopes for speedy recovery. Old Sophy was delighted to see that it
pleased Elsie, and laid it on the bed before her. Elsie began
looking at the flowers, and taking them from the basket, that she
might see the leaves. All at once she appeared to be agitated; she
looked at the basket, then around, as if there were some fearful
presence about her which she was searching for with her eager
glances. She took out the flowers, one by one, her breathing growing
hurried, her eyes staring, her hands trembling,--till, as she came
near the bottom of the basket, she flung out all the rest with a
hasty movement, looked upon the olive-purple leaflets as if paralyzed
for a moment, shrunk up, as it were, into herself in a curdling
terror, dashed the basket from her, and fell back senseless, with a
faint cry which chilled the blood of the startled listeners at her
"Take it away!---take it away!---quick!" said Old Sophy, as she
hastened to her mistress's pillow. "It 's the leaves of the tree
that was always death to her,--take it away! She can't live wi' it
in the room!"
The poor old woman began chafing Elsie's hands, and Helen to try to
rouse her with hartshorn, while a third frightened attendant gathered
up the flowers and the basket and carried them out of the apartment,
She came to herself after a time, but exhausted and then wandering.
In her delirium she talked constantly as if she were in a cave, with
such exactness of circumstance that Helen could not doubt at all that
she had some such retreat among the rocks of The Mountain, probably
fitted up in her own fantastic way, where she sometimes hid herself
from all human eyes, and of the entrance to which she alone possessed
All this passed away, and left her, of course, weaker than before.
But this was not the only influence the unexplained paroxysm had left
behind it. From this time forward there was a change in her whole
expression and her manner. The shadows ceased flitting over her
features, and the old woman, who watched her from day to day and from
hour to hour as a mother watches her child, saw the likeness she bore
to her mother coming forth more and more, as the cold glitter died
out of the diamond eyes, and the stormy scowl disappeared from the
dark brows and low forehead.
With all the kindness and indulgence her father had bestowed upon
her, Elsie had never felt that he loved her. The reader knows well
enough what fatal recollections and associations had frozen up the
springs of natural affection in his breast. There was nothing in the
world he would not do for Elsie. He had sacrificed his whole life to
her. His very seeming carelessness about restraining her was all
calculated; he knew that restraint would produce nothing but utter
alienation. Just so far as she allowed him, he shared her studies,
her few pleasures, her thoughts; but she was essentially solitary and
uncommunicative. No person, as was said long ago, could judge him,
because his task was not merely difficult, but simply impracticable
to human powers. A nature like Elsie's had necessarily to be studied
by itself, and to be followed in its laws where it could not be led.
Every day, at different hours, during the whole of his daughter's
illness, Dudley Venner had sat by her, doing all he could to soothe
and please her. Always the same thin film of some emotional non-
conductor between them; always that kind of habitual regard and
family-interest, mingled with the deepest pity on one side and a sort
of respect on the other, which never warmed into outward evidences of
It was after this occasion, when she had been so profoundly agitated
by a seemingly insignificant cause, that her father and Old Sophy
were sitting, one at one side of her bed and one at the other. She
had fallen into a light slumber. As they were looking at her, the
same thought came into both their minds at the same moment. Old
Sophy spoke for both, as she said, in a low voice,
"It 's her mother's look,--it 's her mother's own face right over
again,--she never look' so before, the Lord's hand is on her! His
will be done!"
When Elsie woke and lifted her languid eyes upon her father's face,
she saw in it a tenderness, a depth of affection, such as she
remembered at rare moments of her childhood, when she had won him to
her by some unusual gleam of sunshine in her fitful temper.
"Elsie, dear," he said, "we were thinking how much your expression
was sometimes like that of your sweet mother. If you could but have
seen her, so as to remember her!"
The tender look and tone, the yearning of the daughter's heart for
the mother she had never seen, save only with the unfixed,
undistinguishing eyes of earliest infancy, perhaps the under-thought
that she might soon rejoin her in another state of being,--all came
upon her with a sudden overflow of feeling which broke through all
the barriers between her heart and her eyes, and Elsie wept. It
seemed to her father as if the malign influence--evil spirit it might
almost be called--which had pervaded her being, had at last been
driven forth or exorcised, and that these tears were at once the sign
and the pledge of her redeemed nature. But now she was to be
soothed, and not excited. After her tears she slept again, and the
look her face wore was peaceful as never before.
Old Sophy met the Doctor at the door and told him all the
circumstances connected with the extraordinary attack from which
Elsie had suffered. It was the purple leaves, she said. She
remembered that Dick once brought home a branch of a tree with some
of the same leaves on it, and Elsie screamed and almost fainted then.
She, Sophy, had asked her, after she had got quiet, what it was in
the leaves that made her feel so bad. Elsie could n't tell her,--did
n't like to speak about it,--shuddered whenever Sophy mentioned it.
This did not sound so strangely to the old Doctor as it does to some
who listen to his narrative. He had known some curious examples of
antipathies, and remembered reading of others still more singular.
He had known those who could not bear the presence of a cat, and
recollected the story, often told, of a person's hiding one in a
chest when one of these sensitive individuals came into the room, so
as not to disturb him; but he presently began to sweat and turn pale,
and cried out that there must be a cat hid somewhere. He knew people
who were poisoned by strawberries, by honey, by different meats, many
who could not endure cheese,--some who could not bear the smell of
roses. If he had known all the stories in the old books, he would
have found that some have swooned and become as dead men at the smell
of a rose,--that a stout soldier has been known to turn and run at
the sight or smell of rue,--that cassia and even olive-oil have
produced deadly faintings in certain. individuals,--in short, that
almost everything has seemed to be a poison to somebody.
"Bring me that basket, Sophy," said the old Doctor, "if you can find
Sophy brought it to him,--for he had not yet entered Elsie's
"These purple leaves are from the white ash," he said. "You don't
know the notion that people commonly have about that tree, Sophy?"
"I know they say the Ugly Things never go where the white ash grows,"
Sophy answered. "Oh, Doctor dear, what I'm thinkin' of a'n't true,
The Doctor smiled sadly, but did not answer. He went directly to
Elsie's room. Nobody would have known by his manner that he saw any
special change in his patient. He spoke with her as usual, made some
slight alteration in his prescriptions, and left the room with a
kind, cheerful look. He met her father on the stairs.
"Is it as I thought?" said Dudley Veneer.
"There is everything to fear," the Doctor said, "and not much, I am
afraid, to hope. Does not her face recall to you one that you
remember, as never before?"
"Yes," her father answered,--"oh, yes! What is the meaning of this
change which has come over her features, and her voice, her temper,
her whole being? Tell me, oh, tell me, what is it? Can it be that
the curse is passing away, and my daughter is to be restored to me,--
such as her mother would have had her,--such as her mother was?"
"Walk out with me into the garden," the Doctor said, "and I will tell
you all I know and all I think about this great mystery of Elsie's
They walked out together, and the Doctor began: "She has lived a
double being, as it were,--the consequence of the blight which fell
upon her in the dim period before consciousness. You can see what
she might have been but for this. You know that for these eighteen
years her whole existence has taken its character from that influence
which we need not name. But you will remember that few of the lower
forms of life last as human beings do; and thus it might have been
hoped and trusted with some show of reason, as I have always
suspected you hoped and trusted, perhaps more confidently than
myself, that the lower nature which had become engrafted on the
higher would die out and leave the real woman's life she inherited to
outlive this accidental principle which had so poisoned her childhood
and youth. I believe it is so dying out; but I am afraid,--yes, I
must say it, I fear it has involved the centres of life in its own
decay. There is hardly any pulse at Elsie's wrist; no stimulants
seem to rouse her; and it looks as if life were slowly retreating
inwards, so that by-and-by she will sleep as those who lie down in
the cold and never wake."
Strange as it may seem, her father heard all this not without deep
sorrow, and such marks of it as his thoughtful and tranquil nature,
long schooled by suffering, claimed or permitted, but with a
resignation itself the measure of his past trials. Dear as his
daughter might become to him, all he dared to ask of Heaven was that
she might be restored to that truer self which lay beneath her false
and adventitious being. If he could once see that the icy lustre in
her eyes had become a soft, calm light,--that her soul was at peace
with all about her and with Him; above,--this crumb from the
children's table was enough for him, as it was for the Syro-
Phoenician woman who asked that the dark spirit might go out from her
There was little change the next day, until all at once she said in a
clear voice that she should like to see her master at the school, Mr.
Langdon. He came accordingly, and took the place of Helen at her
bedside. It seemed as if Elsie had forgotten the last scene with
him. Might it be that pride had come in, and she had sent for him
only to show how superior she had grown to the weakness which had
betrayed her into that extraordinary request, so contrary to the
instincts and usages of her sex? Or was it that the singular change
which had come over her had involved her passionate fancy for him and
swept it away with her other habits of thought and feeling? Or could
it be that she felt that all earthly interests were becoming of
little account to her, and wished to place herself right with one to
whom she had displayed a wayward movement of her unbalanced
imagination? She welcomed Mr. Bernard as quietly as she had received
Helen Darley. He colored at the recollection of that last scene,
when he came into her presence; but she smiled with perfect
tranquillity. She did not speak to him of any apprehension; but he
saw that she looked upon herself as doomed. So friendly, yet so calm
did she seem through all their interview, that Mr. Bernard could only
look back upon her manifestation of feeling towards him on their walk
from the school as a vagary of a mind laboring under some unnatural
excitement, and wholly at variance with the true character of Elsie
Venner as he saw her before him in her subdued, yet singular beauty.
He looked with almost scientific closeness of observation into the
diamond eyes; but that peculiar light which he knew so well was not
there. She was the same in one sense as on that first day when he
had seen her coiling and uncoiling her golden chain; yet how
different in every aspect which revealed her state of mind and
emotion! Something of tenderness there was, perhaps, in her tone
towards him; she would not have sent for him, had she not felt more
than an ordinary interest in him. But through the whole of his visit
she never lost her gracious self-possession. The Dudley race might
well be proud of the last of its daughters, as she lay dying, but
unconquered by the feeling of the present or the fear of the future.
As for Mr. Bernard, he found it very hard to look upon her, and
listen to her unmoved. There was nothing that reminded him of the
stormy--browed, almost savage girl he remembered in her fierce
loveliness,--nothing of all her singularities of air and of costume.
Nothing? Yes, one thing. Weak and suffering as she was, she had
never parted with one particular ornament, such as a sick person
would naturally, as it might be supposed, get rid of at once. The
golden cord which she wore round her neck at the great party was
still there. A bracelet was lying by her pillow; she had unclasped
it from her wrist.
Before Mr. Bernard left her, she said,
"I shall never see you again. Some time or other, perhaps, you will
mention my name to one whom you love. Give her this from your
scholar and friend Elsie."
He took the bracelet, raised her hand to his lips, then turned his
face away; in that moment he was the weaker of the two.
"Good-bye," she said; "thank you for coming."
His voice died away in his throat, as he tried to answer her. She
followed him with her eyes as he passed from her sight through the
door, and when it closed after him sobbed tremulously once or twice,
but stilled herself, and met Helen, as she entered, with a composed
"I have had a very pleasant visit from Mr. Langdon," Elsie said.
"Sit by me, Helen, awhile without speaking; I should like to sleep,
if I can,--and to dream."
THE GOLDEN CORD IS LOOSED.
The Reverend Chauncy Fairweather, hearing that his parishioner's
daughter, Elsie, was very ill, could do nothing less than come to the
mansion-house and tender such consolations as he was master of. It
was rather remarkable that the old Doctor did not exactly approve of
his visit. He thought that company of every sort might be injurious
in her weak state. He was of opinion that Mr. Fairweather, though
greatly interested in religious matters, was not the most sympathetic
person that could be found; in fact, the old Doctor thought he was
too much taken up with his own interests for eternity to give himself
quite 'so heartily to the need of other people as some persons got up
on a rather more generous scale (our good neighbor Dr. Honeywood, for
instance) could do. However, all these things had better be arranged
to suit her wants; if she would like to talk with a clergyman, she
had a great deal better see one as often as she liked, and run the
risk of the excitement, than have a hidden wish for such a visit and
perhaps find herself too weak to see him by-and-by.
The old Doctor knew by sad experience that dreadful mistake against
which all medical practitioners should be warned. His experience may
well be a guide for others. Do not overlook the desire for spiritual
advice and consolation which patients sometimes feel, and, with the
frightful mauvaise honte peculiar to Protestantism, alone among all
human beliefs, are ashamed to tell. As a part of medical treatment,
it is the physician's business to detect the hidden longing for the
food of the soul, as much as for any form of bodily nourishment.
Especially in the higher walks of society, where this unutterably
miserable false shame of Protestantism acts in proportion to the
general acuteness of the cultivated sensibilities, let no
unwillingness to suggest the sick person's real need suffer him to
languish between his want and his morbid sensitiveness. What an
infinite advantage the Mussulmans and the Catholics have over many of
our more exclusively spiritual sects in the way they keep their
religion always by them and never blush for it! And besides this
spiritual longing, we should never forget that
"On some fond breast the parting soul relies,"
and the minister of religion, in addition to the sympathetic nature
which we have a right to demand in him, has trained himself to the
art of entering into the feelings of others.
The reader must pardon this digression, which introduces the visit of
the Reverend Chauncy Fairweather to Elsie Veneer. It was mentioned
to her that he would like to call and see how she was, and she
consented,--not with much apparent interest, for she had reasons of
her own for not feeling any very deep conviction of his sympathy for
persons in sorrow. But he came, and worked the conversation round to
religion, and confused her with his hybrid notions, half made up of
what he had been believing and teaching all his life, and half of the
new doctrines which he had veneered upon the surface of his old
belief. He got so far as to make a prayer with her,--a cool, well-
guarded prayer, which compromised his faith as little as possible,
and which, if devotion were a game played against Providence, might
have been considered a cautious and sagacious move.
When he had gone, Elsie called Old Sophy to her.
"Sophy," she said, "don't let them send that cold hearted man to me
any more. If your old minister comes--to see you, I should like to
hear him talk. He looks as if he cared for everybody, and would care
for me. And, Sophy, if I should die one of these days, I should like
to have that old minister come and say whatever is to be said over
me. It would comfort Dudley more, I know, than to have that hard man
here, when you're in trouble, for some of you will be sorry when I'm
gone,--won't you, Sophy?"
The poor old black. woman could not stand this question. The cold
minister had frozen Elsie until she felt as if nobody cared for her
or would regret her,--and her question had betrayed this momentary
"Don' talk so! don' talk so, darlin'!" she cried, passionately.
"When you go, Ol' Sophy'll go; 'n' where you go, Ol' Sophy'll go: 'n'
we'll both go t' th' place where th' Lord takes care of all his
children, whether their faces are white or black. Oh, darlin',
darlin'! if th' Lord should let me die firs', you shall fin' all
ready for you when you come after me. On'y don' go 'n' leave poor
Ol' Sophy all 'lone in th' world!"
Helen came in at this moment and quieted the old woman with a look.
Such scenes were just what were most dangerous, in the state in which
Elsie was lying: but that is one of the ways in which an affectionate
friend sometimes unconsciously wears out the life which a hired
nurse, thinking of nothing but her regular duties and her wages,
would have spared from all emotional fatigue.
The change which had come over Elsie's disposition was itself the
cause of new excitements. How was it possible that her father could
keep away from her, now that she was coming back to the nature and
the very look of her mother, the bride of his youth? How was it
possible to refuse her, when she said to Old Sophy, that she should
like to have her minister come in and sit by her, even though his
presence might perhaps prove a new source of excitement?
But the Reverend Doctor did come and sit by her, and spoke such
soothing words to her, words of such peace and consolation, that from
that hour she was tranquil as never before. All true hearts are
alike in the hour of need; the Catholic has a reserved fund of faith
for his fellow-creature's trying moment, and the Calvinist reveals
those springs of human brotherhood and charity in his soul which are
only covered over by the iron tables inscribed with the harder dogmas
of his creed. It was enough that the Reverend Doctor knew all
Elsie's history. He could not judge her by any formula, like those
which have been moulded by past ages out of their ignorance. He did
not talk with her as if she were an outside sinner worse than
himself. He found a bruised and languishing soul, and bound up its
wounds. A blessed office,--one which is confined to no sect or
creed, but which good men in all times, under various names and with
varying ministries, to suit the need of each age, of each race, of
each individual soul, have come forward to discharge for their
After this there was little change in Elsie, except that her heart
beat more feebly every day,--so that the old Doctor himself, with all
his experience, could see nothing to account for the gradual failing
of the powers of life, and yet could find no remedy which seemed to
arrest its progress in the smallest degree.
"Be very careful," he said, "that she is not allowed to make any
muscular exertion. Any such effort, when a person is so enfeebled,
may stop the heart in a moment; and if it stops, it will never move
Helen enforced this rule with the greatest care. Elsie was hardly
allowed to move her hand or to speak above a whisper. It seemed to
be mainly the question now, whether this trembling flame of life
would be blown out by some light breath of air, or whether it could
be so nursed and sheltered by the hollow of these watchful hands that
it would have a chance to kindle to its natural brightness.
--Her father came in to sit with her in the evening. He had never
talked so freely with her as during the hour he had passed at her
bedside, telling her little circumstances of her mother's life,
living over with her all that was pleasant in the past, and trying to
encourage her with some cheerful gleams of hope for the future. A
faint smile played over her face, but she did not answer his
encouraging suggestions. The hour came for him to leave her with
those who watched by her.
"Good-night, my dear child," he said, and stooping down, kissed her
Elsie rose by a sudden effort, threw her arms round his neck, kissed
him, and said, "Good-night, my dear father!"
The suddenness of her movement had taken him by surprise, or he would
have checked so dangerous an effort. It was too late now. Her arms
slid away from him like lifeless weights,--her head fell back upon
her pillow,--along sigh breathed through her lips.
"She is faint," said Helen, doubtfully; "bring me the hartshorn,
The old woman had started from her place, and was now leaning over
her, looking in her face, and listening for the sound of her
"She 's dead! Elsie 's dead! My darlin 's dead!" she cried aloud,
filling the room with her utterance of anguish.
Dudley Venner drew her away and silenced her with a voice of
authority, while Helen and an assistant plied their restoratives. It
was all in vain.
The solemn tidings passed from the chamber of death through the
family. The daughter, the hope of that old and honored house, was
dead in the freshness of her youth, and the home of its solitary
representative was hereafter doubly desolate.
A messenger rode hastily out of the avenue. A little after this the
people of the village and the outlying farm-houses were startled by
the sound of a bell.
They stopped in every house, as far as the wavering vibrations
reached, and listened
It was not the little child which had been lying so long at the point
of death; that could not be more than three or four years old
eight,--nine,--ten,--and so on to fifteen, sixteen,--seventeen,--
The pulsations seemed to keep on,--but it was the brain, and not the
bell, that was throbbing now.
"Elsie 's dead!" was the exclamation at a hundred firesides.
"Eighteen year old," said old Widow Peake, rising from her chair.
"Eighteen year ago I laid two gold eagles on her mother's eyes,--he
wouldn't have anything but gold touch her eyelids,--and now Elsie's
to be straightened,--the Lord have mercy on her poor sinful soul!"
Dudley Venner prayed that night that he might be forgiven, if he had
failed in any act of duty or kindness to this unfortunate child of
his, now freed from all the woes born with her and so long poisoning
her soul. He thanked God for the brief interval of peace which had
been granted her, for the sweet communion they had enjoyed in these
last days, and for the hope of meeting her with that other lost
friend in a better world.
Helen mingled a few broken thanks and petitions with her tears:
thanks that she had been permitted to share the last days and hours
of this poor sister in sorrow; petitions that the grief of
bereavement might be lightened to the lonely parent and the faithful
Old Sophy said almost nothing, but sat day and night by her dead
darling. But sometimes her anguish would find an outlet in strange
sounds, something between a cry and a musical note,--such as noise
had ever heard her utter before. These were old remembrances surging
up from her childish days, coming through her mother from the
cannibal chief, her grandfather,--death-wails, such as they sing in
the mountains of Western Africa, when they see the fires on distant
hill-sides and know that their own wives and children are undergoing
the fate of captives.
The time came when Elsie was to be laid by her mother in the small
square marked by the white stone.
It was not unwillingly that the Reverend Chauncy Fairweather had
relinquished the duty of conducting the service to the Reverend
Doctor Honeywood, in accordance with Elsie's request. He could not,
by any reasoning, reconcile his present way of thinking with a hope
for the future of his unfortunate parishioner. Any good old Roman
Catholic priest, born and bred to his faith and his business, would
have found a loophole into some kind of heaven for her, by virtue of
his doctrine of "invincible ignorance," or other special proviso; but
a recent convert cannot enter into the working conditions of his new
creed. Beliefs must be lived in for a good while, before they
accommodate themselves to the soul's wants, and wear loose enough to
The Reverend Doctor had no such scruples. Like thousands of those
who are classed nominally with the despairing believers, he had never
prayed over a departed brother or sister without feeling and
expressing a guarded hope that there was mercy in store for the poor
sinner, whom parents, wives, children, brothers and sisters could not
bear to give up to utter ruin without a word,--and would not, as he
knew full well, in virtue of that human love and sympathy which
nothing can ever extinguish. And in this poor Elsie's history he
could read nothing which the tears of the recording angel might not
wash away. As the good physician of the place knew the diseases that
assailed the bodies of men and women, so he had learned the mysteries
of the sickness of the soul.
So many wished to look upon Elsie's face once more, that her father
would not deny them; nay, he was pleased that those who remembered
her living should see her in the still beauty of death. Helen and
those with her arrayed her for this farewell-view. All was ready for
the sad or curious eyes which were to look upon her. There 'was no
painful change to be concealed by any artifice. Even her round neck
was left uncovered, that she might be more like one who slept. Only
the golden cord was left in its place: some searching eye might
detect a trace of that birthmark which it was whispered she had
always worn a necklace to conceal.
At the last moment, when all the preparations were completed, Old
Sophy stooped over her, and, with trembling hand, loosed the golden
cord. She looked intently; for some little space: there was no shade
nor blemish where the ring of gold had encircled her throat. She
took it gently away and laid it in the casket which held her
"The Lord be praised!" the old woman cried, aloud. "He has taken
away the mark that was on her; she's fit to meet his holy angels
So Elsie lay for hours in the great room, in a kind of state, with
flowers all about her,--her black hair braided as in life,--her brows
smooth, as if they had never known the scowl of passion,--and on her
lips the faint smile with which she had uttered her last "Good--
night." The young girls from the school looked at her, one after
another, and passed on, sobbing, carrying in their hearts the picture
that would be with them all their days. The great people of the
place were all there with their silent sympathy. The lesser kind of
gentry, and many of the plainer folk of the village, half-pleased to
find themselves passing beneath the stately portico of the ancient
mansion-house, crowded in, until the ample rooms were overflowing.
All the friends whose acquaintance we have made were there, and many
from remoter villages and towns.
There was a deep silence at last. The hour had come for the parting
words to be spoken over the dead. The good old minister's voice rose
out of the stillness, subdued and tremulous at first, but growing
firmer and clearer as he went on, until it reached the ears of the
visitors who were in the far, desolate chambers, looking at the
pictured hangings and the old dusty portraits. He did not tell her
story in his prayer. He only spoke of our dear departed sister as
one of many whom Providence in its wisdom has seen fit to bring under
bondage from their cradles. It was not for us to judge them by any
standard of our own. He who made the heart alone knew the
infirmities it inherited or acquired. For all that our dear sister
had presented that was interesting and attractive in her character we
were to be grateful; for whatever was dark or inexplicable we must
trust that the deep shadow which rested on the twilight dawn of her
being might render a reason before the bar of Omniscience; for the
grace which had lightened her last days we should pour out our hearts
in thankful acknowledgment. From the life and the death of this our
dear sister we should learn a lesson of patience with our fellow-
creatures in their inborn peculiarities, of charity in judging what
seem to us wilful faults of character, of hope and trust, that, by
sickness or affliction, or such inevitable discipline as life must
always bring with it, if by no gentler means, the soul which had been
left by Nature to wander into the path of error and of suffering
might be reclaimed and restored to its true aim, and so led on by
divine grace to its eternal welfare. He closed his prayer by
commending each member of the afflicted family to the divine
Then all at once rose the clear sound of the girls' voices, in the
sweet, sad melody of a funeral hymn,--one of those which Elsie had
marked, as if prophetically, among her own favorites.
And so they laid her in the earth, and showered down flowers upon
her, and filled her grave, and covered it with green sods. By the
side of it was another oblong ridge, with a white stone standing at
its head. Mr. Bernard looked upon it, as he came close to the place
where Elsie was laid, and read the inscription,
WIFE TO DUDLEY VENNER
OCTOBER 13TH 1840
AGED XX YEARS
A gentle rain fell on the turf after it was laid. This was the
beginning of a long and dreary autumnal storm, a deferred
"equinoctial," as many considered it. The mountain streams were all
swollen and turbulent, and the steep declivities were furrowed in
every direction by new channels. It made the house seem doubly
desolate to hear the wind howling and the rain beating upon the
roofs. The poor relation who was staying at the house would insist
on Helen's remaining a few days: Old Sophy was in such a condition,
that it kept her in continual anxiety, and there were many cares
which Helen could take off from her.
The old black woman's life was buried in her darling's grave. She
did nothing but moan and lament for her. At night she was restless,
and would get up and wander to Elsie's apartment and look for her and
call her by name. At other times she would lie awake and listen to
the wind and the rain,--sometimes with such a wild look upon her
face, and with such sudden starts and exclamations, that it seemed as
if she heard spirit-voices and were answering the whispers of unseen
visitants. With all this were mingled hints of her old
superstition,--forebodings of something fearful about to happen,--
perhaps the great final catastrophe of all things, according to the
prediction current in the kitchens of Rockland.
"Hark!" Old Sophy would say,--"don' you hear th' crackin' 'n' th'
snappin' up in Th' Mountain, 'n' th' rollin' o' th' big stones? The'
's somethin' stirrin' among th' rocks; I hear th' soun' of it in th'
night, when th' wind has stopped blowin'. Oh, stay by me a little
while, Miss Darlin'! stay by me! for it's th' Las' Day, maybe,
that's close on us, 'n' I feel as if I could n' meet th' Lord all
It was curious,--but Helen did certainly recognize sounds, during the
lull of the storm, which were not of falling rain or running
streams,--short snapping sounds, as of tense cords breaking,--long
uneven sounds, as of masses rolling down steep declivities. But the
morning came as usual; and as the others said nothing of these
singular noises, Helen did not think it necessary to speak of them.
All day long she and the humble relative of Elsie's mother, who had
appeared as poor relations are wont to in the great prises of life,
were busy in arranging the disordered house, and looking over the
various objects which Elsie's singular tastes had brought together,
to dispose of them as her father might direct. They all met together
at the usual hour for tea. One of the servants came in, looking very
blank, and said to the poor relation,
"The well is gone dry; we have nothing but rainwater."
Dudley Venner's countenance changed; he sprang to, his feet and went
to--assure himself of the fact, and, if he could, of the reason of
it. For a well to dry up during such a rain-storm was
extraordinary,--it was ominous.
He came back, looking very anxious.
"Did any of you notice any remarkable sounds last night," he said,--
"or this morning? Hark! do you hear anything now?"
They listened in perfect silence for a few moments. Then there came
a short cracking sound, and two or three snaps, as of parting cords.
Dudley Venner called all his household together.
"We are in danger here, as I think, to-night," he said,--"not very
great danger, perhaps, but it is a risk I do not wish you to run.
These heavy rains have loosed some of the rocks above, and they may
come down and endanger the house. Harness the horses, Elbridge, and
take all the family away. Miss Darley will go to the Institute; the
others will pass the night at the Mountain House. I shall stay here,
myself: it is not at all likely that anything will come of these
warnings; but if there should, I choose to be there and take my
It needs little, generally, to frighten servants, and they were all
ready enough to go. The poor relation was one of the timid sort, and
was terribly uneasy to be got out of the house. This left no
alternative, of course, for Helen, but to go also. They all urged
upon Dudley Veneer to go with them: if there was danger, why should
he remain to risk it, when he sent away the others?
Old Sophy said nothing until the time came for her to go with the
second of Elbridge's carriage-loads.
"Come, Sophy," said Dudley Veneer, "get your things and go. They
will take good care of you at the Mountain House; and when we have
made sure that there is no real danger, you shall come back at once."
"No, Masse!" Sophy answered. "I've seen Elsie into th' ground, 'n'
I a'n't goin' away to come back 'n' fin' Masse Veneer buried under
th' rocks. My darlin' 's gone; 'n' now, if Masse goes, 'n' th' of
place goes, it's time for Ol' Sophy to go, too. No, Masse Veneer,
we'll both stay in th' of mansion 'n' wait for th' Lord!"
Nothing could change the old woman's determination; and her master,
who only feared, but did not really expect the long-deferred
catastrophe, was obliged to consent to her staying. The sudden
drying of the well at such a time was the most alarming sign; for he
remembered that the same thing had been observed just before great
mountain-slides. This long rain, too, was just the kind of cause
which was likely to loosen the strata of rock piled up in the ledges;
if the dreaded event should ever come to pass, it would be at such a
He paced his chamber uneasily until long past midnight. If the
morning came without accident, he meant to have a careful examination
made of all the rents and fissures above, of their direction and
extent, and especially whether, in case of a mountain-slide, the huge
masses would be like to reach so far to the east and so low down the
declivity as the mansion.
At two o'clock in the morning he was dozing in his chair. Old Sophy
had lain down on her bed, and was muttering in troubled dreams.
All at once a loud crash seemed to rend the very heavens above them:
a crack as of the thunder that follows close upon the bolt,--a
rending and crashing as of a forest snapped through all its stems,
torn, twisted, splintered, dragged with all its ragged boughs into
one chaotic ruin. The ground trembled under them as in an
earthquake; the old mansion shuddered so that all its windows
chattered in their casements; the great chimney shook off its heavy
cap-stones, which came down on the roof with resounding concussions;
and the echoes of The Mountain roared and bellowed in long
reduplication, as if its whole foundations were rent, and this were
the terrible voice of its dissolution.
Dudley Venner rose from his chair, folded his arms, and awaited his
fate. There was no knowing where to look for safety; and he
remembered too well the story of the family that was lost by rushing
out of the house, and so hurrying into the very jaws of death.
He had stood thus but for a moment, when he heard the voice of Old
Sophy in a wild cry of terror:
"It's th' Las' Day! It's th' Las' Day! The Lord is comin' to take
"Sophy!" he called; but she did not hear him or heed him, and rushed
out of the house.
The worst danger was over. If they were to be destroyed, it would
necessarily be in a few seconds from the first thrill of the terrible
convulsion. He waited in awful suspense, but calm. Not more than
one or two minutes could have passed before the frightful tumult and
all its sounding echoes had ceased. He called Old Sophy; but she did
not answer. He went to the western window and looked forth into the
darkness. He could not distinguish the outlines of the landscape,
but the white stone was clearly visible, and by its side the new-made
mound. Nay, what was that which obscured its outline, in shape like
a human figure? He flung open the window and sprang through. It was
all that there was left of poor Old Sophy, stretched out lifeless,
upon her darling's grave.
He had scarcely composed her limbs and drawn the sheet over her, when
the neighbors began to arrive from all directions. Each was
expecting to hear of houses overwhelmed and families destroyed; but
each came with the story that his own household was safe. It was not
until the morning dawned that the true nature and extent of the
sudden movement was ascertained. A great seam had opened above the
long cliff, and the terrible Rattlesnake Ledge, with all its
envenomed reptiles, its dark fissures and black caverns, was buried
forever beneath a mighty incumbent mass of ruin.
MR. SILAS PECKHAM RENDERS HIS ACCOUNT.
The morning rose clear and bright. The long storm was over, and the
calm autumnal sunshine was now to return, with all its infinite
repose and sweetness. With the earliest dawn exploring parties were
out in every direction along the southern slope of The Mountain,
tracing the ravages of the great slide and the track it had followed.
It proved to be not so much a slide as the breaking off and falling
of a vast line of cliff, including the dreaded Ledge. It had folded
over like the leaves of a half-opened book when they close, crushing
the trees below, piling its ruins in a glacis at the foot of what had
been the overhanging wall of the cliff, and filling up that deep
cavity above the mansion-house which bore the ill-omened name of Dead
Man's Hollow. This it was which had saved the Dudley mansion. The
falling masses, or huge fragments breaking off from them, would have
swept the house and all around it to destruction but for this deep
shelving dell, into which the stream of ruin was happily directed.
It was, indeed, one of Nature's conservative revolutions; for the
fallen masses made a kind oz shelf, which interposed a level break
between the inclined planes above and below it, so that the
nightmare-fancies of the dwellers in the Dudley mansion, and in many
other residences under the shadow of The Mountain, need not keep them
lying awake hereafter to listen for the snapping of roots and the
splitting of the rocks above them.
Twenty-four hours after the falling of the cliff, it seemed as if it
had happened ages ago. The new fact had fitted itself in with all
the old predictions, forebodings, fears, and acquired the solidarity
belonging to all events which have slipped out of the fingers of Time
and dissolved in the antecedent eternity.
Old Sophy was lying dead in the Dudley mansion. If there were tears
shed for her, they could not be bitter ones; for she had lived out
her full measure of days, and gone--who could help fondly believing
it?--to rejoin her beloved mistress. They made a place for her at
the foot of the two mounds. It was thus she would have chosen to
sleep, and not to have wronged her humble devotion in life by asking
to lie at the side of those whom she had served so long and
faithfully. There were very few present at the simple ceremony.
Helen Darley was one of these few. The old black woman had been her
companion in all the kind offices of which she had been the
ministering angel to Elsie.
After it was all over, Helen was leaving with the rest, when Dudley
Veneer begged her to stay a little, and he would send her back: it
was a long walk; besides, he wished to say some things to her, which
he had not had the opportunity of speaking. Of course Helen could
not refuse him; there must be many thoughts coming into his mind
which he would wish to share with her who had known his daughter so
long and been with filer in her last days.
She returned into the great parlor with the wrought cornices and the
medallion-portraits on the ceiling.
"I am now alone in the world," Dudley Veneer said.
Helen must have known that before he spoke. But the tone in which he
said it had so much meaning, that she could not find a word to answer
him with. They sat in silence, which the old tall clock counted out
in long seconds; but it was silence which meant more than any words
they had ever spoken.
"Alone in the world. Helen, the freshness of my life is gone, and
there is little left of the few graces which in my younger days might
have fitted me to win the love of women. Listen to me,--kindly, if
you can; forgive me, at least. Half my life has been passed in
constant fear and anguish, without any near friend to share my
trials. My task is done now; my fears have ceased to prey upon me;
the sharpness of early sorrows has yielded something of its edge to
time. You have bound me to you by gratitude in the tender care you
have taken of my poor child. More than this. I must tell you all
now, out of the depth of this trouble through which I am passing. I
have loved you from the moment we first met; and if my life has
anything left worth accepting, it is yours. Will you take the
Helen looked in his face, surprised, bewildered.
"This is not for me,--not for me," she said. "I am but a poor faded
flower, not worth the gathering, of such a one as you. No, no,--I
have been bred to humble toil all my days, and I could not be to you
what you ought to ask. I am accustomed to a kind of loneliness and
self-dependence. I have seen nothing, almost, of the world, such as
you were born to move in. Leave me to my obscure place and duties; I
shall at least have peace;--and you--you will surely find in due time
some one better fitted by Nature and training to make you happy."
"No, Miss Darley! "Dudley Venner said, almost sternly. "You must
not speak to a man, who has lived through my experiences, of looking
about for a new choice after his heart has once chosen. Say that you
can never love me; say that I have lived too long to share your young
life; say that sorrow has left nothing in me for Love to find his
pleasure in; but do not mock me with the hope of a new affection for
some unknown object. The first look of yours brought me to your
side. The first tone of your voice sunk into my heart. From this
moment my life must wither out or bloom anew. My home is desolate.
Come under my roof and make it bright once more,--share my life with
me,--or I shall give the halls of the old mansion to the bats and the
owls, and wander forth alone without a hope or a friend!"
To find herself with a man's future at the disposal of a single word
of hers!---a man like this, too, with a fascination for her against
which she had tried to shut her heart, feeling that he lived in
another sphere than hers, working as she was for her bread a poor
operative in the factory of a hard master and jealous overseer, the
salaried drudge of Mr. Silas Peckham! Why, she had thought he was
grateful to her as a friend of his daughter; she had even pleased
herself with the feeling that he liked her, in her humble place, as a
woman of some cultivation and many sympathetic points of relation
with himself; but that he loved her,--that this deep, fine nature, in
a man so far removed from her in outward circumstance, should have
found its counterpart in one whom life had treated so coldly as
herself,--that Dudley Venner should stake his happiness on a breath
of hers,--poor Helen Darley's,---it was all a surprise, a confusion,
a kind of fear not wholly fearful. Ah, me! women know what it is,
that mist over the eyes, that trembling in the limbs, that faltering
of the voice, that sweet, shame-faced, unspoken confession of
weakness which does not wish to be strong, that sudden overflow in
the soul where thoughts loose their hold on each other and swim
single and helpless in the flood of emotion,--women know what it is!
No doubt she was a little frightened and a good deal bewildered, and
that her sympathies were warmly excited for a friend to whom she had
been brought so near, and whose loneliness she saw and pitied. She
lost that calm self-possession she had hoped to maintain.
"If I thought that I could make you happy,--if I should speak from my
heart, and not my reason,--I am but a weak woman,--yet if I can be to
you--What can I say?"
What more could this poor, dear Helen say?
"Elbridge, harness the horses and take Miss Darley back to the
What conversation had taken place since Helen's rhetorical failure is
not recorded in the minutes from which this narrative is constructed.
But when the man who had been summoned had gone to get the carriage
ready, Helen resumed something she had been speaking of.
"Not for the world. Everything must go on just as it has gone on,
for the present. There are proprieties to be consulted. I cannot be
hard with you, that out of your very affliction has sprung this--this
well--you must name it for me,--but the world will never listen to
explanations. I am to be Helen Darley, lady assistant in Mr. Silas
Peckham's school, as long as I see fit to hold my office. And I mean
to attend to my scholars just as before; so that I shall have very
little time for visiting or seeing company. I believe, though, you
are one of the Trustees and a Member of the Examining Committee; so
that, if you should happen to visit the school, I shall try to be
civil to you."
Every lady sees, of course, that Helen was quite right; but perhaps
here and there one will think that Dudley Venner was all wrong,--that
he was too hasty,--that he should have been too full of his recent
grief for such a confession as he has just made, and the passion from
which it sprung. Perhaps they do not understand the sudden recoil of
a strong nature long compressed. Perhaps they have not studied the
mystery of allotropism in the emotions of the human heart. Go to the
nearest chemist and ask him to show you some of the dark-red
phosphorus which will not burn without fierce heating, but at
500 deg. Fahrenheit, changes back again to the inflammable substance
we know so well. Grief seems more like ashes than like fire; but as
grief has been love once, so it may become love again. This is
Helen rode back to the Institute and inquired for Mr. Peckham. She
had not seen him during the brief interval between her departure from
the mansion-house and her return to Old Sophy's funeral. There were
various questions about the school she wished to ask.
"Oh, how's your haalth, Miss Darley?" Silas began. "We've missed you
consid'able. Glad to see you back at the post of dooty. Hope the
Squire treated you hahnsomely,--liberal pecooniary compensation,
--hey? A'n't much of a loser, I guess, by acceptin' his
Helen blushed at this last question, as if Silas had meant something
by it beyond asking what money she had received; but his own
double-meaning expression and her blush were too nice points for him
to have taken cognizance of. He was engaged in a mental calculation
as to the amount of the deduction he should make under the head of
"demage to the institootion,"--this depending somewhat on that of the
"pecooniary compensation" she might have received for her services as
the friend of Elsie Venner.
So Helen slid back at once into her routine, the same faithful,
patient creature she had always been. But what was this new light
which seemed to have kindled in her eyes? What was this look of
peace, which nothing could disturb, which smiled serenely through all
the little meannesses with which the daily life of the educational
factory surrounded her, which not only made her seem resigned, but
overflowed all her features with a thoughtful, subdued happiness? Mr.
Bernard did not know,--perhaps he did not guess. The inmates of the
Dudley mansion were not scandalized by any mysterious visits of a
veiled or unveiled lady. The vibrating tongues of the "female youth"
of the Institute were not set in motion by the standing of an
equipage at the gate, waiting for their lady-teacher. The servants
at the mansion did not convey numerous letters with superscriptions
in a bold, manly hand, sealed with the arms of a well-known house,
and directed to Miss Helen Darley; nor, on the other hand, did Hiram,
the man from the lean streak in New Hampshire, carry sweet-smelling,
rose-hued, many-layered, criss-crossed, fine-stitch-lettered packages
of note-paper directed to Dudley Venner, Esq., and all too scanty to
hold that incredible expansion of the famous three words which a
woman was born to say,--that perpetual miracle which astonishes all
the go-betweens who wear their shoes out in carrying a woman's
infinite variations on the theme
"I love you."
But the reader must remember that there are walks in country-towns
where people are liable to meet by accident, and that the hollow of
an old tree has served the purpose of a post-office sometimes; so
that he has her choice (to divide the pronouns impartially) of
various hypotheses to account for the new glory of happiness which
seemed to have irradiated our poor Helen's features, as if her dreary
life were awakening in the dawn of a blessed future.
With all the alleviations which have been hinted at, Mr. Dudley
Venner thought that the days and the weeks had never moved so slowly
as through the last period of the autumn that was passing. Elsie had
been a perpetual source of anxiety to him, but still she had been a
companion. He could not mourn for her; for he felt that she was
safer with her mother, in that world where there are no more sorrows
and dangers, than she could have been with him. But as he sat at his
window and looked at the three mounds, the loneliness of the great
house made it seem more like the sepulchre than these narrow
dwellings where his beloved and her daughter lay close to each other,
side by side,--Catalina, the bride of his youth, and Elsie, the child
whom he had nurtured, with poor Old Sophy, who had followed them like
a black shadow, at their feet, under the same soft turf, sprinkled
with the brown autumnal leaves. It was not good for him to be thus
alone. How should he ever live through the long months of November
The months of November and December did, in some way or other, get
rid of themselves at last, bringing with them the usual events of
village-life and a few unusual ones. Some of the geologists had been
up to look at the great slide, of which they gave those prolix
accounts which everybody remembers who read the scientific journals
of the time. The engineers reported that there was little
probability of any further convulsion along the line of rocks which
overhung the more thickly settled part of the town. The naturalists
drew up a paper on the "Probable Extinction of the Crotalus Durissus
in the Township of Rockland." The engagement of the Widow Rowens to
a Little Millionville merchant was announced,--"Sudding 'n'
onexpected," Widow Leech said,--"waalthy, or she wouldn't ha' looked
at him,--fifty year old, if he is a day, 'n' hu'n't got a white hair
in his head." The Reverend Chauncy Fairweather had publicly
announced that he was going to join the Roman Catholic communion,--
not so much to the surprise or consternation of the religious world
as he had supposed. Several old ladies forthwith proclaimed their
intention of following him; but, as one or two of them were deaf, and
another had been threatened with an attack of that mild, but
obstinate complaint, dementia senilis, many thought it was not so
much the force of his arguments as a kind of tendency to jump as the
bellwether jumps, well known in flocks not included in the Christian
fold. His bereaved congregation immediately began pulling candidates
on and off, like new boots, on trial. Some pinched in tender places;
some were too loose; some were too square-toed; some were too coarse,
and did n't please; some were too thin, and would n't last;--in
short, they could n't possibly find a fit. At last, people began to
drop in to hear old Doctor Honeywood. They were quite surprised to
find what a human old gentleman he was, and went back and told the
others, that, instead of being a case of confluent sectarianism, as
they supposed, the good old minister had been so well vaccinated with
charitable virus that he was now a true, open-souled Christian of the
mildest type. The end of all which was, that the liberal people went
over to the old minister almost in a body, just at the time that
Deacon Shearer and the "Vinegar-Bible" party split off, and that not
long afterwards they sold their own meeting-house to the
malecontents, so that Deacon Soper used often to remind Colonel
Sprowle of his wish that "our little man and him [the Reverend Doctor]
would swop pulpits," and tell him it had "pooty nigh come trew."---
But this is anticipating the course of events, which were much longer
in coming about; for we have but just got through that terrible long
month, as Mr. Dudley Venner found it, of December.
On the first of January, Mr. Silas Peckham was in the habit of
settling his quarterly accounts, and making such new arrangements as
his convenience or interest dictated. New Year was a holiday at the
Institute. No doubt this accounted for Helen's being dressed so
charmingly,--always, to be sure in, her own simple way, but yet with
such a true lady's air, that she looked fit to be the mistress of any
mansion in the land.
She was in the parlor alone, a little before noon, when Mr. Peckham
"I'm ready to settle my accaount with you now, Miss Darley," said
"As you please, Mr. Peckham," Helen answered, very graciously.
"Before payin' you your selary," the Principal continued, "I wish to
come to an understandin' as to the futur'. I consider that I've been
payin' high, very high, for the work you do. Women's wages can't be
expected to do more than feed and clothe 'em, as a gineral thing,
with a little savin', in case of sickness, and to bury 'em, if they
break daown, as all of 'em are liable to do at any time. If I a'n't
misinformed, you not only support yourself out of my establishment,
but likewise relatives of yours, who I don't know that I'm called
upon to feed and clothe. There is a young woman, not burdened with
destitute relatives, has signified that she would be glad to take
your dooties for less pecooniary compensation, by a consid'able
amaount, than you now receive. I shall be willin', however, to
retain your services at sech redooced rate as we shall fix upon,--
provided sech redooced rate be as low or lower than the same services
can be obtained elsewhere."
"As you please, Mr. Peckham," Helen answered, with a smile so sweet
that the Principal (who of course had trumped up this opposition-
teacher for the occasion) said to himself she would stand being cut
down a quarter, perhaps a half, of her salary.
"Here is your accaount, Miss Darley, and the balance doo you," said
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