Yet I never thought then of being in love with the girl. Marriage was a subject upon which I had never seriously reflected. Much as I liked to watch, to criticize pretty faces, I never had thought of taking one for my own. I was like a good boy in a flower-garden, who looks about him with delight, admiring each beautiful blossom, but plucking none. Not that I meant to live a bachelor; for, whenever I looked forward,—an indefinite number of years,—I invariably saw myself sitting by my own fireside, with a gentle-faced woman making pinafores near me, a cradle close by, and one or two chaps reading stories, or playing checkers with beans and buttons. But this gentle maker of pinafores had never yet assumed a tangible shape. She had only floated before me, in my lonely moments, enveloped in mist, and far too indistinct for revealing the color of the eyes and hair. So I could not be in love with Rachel,—her name was Rachel Lowe,—only a sort of magnetism, as it would be called in these days, drew my eyes constantly that way. I soon found, however, that it was impossible to watch her face with that indifference with which, as I have before stated, it had been my custom to regard female beauty. Its peculiar expression puzzled me, and I kept trying to study it out. Interesting, but dangerous study! The difficulties of school-keeping are by no means fully appreciated.
One evening, after school, the young folks stopped to slide down-hill. Rachel and a few little girls stood awhile, watching the sleds go by; but it was cold standing still, and they soon moved homewards. I walked along by the side of Rachel: this was the first time I ever went home with her. I found she was living in the family of Squire Brewster, a family in which I had not yet boarded. After this I frequently walked home with her. Sometimes I would determine not to do so again, for I was afraid I was getting—I didn't know where, but where I had never been before; but when evening came, and I saw how handsome she looked, and how all alone, I couldn't help it. It was not often I could get her to talk much. She was bashful, different from any girl I had ever met. The only friend she seemed to have was the young wife of the Doctor, Mrs. James. The Doctor, she said, had attended her through a fever, and asked no pay. His wife was kind, and lent her books to read.
I was boarding at that time with a poor widow-woman, and one night I asked her about Rachel. She warmed up immediately, said Rachel Lowe was a good girl and ought to be "sot by," and not slighted on her parents' account.
"And who were her parents?" I asked.
"Why, when her father was a poor boy, the Squire thought he would take him and bring him up to learnin'; but when he came to be a man grown almost, he ran away to sea; and long afterwards we heard of his marryin' some outlandish girl, half English, half French,—but Rachel's no worse for that. After his wife died,—and, as far as I can find out, the way he carried on was what killed her,—he started to bring Rachel here; but he died on the passage, and she came with only a letter. I suppose he thought the ones that had been kind to him would be kind to her; but, you see, the Squire is a-livin' with his second wife, and she isn't the woman the first Miss Brewster was. In time folks will come round, but now they sort of look down upon her; for, you see, everybody knows who her father was, and how he didn't do any credit to his bringin' up, and nobody knows who her mother was, only that she was a furrener, which was so much agin her. But you are goin' right from here to the Squire's; and mebby, if you make of her, and let folks see that you set store by her, they'll begin to open their eyes."
I thought I felt just like kissing the poor widow; anyway, I knew I felt like kissing somebody. To be sure, the talk was all about Rachel, and it might—But no matter; what difference does it make now who it was I wanted to kiss forty or fifty years ago?
The next day I went to board at the Squire's. It was dark when I reached the house; the candles were just being lighted. The Squire, a kindly old man, met me in the porch and took my bundle. I followed him into the kitchen. There something more than common seemed to be going on, for chairs were being arranged in rows, and Mrs. Brewster was putting out of sight every article suggestive of work. There was to be an evening meeting. I watched the people as they came in, still and solemn. Not many of the women wore bonnets. All who lived within a moderate distance just stepped in with a little homespun blanket over the head, or a patchwork cradle-quilt. I noticed Rachel when she entered and took her seat upon the settle. It will only take a minute to tell what a settle is, or, rather, was. If you should take a low wooden bench and add to it a high back and ends, you would make a settle. It usually stood near the fireplace, and was a most luxurious seat,—its high back protecting you from cold draughts and keeping in the heat of the fire. It was now shoved back against the wall. This neighborhood-gathering was called a conference-meeting, being carried on by the brethren. I liked to hear them speak, because they were so much in earnest. The exercises closed with singing "Old Hundred." I joined at first, but soon there fell upon my ear such sweet strains from the other side of the room that I was glad to stop and listen. They came from the settle. It was Rachel, singing counter. Only those who have heard it know what counter is, and how particularly beautiful it is in "Old Hundred." I think it has already been intimated that I was somewhat poetical. It will not, therefore, be considered strange, that, when I heard those clear tones, rising high above the harsher ones around, above the grating bass of the brethren and the cracked voices of elderly females, I thought of summer days in the woods, when I had listened to the notes of the robin amid a chorus of locusts and grasshoppers.
Squire Brewster treated Rachel kindly; but women make the home, and Mrs. Brewster was a hard woman. The neighbors said she was close, and would have more of a cat than her skin. Miss Sarah had been out of town to school, and was proud. Sam, the grown-up son, was coarse, but just as proud as his sister. I disliked the way he looked at Rachel. Her position in the family I soon understood. She was there to take the drudgery from Mrs. Brewster, to be ordered about by Miss Sarah, tormented by the younger children, and teased, if not insulted, by Sam. What puzzled me was her manner towards them. She spoke but seldom, and, it seemed to me, had a way of looking down upon these people, who were so bent upon making her look up to them. The cross looks and words seemed not to hit her. Her deep, dark eyes appeared as if they were looking away beyond the scenes around her. I was very glad to see, however, that she could notice Sam enough to avoid him; for to that young man I had taken a dislike, and not, as it turned, without reason.
One evening, during my second week at the Brewsters', I sat long at my chamber-window, watching the fading twilight, the growing moonlight, and the steady snow-light. Presently I saw Rachel come out to take in the clothes. It seemed just right that she should appear then, for in her face were all three,—the shadowy twilight, the soft moonlight, and the white snow-light.
She wore a little shawl, crossed in front, and tied behind at the waist, and over her head a bright-colored blanket, just pinned under the chin. This exposed her face, and while I watched it, as it showed front-view or profile, not knowing which I liked best, admiring, meanwhile, the grace with which she reached up, where the line was high, sometimes springing from the ground, I saw Sam approaching, very slowly and softly, from behind. When quite near, watching his opportunity, he seized her by the waist. He was going to kiss her. I started up, as if to do something, but there was nothing to be done. With a quick motion she slid from his grasp, stepped back, and looked him in the face. Not a word fell from her lips, only her silence spoke. "I despise you! There is nothing in you that words can reach!" was the speech which I felt in my heart she was making, though her lips never moved. Other things, too, I felt in my heart,—rather perplexing, agitating, but still pleasing sensations, which I did not exactly feel like analyzing. One of the children came out to take hold one side of the basket, and Sam walked away.
I went down soon after and look my favorite seat upon the settle, which was then in its own place by the fire. The children were in bed, the older ones had gone to singing-school, and Mrs. Brewster was at an evening-meeting. The Squire was at home with his rheumatism.
I liked a nice chat with the Squire. He was a great reader, and delighted to draw me into long talks, political or theological. My remarks on this particular evening would have been more brilliant, had not Rachel been sprinkling and folding clothes at the back of the room. The Squire, in his roundabout, came exactly between us, so that, in looking up to answer his questions, I could not help seeing a white arm with the sleeve rolled above the elbow, could not help watching the drops of water, as she shook them from her fingers. I wondered how it was, that, while working so hard, her hands should be so white. My sister Fanny told me, long afterwards, that some girls always have white hands, no matter how hard they work.
This question interested me more than the political ones raised by the Squire, and I became aware that my answers were getting wild, by his eying me over his spectacles. Rachel finished the clothes, and seated herself, with her knitting-work, at the opposite corner of the fireplace. I changed to the other end of the settle: sitting long in one position is tiresome. She was knitting a gray woollen stocking. I think she must have been "setting the heel," for she kept counting the stitches. I had often noticed Fanny doing the same thing, at this turning-point in the progress of a stocking; but then it never took her half as long. After knitting so many feet of leg, though, any change must have been pleasant.
A mug of cider stood near one andiron; leaning against the other was a flat stone,—the Squire's "Simon." It would soon be needed, for he was already nodding,—nodding and brightening up,—nodding and brightening up. While he slept, the room was still, unless the fire snapped, or a brand fell down. I said within myself, "This is a pleasant time! It is good to be here!" That cozy settle, that glowing fire, that good old man, that pure-hearted girl,—how distinctly do they now rise before me! It seems such a little, little while ago! For I feel young. I like to be with young folks; I like what they like. Yet deep lines are set in my forehead, the veins stand out upon my hands, and my shadow is the shadow of a stooping old man; and when, from frequent weariness, I rest my head on my hand, the fingers clasp only smoothness, or, at best, but a few scattered locks,—wisps, I might as well say. If ever I took pride in anything, it was in my fine head of hair. Well, what matters it? Since heart of youth is left me, I'll never mind the head.
Many writers speak well of age, and it certainly is not without its advantages, meeting everywhere, as it does, with respect and indulgence. Neither is it, so the books say, without its own peculiar beauty. An old man leaning upon his staff, with white locks streaming in the wind, they call a picturesque object. All this may be; still, I have tried both, and must say that my own leaning is towards youth.
Remembering the desire of the poor widow, that Rachel should be "made of," I continued to walk home with her from evening-school, and to pay her many little attentions, even after I had left the Squire's. The widow was right in saying, that, when folks saw that I "set store" by her, they would open their eyes. They did,—in wonder that "the schoolmaster should be so attentive to Rachel Lowe!" We were "town-talk." I often, in the school-house entry, overheard the scholars joking about us; and once I saw them slyly writing our names together on the bricks of the fireplace. Everybody was on the look-out for what might happen.
One evening, in school-time, I stood a long while leaning over her desk, working out for her a difficult sum. On observing me change my position, to rest myself, she, very naturally, and almost unconsciously, moved for me to sit down, and I took a seat beside her, going on, all the while, with my ciphering. Happening to look up suddenly, I saw that half the school were watching us. I kept my seat with calmness, though I knew I turned red. I glanced at Rachel, and really pitied her, she looked so distressed, so conscious. That night she hurried home before I had put away my books, and for several evenings did not appear.
But if she could do without me, I could not do without her. I missed her face there at the end of the back-seat. I missed the walk home with her: I had grown to depend upon it. She was just getting willing to talk, and in what she said and the way she said it, in the tone of her voice and in her whole manner, there was something to me extremely bewitching. She had been strangely brought up, was familiar with books, but, having received no regular education, fancied herself ignorant, and different from everybody.
Finding that she still kept away from the school, I resolved one night to call at the Squire's. It was some time after dark when I reached there; and as I stood in the porch, brushing the snow from my boots, I became aware of loud talking in the kitchen. Poor Rachel! both Mrs. Brewster and Sarah were upon her, laughing and sneering about her "setting her cap" for the schoolmaster, and accusing her of trying to get him to come home with her, of moving for him to sit down by her side! Once I heard Rachel's voice,—"Oh, please don't talk so! I don't do as you say. It is dreadful for you to talk so!" I judged it better to defer my call, and walked slowly along the road. It was not very cold, and I sat down upon the stone wall. I sat down to think. Presently Rachel herself hurried by, carrying a pitcher. She was bound on some errand up the road. I called out,—
She turned, in affright, and, upon seeing me, hurried the more. But I overtook her, and placed her arm within mine in a moment, saying,—
"Rachel, you are not afraid of me, I hope!"
"Oh, no, Sir! no, indeed!" she exclaimed.
"And yet you run away from me."
She made no answer.
"Rachel," I said, at last, "I wish you would talk to me freely. I wish you would tell what troubles you."
She hesitated a moment; and when, at last, she spoke, her answer rather surprised me.
"I ought not to be so weak, I know," she replied; "but it is so hard to stand all alone, to live my life just right, that sometimes I get discouraged."
I had expected complaints of ill treatment, but found her blaming no one but herself.
"And who said you must stand alone?" I asked.
"That was one of the things my mother used to say."
"And what other things did she say?"
"Oh, Mr. Browne," she replied, "I wish I could tell you about my mother! But I can't talk; I am too ignorant; I don't know how to say it. When she was alive," she continued, speaking very slowly, "I never knew how good she was; but now her words keep coming back to me. Sometimes I think she whispers them,—for she is an angel, and you know the hymn says,
'There are angels hovering round.'
When we sing,
'Ye holy throng of angels bright,'
I always sing to her, for I know she is listening."
Here she stopped suddenly, as if frightened that she had said so much. The house to which she was going was now close by. I waited for her to come out, and walked back with her towards home. After proceeding a little way in silence, I said, abruptly,—
"Rachel, do they treat you well at the house yonder?"
She seemed reluctant to answer, but said, at last,—
"Not very well."
"Then, why stay? Why not find some other home?"
"I don't think it is time yet," she replied.
"I don't understand you. I wish—Rachel, can't you make a friend of me, since you have no other?"
"I will tell you as well as I can," she replied, "what my mother used to say. She said we must act rightly."
"That is true," I replied; "and what else did she say?"
"She said, that that would only be the outside life, but the inside life must be right too, must be pure and strong, and that the way to make it pure and strong was to learn to bear."
"Still," I urged, "I wish you would find a better home. You cannot learn to bear any more patiently than you do."
She shook her head.
"That shows that you don't know," she answered. "It seems to me right to remain. Why, you know they can't hurt me any. Suppose they scold me when I am not to blame, and my temper rises,—for I am very quick-tempered"—
"Oh, no, Rachel!"
"Oh, yes, Mr. Browne! Suppose my temper rises, and I put it down, and keep myself pleasant, do I not do myself good? And thinking about it in this way, is not their unkindness a benefit to me,—to the real me,—to the soul of Rachel Lowe?"
I hardly knew what to say. Somehow, she seemed away up above me, while I found that I had, in common with the Brewsters, only in a different way, taken for granted my own superiority.
"All this may be true," I remarked, after a pause, "but it is not the common way of viewing things."
"Perhaps not," she answered. "My mother was not like other people. My father was a strong man, but he looked up to her, and he loved her; but he killed her at last,—with his conduct, he killed her. But when she was dead, he grew crazy with grief, he loved her so. He talked about her always,—talked in an absent, dreamy way about her goodness, her beauty, her white hands, her long hair. Sometimes he would seem to be whispering with her, and would say, softly,—'Oh, yes! I'll take care of Rachel! pretty Rachel! your Rachel!'"
I longed to have her go on; but we had now reached the bars, and she was not willing to walk farther.
"I have been talking a great deal about myself," she said; "but you know you kept asking me questions."
"Yes, Rachel, I know I kept asking you questions. Do you care? I may wish to ask you others."
"Oh, no," she replied; "but I could not answer many questions. I have only a few thoughts, and know very little."
I watched her into the house, and then walked slowly homewards, thinking, all the way, of this strange young girl, striving thus to stand alone, working out her own salvation. I passed a pleasant night, half sleeping, half waking, having always before my eyes that white face, earnest and beautiful, as it looked up to me in the winter starlight, and in my ears her words, "Is not their unkindness a benefit to me,—to the real me,—to the soul of Rachel Lowe?"
But spring came; my school drew to a close; and I began to think of home, Aunt Huldah, and Fanny. I wished that my sister could see Rachel. I knew she would appreciate her, for there was depth in Fanny, with all her liveliness. Sometimes I imagined, just imagined, myself married to Rachel. But then there was Aunt Huldah,—what would she say to a foreigner? And I was dependent upon Aunt Huldah. Besides, how did I know that Rachel would have me? Was I equal to her? How worthless seemed my little stock of book-learning by the side of that heart-wisdom which she had coined, as it were, from her own sorrow!
My last day came, and I had not spoken. In fact, we latterly had both grown silent. I was to leave in the afternoon stage. I gave the driver my trunk, telling him to call for me at the Squire's,—for I must bid Rachel good-bye, and in some way let her know how I felt towards her. As I drew near the house, I saw that she was drawing water. I stepped quickly towards the well, but Sam appeared just then, and I could not say one word. She walked into the house. I went behind with the water-pail, and Sam followed us into the porch. Rachel was going up-stairs, but I took her hand to bid her good-bye. Mrs. Brewster and Sarah were in the kitchen, watching. "Quite a love-scene!" I heard them whisper. "I do believe he'll marry her!"
Now, although I was by nature quiet, yet I could be roused. Bidding good-bye to Rachel had stirred the very depths of my nature. I longed to take her in my arms, and bear her away to my own quiet home. And when, instead of this, I thought of the life to which I must leave her, it needed but those sneering whispers to make me speak out,—and I did speak out. Taking her by the hand, I stepped quickly forward, and stood before them.
"And so I will marry her!" I exclaimed. "If she will accept me, I shall be proud to marry her!"
"Rachel," said I, turning towards her, "this is strange wooing; but before these people I ask, Will you be my wife?"
The astonished spectators of our love-scene looked on in dismay.
"Mr. Browne!" exclaimed Mrs. Brewster, "do you know what you are doing? I have no ill-will to the girl; but I feel it my duty to tell you who and what she is."
"I know what Rachel Lowe is, Madam!" I cried, almost fiercely; "you don't,—you can't!"
Then, turning to the trembling girl, I said again,—
"Rachel, say, will you be my wife?"
At this moment Sam came forward. His face was pale, and he trembled.
"No, Rachel," said he, "don't be his wife! Be mine! I haven't treated you right, I know I haven't; but I love you, you don't know how much! The very way you have tried to keep me off has made me love you!"
"Sam! stop!" cried his mother, in a rage. "What do you mean? You know you won't marry that girl!"
"Mother," exclaimed Sam, "you don't know anything about her! She is worth every other girl in the place, and handsomer than all of them put together!"
"Sam!" began Miss Sarah.
"Now, Sarah, you stop!" cried he. "I've begun, and now I'll tell. At first I teased her for fun. Then I watched her to see how she bore everything so well. And while I was watching, I—before I knew it—I began to love her. You may talk, if you want to; but I shall never be anybody, if she won't have me!"
"Stage coming!" said a little boy, running in.
I took Rachel by the hand, and drew her with me into the porch.
"Don't promise to marry him!" cried Sam, as we passed through the door-way. "But she will,—I know she will!" he added, as I closed the door.
He spoke in a pitiful tone, and his voice trembled. I was surprised that he showed so much feeling.
"Rachel," said I, as soon as we were alone, "won't you answer me now? You must know how much I love you. Will you be my wife?"
"Oh, Mr. Browne, I cannot! I cannot!" she whispered.
I was silent, for my fears came uppermost. Pressing one hand to my forehead, I thought of a thousand things in a moment. Nothing seemed more probable than that she should already have a lover across the sea. Seeing my distress, she spoke.
"Don't think, Mr. Browne," she began, earnestly, "that it is because I do not"—
There she stopped. I gazed eagerly in her face. It was strangely agitated. I should hardly have known my calm, white-faced Rachel. Just then I heard the stage stop at the bars.
"Oh, Rachel!" I cried, "go on! What mustn't I think? What shall I think?"
"Don't think me ungrateful,—you have been so kind," she said, softly.
"And is that all?" I asked.
"Stage ready!" called out the driver.
I opened the door, to show that I was coming; then, taking her hand, I said,—
"Good bye, Rachel! And so—you can't love me!"
An expression of pain crossed her face. She leaned against the wall, but did not speak.
"Hurry up there!" shouted the driver.
"Yes, yes!" I cried, impatiently.
"If you can't speak," I went on to Rachel, "press my hand, if you can love me,—now, for I am going. Good bye!"
She did not press my hand, and I could not go.
"You can't say you love me," I cried; "then say you don't. Anything rather than this doubt."
"Oh, Mr. Browne!" she replied, at last, "I can't say anything—but—good bye!"
"Good bye, then," I said, sadly. "But shall you still live here?"
"Oh, no!" she exclaimed, earnestly; "you can't think that I"—
Here she stopped, and glanced towards the kitchen-door.
"No," said I, "I won't think it. But where will you stay?"
"With Mrs. James. You know her. I have already spoken with her."
The tramp of the driver was now heard, approaching.
"Any passenger here bound for Boston?"
"Yes, Sir," I answered, and with one more whispered good-bye, one wring of the hand, I passed out, gave my bundle to the driver, and entered the coach.
What a ride home that was! What a half-day of doubting, hoping, despairing! I had not before realized how sure I had been of her accepting me; and now that I felt how much I loved her, and thought of the many causes which might separate us, I could not but say over in my heart the sorrowful words of poor Sam,—"I shall never be anybody, if she won't have me." Still, though not accepted, I could not feel refused; for what was it I read in her face? why so agitated? That she struggled with some strong feeling was evident. The remembrance, perhaps, of a former love.
In this tumult, this miserable condition, I reached home, where, spreading my old calmness over my new agitation, I received, as best I might, the joyful greeting of Fanny, the heartfelt welcome of Aunt Huldah. I tried hard to be my own old self, and could not but hope that even my sharp-eyed sister was blinded. But no sooner had I entered my room for the night, no sooner had I thrown myself into my deep-cushioned arm-chair, than this lively sprite entered, on her way to bed. She seated herself on the trunk close by me, laid her hand upon my arm, and said,—
"What is it, Charley?"
"What, Fanny?" I asked.
"Now, Charley," said she, "you might as well speak out at once. Why was I left, when all the rest were taken, but that you might have at least one that you loved to tell your troubles to? Come, now! Take off that manner of yours; you might as well, for I can see right through it. You will feel better to let everything out,—and then, who knows but I might help you?"
Sure enough. It was strange, considering what Fanny had always been to me, that this had not occurred to my own mind. How natural it seemed now to tell her all about it! What a relief it would be! But how should I begin? I shrank from it. I began to come round to my first position. It seemed as if the corner of my heart which held Rachel was a holy of holies, too sacred to be entered even by my dear, good sister. While I was thinking, she watched my face.
"Ah!" said she, "I see you don't know how to begin, and that I must both listen and talk. Give me your hand. Haven't I got gypsy eyes? I will tell your fortune."
Dear little bright-faced Fanny! I smiled a real smile when she took my hand.
"It is about a girl?" she said, half inquiringly.
I colored, though it was only Fanny, and nodded,—
"You love the girl?" she continued, after a pause.
"I do love the girl!" I said, earnestly,—for, now that the curtain was lifted, she might see all she chose.
"And she loves you?"
"No,—I think so,—I don't know," was my satisfactory reply.
"But why don't you ask her?"
"I have asked her."
"And what did she say? I wish, Charley, you would begin at the beginning and tell me all about it. How can I help you, if I don't know?"
I was glad enough to do it. I began at the beginning, and told all there was to tell. It was not much,—for the beauty, the goodness, the patience of Rachel could not be told. When all was over, she said,—
"I am glad you have told me, for I can make you easy on one point. She loves you. Ah, I can see! Women can always see, but men are stupid. Your declaration was too sudden. She might have thought you were forced into it. She is too high-minded to take advantage of a moment when your feelings were all excited. Wait awhile. Let her see that you do not change, and she will give you just such an answer as you will like to hear. Why, Charley, I like her better for not accepting you than for anything you have told about her."
"Well, Fanny," I said, half sighing, "it may be so,—I hope it may be so; but if it does turn out as you say, how shall we manage about Aunt Huldah? You know how she feels; and then there is Alice."
"What a brother you are!" exclaimed Fanny. "No sooner do I get you out of one difficulty than you go beating against another! Perhaps I shan't like her; then how will you manage about me? It is not every girl I will take for a sister! And as for Alice, do you think she is waiting for you all this time, vain man? She's got another beau. But now," she went on, as soon as she could stop laughing, "go to bed, and sleep easy, knowing that Rachel loves you, for I have said it. She loves you too well to take you at your word. I hope she isn't too good for you. I will think it all over, and see what can be done. Good night! Kiss me now for what I have told you, just as you would Rachel, if she had told you herself."
And I did, almost.
The next afternoon Fanny and I went out for a long walk. Aunt Huldah encouraged our going, for she was coloring, and wanted from the store both indigo and alum.
"Do you know the person with whom Rachel is staying?" asked Fanny, as soon as we were fairly started.
"Mrs. James? Yes, she is a nice young woman."
"Do you think Rachel would like to learn the milliner's trade? It would be a good thing for her."
"So it would; but where?"
"Does she know much of your friends, of how you are situated?"
"No. In the few hours we were together I was too much occupied in drawing her out to speak of my own affairs."
"I suppose she knows where you live?"
"I don't know; I think, if I spoke of any place, it was Cambridge,—I hailed from there."
"Well," said Fanny, thoughtfully, "perhaps it will make no difference. Anyway, it will do to try it. There are many Brownes. Besides, Aunt Huldah will be different. She will be Sprague, I shall be only Fanny, and Charley will be Charley."
"My dear Fanny!" I exclaimed, "what are you saying?"
"Why, you see, buddy,"—she often called me "buddy" for "brother,"—"that, if Rachel loves you, and you love her, you will have each other. If Aunt Huldah is angry, and won't give you any of her money, still you will be married, even if you both have to work by the day. Does this seem clear?"
I laughed, and said,—
"Very,—and right, too."
"Still," she went on, "it will be better for all concerned to have Aunt Huldah like her. Don't you remember that one summer a young girl from the milliner's boarded with us, and helped us, to pay her board?"
"Capital!" I said. "But can you manage it?"
"I think I can. Mrs. Sampson is, I know, wanting a girl for the busy season."
"But Rachel wouldn't come here,—to my home!"
"She need not know it is your home. I will write to Mrs. James, and tell her all about it,—tell why I want Rachel here, and what a good situation it will be for her at Mrs. Sampson's. She can find out whether the plan is pleasing to her; and if it is, she can herself make all the arrangements. Of course I shall charge her not to tell. Then, when everything is settled, I can just say to the milliner that we should like to make the same little arrangement that we did before."
"And she live here with you, with Aunt Huldah?"
"Why not? She needn't know that Mrs. Huldah Sprague is your aunt, or that this is your home."
"But she would find it out some way. People calling would mention me. Aunt herself would."
"I know it," said Fanny, not quite so hopefully; "and that is the weak point of my plan. But then, you know, we are Charley and Fanny to everybody. She only thinks of you as Mr. Browne. Anyway, something will be gained. I shall see her, and decide about liking her, which is quite important; and it will be well for her to have the situation, even if nothing else comes of it. I don't see any harm our scheme can do; do you, Charley?"
"No,—no harm; but still, things don't look—exactly clear."
"Of course not; it is not to be expected. I have read in books that lovers have always a mist before their eyes. Mine are clear yet; and I will tell you what to do,—or, rather, what not to do. Don't write her from here; wait till you are in Cambridge."
By this time we reached the house. The moment we entered, Aunt Huldah stretched out her hand for the dye-stuff. We had forgotten all about it!
Those few days at home were pleasant. Aunt Huldah was unusually kind. It was such a satisfaction to her to know that I had kept a school,—to think that some of her own pluck was hid beneath my quiet seeming. She proposed my becoming a lawyer, to which I made no objection,—for I knew I could make a dumb lawyer, one of the kind who only sit and write.
I wrote to Rachel from Cambridge, and she answered my letter. It was like herself. "How very kind you have been," she wrote, "to me, a poor stranger-girl! If I knew how to write, I would try to let you know how much I feel it. I can't understand your wanting to marry a girl like me. I know so little, am so little. I hope it will not offend you, but I think I ought to say, even if it does, that you must not write any more. Sometime you will thank me, in your heart, for not doing as you want me to now."
I saw that I had indeed a noble nature to deal with. Here was a girl, all alone in the world, rejecting the sweetest offering that could be made to a friendless one,—a loving heart,—lest that heart should be made to suffer on her account! Of course I kept on writing, though my letters were not answered. I sent her letter to Fanny, who wrote me to keep up good courage, for she had already put her irons in the fire,—that, although now fully convinced that Rachel was too good for me, she had herself begun to love her, and was at work on her own account.
I always kept Fanny's letters. Here is a part of one I received after having been a few weeks from home:—
"I have just got my answer from Mrs. James. She is just the woman to help us along. Rachel wants to come! I have spoken to Aunt Huldah. It is too bad, but I had to be a bit of a hypocrite, to hint that I was rather poorly, and how nice it would be to have a little help. She had just got in a new piece to weave, and so was quite ready to take up with my plan. I shall get well as soon as it will do, for she seems anxious. Aunt has a stiff way, I know, but there's a warm corner somewhere in her heart, and we are in it, and you know there's always room for one more."
It was a week, and more, before I got another letter from my scheming sister. It began this way:—
"Your Rachel is a beauty! Just as sweet and modest as she can be! She is sitting at the end-window of my room, watching the vessels. I am writing at the front-window. She has just looked at me. What eyes she has! If she only knew whom I was writing to! When I see you, I shall tell you the particulars. But don't come posting home now, and spoil everything. You shall hear all that is necessary for you to know."
Fanny need not have cautioned me about coming home. It was happiness enough then to think of Rachel sitting in my sister's room,—of Aunt Huldah's keen eyes watching her daily life.
"My plan works," writes Fanny, a week afterwards. "Aunt seems to take a liking to Rachel, which I, if anything, rather discourage, thinking she will be more likely to stick to it. Rachel is a sister after my own heart. I do like those people who, while they are so steady and calm, show by their eyes and the tone of the voice what warm, delicate feelings they are keeping to themselves! She is one of the real good kind! What a way she has with her!—I saw her to-day, when she received a letter from you. It came in one from Mrs. James. I was making believe read, but peeped at her sideways, just as I have seen you do at the girls in meeting-time. She slipped yours into her pocket, with such a blush,—then looked up, sort of scared, to see if I noticed anything; but I was reading my book. Then she stepped quickly out of the room, and I saw her, a moment after, go through the garden into the apple-orchard, and along the path to the low-branching apple-tree, to read it all alone."
This tree I knew well. It was an irregular old apple-tree, one of whose branches formed of itself a nice seat, where Fanny and I had often sat from childhood up.
Afterwards she writes,—
"You have sent Rachel a ring,—a pearl ring; you didn't tell me, but I know. I have seen her kiss it. (Does this please you?) I happened to find it yesterday, while rummaging her box for the buttonhole scissors. (She sent me there.) Said I,—'Oh, what a pretty ring! Why don't you wear it?' I never thought till I had spoken; but then I knew in a minute, by her looking so red. She said she'd a reason for thinking it would not be quite right to wear it,—said perhaps she would tell sometime. It was last night I saw her kiss it, when she thought I was asleep,—we sleep in the same room. She tried it on her finger, but took it right off again, sighing, and looking so sad that I don't know what I should have done, had I not known how it was all coming out right pretty soon.—Aunt Huldah is completely entangled in my web. She has come into it with her sharp eyes wide open! She likes Rachel,—says she always knows where to take hold, and makes no fuss about doing things. She gets her to read the chapter, because she says she likes the sound of her voice. There is not only sound, but feeling in her voice, and that is what aunt means; but you know she never says all she means,—she isn't one of the kind. Rachel is always doing little things for her, and bringing home bunches of sweet-fern and everlasting. Even if my plan upsets now, much will be gained,—for aunt can't get back her liking, I have found a dear friend, and Rachel a good place. Your name has been mentioned, but only as Charley. I am in daily fear that aunt will allude to your school, though, to be sure, she is not at all communicative, (girls having brothers in college should use a big word now and then,) but we are getting so well acquainted that I begin to shake in my shoes. But the mornings are busy, the noons are short, and you know aunt always goes to bed with the hens. My dread is of callers,—not just the neighbors running in, but the regulars. It is so natural for them to say, 'How is your nephew?'—not that they care for you, except as being something to talk about."
Soon after, came the following:—
"Charley, my boy, what I feared has come to pass! Last night our new young minister called. He is a good young man, I know, but so stiff! Not too stiff, though, to take a good look at Rachel. We all sat up straight in our chairs. His eyes were deep and black, his face pale and solemn. He was all in black, but just the white about his throat. When the weather, the prospects of the farmers, and of the church, were all over with, then came an awful pause. Then it was that I began to shiver, and that the mischief was done. 'Mrs. Sprague.' he began, 'I understand you have a nephew, not now at home, who taught school last winter in the little village of Norway.' You may guess the rest. There was a long talk about you. Rachel hasn't said a word, but I see by her face that she is laying some desperate plan. Now, Charley, is your time! Hurry home! Come and spend next Sunday. Aunt spoke of your coming in four weeks, but I shall look for you next Saturday night. She gets through work earlier then. The stage reaches here about sunset. Stop at the tavern, and run home over the hills. You will come out behind the orchard, and Rachel and I will be sitting on the branch of the low apple-tree."
Now I had been getting uneasy for some time. All this while I had been living on Fanny's letters. Now I wanted more. It was much to know that Rachel loved me, but I longed to hear her say so. I depended upon her. She seemed already a part of myself. My shadowy pinafore-maker had assumed a living form of beauty, and was already more to me than I had ever imagined woman could be to man, than one soul could be to another. I had always, in common with other men, considered myself as an oak destined in the course of Nature to support some clinging vine; but, if I were an oak-tree, she was another, with an infinitude more of grace and beauty.
As may be supposed, I required no urging to take the Saturday's stage for home. We arrived at sunset. I made for the hills with all speed, rushing through bushes and briers, leaping brooks at a bound, until I came out just behind the orchard. There I paused. My happiness seemed so near that I would fain enjoy, before grasping it. I walked softly along under the trees, until I came in sight of two girls sitting with their arms around each other's waists upon the low branch of the apple-tree. There was just room for two. The branch, after running parallel with the ground for a little way, took a sudden turn upwards; and to this natural seat I had myself, in my younger days, added a back of rough branches. I came towards them, from behind, and hid myself awhile behind the trunk of a tree. Fanny was making Rachel talk, making her laugh, in spite of herself, as I could well see. Then she began to play with her dark hair, twining it prettily about her head, and twisting among it damask roses with their buds,—for it was June, and our damask rose-bush was then always in full bloom.
If Rachel had been beautiful in her rusty black dress, what could I say of her now? She wore a gown of pink gingham, made after the fashion of the day, short-waisted and low in the neck, with a—finishing-off—of white muslin or lace, edged with a tucker. There was color in her cheeks, and added to this was the glow from the roses, and from the pink gown. When she smiled, her mouth was beautiful. I had not been used to seeing her smile. As she threw her arm over the back of the seat, in turning her face towards Fanny, laughing as I had never before seen her laugh, I was so bewildered by the beauty of her face and figure that I forgot my caution, and made a hasty step towards her. The grass was soft, but they heard the noise and turned full upon me.
"Why, Charley! you dear boy!" exclaimed Fanny; and she came running up, throwing both arms around my neck.
I kissed her; and then she drew me towards Rachel, who stood, like one in despair, trembling, blushing, almost weeping.
"Charley," cried Fanny, roguishly, "kiss me, kiss my friend. This is my friend. Won't you kiss her, too?"
"With pleasure," I answered, with too much of deep feeling to laugh. "Rachel, I always mind Fanny; you will not, then, think it strange, if I"—
I cannot finish the sentence on paper, because it had not a grammatical ending. I kept hold of Rachel's hand, thus adding to her distress,—telling her, all the while, how good it was to see her, and to see her there. She tried to withdraw her hand, tried to speak, tried to keep silent, and at last burst out with,—
"Oh, Fanny! do tell him that I didn't know,—that I had no idea,—that you asked me,—that you never told me!"
"Charley," said Fanny, laughing, "did you ever know me to tell a lie? To my certain knowledge, this young woman came here to board, expecting to find nothing worse than Aunt Huldah and myself; and it was at my suggestion she came."
Then taking Rachel by the hand, she said,—
"Be easy, my dear child. You need not feel so pained. Charley loves you, and you love him, and we all love one another. Charley is a dear boy, and you mustn't plague him. I will tell you all about it, dear. When Charley came home, and I made him tell me about you, I know, from what he said, that you were—But I won't praise you to your face. Hasn't Charley seen plenty of girls, handsome girls, educated, accomplished? And haven't I watched him these years, to see when Love would catch him? Haven't I searched his face, time and again, for signs of love at his heart? When he came home in the spring, I saw that his time had come, and trouble with it. I made him tell, for I would not send him away with a grief shut up in his heart. Then I contrived this plan of seeing and knowing you, dear. I knew that Charley would never have been so deeply moved, had you not been worthy; but, my dear child, I never thought of loving you so! I shall be so proud, if you will be my sister,—for you will, I know. You can't refuse such a dear boy as Charley!"
I still held Rachel by the hand; and while Fanny was speaking so earnestly, my other hand, of itself, went creeping around her waist, and drew her close to me.
"You can't refuse," I whispered, reposting Fanny's words; and I knew by the look in her face, and the way her heart beat, that she couldn't.
But Fanny was one who never liked deep waters. Seeing that matters were growing earnest, she rose quickly to the surface, and went rattling on, in her lively way.
"Now, come, you two, and sit down in this cozy seat. You have never had a nice time all to yourselves, to make love in. Ah! how well you look together! Just room enough! Rachel, dear, rest your head on Charley's shoulder. You must. Charley always minds me, and you will have to. Now, buddy, just drop your head on hers a minute. Capital! Your light curls make her hair look more like black velvet than ever! That will do. Now I leave you to your fate. I am rattle-headed, I know, but I hope I have some consideration."
And so she left us, sitting there in the twilight, in the solemn hush of Saturday night.
The next day we all went to meeting. It seemed good that I was only to spend Sunday at home. The quiet, the air of solemnity all around us, harmonized well with the song my own soul was singing. It was Sabbath-day within, one long, blessed Sabbath, with which the bustle of week-day life would ill accord. That perfect day I never forgot. Even now I can scent its roses in the air. Even now I can almost feel the daisies brushing against my feet, while walking up the narrow lane on our way to church,—can see the sweetbrier by the red gate, and myself giving Rachel one of its blossoms.
During the rest of the term I had frequent letters from Fanny and Rachel, telling how happy they both were, and what talks they had in the apple-tree,—telling that Aunt Huldah knew, but wasn't angry, only just a little at Fanny, for being so sly. Then came the long summer vacation. The very day I got home, the solemn young minister called. Fanny said that he came often, but she thought he would do so no longer, for he would see that it was of no use to be looking at Rachel. He did, however, and Rachel said he came to look at Fanny. I bestirred myself, therefore, to become acquainted with him. His stiffness was only of the manners. I found him a genial, cultivated, warm-hearted person; in fact, I liked him. How cold the word sounds now, applied to one whom I afterwards came to love as a brother, whose gentle heart sympathized in all our troubles, whose tears were ever ready to mingle with our own!
He gave us every opportunity of finding him out, joined us in our sunset walks, and in our long sittings under the trees. I soon came to be well satisfied that he should look at Fanny,—satisfied that she should watch for his coming, and blush when he came. I was happy to see the mist she once spoke of slowly gathering before her own eyes, and to know, from the strange quiet which came over her, that some new influence was at work within her heart.
The beauty of Rachel seemed each day more brilliant. Amid such happy influences, the lively, genial side of her nature expanded like a flower in the sunshine. "The soul of Rachel Lowe," having no longer to stand alone, bearing the weight of its own sorrows, brought its energies to promote the happiness of us all. She contrived pleasant surprises, and charmed Aunt Huldah with her constant acts of kindness. She sang beautiful songs, and filled the house with flowers; and when we sat long, in the cool of the evening, out under the trees, she would relate strange, wild stories which she had heard from her mother,—stories of other times and distant lands.
Meanwhile Aunt Huldah was as kind as heart could wish, treating us tenderly, and as if we were little children; and one stormy night, when we four sat with her in the keeping-room, talking, until daylight faded, and the short twilight left us nearly in darkness, she told us some things about her own youth, things of which, by daylight, she would never have spoken,—and told, too, of a dear, only brother, who was ruined for all time, and, she feared, for eternity also, from being crossed in love by the strong will of his father. Aunt Huldah had a tender heart. Her voice grew thick and hoarse, while telling the story. I was always glad we had that talk. It made us know her better. She lived only a year after. She died in June, when the grass was green and the roses were in bloom,—just a year from that Sabbath I spent at home, that perfect day when I walked to meeting with Rachel up the grassy lane. With sad hearts, we laid her to rest in a spot that she loved, where the sweet-fern and wild-roses were growing,—with sad, grateful hearts, for she had been to us as father, mother, and true friend. We loved her for the affection she showed, and still more for that which we knew she concealed within herself,—for the tenderness she would not let be revealed.
The next year Rachel and I were married, thus making the month of June trebly sacred. We had a double wedding; for the young minister, finding that he had looked at Fanny too long for his own tranquillity, proposed to mend matters in a way which no one whose faculties were not strangely betwisted by love would ever have thought of. And my sister must either have secretly liked the plan, or else have lost her old faculty of managing; for, when he said, "Come, Fanny, and let us dwell together in the parsonage," she went, just as quiet as a lamb.
Rachel and I remained, and do remain to this day, at the old house. Fanny said we ought to go into the world,—that I might possibly become brilliant, and Rachel would certainly be admired. But the first of these suggestions had little weight with me; and Rachel said how nice it would be to live here among the apple-trees, near Fanny, to read books, sing songs, and so have a good time all our lives!
"And have nobody but Charley see how handsome you are!" exclaimed Fanny.
Rachel didn't color at this, but remarked, a little roguishly, that she would rather have one of those sidelong looks I used to give her in the old school-house than all the admiration in the world.
This was the time when I chose my profession, as mentioned in the beginning. And I may say that we have had a good time all our lives. Yet we have known sorrow. Four times has the dark shadow fallen upon our hearts; four sad processions have passed up the narrow lane; four little graves, by the side of Aunt Huldah's, show where, standing together, we wept tears of agony! Yet we stood together; and Rachel, who knew so well, taught me how to bear. In every hour of anguish I have found myself leaning upon the strong, steadfast "soul of Rachel Lowe." I say still, therefore, that we have had a good time, for we have loved one another all our lives. And we have never been too much alone. Plenty of friends have been glad to come and see us; and on Anniversary Week we have usually made a journey to Boston, to wear off the rust, and get stirred up generally. We attend most frequently the Anti-Slavery Conventions. I know of no better place, whether for getting stirred up, or wearing off the rust. That couple whom you may have noticed sitting near the platform—that bald-headed old gentleman and intelligent-looking elderly lady—are my wife and I. We met with the early Abolitionists in a stable; we saw Garrison dragged through the streets, and heard Phillips's first speech in Faneuil Hall.
I have always kept my old habit of watching pretty faces; only I don't look sideways now: for the girls never think that an old man cares to see them; but he does. We have one son, who Fanny devoutly hopes will turn out better than his father. May he go through life as happily! And he is in a fair way for it. I like to see him with Jenny, the pretty daughter of my friend the watchmaker. If my good friend thinks to keep always with him that youngest one of his flock, he will find his mistake; for it was only yesterday that I saw them sitting together on the seat in the low-branching apple-tree.
* * * * *
Human nature is impatient of mysteries. The occurrence of an event out of the line of common causation, the advent of a person not plastic to the common moulds of society, causes a great commotion in this little ant-hill of ours. There is perplexity, bewilderment, a running hither and thither, until the foreign substance is assigned a place in the ranks; and if there be no rank to which it can be ascertained to belong, a new rank shall be created to receive it, rather than that it shall be left to roam up and down, baffling, defiant, and alone. Indeed, so great is our abhorrence of outlying, unclassified facts, that we are often ready to accept classification for explanation; and having given our mystery a niche and a name, we cease any longer to look upon it as mysterious. The village-schoolmaster, who displayed his superior knowledge to the rustics gazing at an eclipse of the sun by assuring them that it was "only a phenomenon," was but one of a great host of wiseacres who stand ready with brush and paint-pot to label every new development, and fancy that in so doing they have abundantly answered every reasonable inquiry concerning cause, character, and consequence.
When William Blake flashed across the path of English polite society, society was confounded. It had never had to do with such an apparition before, and was at its wits' end. But some Daniel was found wise enough to come to judgment, and pronounce the poet-painter mad; whereupon society at once composed itself, and went on its way rejoicing.
There are a few persons, however, who are not disposed to let this verdict stand unchallenged. Mr. Arthur Gilchrist, late a barrister of the Middle Temple, a man, therefore, who must have been accustomed to weigh evidence, and who would not have been likely to decide upon insufficient grounds, wrote a life of Mr. Blake, in which he strenuously and ably opposed the theory of insanity. From this book, chiefly, we propose to lay before our readers a slight sketch of the life of a man who, whether sane or insane, was one of the most remarkable productions of his own or of any age.
One word, in the beginning, regarding the book before us. The death of its author, while as yet but seven chapters of his work had been printed, would preclude severe criticism, even if the spirit and purpose with which he entered upon his undertaking, and which he sustained to its close, did not dispose us to look leniently upon imperfections of detail. Possessing that first requisite of a biographer, thorough sympathy with his subject, he did not fall into the opposite error of indiscriminate panegyric. Looking at life from the standpoint of the "madman," he saw how fancies could not only appear, but be, facts; and then, crossing over, he looked at the madman from the world's standpoint, and saw how these soul-born facts could seem not merely fancies, but the wild vagaries of a crazed brain. For the warmth with which he espoused an unpopular cause, for the skill with which he set facts in their true light, for the ability which he brought to the defence of a man whom the world had agreed to condemn, for the noble persistence with which he forced attention to genius that had hitherto received little but neglect, we cannot too earnestly express our gratitude. But the greater our admiration of material excellence, the greater is our regret for superficial defects. The continued oversight of the author would doubtless have removed many infelicities of style; yet we marvel that one with so clear an insight should ever, even in the first glow of composition, have involved himself in sentences so complicated and so obscure. The worst faults of Miss Sheppard's worst style are reproduced here, joined to an unthriftiness in which she had no part nor lot. Not unfrequently a sentence Is a conglomerate in which the ideas to be conveyed are heaped together with no apparent attempt at arrangement, unity, or completeness. Surely, it need be no presumptuous, but only a tender and reverent hand that should have organized these chaotic periods, completing the work which death left unfinished, and sending it forth to the world in a garb not unworthy the labor of love so untiringly bestowed upon it by the lamented author.
To show that our strictures are not undeserved, we transcribe a few sentences, taken at random from the memoir:—
"Which decadence it was led this Pars to go into the juvenile Art-Academy line, vice Shipley retired."
"The unusual notes struck by William Blake, in any case appealing but to one class and a small one, were fated to remain unheard, even by the Student of Poetry, until the process of regeneration had run its course, and, we may say, the Poetic Revival gone to seed again: seeing that the virtues of simplicity and directness the new poets began by bringing once more into the foreground, are those least practised now."
"In after years of estrangement from Stothard, Blake used to complain of this mechanical employment as engraver to a fellow-designer, who (he asserted) first borrowed from one that, in his servile capacity, had then to copy that comrade's version of his own inventions—as to motive and composition his own, that is."
"And this imposing scroll of fervid truisms and hap-hazard generalities, as often disputable as not, if often acute and striking, always ingenuous and pleasant, was, like all his other writings, warmly welcomed in this country."
Let us now go back a hundred years, to the time when William Blake was a fair-haired, smooth-browed boy, wandering aimlessly, after the manner of boys, about the streets of London. It might seem at first a matter of regret that a soul full of all glowing and glorious fancies should have been consigned to the damp and dismal dulness of that crowded city; but, in truth, nothing could be more fit. To this affluent, creative mind dinginess and dimness were not. Through the grayest gloom golden palaces rose before him, silver pavements shone beneath his feet, jewelled gates unfolded on golden hinges turning, and he wandered forth into a fair country. What need of sunshine and bloom for one who saw in the deepest darkness a "light that never was on sea or land"? Rambling out into the pleasant woods of Dulwich, through the green meadows of Walton, by the breezy heights of Sydenham, bands of angels attended him. They walked between the toiling haymakers, they hovered above him in the apple-boughs, and their bright wings shone like stars. For him there was neither awe nor mystery, only delight. Angels were no more unnatural than apples. But the honest hosier, his father, took different views. Never in all his life had that worthy citizen beheld angels perched on tree-tops, and he was only prevented from administering to his son a sound thrashing for the absurd falsehood by the intercession of his mother. Ah, these mothers! By what fine sense is it that they detect the nascent genius for which man's coarse perception can find no better name than perverseness, and no wiser treatment than brute force?
The boy had much reason to thank his mother, for to her intervention it was doubtless largely due that he was left to follow his bent, and haunt such picture-galleries as might be found in noblemen's houses and public sale-rooms. There he feasted his bodily eyes on earthly beauty, as his mental gaze had been charmed with heavenly visions. From admiration to imitation was but a step, and the little hands soon began to shape such rude, but loving copies as Raffaelle, with tears in his eyes, must have smiled to see. His father, moved by motherly persuasions, as we can easily infer, bought him casts for models, that he might continue his drawing-lessons at home; his own small allowance of pocket-money went for prints; his wistful child-face presently became known to dealers, and many a cheap lot was knocked down to him with amiable haste by friendly auctioneers. Then and there began that life-long love and loyalty to the grand old masters of Germany and Italy, to Albrecht Duerer, to Michel Angelo, to Raffaelle, which knew no diminution, and which, in its very commencement, revealed the eclecticism of true genius, because the giants were not the gods in those days.
But there came a time when Pegasus must be broken in to drudgery, and travel along trodden ways. By slow, it cannot be said by toilsome ascent, the young student had reached the vestibule of the temple; but
"Every door was barred with gold, and opened but to golden keys,"
which, alas! to him were wanting. Nothing daunted, his sincere soul preferred to be a doorkeeper in the house of his worship rather than a dweller in the tents of Mammon. Unable to be an artist, he was content for the time to become an artisan, and chose to learn engraving,—a craft which would keep him within sight and sound of the heaven from which he was shut out. Application was first made to Ryland, then in the zenith of his fame, engraver to the King, friend of authors and artists, himself a graceful, accomplished, and agreeable gentleman. But the marvellous eyes that pierced through mortal gloom to immortal glory saw also the darkness that brooded behind uncanny light. "I do not like the man's face," said young Blake, as he was leaving the shop with his father; "it looks as if he will live to be hanged." The negotiation failed; Blake was apprenticed to Basire; and twelve years after, the darkness that had lain so long in ambush came out and hid the day: Ryland was hanged.
His new master, Basire, was one of those workmen who magnify their office and make it honorable. The most distinguished of four generations of Basires, engravers, he is represented as a superior, liberal-minded, upright man, and a kind master. With him Blake served out his seven years of apprenticeship, as faithful, painstaking, and industrious as any blockhead. So great was the confidence which he secured, that, month after month, and year after year, he was sent out alone to Westminster Abbey and the various old churches in the neighborhood, to make drawings from the monuments, with no oversight but that of his own taste and his own conscience. And a rich reward we may well suppose his integrity brought him, in the charming solitudes of those old-time sanctuaries. Wandering up and down the consecrated aisles,—eagerly peering through the dim, religious light for the beautiful forms that had leaped from many a teeming brain now turned to dust,—reproducing, with patient hand, graceful outline and deepening shadow,—his daring, yet reverent heart held high communion with the ages that were gone. The Spirit of the Past overshadowed him. The grandeur of Gothic symbolism rose before him. Voices of dead centuries murmured low music down the fretted vault. Fair ladies and brave gentlemen came up from the solemn chambers where they had lain so long in silent state, and smiled with their olden grace. Shades of nameless poets, who had wrought their souls into a cathedral and died unknown and unhonored, passed before the dreaming boy, and claimed their immortality. Nay, once the Blessed Face shone through the cloistered twilight, and the Twelve stood roundabout. In this strange solitude and stranger companionship many an old problem untwined its Gordian knot, and whispered along its loosened length,—
"I give you the end of a golden string: Only wind it into a ball, It will lead you in at Heaven's gate, Built in Jerusalem wall."
To an engraving of "Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion," executed at this time, he appends,—"This is one of the Gothic artists who built the Cathedrals in what we call the Dark Ages, wandering about in sheepskins and goatskins; of whom the world was not worthy. Such were the Christians in all ages."
Yet, somewhere, through mediaeval gloom and modern din, another spirit breathed upon him,—a spirit of green woods and blue waters, the freshness of May mornings, the prattle of tender infancy, the gambols of young lambs on the hill-side. From his childhood, Poetry walked hand in hand with Painting, and beguiled his loneliness with wild, sweet harmonies. Bred up amid the stately, measured, melodious platitudes of the eighteenth century, that Golden Age of commonplace, he struck down through them all with simple, untaught, unconscious directness, and smote the spring of ever-living waters. Such wood-notes wild as trill in Shakspeare's verse sprang from the stricken chords beneath his hand. The little singing-birds that seem almost to have leaped unbidden into life among the gross creations of those old Afreets who
"Stood around the throne of Shakspeare, Sturdy, but unclean,"
carolled their clear, pure lays to him, and left a quivering echo. Fine, fleeting fantasies we have, a tender, heartfelt, heart-reaching pathos, laughter that might at any moment tremble into tears, eternal truths, draped in the garb of quaint and simple story, solemn fervors, subtile sympathies, and the winsomeness of little children at their play,—sometimes glowing with the deepest color, often just tinged to the pale and changing hues of a dream, but touched with such coy grace, modulated to such free, wild rhythm, suffused with such a delicate, evanishing loveliness, that they seem scarcely to be the songs of our tangible earth, but snatches from fairy-land. Often rude in form, often defective in rhyme, and not unfrequently with even graver faults than these, their ruggedness cannot hide the gleam of the sacred fire. "The Spirit of the Age," moulding her pliant poets, was wiser than to meddle with this sterner stuff. From what hidden cave in Rare Ben Jonson's realm did the boy bring such an opal as this
"My silks and fine array, My smiles and languished air, By Love are driven away; And mournful, lean Despair Brings me yew to deck my grave: Such end true lovers have!
"His face is fair as heaven, Where springing buds unfold; Oh, why to him was 't given, Whose heart is wintry cold? His breast is Love's all-worshipped tomb, Where all Love's pilgrims come.
"Bring me an axe and spade, Bring me a winding-sheet; When I my grave have made, Let winds and tempests beat: Then down I'll lie, as cold as clay. True love doth pass away."
What could the Spirit of the Age hope to do with a boy scarcely yet in his teens, who dared arraign her in such fashion as is set forth in his address
TO THE MUSES.
"Whether on Ida's shady brow, Or in the chambers of the East, The chambers of the Sun, that now From ancient melody have ceased;
"Whether in heaven ye wander fair, Or the green corners of the earth, Or the blue regions of the air, Where the melodious winds have birth;
"Whether on crystal rocks ye rove Beneath the bosom of the sea, Wandering in many a coral grove, Fair Nine, forsaking Poetry;
"How have you left the ancient love That bards of old enjoyed in you! The languid strings do scarcely move, The sound is forced, the notes are few."
Whereabouts in its Elegant Extracts would a generation that strung together sonorous couplets, and compiled them into a book to Enforce the Practice of Virtue, place such a ripple of verse as this?—
"Piping down the valleys wild, Piping songs of pleasant glee, On a cloud I saw a child, And he, laughing, said to me:
"'Pipe a song about a lamb!' So I piped with merry cheer. 'Piper, pipe that song again!' So I piped; he wept to hear.
"'Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe; Sing thy songs of happy cheer!' So I sang the same again, While he wept with joy to hear.
"'Piper, sit thee down and write In a book, that all may read!' So he vanished from my sight. And I plucked a hollow reed,
"And I made a rural pen, And I stained the water clear, And I wrote my happy songs Every child may joy to hear."
A native of the jungle, leaping into the fine drawing-rooms of Cavendish Square, would hardly create more commotion than such a poem as "The Tiger," charging in among Epistles to the Earl of Dorset, Elegies describing the Sorrow of an Ingenuous Mind, Odes innumerable to Memory, Melancholy, Music, Independence, and all manner of odious themes.
"Tiger, tiger, burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Framed thy fearful symmetry?
"In what distant deeps or skies Burned that fire within thine eyes? On what wings dared he aspire? What the hand dared seize the fire?
"And what shoulder, and what art, Could twist the sinews of thy heart? When thy heart began to beat, What dread hand formed thy dread feet?
"What the hammer, what the chain, Knit thy strength and forged thy brain? What the anvil? What dread grasp Dared thy deadly terrors clasp?
"When the stars threw down their spears, And watered heaven with their tears, Did he smile his work to see? Did He who made the lamb make thee?"
Mrs. Montagu, by virtue of the "moral" in the last line, may possibly have ventured to read the "Chimney-Sweeper" at her annual festival to those swart little people; but we have not space to give the gem a setting here; nor the "Little Black Boy," with its matchless, sweet child-sadness. Indeed, scarcely one of these early poems—all written between the ages of eleven and twenty—is without its peculiar, and often its peerless charm.
Arrived at the age of twenty-one, he finished his apprenticeship to Basire, and began at once the work and worship of his life,—the latter by studying at the Royal Academy, the former by engraving for the booksellers. Introduced by a brother-artist to Flaxman, he joined him in furnishing designs for the famous Wedgwood porcelain, and so one dinner-set gave bread and butter to genius, and nightingales' tongues to wealth. That he was not a docile, though a very devoted pupil, is indicated by his reply to Moser, the keeper, who came to him, as he was looking over prints from his beloved Raffaelle and Michel Angelo, and said, "You should not study these old, hard, stiff, and dry, unfinished works of Art: stay a little, and I will show you what you should study." He brought down Le Brun and Rubens. "How did I secretly rage!" says Blake. "I also spake my mind! I said to Moser, 'These things that you call finished are not even begun; how, then, can they be finished?'" The reply of the startled teacher is not recorded. In other respects, also, he swerved from Academical usage. Nature, as it appeared in models artificially posed to enact an artificial part, became hateful to him, seemed to him a caricature of Nature, though he delighted in the noble antique figures.
Nature soon appeared to him in another shape, and altogether charming. A lively miss to whom he had paid court showed herself cold to his advances; which circumstance he was one evening bemoaning to a dark-eyed, handsome girl,—(a dangerous experiment, by the way,)—who assured him that she pitied him from her heart. "Do you pity me?" he eagerly asked. "Yes, I do, most sincerely." "Then I love you for that," replied the new Othello to his Desdemona; and so well did the wooing go that the dark-eyed Catharine presently became his wife, the Kate of a forty-five years' marriage. Loving, devoted, docile, she learned to be helpmeet and companion. Never, on the one side, murmuring at the narrow fortunes, nor, on the other, losing faith in the greatness to which she had bound herself, she not only ordered well her small household, but drew herself up within the range of her husband's highest sympathy. She learned to read and write, and to work off his engravings. Nay, love became for her creative, endowed her with a new power, the vision and the faculty divine, and she presently learned to design with a spirit and a grace hardly to be distinguished from her husband's. No children came to make or mar their harmony; and from the summer morning in Battersea that placed her hand in his, to the summer evening in London that loosed it from his dying grasp, she was the true angel-vision, Heaven's own messenger to the dreaming poet-painter.
Being the head of a family, Blake now, as was proper, went into "society." And what a society it was to enter! And what a man was Blake to enter it! The society of President Reynolds, and Mr. Mason the poet, and Mr. Sheridan the play-actor, and pompous Dr. Burney, and abstract Dr. Delap,—all honorable men; a society that was dictated to by Dr. Johnson, and delighted by Edmund Burke, and sneered at by Horace Walpole, its untiring devotee: a society presided over by Mrs. Montagu, whom Dr. Johnson dubbed Queen of the Blues; Mrs. Carter, borrowing, by right of years, her matron's plumes; Mrs. Chapone, sensible, ugly, and benevolent; the beautiful Mrs. Sheridan; the lively, absurd, incisive Mrs. Cholmondeley; sprightly, witty Mrs. Thrale; and Hannah More, coiner of guineas, both as saint and sinner: a most piquant, trenchant, and entertaining society it was, and well might be, since the bullion of genius was so largely wrought into the circulating medium of small talk; but a society which, from sheer lack of vision, must have entertained its angels unawares. Such was the current which caught up this simple-hearted painter, this seer of unutterable things, this "eternal child,"—caught him up only to drop him, with no creditable, but with very credible haste. As a lion, he was undoubtedly thrice welcome in Rathbone Place; but when it was found that the lion would not roar there gently, nor be bound by their silken strings, but rather shook his mane somewhat contemptuously at his would-be tamers, and kept, in their grand saloons, his freedom of the wilderness, he was straightway suffered to return to his fitting solitudes. One may imagine the consternation that would be caused by this young fellow turning to Mrs. Carter, whose "talk was all instruction," or to Mrs. Chapone, bent on the "improvement of the mind," or to Miss Streatfield, with her "nose and notions a la Grecque," and abruptly inquiring, "Madam, did you ever see a fairy's funeral?" "Never, Sir!" responds the startled Muse. "I have," pursues Blake, as calmly as if he were proposing to relate a bon mot which he heard at Lady Middleton's rout last night. "I was walking alone in my garden last night: there was great stillness among the branches and flowers, and more than common sweetness in the air. I heard a low and pleasant sound, and knew not whence it came. At last I saw the broad leaf of a flower move, and underneath I saw a procession of creatures of the size and color of green and gray grasshoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose-leaf, which they buried with songs, and then disappeared. It was a fairy funeral." Or they are discussing, somewhat pompously, Herschel's late discovery of Uranus, and the immense distances of heavenly bodies, when Blake bursts out uproariously, "'Tis false! I was walking down a lane the other day, and at the end of it I touched the sky with my stick." Truly, for this wild man, who obstinately refuses to let his mind be regulated, but bawls out his mad visions the louder, the more they are combated, there is nothing for it but to go back to his Kitty, and the little tenement in Green Street.
But real friends Blake found, who, if they could not quite understand him, could love and honor and assist. Flaxman, the "Sculptor for Eternity," and Fuseli, the fiery-hearted Swiss painter, stood up for him manfully. His own younger brother, Robert, shared his talents, and became for a time a loved and honored member of his family,—too much honored, if we may credit an anecdote in which the brother appears to much better advantage than the husband. A dispute having one day arisen between Robert and Mrs. Blake, Mr. Blake, after a while, deemed her to have gone too far, and bade her kneel down and beg Robert's pardon, or never see her husband's face again. Nowise convinced, she nevertheless obeyed the stern command, and acknowledged herself in the wrong. "Young woman, you lie!" retorted Robert "I am in the wrong!" This beloved brother died at the age of twenty-five. During his last illness, Blake attended him with the most affectionate devotion, nor ever left the bedside till he beheld the disembodied spirit leave the frail clay and soar heavenward, clapping its hands for joy!
His brother gone, though not so far away that he did not often revisit the old home,—friendly Flaxman in Italy, but more inaccessible there than Robert in the heaven which lay above this man in his perpetual infancy,—the bas-bleus reinclosed in the charmed circle in which Blake had so riotously disported himself, a small attempt at partnership, shop-keeping, and money-making, wellnigh "dead before it was born,"—the poet began to think of publishing. The verses of which we have spoken had been seen but by few people, and the store was constantly increasing. Influence with the publishers, and money to defray expenses, were alike wanting. A copy of Lavater's "Aphorisms," translated by his fellow-countryman, Fuseli, had received upon its margins various annotations which reveal the man in his moods. "The great art to love your enemy consists in never losing sight of man in him," says Lavater. "None can see the man in the enemy," pencils Blake. "If he is ignorantly so, he is not truly an enemy; if maliciously so, not a man. I cannot love my enemy; for my enemy is not a man, but a beast. And if I have any, I can love him as a beast, and wish to beat him." No equivocation here, surely. On superstition he comments,—"It has been long a bugbear, by reason of its having been united with hypocrisy. But let them be fairly separated, and then superstition will be honest feeling, and God, who loves all honest men, will lead the poor enthusiast in the path of holiness." Herein lies the germ of a truth. Again, Lavater says,—"A great woman not imperious, a fair woman not vain, a woman of common talents not jealous, an accomplished woman who scorns to shine, are four wonders just great enough to be divided among the four corners of the globe." Whereupon Blake adds,—"Let the men do their duty, and the women will be such wonders; the female life lives from the life of the male. See a great many female dependents, and you know the man." If this be madness, would that the madman might have bitten all mankind before he died! To the advice, "Take here the grand secret, if not of pleasing all, yet of displeasing none: court mediocrity, avoid originality, and sacrifice to fashion," he appends, with an evident reminiscence of Rathbone Place, "And go to hell."
But this private effervescence was not enough; and long thinking anxiously as to ways and means, suddenly, in the night, Robert stood before him, and revealed to him a secret by which a facsimile of poetry and design could be produced. On rising in the morning, Mrs. Blake was sent out with a half-crown to buy the necessary materials, and with that he began an experiment which resulted in furnishing his principal means of support through life. It consisted in a species of engraving in relief both of the words and the designs of his poems, by a process peculiar and original. From his plates he printed off in any tint he chose, afterwards coloring up his designs by hand. Joseph, the sacred carpenter, had appeared in a vision, and revealed to him certain secrets of coloring. Mrs. Blake delighted to assist him in taking impressions, which she did with great skill, in tinting the designs, and in doing up the pages in boards; so that everything, except manufacturing the paper, was done by the poet and his wife. Never before, as his biographer justly remarks, was a man so literally the author of his own book. If we may credit the testimony that is given, or even judge from such proofs as Mr. Gilchrist's book can furnish, these works of his hands were exquisitely beautiful. The effect of the poems imbedded in their designs is, we are told, quite different from their effect set naked upon a blank page. It was as if he had transferred scenery and characters from that spirit-realm where his own mind wandered at will; and from wondrous lips wondrous words came fitly, and with surpassing power. Confirmation of this we find in the few plates of "Songs of Innocence" which have been recovered. Shorn of the radiant rainbow hues, the golden sheen, with which the artist, angel-taught, glorified his pictures, they still body for us the beauty of his "Happy Valley." Children revel there in unchecked play. Springing vines, in wild exuberance of life, twine around the verse, thrusting their slender coils in among the lines. Weeping willows dip their branches into translucent pools. Heavy-laden trees droop their ripe, rich clusters overhead. Under the shade of broad-spreading oaks little children climb on the tiger's yielding back and stroke the lion's tawny mane in a true Millennium.
The first series, "Songs of Innocence," was succeeded by "Songs of Experience," subsequently bound in one volume. Then came the book of "Thel," an allegory, wherein Thel, beautiful daughter of the Seraphim, laments the shortness of her life down by the River of Adona, and is answered by the Lily of the Valley, the Little Cloud, the Lowly Worm, and the Clod of Clay; the burden of whose song is—
"But how this is, sweet maid, I know not, and I cannot know, I ponder, and I cannot ponder: yet I live and love!"
The designs give the beautiful daughter listening to the Lily and the Cloud. The Clod is an infant wrapped in a lily-leaf. The effect of the whole poem and design together is as of an "angel's reverie."
The "Marriage of Heaven and Hell" is considered one of the most curious and original of his works. After an opening "Argument" comes a series of "Proverbs of Hell," which, however, answer very well for earth: as, "A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees"; "He whose face gives no light shall never become a star"; "The apple-tree never asks the beech how he shall grow, nor the lion the horse how he shall take his prey." The remainder of the book consists of "Memorable Fancies," half dream, half allegory, sublime and grotesque inextricably commingling, but all ornamented with designs most daring and imaginative in conception, and steeped in the richest color. We subjoin a description of one or two, as a curiosity. "A strip of azure sky surmounts, and of land divides, the words of the title-page, leaving on each side scant and baleful trees, little else than stem and spray. Drawn on a tiny scale lies a corpse, and one bends over it. Flames burst forth below and slant upward across the page, gorgeous with every hue. In their very core, two spirits rush together and embrace." In the seventh design is "a little island of the sea, where an infant springs to its mother's bosom. From the birth-cleft ground a spirit has half emerged. Below, with outstretched arms and hoary beard, an awful, ancient man rushes at you, as it were, out of the page." The eleventh is "a surging of mingled fire, water, and blood, wherein roll the volumes of a huge, double-fanged serpent, his crest erect, his jaws wide open." "The ever-fluctuating color, the spectral pigmies rolling, flying, leaping among the letters, the ripe bloom of quiet corners, the living light and bursts of flame, the spires and tongues of fire vibrating with the full prism, make the page seem to move and quiver within its boundaries, and you lay the book down tenderly, as if you had been handling something sentient."
We have not space to give a description, scarcely even a catalogue, of Blake's numerous works. Wild, fragmentary, gorgeous dreams they are, tangled in with strange allegoric words and designs, that throb with their prisoned vitality. The energy, the might, the intensity of his lines and figures it is impossible for words to convey. It is power in the fiercest, most eager action,—fire and passion, the madness and the stupor of despair, the frenzy of desire, the lurid depths of woe, that thrill and rivet you even in the comparatively lifeless rendering of this book. The mere titles of the poems give but a slight clue to their character. Ideas are upheaved in a tossing surge of words. It is a mystic, but lovely Utopia, into which "The Gates of Paradise" open. The practical name of "America" very faintly foreshadows the Ossianic Titans that glide across its pages, or the tricksy phantoms, the headlong spectres, the tongues of flame, the folds and fangs of symbolic serpents, that writhe and leap and dart and riot there. With a poem named "Europe," we should scarcely expect for a frontispiece the Ancient of Days, in unapproached grandeur, setting his "compass upon the face of the Earth,"—a vision revealed to the designer at the top of his own staircase.
Small favor and small notice these works secured from the public, which found more edification in the drunken courtship and brutal squabbles of "the First Gentleman of Europe" than in Songs of Innocence or Sculptures for Eternity. The poet's own friends constituted his public, and patronized him to the extent of their power. The volume of Songs he sold for thirty shillings and two guineas. Afterwards, with the delicate and loving design of helping the artist, who would receive help in no other way, five and even ten guineas were paid, for which sum he could hardly do enough, finishing off each picture like a miniature. One solitary patron he had, Mr. Thomas Butts, who, buying his pictures for thirty years, and turning his own house into "a perfect Blake Gallery, often supplied the painter with his sole means of subsistence." May he have his reward! Most pathetic is an anecdote related by Mr. H.C. Robinson, who found himself one morning sole visitor at an Exhibition which Blake had opened, on his own account, at his brother James's house. In view of the fact that he had bought four copies of the Descriptive Catalogue, Mr. Robinson inquired of James, the custodian, if he might not come again free. "Oh, yes! free as long an you live!" was the reply of the humble hosier, overjoyed at having so munificent a visitor, or a visitor at all.
We have a sense of incongruity in seeing this defiant, but sincere pencil employed by publishers to illustrate the turgid sorrow of Young's "Night Thoughts." The work was to have been issued in parts, but got no farther than the first. (It would have been no great calamity, if the poem itself had come to the same premature end!) The sonorous mourner could hardly have recognized himself in the impersonations in which he was presented, nor his progeny in the concrete objects to which they were reduced. The well-known couplet,
"'Tis greatly wise to talk with our past hours And ask them what report they've borne to heaven,"
is represented by hours "drawn as aerial and shadowy beings," some of whom are bringing their scrolls to the inquirer, and others are carrying their records to heaven.
"Oft burst my song beyond the bounds of life"
has a lovely figure, holding a lyre, and springing into the air, but confined by a chain to the earth. Death puts off his skeleton, and appears as a solemn, draped figure; but in many cases the clerical poet is "taken at his word," with a literalness more startling than dignified.
Introduced by Flaxman to Hayley, friend and biographer of Cowper, favorably known to his contemporaries, though now wellnigh forgotten, Blake was invited to Felpham, and began there a new life. It is pleasant to look back upon this period. Hayley, the kindly, generous, vain, imprudent, impulsive country squire, not at all excepting himself in his love for mankind, pouring forth sonnets on the slightest provocation,—indeed, so given over to the vice of verse, that
"he scarce could ope His mouth but out there flew a trope,"—
floating with the utmost self-complacence down the smooth current of his time; and Blake, sensitive, unique, protestant, impracticable, aggressive: it was a rare freak of Fate that brought about such companionship; yet so true courtesy was there that for four years they lived and wrought harmoniously together,—Hayley pouring out his harmless wish-wash, and Blake touching it with his fiery gleam. Their joint efforts were hardly more pecuniarily productive than Blake's single-handed struggles; but his life there had other and better fruits. In the little cottage overlooking the sea, fanned by the pure breeze, and smiled upon by sunshine of the hills, he tasted rare spiritual joy. Throwing off mortal incumbrance,—never, indeed, an overweight to him,—he revelled in his clairvoyance. The lights that shimmered across the sea shone from other worlds. The purple of the gathering darkness was the curtain of God's tabernacle. Gray shadows of the gloaming assumed mortal shapes, and he talked with Moses and the prophets, and the old heroes of song. The Ladder of Heaven was firmly fixed by his garden-gate, and the angels ascended and descended. A letter written to Flaxman, soon after his arrival at Felpham, is so characteristic that we cannot refrain from transcribing it:—
"DEAR SCULPTOR OF ETERNITY,—We are safe arrived at our cottage, which is more beautiful than I thought it, and more convenient. It is a perfect model for cottages, and, I think, for palaces of magnificence,—only enlarging, not altering, its proportions, and adding ornaments, and not principles. Nothing can be more grand than its simplicity and usefulness. Simple, without intricacy, it seems to be the spontaneous expression of humanity, congenial to the wants of man. No other formed house can ever please me so well, nor shall I ever be persuaded, I believe, that it can be improved, either in beauty or use.
"Mr. Hayley received us with his usual brotherly affection. I have begun to work. Felpham is a sweet place for study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapors; voices of celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard, and their forms more distinctly seen; and my cottage is also a shadow of their houses. My wife and sister are both well, courting Neptune for an embrace.
"Our journey was very pleasant; and though we had a great deal of luggage, no grumbling. All was cheerfulness and good-humor on the road, and yet we could not arrive at our cottage before half-past eleven at night, owing to the necessary shifting of our luggage from one chaise to another; for we had seven different chaises, and as many different drivers. We set out between six and seven in the morning of Thursday, with sixteen heavy boxes and portfolios full of prints.