HotFreeBooks.com
Miles Wallingford - Sequel to "Afloat and Ashore"
by James Fenimore Cooper
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

The breakfast had ever been a happy meal at Clawbonny. My father, though merely a ship-master, was one of the better class; and he had imbibed many notions, in the course of his different voyages, that placed him much in advance of the ordinary habits of his day and country. Then an American ship-master is usually superior to those of other countries. This arises from some of the peculiarities of our institutions, as well as from the circumstance that the navy is so small. Among other improvements, my father had broken in upon the venerable American custom of swallowing a meal as soon as out of bed. The breakfast at Clawbonny, from my earliest infancy, or as long as I can remember, had been eaten regularly at nine o'clock, a happy medium between the laziness of dissipation and the hurry of ill-formed habits. At that hour the whole family used to meet, still fresh from a night's repose, and yet enlivened and gay by an hour or two of exercise in the open air, instead of coming to the family board half asleep, with a sort of drowsy sulkiness, as, if the meal were a duty, and not a pleasure. We ate as leisurely as keen appetites would permit; laughed, chatted, related the events of the morning, conversed of our plans for the day, and indulged our several tastes and humours, like people who had been up and stirring, and not like so many drowsy drones swallowing our food for form's sake. The American breakfast has been celebrated by several modern writers, and it deserves to be, though certainly not to be compared to that of France. Still it might be far better than it is, did our people understand the mood in which it ought to be enjoyed.

While on this subject, the reader will excuse an old man's prolixity, if I say a word on the state of the science of the table in general, as it is put in practice in this great republic. A writer of this country, one Mr. Cooper, has somewhere said that the Americans are the grossest feeders in the civilized world, and warns his countrymen to remember that a national character may be formed in the kitchen. This remark is commented on by Captain Marryatt, who calls it both unjust and ill-natured. As for the ill-nature I shall say nothing, unless it be to remark that I do not well see how that which is undeniably true ought to be thought so very ill-natured. That it is true, every American who has seen much of other lands must know. Captain-Marryatt's allegation that the tables are good in the large towns, has nothing to do with the merits of this question. The larger American towns are among the best eating and drinking portions of the world. But what are they as compared to the whole country? What are the public tables, or the tables of the refined, as compared to the tables of the mass, even in these very towns? All things are to be judged of by the rules, and not by the exceptions. Because a small portion of the American population understand what good cookery is, it by no means follows that all do. Who would think of saying that the people of England live on white bait and venison, because the nobility and gentry (the aldermen inclusive) can enjoy both, in the seasons, ad libitum? I suspect this Mr. Cooper knows quite as well what he is about, when writing of America, as any European. If pork fried in grease, and grease pervading half the other dishes, vegetables cooked without any art, and meats done to rags, make a good table, then is this Mr. Cooper wrong, and Captain Marryatt right, and vice versa. As yet, while nature has done so much in America, art has done but little. Much compared with numbers and time, certainly, but little as compared with what numbers and time have done elsewhere. Nevertheless, I would make an exception in favour of America, as respects the table of one country, though not so much in connection with the coarseness of the feeding as in the poverty of the food. I consider the higher parts of Germany to be the portions of the Christian world where eating and drinking are in the most primitive condition; and that part of this great republic, which Mr. Alison Would probably call the State of New England, to come next. In abundance and excellence of food in the native form, America is particularly favoured; Baltimore being at the very nucleus of all that is exquisite in the great business of mastication. Nevertheless, the substitution of cooks from the interior of New England, for the present glistening tenants of her kitchens, would turn even that paradise of the epicure into a sort of oleaginous waste. Enough of cookery.

Lucy did not appear at prayers next morning! I felt her absence as one feels the certainty of some dreadful evil. Breakfast was announced; still Lucy did not appear. The table was smoking and hissing; and Romeo Clawbonny, who acted as the everyday house-servant, or footman, had several times intimated that it might be well to commence operations, as a cold breakfast was very cold comfort.

"Miles, my dear boy," observed Mr. Hardinge, after opening the door to look for the absentee half a dozen times, "we will wait no longer. My daughter, no doubt, intends to breakfast with Grace, to keep the poor dear girl company; for it is dull work to breakfast by oneself. You and I miss Lucy sadly, at this very moment, though we have each other's company to console us."

We had just taken our seats, when the door slowly opened, and Lucy entered the room.

"Good morning, dearest father," said the sweet girl, passing an arm round Mr. Hardinge's neck, with more than her usual tenderness of manner, and imprinting a long kiss on his bald head. "Good morning, Miles," stretching towards me a hand, but averting her face, as afraid it might reveal too much, when exposed fully to my anxious and inquiring gaze. "Grace passed a pretty quiet night, and is, I think, a little less disturbed this morning than she was yesterday."

Neither of us answered or questioned the dear nurse. What a breakfast was that, compared to so many hundreds in which I had shared at that very table, and in that same room! Three of the accustomed faces were there, it is true; all the appliances were familiar, some dating as far back as the time of the first Miles; Romeo, now a grey-headed and wrinkled negro, was in his usual place; but Chloe, who was accustomed to pass often between her young mistress and a certain closet, at that meal, which never seemed to have all we wanted arranged on the table at first, was absent, as was that precious "young mistress" herself. "Gracious Providence!" I mentally ejaculated, "is it thy will it should ever be thus? Am I never again to see those dove-like eyes turned on me in sisterly affection from the head of my table, as I have so often seen them, on hundreds and hundreds of occasions?" Lucy's spirits had sometimes caused her to laugh merrily; and her musical voice once used to mingle with Rupert's and my own more manly and deeper notes, in something like audible mirth; not that Lucy was ever boisterous or loud; but, in early girlhood, she had been gay and animated, to a degree that often blended with the noisier clamour of us boys. With Grace, this had never happened. She seldom spoke, except in moments when the rest were still; and her laugh was rarely audible, though so often heartfelt and joyous. It may seem strange to those who have never suffered the pang of feeling that such a customary circle was broken up forever; but, that morning, the first in which I keenly felt that my sister was lost to me, I actually missed her graceful, eloquent, silence!

"Miles," said Lucy, as she rose from the table, tears trembling on her eyelids as she spoke, "half an hour hence come to the family room. Grace wishes to see you there this morning, and I have not been able to deny her request. She is weak, but thinks the visit will do her good. Do not fail to be punctual, as waiting might distress her. Good morning, dearest papa; when I want you, I will send for you."

Lucy left us with these ominous notices, and I felt the necessity of going on the lawn for air. I walked my half-hour out, and returned to the house in time to be punctual to the appointment. Chloe met me at the door, and led the way in silence towards the family room. Her hand was no sooner laid on the latch than Lucy appeared, beckoning me to enter. I found Grace reclining on that small settee, or causeuse, on which we had held our first interview, looking pallid and uneasy, but still looking lovely and as ethereal as ever. She held out a hand affectionately, and then I saw her glance towards Lucy, as if asking to be left with me alone. As for myself, I could not speak. Taking my old place, I drew my sister's head on my bosom, and sat holding it in silence for many painful minutes. In that position I could conceal the tears which forced themselves from my eyes, it exceeding all my powers to repress these evidences of human grief. As I took my place, the figure of Lucy disappeared, and the door closed.

I never knew how long a time Grace and I continued in that tender attitude. I was not in a state of mind to note such a fact, and have since striven hard to forget most that occurred in that solemn interview. After a lapse of so many years, however, I find memory painfully accurate on all the leading circumstances, though it was impossible to recall a point of which I took no heed at the moment. Such things only as made an impression is it in my power to relate.

When Grace gently, and I might add faintly, raised herself from my bosom, she turned on me eyes that were filled with a kind anxiety on my account rather than on her own.

"Brother," she said, earnestly, "the will of God must be submitted to—I am very, very ill—broken in pieces—I grow weaker every hour. It is not right to conceal such a truth from ourselves, or from each other."

I made no reply, although she evidently paused to give me an opportunity to speak. I could not have uttered a syllable to have saved my life. The pause was impressive, rather than long.

"I have sent for you, dearest Miles," my sister continued, "not that I think it probable I shall be called away soon or suddenly—God will spare me for a little while, I humbly trust, in order to temper the blow to those I love; but he is about to call me to him, and we must all be prepared for it; you, and dear, dear Lucy, and my beloved guardian, as well as myself. I have not sent for you even to tell you this; for Lucy gives me reason to believe you expect the separation; but I wish to speak to you on a subject that is very near my heart, while I have strength and fortitude to speak on it at all. Promise me, dearest, to be calm, and to listen patiently."

"Your slightest wish will be a law to me, beloved, most precious sister; I shall listen as if we were in our days of childish confidence and happiness—though I fear those days are never to return!"

"Feel not thus, Miles, my noble-hearted, manly brother. Heaven will not desert you, unless you desert your God; it does not desert me, but angels beckon me to its bliss! Were it not for you and Lucy, and my dear, dear guardian, the hour of my departure would be a moment of pure felicity. But we will not talk of this now. You must prepare yourself, Miles, to hear me patiently, and to be indulgent to my last wishes, even should they seem unreasonable to your mind at first."

"I have told you, Grace, that a request of your's will be a law to me; have no hesitation, therefore, in letting me know any, or all your wishes."

"Let us, then, speak of worldly things; for the last time, I trust, my brother. Sincerely do I hope that this will be the last occasion on which I shall ever be called to allude to them. This duty discharged, all that will remain to me on earth will be the love I bear my friends. This Heaven itself will excuse, as I shall strive not to let it lessen that I bear my God."

Grace paused, and I sat wondering what was to follow, though touched to the heart by her beautiful resignation to a fate that to most so young would seem hard to be borne.

"Miles, my brother," she continued, looking at me anxiously, "we have not spoken much of your success in your last voyage, though I have understood that you have materially increased your means."

"It has quite equalled my expectations; and, rich in my ship and ready money, I am content, to say nothing of Clawbonny. Do what you will with your own, therefore, my sister; not a wish of mine shall ever grudge a dollar; I would rather not be enriched by your loss. Make your bequests freely, and I shall look on each and all of them as so many memorials of your affectionate heart and many virtues."

Grace's cheeks flushed, and I could see that she was extremely gratified, though still tremblingly anxious.

"You doubtless remember that by our father's will, Miles, my property becomes your's, if I die without children before I reach the age of twenty-one; while your's would have been mine under the same circumstances. As I am barely twenty, it is out of my power to make a legal will."

"It is in your power to make one that shall be equally binding, Grace. I will go this instant for pen, ink, and paper; and, as you dictate, will I write a will that shall be even more binding than one that might come within the rules of the law."

"Nay, brother, that is unnecessary; all I wish I have already said in a letter addressed to yourself; and which, should you now approve of it, will be found among my papers as a memorandum. But there should be no misapprehension between you and me, dearest Miles. I do not wish you even fully to consent to my wishes, now; take time to consider, and let your judgment have as much influence on your decision as your own excellent heart."

"I am as ready to decide at this moment as I shall be a year hence. It is enough for me that you wish the thing done, to have it done, sister."

"Bless you—bless you—brother"—said Grace, affectionately pressing my hand to her heart—"not so much that you consent to do as I wish, as for the spirit and manner in which you comply. Still, as I ask no trifle, it is proper that I release you from all pledges here given, and allow you time for reflection. Then, it is also proper you should know the full extent of what you promise."

"It is enough for me that it will be in my power to perform what you desire; further than that I make no stipulation."

I could see that Grace was profoundly struck with this proof of my attachment; but her own sense of right was too just and active to suffer the matter to rest there.

"I must explain further," she added. "Mr. Hardinge has been a most faithful steward; and, by means of economy, during my long minority, the little cost that has attended my manner of living, and some fortunate investments that have been made of interest-money, I find myself a good deal richer than I had supposed. In relinquishing my property, Miles, you will relinquish rather more than two-and-twenty thousand dollars; or quite twelve hundred a year. There ought to be no misapprehensions on this subject, between us; least of all at such a moment."

"I wish it were more, my sister, since it gives you pleasure to bestow it. If it will render you any happier to perfect any of your plans, take ten thousand of my own, and add to the sum which is now your's. I would increase, rather than lessen your means of doing good."

"Miles—Miles"—said Grace, dreadfully agitated—"talk not thus—it almost shakes my purpose! But no; listen now to my wishes, for I feel this will be the last time I shall ever dare to speak on the subject. In the first place, I wish you to purchase some appropriate ornament, of the value of five hundred dollars, and present it to Lucy as a memorial of her friend. Give also one thousand dollars in money to Mr. Hardinge, to be distributed in charity. A letter to him on the subject, and one to Lucy, will also be found among my papers. There will still remain enough to make suitable presents to the slaves, and leave the sum of twenty thousand dollars entire and untouched."

"And what shall I do with these twenty thousand dollars, sister?" I asked, Grace hesitating to proceed.

"That sum, dearest Miles, I wish to go to Rupert. You know that he is totally without fortune, with the habits of a man of estate. The little I can leave him will not make him rich, but it may be the means of making him happy and respectable. I trust Lucy will add to it, when she comes of age, and the future will be happier for them all than the past."

My sister spoke quick, and was compelled to pause for breath. As for myself, the reader can better imagine than I can describe my sensations, which were of a character almost to overwhelm me. The circumstance that I felt precluded from making any serious objections, added to the intensity of my suffering, left me in a state of grief, regret, indignation, wonder, pity and tenderness, that it is wholly out of my power to delineate. Here, then, was the tenderness of the woman enduring to the last; caring for the heartless wretch who had destroyed the very springs of life in her physical being, while it crushed the moral like a worm beneath the foot; yet bequeathing, with her dying breath, as it might be, all the worldly goods in her possession, to administer to his selfishness and vanity!

"I know you must think this strange, brother;" resumed Grace, who doubtless saw how utterly unable I was to reply; "but, I shall not die at peace with myself without it. Unless he possess some marked assurance of my forgiveness, my death will render Rupert miserable; with such a marked assurance, he will be confident of possessing my pardon and my prayers. Then, both he and Emily are pennyless, I fear, and their lives may be rendered blanks for the want of the little money it is in my power to bestow. At the proper time, Lucy, I feel confident, will add her part; and you, who remain behind me, can all look on my grave, and bless its humble tenant!"

"Angel!" I murmured—"this is too much! Can you suppose Rupert will accept this money?"

Ill as I thought of Rupert Hardinge, I could not bring my mind to believe he was so base as to receive money coming from such a source, and with such a motive. Grace, however, viewed the matter differently; not that she attached anything discreditable to Rupert's compliance, for her own womanly tenderness, long and deeply rooted attachment, made it appear to her eyes more as an act of compliance with her own last behest, than as the act of degrading meanness it would unquestionably appear to be, to all the rest of the world.

"How can he refuse this to me, coming to him, as the request will, from my grave?" rejoined the lovely enthusiast. "He will owe it to me; he will owe it to our former affection—for he once loved me, Miles; nay, he loved me even more than you ever did, or could, dearest—much as I know you love me."

"By heavens, Grace," I exclaimed, unable to control myself any longer, "that is a fearful mistake. Rupert Hardinge is incapable of loving anything but himself; he has never been worthy of occupying the most idle moment of a heart true and faithful as your's."

These words escaped me under an impulse I found entirely impossible to control. Scarcely were they uttered, ere I deeply regretted the indiscretion. Grace looked at me imploringly, turned as pale as death, and trembled all over, as if on the verge of dissolution. I took her in my arms, I implored her pardon, I promised to command myself in future, and I repeated the most solemn assurances of complying with her wishes to the very letter. I am not certain I could have found it in my heart not to have recalled my promise, but for the advantage my sister obtained over me, by means of this act of weakness. There was something so exceedingly revolting to me in the whole affair, that even Grace's holy weakness failed to sanctify the act in my eyes; at least so far as Rupert was concerned. I owe it to myself to add that not a selfish thought mingled with my reluctance, which proceeded purely from the distaste I felt to seeing Lucy's brother, and a man for whom I had once entertained a boyish regard, making himself so thoroughly an object of contempt. As I entertained serious doubts of even Rupert's sinking so low, I felt the necessity of speaking to my sister on the subject of such a contingency.

"One might hesitate about accepting your money, after all, dearest sister," I said; "and it is proper you give me directions what I am to do, in the event of Rupert's declining the gift."

"I think that is little probable, Miles," answered Grace, who lived and died under a species of hallucination on the subject of her early lover's real character—"Rupert may not have been able to command his affections, but he cannot cease to feel a sincere friendship for me; to remember our ancient confidence and intimacy. He will receive the bequest, as you would take one from dear Lucy," added my sister, a painful-looking smile illuminating that angelic expression of countenance to which I have so often alluded; "or, as that of a sister. You would not refuse such a thing to Lucy's dying request, and why should Rupert to mine?"

Poor Grace! Little did she see the immense difference there was in my relation to Lucy and that which Rupert bore to her. I could not explain this difference, however, but merely assented to her wishes, renewing, for the fourth or fifth time, my pledges of performing with fidelity all she asked at my hands. Grace then put into my hands an unsealed letter addressed to Rupert, which she desired me to read when alone, and which I was to have delivered with the legacy or donation of money.

"Let me rest once more on your bosom, Miles," said Grace, reclining her head in my arms, quite exhausted under the reaction of the excitement she had felt while urging her request. "I feel happier, at this moment, than I have been for a long time; yet, my increasing weakness admonishes me it cannot last long. Miles, darling, you must remember all our sainted mother taught you in childhood, and you will not mourn over my loss. Could I leave you united to one who understood and appreciated your worth, I should die contented. But you will be left alone, poor Miles; for a time, at least, you will mourn for me."

"Forever—long as life lasts, beloved Grace," I murmured, almost in her ear.

Exhaustion kept my sister quiet for a quarter of an hour, though I felt an occasional pressure of her hands, both of which held one of mine; and I could hear words asking blessings and consolation for me, whispered, from time to time, in heartfelt petitions to heaven. As she gained strength by repose, my sister felt the desire to continue the discourse revive. I begged her not to incur the risk of further fatigue but she answered, smiling affectionately in my face—

"Rest!—There will be no permanent rest for me, until laid by the side of my parents. Miles, do your thoughts ever recur to that picture of the future that is so precious to the believer, and which leads us to hope, if not absolutely to confide in it as a matter of faith, that we may recognise each other in the next state of being, and that in a communion still sweeter than any of this life, since it will be a communion free from all sin, and governed by holiness?"

"We sailors give little heed to these matters, Grace; but I feel that, in future, the idea you have just mentioned will be full of consolation to me."

"Remember, my best-beloved brother, it is only the blessed that can enjoy such a recognition—to the accursed it must add an additional weight to the burthen of their woe."

"Felix trembled!" The thought that even this chance of again meeting my sister, and of communing with her in the form in which I had ever seen and loved her might be lost, came in aid of other good resolutions that the state of the family had quickened in my heart. I thought, however, it might be well not to let Grace lead the conversation to such subjects, after all that had just passed, repose becoming necessary to her again. I therefore proposed calling Lucy, in order that she might be carried to her own room. I say carried; for, by a remark that fell from Chloe, I had ascertained that this was the mode in which she had been brought to the place of meeting. Grace acquiesced; but while we waited for Chloe to answer the bell, she continued to converse.

"I have not exacted of you, Miles," my sister continued, "any promise to keep my bequest a secret from the world; your own sense of delicacy would do that; but, I will make it a condition that you do not speak of it to either Mr. Hardinge or Lucy. They may possibly raise weak objections, particularly the last, who has, and ever has had, some exaggerated opinions about receiving money. Even in heydays of poverty, and poor as she was, you know, notwithstanding our true love for each other, and close intimacy, I never could induce Lucy to receive a cent. Nay, so scrupulous has she been that the little presents which friends constantly give and receive, she would decline, because she had not the means of offering them in return."

I remembered the gold the dear girl had forced on me, when I first went to sea, and could have kneeled at her feet and called her "blessed."

"And this did not make you love and respect Lucy the less, my sister? But do not answer; so much conversing must distress you."

"Not at all, Miles. I speak without suffering, nor does the little talking I do enfeeble me in the least. When I appear exhausted, it is from the feelings which accompany our discourse. I talk much, very much, with dear Lucy, who hears me with more patience than yourself, brother!"

I knew that this remark applied to Grace's wish to dwell on the unknown future, and did not receive it as a reproach in any other sense. As she seemed calm, however, I was willing to indulge her wish to converse with me, so long as she dwelt on subjects that did not agitate her. Speaking of her hopes of heaven had a contrary effect, and I made no further opposition.

"Lucy's hesitation to be under the obligations you mention did not lessen her in your esteem?" I repeated.

"You know it could not, Miles. Lucy is a dear, good girl; and the more intimately one knows her, the more certain is one to esteem her. I have every reason to bless and pray for Lucy; still, I desire you not to make either her or her father acquainted with my bequest."

"Rupert would hardly conceal such a thing from so near and dear friends."

"Let Rupert judge of the propriety of that for himself. Kiss me, brother; do not ask to see me again to-day, for I have much to arrange with Lucy; to-morrow I shall expect a long visit. God bless you, my own, dear,—my only brother, and ever have you in his holy keeping!"

I left the room as Chloe entered; and, in threading the long passage that led to the apartment which was appropriated to my own particular purposes, as an office, cabinet, or study, I met Lucy near the door of the latter. I could see she had been weeping, and she followed me into the room.

"What do you think of her, Miles?" the dear girl asked, uttering the words in a tone so low and plaintive as to say all that she anticipated herself.

"We shall lose her, Lucy; yes, 'tis God's pleasure to call her to himself."

Had worlds depended on the effort, I could not have got out another syllable. The feelings which had been so long pent up in Grace's presence broke out, and I am not ashamed to say that I wept and sobbed like an infant.

How kind, how woman-like, how affectionate did Lucy show herself at that bitter moment. She said but little, though I think I overheard her murmuring "poor Miles!"—"poor, dear Miles!"—"what a blow it must be to a brother!"—"God will temper this loss to him!" and other similar expressions. She took one of my hands and pressed it warmly between both her own; held it there for two or three minutes; hovered round me, as the mother keeps near its slumbering infant when illness renders rest necessary; and seemed more like a spirit sympathizing with my grief than a mere observer of its violence. In reflecting on what then passed months afterwards, it appeared to me that Lucy had entirely forgotten herself, her own causes of sorrow, her own feelings as respected Grace, in the single wish to solace me. But this was ever her character; this was her very nature; to live out of herself, as it might be, and in the existences of those whom she esteemed or loved. During this scene, Lucy lost most of the restraints which womanhood and more matured habits had placed on her deportment; and she behaved towards me with the innocent familiarity that marked our intercourse down to the time I sailed in the Crisis. It is true, I was too dreadfully agitated at first to take heed of all that passed; but, I well remember, that, before leaving me in obedience to a summons from Grace, she laid her head affectionately on mine, and kissed the curls with which nature had so profusely covered the last. I thought, at the time, notwithstanding, that the salute would have been on the forehead, or cheek, three years before, or previously to her acquaintance with Drewett.

I was a long time in regaining entire self-command; but, when I did, I opened my sister's letter to Rupert, agreeably to her request, and perused it thrice without a pause, even to reflect. It was conceived in these words:—

"My Dearest Rupert—

"God, in his infinite and inscrutable wisdom, when you read this letter, will have seen fit to call me to himself. Let not this seeming loss, in any manner, afflict you, my friend; for I feel the humble assurance that I shall reap the full benefit of the Saviour's great sacrifice. I could not have been happy in this life, Rupert; and it is a mercy that I am taken, thus early, to a better. It grieves me to part from your excellent father, from yourself, from our precious and rightfully beloved Lucy, and from dear, dear Miles. This is the last tribute I pay to nature, and I hope it will be pardoned for its character. There is a strong hope within me, that my death will be sanctified to the benefit of my friends. With this view, and this view only, beloved Rupert, I wish you to remember it. In all other respects let it be forgotten. You have found it impossible to command your affections, and worlds would not have tempted me to become your wife without possessing all your heart. I pray daily, almost hourly"—tears had evidently blotted this portion of the letter—"for you and Emily. Live together, and make each other happy. She is a sweet girl; has enjoyed advantages that Clawbonny could not bestow, and which will contribute to your gratification. In order that you may sometimes think of me"—poor Grace was not aware of this contradiction in her requests—"Miles will send you a legacy that I leave you. Accept it as a little fortune with Emily. I wish sincerely, it were much larger; but you will not overlook the intention, and forget the insufficiency of the sum. Small as it is, I trust it will enable you to marry at once, and Lucy's heart may be confided in for the rest.

"Farewell, Rupert—I do not say, farewell Emily; for I think this letter, as well as its object, had better remain a secret between you and me, and my brother—but I wish your future wife all earthly happiness, and an end as full of hope as that which attends the death-bed of your affectionate

"Grace Wallingford."

Oh! woman, woman, what are ye not, when duly protected and left to the almost divine impulses of your generous natures! What may ye not become, when rendered mercenary and envious by too close a contact with those worldly interests which are never admitted to an ascendancy without destroying all your moral beauty!



Chapter VII.



"And the beautiful, whose record Is the verse that cannot die, They too are gone, with their glorious bloom, From the love of human eye."

Mrs. Hemans.

I cannot dwell minutely on the events of the week that succeeded. Grace sunk daily, hourly; and the medical advice that was obtained, more as a duty than with any hope of its benefiting the patient, failed of assisting her. Mr. Hardinge saw the invalid often, and I was admitted to her room each day, where she would lie, reclining on my bosom for hours at a time, seemingly fond of this innocent indulgence of her affections, on the eve of her final departure. As it was out of the question that my sister should again visit the family room, the causeuse was brought into her chamber, where it was made to perform the office to which it had been several times devoted in its proper apartment since my return from sea. That venerable chair still exists, and I often pass thoughtful hours in it in my old age, musing on the past, and recalling the different scenes and conversations of which it could tell, did it possess consciousness and the faculty of speech.

Mr. Hardinge officiated in his own church, agreeably to his intention, on the succeeding Sunday. Lucy remained with her friend; and I make no doubt their spirits devoutly communed with ours the while; for I mastered sufficient fortitude to be present at St. Michael's. I could observe an earnest sympathy in every member of the little congregation; and tears fell from nearly every eye when the prayer for the sick was read. Mr. Hardinge remained at the rectory for the further duties of the day; but I rode home immediately after morning service, too uneasy to remain absent from the house longer than was necessary, at such a moment. As my horse trotted slowly homeward, he overtook Neb, who was walking towards Clawbonny, with an air so different from his customary manner, I could not help remarking it. Neb was a muscular, active black, and usually walked as if his legs were all springs; but he moved along now so heavily, that I could not but see some weight upon the spirits had produced this influence on the body. The change was, naturally enough, attributed to the state of affairs with Chloe; and I felt disposed to say a word to my faithful slave, who had been unavoidably overlooked in the pressure of sorrow that had weighed me down for the last ten days. I spoke to the poor fellow as cheerfully as I could, as I came up, and endeavoured to touch on such subjects as I thought might interest without troubling him.

"This is a famous windfall that has crossed Mr. Marble's track, Neb," I said, pulling up, in order to go a short distance at an even pace with my brother-tar. "As nice an old woman for a mother, as pretty a little girl for a niece, and as snug a haven to moor in, at the end of the voyage, as any old worn-out sea-dog could or ought to wish."

"Yes, sir, Masser Mile," Neb answered, as I fancied, in the manner of one who was thinking of something different from what he said; "yes, sir, Mr. Marble a reg'lar sea-dog."

"And as such not the less entitled to have a good old mother, a pretty niece, and a snug home."

"No, sir; none de wuss for bin' sea-dog, all must allow. Nebberdeless, Masser Mile, I sometime wish you and I nebber hab see salt water."

"That is almost as much as wishing we never looked down the Hudson from the hills and banks of Clawbonny boy; the river itself being salt not far below us. You are thinking of Chloe, and fancying, that had you stayed at home, your chance of getting into her good graces would have been better."

"No, Masser Mile; no, sir. Nobody at Clawbonny t'ink, just now, of anyt'ing but deat'."

I started in surprise. Mr. Hardinge kept everything like exaggeration and those physical excitements which it is so much the habit of certain sects to mistake for religious impulses, even from the negroes of the Clawbonny property. Neb's speech sounded more like an innovation of this nature than I had ever heard among my people; and I looked hard at the fellow for an instant, before I answered.

"I am afraid I understand you, Neb," was my reply, after a meaning pause. "It is a relief to me to find that my people retain all their affections for the children of their old master and mistress."

"We hard-hearted indeed, sir, if we don't. Ah! Masser Mile, you and I see many dreadful t'ing togeder, but we nebber see any t'ing like dis!"

Neb's dark cheek was glistening with tears as he spoke, and I spurred my horse, lest my own manhood might give way, there in the road, and in the presence of those who were fast approaching. Why Neb had expressed sorrow for having ever gone to sea, I could not account for in any other manner than by supposing that he imagined Grace was, in some manner, a sufferer by my absence from home.

When I reached the house, not a soul was visible. The men had all gone to church, and were to be seen in the distance, coming, along the road, singly and in a melancholy manner, not a sign of the customary, thoughtless merriment of a negro escaping a single individual among them; but it was usual for some of the black Venuses to be seen sunning themselves at that season, exhibiting their summer finery to each other and their admirers. Not one was now visible. All the front of the house, the lawn, the kitchens, of which there were no less than three, and the kitchen yards; in short, every familiar haunt of the dwelling was deserted and empty. This boded evil; and, throwing the bridle over a post, I walked hurriedly towards the part of the building, or buildings, would be a better word, inhabited by Grace.

As I entered the passage which communicated with my sisters own room, the departure from ordinary appearances was explained. Six or seven of the negresses were kneeling near the door, and I could hear the low, solemn, earnest voice of Lucy, reading some of the collects and other prayers suited to the sick-chamber and to the wants of a parting soul. Lucy's voice was music itself, but never before had it sounded so plaintively sweet. The lowest intonation was distinctly audible, as if the dear, devout creature felt that the Being she addressed was not to be approached in any other manner, while the trembling earnestness of the tones betrayed the depth of feeling with which each syllable escaped from the heart. Talk of liturgies impairing the fervour of prayer! This may be the fact with those who are immersed in themselves while communing with God, and cannot consent even to pray without placing their own thoughts and language, however ill-digested and crude, uppermost in the business of the moment. Do not such persons know that, as respects united worship, their own prayers are, to all intents and purposes, a formulary to their listeners, with the disadvantage of being received without preparation or direction to the mind?—nay, too often substituting a critical and prurient curiosity for humble and intelligent prayer? In these later times, when Christianity is re-assuming the character of the quarrels of sects, and, as an old man who has lived, and hopes to die, in communion with the Anglo-American church, I do not wish to exculpate my own particular branch of the Catholic body from blame; but, in these later times, when Christianity is returning to its truculency, forgetful of the chiefest of virtues, Charity, I have often recalled the scene of that solemn noon-tide, and asked myself the question, "if any man could have heard Lucy, as I did, on that occasion, concluding with the petition which Christ himself gave to his disciples as a comprehensive rule, if not absolutely as a formulary, and imagine the heart could not fully accompany words that had been previously prescribed?"

No sooner had Lucy's solemn tones ceased than I passed through the crowd of weeping and still kneeling blacks, and entered my sister's room. Grace was reclining in an easy chair; her eyes closed, her hands clasped together, but lying on her knees, and her whole attitude and air proclaiming a momentary but total abstraction of the spirit. I do not think she heard my footstep at all, and I stood at her side an instant, uncertain whether to let her know of my presence, or not. At this instant I caught the eye of Lucy, who seemed intent on the wish to speak to me. Grace had three or four small rooms that communicated with each other, in her part of the dwelling; and into one of these, which served as a sort of boudoir, though the name was then unknown in America, I followed the dear girl, whose speaking but sad look had bidden me do so.

"Is my father near at hand?" Lucy asked, with an interest I did not understand, since she must have known he intended to remain at his own residence, in readiness for the afternoon service.

"He is not. You forget he has to attend to evening prayers."

"I have sent for him—Miles," taking one of my hands in both her own, with the tenderness a mother would manifest to a very dear child, "dear Miles, you must summon all your fortitude."

"Is my sister worse?" I demanded, huskily; for, prepared as I was for the result, I was not expecting it by any means so soon.

"I cannot call it worse, Miles, to be about to be called away to God in such a frame of mind. But it is proper I should tell you all. Rather less than an hour since, Grace told me that the hour was at hand. She has the knowledge of her approaching end, though she would not let me send for you. She said you would have ample time to witness it all. For my father, however, I have sent, and he must soon be here."

"Almighty Providence! Lucy, do you really think we shall lose Grace so soon?"

"As it is the will of God to take her from us, Miles, I can scarce repine that her end should be so easy, and, in all respects, so tranquil."

So long as memory is granted to me, will the picture that Lucy presented at that moment remain vividly impressed on my mind. She loved Grace as a most dear sister; loved her as an affectionate, generous-minded, devoted woman alone can love; and yet, so keenly was she alive to the nature of the communication it was her duty to make, that concern for me alone reigned in her saddened and anxious eye. Her mind had schooled itself to bear its own grief; and meek, believing, and disposed to foresee all that her profound faith taught her to hope, I do believe she considered my sister a subject of envy rather than of regret, though her solicitude on my account was so absorbing. This generous self-denial touched my feelings in more ways than one, enabling me to command myself to a degree that might otherwise have been out of my power, during the few succeeding hours. I felt ashamed to manifest all I endured in the presence of so much meek but pious fortitude, and that exhibited by one whose heart I so well knew to be the very seat of the best human affections. The sad smile that momentarily illuminated Lucy's countenance, as she gazed anxiously in my face when speaking, was full of submissive hope and Christian faith.

"God's will be done," I rather whispered than uttered aloud. "Heaven is a place more suited to such a spirit than the abodes of men."

Lucy pressed my hand, and appeared relieved from a load of intense anxiety by this seeming fortitude. She bade me remain where I was, until she had herself apprized Grace of my return from church. I could see through the open door that the negresses had been directed to retire, and presently I heard the footstep of Mr. Hardinge approaching the room adjoining that in which I then was, and which answered the purpose of a sort of ante-chamber for those who came to the sick-room from the more public side of the house. I met my excellent old guardian in that apartment, and Lucy was at my side at the next instant. One word from the last sufficed to keep us in this room while she returned to that of Grace.

"God have mercy on us, my dear boy"—the divine ejaculated, as much in prayer as in grief—"and I say on us, as well as on you, for Grace has ever been dear to me as a child of my own. I knew the blow must come, and have prayed the Lord to prepare us all for it, and to sanctify it to us, old and young; but, notwithstanding, death has come 'literally' when no man knoweth. I must have materials for writing, Miles, and you will choose an express for me out of your people; let the man be ready to mount in half an hour; for I shall not require half that time to prepare my letter."

"Medical advice is useless, I am afraid, dear sir," I answered. "We have Post's directions, and very respectable attendance from our own family physician, Dr. Wurtz, who gave me to understand several days since that he saw no other means of averting the evil we dread than those already adopted. Still, sir, I shall be easier, if we can persuade Dr. Bard to cross the river, and have already thought of sending Neb once more on that errand."

"Do so," returned Mr. Hardinge, drawing towards him a little table on which Dr. Wurtz had written a few prescriptions that were used more for form, I believe, than any expectation of the good they could do; and beginning to write, even while talking—"Do so"—he added—"and Neb can put this letter in the post-office on the eastern bank of the river, which will be the quickest mode of causing it to reach Rupert"

"Rupert!" I exclaimed, on a key that I instantly regretted.

"Certainly; we can do no less than send for Rupert, Miles. He has ever been like a brother to Grace, and the poor fellow would feel the neglect keenly, did we overlook him on an occasion like this. You seem astonished at my thinking of summoning him to Clawbonny."

"Rupert is at the springs, sir—happy in the society of Miss Merton—would it not be better to leave him where he is?"

"What would you think, Miles, were Lucy on her death-bed, and we should fail to let you know it?"

I gazed so wildly at the good old man, I believe, that even his simplicity could not avoid seeing the immense difference between the real and the supposititious case.

"Very true, poor Miles; very true," Mr. Hardinge added, in an apologetic manner; "I see the weakness of my comparison, though I was beginning to hope you were already regarding Lucy, once more, with the eyes of a brother. But Rupert must not be forgotten neither; and here is my letter already written."

"It will be too late, sir," I got out, hoarsely—"my sister cannot survive the day."

I perceived that Mr. Hardinge was not prepared for this, his cheek grew pale, and his hand trembled as he sealed the epistle. Still he sent it, as I afterwards discovered.

"God's will be done!" the excellent divine murmured. "If such should really be his holy will, we ought not to mourn that another humble Christian spirit is called away to the presence of its great Creator! Rupert can, at least, attend, to do honour to all that we can honour of the saint we lose."

There was no resisting or contending with so much simplicity and goodness of heart; and, had it been in my power, a summons to the room of Grace called all my thoughts to her. My sister's eyes were now open. I shuddered, felt a sinking of the heart like that produced by despair, as I caught their unearthly or rather their supernatural expression. It was not that anything which indicated death in its more shocking aspects met my look, but simply that I could trace the illumination of a spirit that already felt itself on the eve of a new state of being, and one that must at least separate all that remained behind from any further communication with itself. I am not certain that I felt no pang at the thought my sister could be entirely happy without any participation on my part in her bliss. We are all so selfish that it is hard to say how far even our most innocent longings are free from the taint of this feature of our nature.

But Grace, herself, could not entirely shake off the ties of kindred and human love so long as her spirit continued in its earthly tenement. So far from this, every glance she cast on one or all of us denoted the fathomless tenderness of her nature, and was filled with its undying affection. She was weak, frightfully so I fancied; for death appeared to hasten in order to release her as swiftly and easily as possible; yet did her interest in me and in Lucy sustain her sufficiently to enable her to impart much that she wished to say. In obedience to a sign from her, I knelt at her side, and received her head on my bosom, as near as possible in that attitude in which we had already passed hours since her illness. Mr. Hardinge hovered over us, like a ministering spirit, uttering in a suppressed and yet distinct voice, some of the sublimest of those passages from scripture that are the most replete with consolation to the parting spirit. As for Lucy, to me she seemed to be precisely in that spot where she was most wanted; and often did Grace's eyes turn towards her with gleamings of gratitude and love.

"The hour is near, brother," Grace whispered, as she lay on my bosom. "Remember, I die asking forgiveness as much for those who may have done me wrong, as for myself. Forget nothing that you have promised me; do nothing to cause Lucy and her father sorrow."

"I understand you, sister"—was my low answer. "Depend on all I have said—all you can wish."

A gentle pressure of the hand was the token of contentment with which this assurance was received.

From that moment it seemed to me that Grace was less than usual attached to the things of the world. Nevertheless, her interest in those she loved, and who loved her, continued to the last.

"Let all the slaves that wish to see me, enter," Grace said, rousing herself to perform a trying but necessary duty. "I never can repay them for all they have done for me; but I trust them to you, Miles, with confidence."

Lucy glided from the room, and in a few minutes the long train of dark faces was seen approaching the door. The grief of these untutored beings, like their mirth, is usually loud and vociferous; but Lucy, dear, considerate, energetic Lucy—energetic even in the midst of a sorrow that nearly crushed her to the earth—had foreseen all this, and the blacks were admitted only on the condition of their preserving a command over themselves in the interview.

Grace spoke to every one of the females, taking leave of each calmly and with some useful and impressive admonition, while all the older men were also noticed personally.

"Go, and rejoice that I am so soon released from the cares of this world," she said, when the sad ceremony was over. "Pray for me, and for yourselves. My brother knows my wishes in your behalf, and will see them executed. God bless you, my friends, and have you in his holy keeping."

So great was the ascendency Lucy had obtained over these poor simple creatures during the short time they had been under her mild but consistent rule, that each and all left the room as quiet as children, awe-struck by the solemnity of the scene. Still, the oldest and most wrinkled of their cheeks were wet with tears, and it was only by the most extraordinary efforts that they were enabled to repress the customary outbreakings of sorrow. I had gone to a window to conceal my own feelings after this leave-taking, when a rustling in the bushes beneath it caught my ear. Looking out, there lay Neb, flat on his face, his Herculean frame extended at full length, his hands actually gripping the earth under the mental agony he endured, and yet the faithful fellow would not even utter a groan, lest it might reach his young mistress's ears, and disquiet her last moments. I afterwards ascertained he had taken that post in order that he might learn from time to time, by means of signs from Chloe, how things proceeded in the chamber above. Lucy soon recalled me to my old post, Grace having expressed a wish to that effect.

"It will be but an hour, and we shall all be together again," Grace said, startling us all by the clearness and distinctness of her enunciation. "The near approach of death places us on a height whence we can see the entire world and its vanities at a single view."

I pressed the dying girl closer to my heart, a species of involuntary declaration of the difficulty I experienced in regarding her loss with the religious philosophy she was inculcating.

"Mourn not for me, Miles"—she continued—"yet I know you will mourn. But God will temper the blow, and in his mercy may cause it to profit you for ever."

I did not, could not answer. I saw Grace endeavouring to get a look at my countenance, as if to observe the effect of the scene. By my assistance she was so placed as to obtain her wish. The sight, I believe, aroused feelings that had begun to yield to the influence of the last great change; for, when my sister spoke next, it was with a tenderness of accent that proved how hard it for those who are deeply affectionate to lose their instincts.

"Poor Miles! I almost wish we could go together! You have been a dear, good brother to me"—(What a sweet consolation I afterwards found in these words)—"It grieves me to leave you so nearly alone in the world. But you will have Mr. Hardinge, and our Lucy—"

The pause, and the look that succeeded, caused a slight tremour to pass over my frame. Grace's eyes turned anxiously from me to the form of the kneeling and weeping Lucy. I fancied that she was about to express a wish, or some regret, in connection with us two, that even at such a moment I could not have heard without betraying the concern it would give me. She did not speak, however, though her look was too eloquent to be mistaken. I ascribed the forbearance to the conviction that it would be too late, Lucy's affections belonging to Andrew Drewett. At that instant I had a bitter remembrance of Neb's words of "I sometime wish, Masser Mile, you and I nebber had see salt water." But that was not the moment to permit such feelings to get the mastery; and Grace, herself, felt too clearly that her minutes were numbered to allow her mind to dwell on the subject.

"An Almighty Providence will direct everything for the best, in this as in other things," she murmured; though it was still some little time, I thought, before her mind reverted to her own situation. The welfare of two as much beloved as Lucy and myself, could not be a matter of indifference to one of Grace's disposition, even in the hour of death.

Mr. Hardinge now knelt, and the next quarter of an hour passed in prayer. When the divine rose from his knees, Grace, her countenance beaming with an angelic serenity, gave him her hand, and in a clear, distinct voice, she uttered a prayer for blessings, connecting her petitions with the gratitude due him, for his care of us orphans. I never saw the old man so much touched before. This unexpected benediction, for it had that character, coming from youth to age, quite unmanned him. The old man sunk into a chair, weeping uncontrollably. This aroused Lucy, who regarded the grey hairs of her father with awe, as she witnessed the strength of his emotions. But feelings of this nature could not long absorb a man like Mr. Hardinge, who soon regained as much of the appearance of composure as it was possible to maintain by such a death-bed.

"Many may think me young to die," Grace observed; "but I am weary of the world. It is my wish to submit myself to the will of God; but, blessed be his holy name, that he sees fit to call me to him this day. Lucy, beloved one—go into the next room, and draw the curtain asunder; I shall then be enabled to gaze on the fields of dear Clawbonny once more; that will be my last look at the outer world."

This leave-taking of inanimate things, objects long known and loved, is of frequent occurrence with the dying. It is not in our natures to quit for ever this beautiful world, without casting "one longing, lingering look behind." The hand of its divine Creator was gloriously impressed on the rural loveliness of my native fields that day, and a holy tranquillity seemed to reign over the grain, the orchards, the meadows, and the wooded heights. The couch of Grace was purposely placed at a point in her own chamber that commanded a wide view of the farm, through the vista formed by the door and windows of the adjoining room. Here she had often sat, during her confinement to her rooms, contemplating scenes so familiar and so much loved. I saw her lips quiver as she now gazed on them for the last time, and was convinced some unusual sentiment, connected with the past, pressed on her feelings at that instant. I could see the same view myself, and perceived that her eyes were riveted on the little wood where Rupert and I had met the girls on our return from sea; a favourite place of resort, and one that, I doubted not, had often been the witness of the early confidence between Grace and her recreant lover. Death was actually hovering over that sainted being at the moment; but her woman's heart was not, could not, be insensible to the impressions produced by such a sight. In vain the warm light from the heavens bathed the whole landscape in a flood of glory; in vain the meadows put forth their flowers, the woods their variegated, bright, American verdure, and the birds their innocent gaiety and brilliant plumage; the fancy of Grace was portraying scenes that had once been connected with the engrossing sentiment of her life. I felt her tremble, as she lay in my arms; and bending my head towards her in tender concern, I could just distinguish the murmuring of a prayer that it was easy to understand was a petition offered up in behalf of Rupert. This done, she asked, herself, to have the curtain drawn again, to shut out the obtrusive thought for ever.

I have often thought, since the events of that sad day that Grace's dissolution was hastened by this accidental recurrence of her mind to Rupert and his forgotten love. I call it love, though I question if a being so thoroughly selfish ever truly loved any one but himself; perhaps not himself, indeed, in a way to entitle the feeling to so respectable an epithet. Grace certainly drooped the faster from that unfortunate moment. It is true, we all expected her death, thought it would occur that day even, though surprised at the suddenness with which it came at last; but we did not expect it within an hour.

And what an hour was that which succeeded! Both Mr. Hardinge and Lucy passed quite half of it on their knees, engaged in silent prayer; for it was thought petitions uttered aloud might disturb the sick. There were minutes in which the stillness of the tomb already reigned among us. I am not enough of a physician to say whether the change that now came over my sister's mind was the consequence of any shock received in that long, intense look at the wood, or whether it proceeded from the sinking of the system, and was connected with that mysterious link which binds the immortal part of our being so closely to the material, until the tie is loosened forever. It is certain, however, that Grace's thoughts wandered; and, while they never lost entirely their leaning towards faith and a bright Christian hope, they became tinctured with something allied to childish simplicity, if not absolutely to mental weakness. Nevertheless, there was a moral beauty about Grace, that no failing of the faculties could ever totally eradicate.

It was fully half an hour that the breathing quiet of prayer lasted. In all that time my sister scarcely stirred, her own hands being clasped together, and her eyes occasionally lifted to heaven. At length she seemed to revive a little, and to observe external objects. In the end, she spoke.

"Lucy, dearest," she said, "what has become of Rupert? Does he know I am dying? If so, why does he not come and see me, for the last time?"

It is scarcely necessary for me to say how much Lucy and myself were startled at this question. The former buried her face in her hands without making any reply; but good Mr. Hardinge, altogether unconscious of anything's being wrong, was eager to exculpate his son.

"Rupert has been sent for, my dear child," he said, "and, though he is engrossed with love and Miss Merton, he will not fail to hasten hither the instant he receives my letter."

"Miss Merton!" repeated Grace, pressing both her hands on her temples—"who is she? I do not remember anybody of that name?"

We now understood that the mind of the dear patient was losing its powers; of course no efforts were made to give a truer direction to her thoughts. We could only listen, and weep. Presently, Grace passed an arm round the neck of Lucy, and drew her towards her, with a childish earnestness.

"Lucy, love," she continued—"we will persuade these foolish boys from this notion of going to sea. What if Miles's father, and Rupert's great-grand-father were sailors; it is no reason they should be sailors too!"

She paused, appeared to meditate, and turned towards me. Her head was still inclining on my bosom, and she gazed upwards at my face, as fondly as she did in that tender meeting we held just after my return home, in the family room. There was sufficient strength to enable her to raise her pallid but not emaciated hand to my face, even while she passed it over my cheeks, once more parting the curls on my temples, and playing with my hair, with infantile fondness.

"Miles," the dear angel whispered, utterance beginning to fail her—"do you remember what mother told us about always speaking the truth? You are a manly boy, brother, and have too much pride to say anything but the truth; I wish Rupert were as frank."

This was the first, the last, the only intimation I had ever heard from Grace, of her being conscious of any defect in Rupert's character. Would to God she had seen this important deficiency earlier! though this is wishing a child to possess the discernment and intelligence of a woman. The hand was still on my cheek, and I would not have had it removed at that bitter moment to have been well assured of Lucy's love.

"See," my sister resumed, though she now spoke merely in a whisper—"how brown his cheek is, though his forehead is white. I doubt if mother would know him, Lucy. Is Rupert's cheek as brown as this, dear?"

"Rupert has not been as much exposed of late as Miles," Lucy answered huskily, Grace's arm still clinging to her neck.

The well-known voice appeared to awaken a new train of thought.

"Lucy," my sister asked, "are you as fond of Miles as we both used to be, when children?"

"I have always had, and shall ever retain, a deep affection for Miles Wallingford," Lucy answered, steadily.

Grace now turned towards me, releasing her hold of Lucy's neck, from pure inability to sustain it; and she fastened her serene blue eyes on my countenance, whence they never deviated while she breathed. My tears were uncontrollable, and they seemed to perplex rather that distress her. Of a sudden, we heard her voice aloud, speaking gently, but with a fervour that rendered it distinct. The words she uttered were full of the undying affection of a heart that never turned away from me for a single instant; no, not even in the petulance of childhood. "Almighty Father," she said, "look down from thy mercy-seat on this dear brother—keep him for thyself; and, in thy good time, call him, through the Saviour's love, to thy mansions of bliss."

These were the last words that Grace Wallingford ever spoke. She lived ten minutes longer; and she died on my bosom like the infant that breathes its last in the arms of its mother. Her lips moved several times; once I fancied I caught the name of "Lucy," though I have reason to think she prayed for us all, Rupert included, down to the moment she ceased to exist.



Chapter VIII.



"There have been sweet singing voices In your walks that now are still; There are seats left void, in your earthly homes, Which none again may fill."

Mrs. Hemans.

I never saw the body of my sister, after I handed it, resembling a sleeping infant, to the arms of Lucy. There is a sort of mania in some, a morbid curiosity, to gaze on the features of the dead; but, with me, it has ever been the reverse. I had been taken to the family room to contemplate and weep over the faces of both my parents, but this was at an age when it became me to be passive. I was now at a time of life when I might be permitted to judge for myself; and, as soon as I began to think at all on the subject, which was not for some hours, however, I resolved that the last look of love, the sweet countenance, sinking in death it is true, but still animate and beaming with the sentiments of her pure heart, should be the abiding impression of my sister's form. I have cherished it ever since, and often have I rejoiced that I did not permit any subsequent images of a corpse to supplant it. As respects both my parents, the images left on my mind, for years and years, was painful rather than pleasing.

Grace's body was no sooner out of my arms, I had scarcely imprinted the last long kiss on the ivory-like but still warm forehead, than I left the house. Clawbonny had no impertinent eyes to drive a mourner to his closet, and I felt as if it were impossible to breathe unless I could obtain the freedom of the open air. As I crossed the little lawn, the wails from the kitchens reached me. Now that the invalid could no longer be disturbed by their lamentations, the unsophisticated negroes gave vent to their feelings without reserve. I heard their outcries long after every other sound from the house was lost on my ear.

I held my way along the road, with no other view but to escape from the scene I had just quitted, and entered the very little wood which might be said to have been the last object of the external world that had attracted my sister's attention. Here everything reminded me of the past; of the days of childhood and youth; of the manner in which the four Clawbonny children had lived together, and roamed these very thickets, in confidence and love. I sat in that wood an hour; a strange, unearthly hour it seemed to me! I saw Grace's angel countenance imprinted on the leaves, heard her low but gay laugh, as she was wont to let it be heard in the hours of happiness, and the tones of her gentle voice sounded in my ears almost as familiarly as in life. Rupert and Lucy were there too. I saw them, heard them, and tried to enter into their innocent merriment, as I had done of old; but fearful glimpses of the sad truth would interpose, in time to break the charm.

When I left that little wood, it was to seek a larger cover, and fields farther removed from the house. It was dark before I thought of returning; all that time was passed in a species of mystical hallucination, in which the mind was lost in scenes foreign to those actually present. I saw Grace's sweet image everywhere; I heard her voice at every turn. Now she was the infant I was permitted to drag in her little wagon, the earliest of all my impressions of that beloved sister; then, she was following me as I trundled my hoop; next came her little lessons in morals, and warnings against doing wrong, or some grave but gentle reproof for errors actually committed; after which, I saw her in the pride of young womanhood, lovely and fitted to be loved, the sharer of my confidence, and one capable of entering into all my plans of life. How often that day did the murmuring of a brook or the humming of a bee become blended in my imagination with the song, the laugh, the call, or the prayers of that beloved sister whose spirit had ascended to heaven, and who was no more to mingle in my concerns or those of life!

At one time I had determined to pass the night abroad, and commune with the stars, each of which I fancied, in turn, as they began slowly to show themselves in the vault above, might be the abiding-place of the departed spirit. If I thought so much and so intensely of Grace, I thought also of Lucy. Nor was good Mr. Hardinge entirely forgotten. I felt for their uneasiness, and saw it was my duty to return. Neb, and two or three others of the blacks, had been looking for me in all directions but that in which I was; and I felt a melancholy pleasure as I occasionally saw these simple-minded creatures meet and converse. Their gestures, their earnestness, their tears, for I could see that they were often weeping, indicated alike that they were speaking of their "young mistress;" how they spoke, I wanted no other communications to understand.

Ours had ever been a family of love. My father, manly, affectionate, and strongly attached to my mother, was admirably suited to sustain that dominion of the heart which the last had established from her earliest days at Clawbonny. This power of the feelings had insensibly extended itself to the slaves, who seldom failed to manifest how keenly alive they all were to the interests and happiness of their owners. Among the negroes there was but one who was considered as fallen below his proper level, or who was regarded as an outcast. This was an old fellow who bore the name of Vulcan, and who worked as a blacksmith on the skirts of the farm, having been named by my grandfather with the express intention of placing him at the anvil. This fellow's trade caused him to pass most of his youth in an adjacent village, or hamlet, where unfortunately he had acquired habits that unsuited him to live as those around him were accustomed to live. He became in a measure alienated from us, drinking, and otherwise living a life that brought great scandal on his sable connections, who were gathered more closely around the homestead. Nevertheless, a death, or a return home, or any important event in the family, was sure to bring even Vulcan back to his allegiance; and, for a month afterwards, he would be a reformed man. On this occasion he was one of those who were out in the fields and woods in quest of me, and he happened to be the very individual by whom I was discovered.

The awe-struck, solemn manner in which the reckless Vulcan approached, were all other proofs wanting, would have proclaimed the weight of the blow that had fallen on Clawbonny. The eyes of this fellow were always red, but it was easy to see that even he had been shedding tears. He knew he was no favourite; seldom came near me, unless it were to excuse some of his neglects or faults, and lived under a sort of ban for his constantly recurring misdeeds. Nevertheless, a common cause of grief now gave him confidence, and Neb himself could hardly have approached me with a manner of more easy but respectful familiarity.

"Ah! Masser Mile! Masser Mile!" Vulcan exclaimed, certain that we felt alike on this topic, if on no other; "poor young missus! when we ebber get 'noder like she!"

"My sister is in heaven, Vulcan, where I hope all at Clawbonny, blacks as well as whites, will endeavour to meet her, by living in a manner that will improve the mercy of God."

"You t'ink dat posserbul, Masser Mile?" demanded the old man, fixing his dull eyes on me, with an earnest intentness that proved he had not entirely lost all sensibility to his moral condition.

"All things are possible with God, Vulcan. Keeping him and his commandments constantly in mind, you may still hope to see your young mistress, and to share in her happiness."

"Wonnerful!" exclaimed the old man; "dat would be a great conserlation. Ah! Masser Mile, how often she come when a little lady to my shop door, and ask to see 'e spark fly! Miss Grace hab a great taste for blacksmit'in', and a great knowledge too. I do t'ink, dat next to some oder t'ing, she lub to see iron red-hot, and 'e horse shod!"

"You have come to look for me, Vulcan, and I thank you for this care. I shall return to the house presently; you need give yourself no further trouble. Remember, old man, that the only hope that remains of either of us ever seeing Miss Grace again, is in living as Mr. Hardinge so often tells us all we ought to live."

"Wonnerful!" repeated old Vulcan, whose mind and feelings were in a happy condition to receive such a lesson. "Yes, sah, Masser Mile; she come to my shop to see 'e spark fly;—I shall miss her like a darter."

This was a specimen of the feelings that prevailed among the negroes, though the impression on most of the others was more lasting than that made on the blacksmith, whom I now dismissed, taking the path myself that led to the house. It was quite dark when I crossed the lawn. A figure was just visible in the shadows of the piazza, and I was on the point of turning in the direction of a side door, in order to avoid the meeting, when Lucy advanced eagerly to the edge of the steps to receive me.

"Oh! Miles—dear Miles, how happy I am to see you again," the precious girl said, taking my hand with the warmth and frankness of a sister. "My father and myself have been very uneasy about you; my father, indeed, has walked towards the rectory, thinking you may have gone thither."

"I have been with you, and Grace, and your father, my good Lucy, ever since we parted. I am more myself now, however, and you need feel no further concern on my account. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for that which you have already felt, and will give you no further concern."

The manner in which Lucy now burst into tears betrayed the intensity of the feelings that had been pent up in her bosom, and the relief she found in my assurances. She did not scruple, even, about leaning on my shoulder, so long as the paroxysm lasted. As soon as able to command herself, however, she wiped her eyes, again took my hand with confiding affection, looked anxiously towards me as she said, soothingly—

"We have met with a great loss, Miles; one that even time cannot repair. Neither of us can ever find another to fill the place that Grace has occupied. Our lives cannot be lived over again; we cannot return to childhood; feel as children; love as children; live as children; and grow up together, as it might be, with one heart, with the same views, the same wishes, the same opinions; I hope it is not presuming on too great a resemblance to the departed angel, if I add, the same principles."

"No, Lucy; the past, for us, is gone for ever. Clawbonny will never again be the Clawbonny it was."

There was a pause, during which I fancied Lucy was struggling to repress some fresh burst of emotion.

"Yet, Miles," she presently resumed, "we could not ask to have her recalled from that bliss which we have so much reason to believe she is even now enjoying. In a short time Grace will be to you and me a lovely and grateful image of goodness, and virtue, and affection; and we shall have a saddened, perhaps, but a deep-felt pleasure in remembering how much we enjoyed of her affection, and how closely she was united to us both in life."

"That will be indeed a link between us two, Lucy, that I trust may withstand all the changes and withering selfishness of the world!"

"I hope it may, Miles," Lucy answered, in a low voice; and, as I fancied at the moment, with an embarrassment that I did not fail to attribute to the consciousness she felt of Andrew Drewett's claims on all such intimate association of feeling. "We, who have known each other from children, can scarcely want causes for continuing to esteem and to regard each other with affection."

Lucy now appeared to think she might trust me to myself, and she led the way into the house. I did not see her again until Mr. Hardinge caused the whole household to be assembled at evening prayers. The meeting of the family that night was solemn and mournful. For myself, I fancied that the spirit of Grace was hovering around us; more than once did I fancy that I heard her sweet, voice mingling in the petitions, or leading the service, as was her practice on those occasions when our good guardian could not attend. I observed all the negroes looking at me with solicitude, like those who recognised my right to feel the blow the deepest, It was a touching evidence of respectful interest that each man bowed to me reverently, and each woman curtsied, as he or she left the room. As for Chloe, sobs nearly choked her; the poor girl having refused to quit the body of her mistress except for that short moment. I thought Lucy would have remained with her father and myself for a few minutes, but for the necessity of removing this poor heart-stricken creature, who really felt as if the death of her young mistress was a toss of part of her own existence.

I have already dwelt on the circumstances attending the death of Grace longer than I intended, and shall now cease to harass my own feelings, or to distress those of my readers by unnecessarily enlarging on more of the details. The next three or four days produced the usual calm; and though it was literally years ere Lucy or myself ceased altogether to weep for her loss, we both obtained the self-command that was necessary for the discharge of our ordinary duties. Grace, it will be remembered, died of a Sunday, about the usual hour for dinner. Agreeably to the custom of the country, in which there is usually a little too much of an indecent haste in disposing of the dead, owing in some degree to climate, however, the funeral would have taken place on Wednesday, and that would have been delaying twenty-four hours longer than might have been granted in most cases; but Mr. Hardinge, who gave all the directions, had named Thursday noon as the hour for the interment. We had few relatives to expect; most of those who would have been likely to attend, had circumstances admitted of it, living in distant places that rendered it inconvenient, and indeed scarcely possible.

I passed most of the intervening time in my study, reading and indulging in such contemplations as naturally suggest themselves to the mourner. Lucy, dear girl, had written me two or three short notes, asking my wishes on various points; among other things, when I wished to pay a last visit to the body. My answer to this question brought her to my room, with some little surprise of manner; for she had been so much with Grace, living and dead, as to think it strange one who had loved her so well while living should not desire to take a final look at the beautiful remains. I explained my feelings on this head, and Lucy seemed struck with them.

"I am not sure you will not have decided wisely, Miles," she said—"the picture being one too precious to destroy. You will be gratified in knowing, however, that Grace resembles an angel quite as much in death as she did in life; all who have seen her being struck with the air of peaceful tranquillity her features now present."

"Bless you—bless you, Lucy—this is all-sufficient. I did wish for some such assurance, and am now content."

"Several of your family are in the house, Miles, in readiness to attend the funeral; a stranger has just arrived who seems to have some such desire, too, though his face is unknown to all at the place. He has asked to see you with an earnestness that my father scarce knows how to refuse."

"Let him come here, then, Lucy. I can only suppose it to be some one of the many persons Grace has served; her short life was all activity in that particular."

Lucy's face did not corroborate that notion; but she withdrew to let my decision be known. In a few minutes a large, hard-featured, but not ill-looking man approaching fifty, entered my room, walked up to me with tears in his eyes, squeezed my hand warmly, and then seated himself without ceremony. He was attired like a thriving countryman, though his language, accent, and manner denoted one superior to the ordinary run of those with whom he was otherwise associated in externals. I had to look at him a second time ere I could recognise Jack Wallingford, my father's bachelor cousin, the western land-holder.

"I see by your look, cousin Miles, that you only half, remember me," my visitor remarked; "I deeply regret that I am obliged to renew our acquaintance on so melancholy an occasion."

"There are so few of, us left, Mr. Wallingford, that this kindness will be doubly appreciated," I answered. "If I did not give orders to have you apprised of the loss we have all sustained, it is because your residence is so far from Clawbonny as to render it improbable you could have received the intelligence in time to attend the solemn ceremony that remains to be performed. I did intend to write to you, when a little better fitted to perform such a duty."

"I thank you, cousin. The blood and name of Wallingford are very near and dear to me, and Clawbonny has always seemed a sort of home."

"The dear creature who now lies dead under its roof, cousin John, so considered you; and you may be pleased to know that she wished me to leave you this property in my will the last time I went to sea, as of the direct line, a Wallingford being the proper owner of Clawbonny. In that particular, she preferred your claims to her own."

"Ay, this agrees with all I ever heard of the angel," answered John Wallingford, dashing a tear from his eyes, a circumstance that gave one a favourable opinion of his heart. "Of course you refused, and left the property to herself, who had a better right to it."

"I did sir; though she threatened to transfer it to you, the moment it became her's."

"A threat she would have found it difficult to execute, as I certainly would have refused to receive it. We are half savages, no doubt, out west of the bridge; but our lands are beginning to tell in the markets, and we count already some rich men among us."

This was said with a self-satisfied manner, that my cousin was a little too apt to assume when property became the subject of conversation. I had occasion several times that day, even, to remark that he attached a high value to money; though, at the same time, it struck me that most of his notions were just and honourable. He quite worked his way into my favour, however, by the respect he manifested for Clawbonny, and all that belonged to it. So deep was this veneration, that I began to think of the necessity of making a new will, in order to bequeath him the place in the event of my dying without heirs, as I now imagined must sooner or later occur. As Lucy was not likely to be my wife, no one else, I fancied, ever should be. I had nearer relations than Jack Wallingford, some of whom were then in the house; cousins-german by both father and mother; but they were not of the direct line; and I knew that Miles the First would have made this disposition of the place, could he have foreseen events, and had the law allowed it. Then Grace had wished such an arrangement, and I had a sad happiness in executing all the known wishes of my sister.

The funeral did not occur until the day after the arrival of John Wallingford, who accidentally heard of the death that had occurred in the family, and came uninvited to attend the obsequies, as has been mentioned. I passed most of the evening in the company of this relative, with whom I became so much pleased as to request he would walk with me next day as second nearest of kin. This arrangement, as I had reason to know in the end, gave great offence to several who stood one degree nearer in blood to the deceased, though not of her name. Thus are we constituted!—we will quarrel over a grave even, a moment that should lay open eternity to our view, with all its immense consequences and accompaniments, in order to vindicate feelings and passions that can only interest us, as it might be, for a day. Fortunately I knew nothing of the offence that was taken at the time, nor did I see any of my kinsmen but John Wallingford that evening; his presence in my room being owing altogether to a certain self-possession and an a plomb that caused him to do very much as he pleased in such matters.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11     Next Part
Home - Random Browse