THE DOCTOR'S DAUGHTER.
BY "VERA." AUTHOR OF "HONOR EDGEWORTH"
"O Tempora! O Mores!"
Charles Dickens observes with much truth, that "though seldom read, prefaces are continually written." It may be asked and even wondered, why? I cannot say that I know the exact reason, but it seems to me that they may carry the same weight, in the literary world, that certain sotto voce explanations, which oftentimes accompany the introduction of one person to another, do in the social world.
If it is permitted, in bringing some quaint, old-fashioned little body, before a gathering of your more fastidious friends, at once to reconcile them to his or her strange, ungainly mien, and to justify yourself for acknowledging an intimacy with so eccentric a creature, by following up the prosy and unsuggestive: "Mr. B——, ladies and gentlemen," or "Miss M——, ladies and gentlemen," with such a refreshing paraphrase as, "brother-in-law of the celebrated Lord Marmaduke Pulsifer," or, "confidential companion, to the wife of the late distinguished Christopher Quill the American Poet"—why should not a like privilege be extended the labour-worn author, when he ushers the crude and unattractive offspring of his own undaunted energy into the arena of literary life?
Mr. B——, without the whispered guarantee of his relative importance, would never be noticed unless to be riled or ridiculed; and so with many a meek and modest volume, whose key-note has never been sounded, or if sounded has never been heard.
We would all be perfect in our attributes if we could! Who would write vapid, savourless pages, if it were in his power to set them aglow with rare erudition, and dazzling conceptions of ethical and other abstract subjects? If I had been born a Dickens, lector benevole, I would have willingly, eagerly, proudly, favoured you with a "Tale of Two Cities" or a "David Copperfield;" of that you may be morally certain, however, it is no mock self-disparagement (!) that moves me to humbly acknowledge (!) my inferiority to this immortal mind. I have availed myself of the only alternative left, when I recognized the impossibility of rivalling this protagonist among the dramatis personae of the great Drama of English Fiction, and have done something of which he speaks very tenderly and delicately somewhere in his prolific writings, one's "best." He says, "one man's best is as good as another man's," not in its results, (I know by experience), but in the abstract relationship which exists between the nature of the two efforts, and I am grateful to him for having thus provided against the possible discouragement of "small authorship."
In the subjoining pages, I offer to the world, a pretenseless record of the impressions, opinions, and convictions which have been, I may say, thrust upon me by a contact, which is yet necessarily limited, with the phases of every-day life.
That some of these reflections and conclusions should not meet with universal sympathy or approval, is not at all to be wondered at, when we consider how much more different, than alike, are any two human lives and lots. I do not ask my readers to subscribe to those tenets and opinions which may seem unreal and exaggerated to them, because of their different experience; I can only justify them in myself, by declaring them to be the outgrowth of my own personal speculations in the market of commonplace existence.
It has been my pleasure to probe under the surface of sorrow and song that makes the swelling, restless tide of human passions a strange and tempting mystery, even to itself; and though my pen may have failed to carry out the deep-rooted ambition of my soul, there is some comfort in the thought that I have made an effort; I have tried my young wings, with the hope of soaring upward: if they are yet too feeble to bear me, I am no more than the young eagle, and must rise again from my fall, to await a gathering confidence and strength that may, or may not, be in store for me.
A little mouse presumed to be the deliverer of a mighty lion, when this noble beast lay ensnared and entangled in a net; it was slow and tiresome work for the tiny benefactor to nibble now here, now there, wherever its small teeth could find a vulnerable or yielding spot: but a determination and decision of purpose, coupled with an undaunted and fearless perseverance, have given issue time and again to achievements even greater, though still less promising, than the undertaking of the little mouse in the fable, but for those who can yet take heart, in the face of possible failure, I think half the battle is won.
In introducing a second effort to the public, I feel called upon to avail myself of the opportunity it affords me, of thanking many readers for the kindness and consideration extended to my first. It was kind of them to have dwelt at length upon its few redeeming traits, and to have touched lightly and gently upon the cruder and more faulty ones; it was kind of them to have taken into account every circumstance which had any bearing upon the nature of the work: to have alluded to the youth and inexperience of the writer. It was kind, even of those who took it upon themselves to aver, not in the hearing of the authoress herself, but elsewhere, that the composition was far from being original. This latter verdict would have been the highest tribute of all to the talent and erudition of the authoress, had they who uttered it been capable or responsible judges of literary merit. Being of that class, instead, who feel it urgent upon them to say something, however garrulous or silly, when a local topic agitates their immediate sphere, the authoress has not much reason for hoping that their intention was really to flatter her maiden effort, by purposely mistaking it for the work of an older, and abler hero of the quill; however, if it might have been worthy of a maturer mind and more powerful pen, in their eyes, a high compliment is necessarily insinuated, even there, for the humble writer.
If the present story can lighten the burden of an idle hour of sickness or sorrow; if it may shorten the time of waiting, or distract the monotony of travel; if it may strike a key-note of common sympathy between its author and its reader, where the shallow side of nature is regretfully touched upon; if it may attract the potent attention of even one of those whose words and actions regulate the tone and tenor of our social life, to the urgency of encouraging, promoting and favouring the principles of an active Christian morality, whose beauty lies, not in the depths or vastness of its abstract conceptions, but in its earnest, humble, and tireless labours for the advancement of men's spiritual and temporal welfare—if it may do any one of these things, it shall have more than realized the fond and fervent wish of the author's heart: it shall have reaped her a golden harvest for the tiresome task she has just accomplished, and shall have stimulated anew her every energy, to associate itself more strongly and ardently than ever, with the cause which struggles for men's freedom from the fetters of a sordid and tyrant worldliness.
Five-and-thirty years ago, before many of my fair young readers were inflicted with the burdens of life, there came into this great world, under the most ordinary and unpretending circumstances, a helpless little baby girl: a dear, chubby, little thing, who at that moment, if never afterwards in the long and intricate course of her mortal career, looked every jot as interesting and as promising of a possible extraordinary destiny as did the little being who, some years before that, opened her eyes for the first time upon the elegant surroundings of a chamber in Kensington Palace; and neither the Princess Louise of Sachsen-Koburg, nor Edward the Duke of Kent, were any more elated or gratified over the grand event which came into their lives on the twenty-fourth of May, in the year of Our Lord 1819, than Amey and Alfred Hampden were on the eighth of December, 185-, at the advent of this little stranger into their humble home. Buried in baby finery, this unsuspecting new-comer slumbered contentedly in a dainty cot. The room was silent and darkened, the bright morning sunshine being shut out by the heavy curtains which were carefully drawn across the window: there was a ring of rare contentment in the crackle and purr of the wood-stove, that filled a remote corner of the room with its comfortable presence: and the sustaining spirit of wedded love, was as pronouncedly omnipresent as befitted the interesting occasion.
Thus, so far as the eye of those who prognosticate from existing circumstances could see, there was every prospect of comfort and happiness in the dawning future, for this passive little bundle of humanity lying in state in her neatly furnished basket-cradle; whether it pleased his reverence Father Time, or not, to subscribe thus obligingly to the wishes of a concerned few, is a secret which my pen can best tell.
So strangely do the destinies of men and women resolve themselves out of every day circumstances, that philosophers and moralists, with their choicest erudition, are ofttimes puzzled over the solution of a mysteriously chequered life, which they will not allow was guided by the most natural and common-place accidents of existence.
That there are certain premises, from which the tenor of a yet unlived life can be more or less accurately anticipated, no one will deny. There are certain surroundings, certain particular circumstances, that, from time immemorial have never failed to produce certain infallible results; but, these abnormal pauses, and unforeseen interruptions, that, time and again, have made of human lives the very thing against which appearances were guarding them, are, it may be providentially, held outside of the range of man's moral vision, and screen themselves in ambush along either side of the seemingly smooth vista, that spans the interval for certain individual human lives, between time and eternity.
Such a high-sounding title as predestination, seems to lose much of its potent charm when we take an interesting existence into our hands, to dissect it, and analyse it, and reduce it to a rational origin. Like decades of heterogeneous pearls, a human career with all its varied details, glides through the fingers of the moral anatomist, each fraction standing out by itself, suggesting its own real or relative importance, yet associating itself ever with the rest, making of the whole a more or less intricate, and, at best, a very uneven chain.
When we consider that all the bewildering throng around and about us have evolved into their present conditions of misery or joy from a passive and innocent babyhood, we are mystified and awe-stricken; there is so much inequality among the lots and portions of the children of men, that it comes strangely home to us in our reverie, to realize that the starting-point is, for one and all, the great and the lowly, one and the same.
In its cradle, or on its mother's breast, the human creature knows no special individuality, but when the rails of the cradle have been climbed over, and the first foot-print stamped unaided upon the "sands of time," a distinct personality has been established, which is the embodiment of possible, probable, or uncertain influences—a personality which grows and thrives upon internal stimulants administered by an expanding mind and heart, and which leans almost entirely for support upon the external accidents of fate or fortune that may come in its way.
Were we as thoroughly penetrated with this conviction as we should be, how different would be the issues of many human careers? Could we accustom ourselves to meditate upon this truth as seriously as we would upon a religious one, to examine our conscience from it as from a reliable standpoint every day of our lives, what a flood of sympathy and Christian charity would be let loose upon the social world from converted hearts?
When men and women will thoroughly understand the strange and intimate frame-work of human society, the wail of the pessimist will be soothed and hushed forever: for then will they realize how dependent we poor mortals are upon each other for sorrows or joys: then will it be plain to them that no human life, however obscure, however trifling, is an unfeeling thing, apart from every other, outside the daily contact of every other.
Ah! we think, that God's creation, in all its grandeur and unrivalled beauty, would be little worth, to a creature born to live and enjoy it alone: and the infinite Wisdom decreed otherwise, when it gave unto man a friend and companion in the first moments of his existence; but is the world less desolate, less empty to a million hearts, because a million others inhabit it as well? Has God's original intention concerning the mutual love and companionship of His creatures, survived unto the present day? I think the record of each reader's large or small experience will answer this question for him eagerly enough.
That these preliminary reflections should be the outgrowth of such an ordinary event as the coming of a new baby into the already crowded world may seem extravagant in more ways than one: but my object, as the reader will see, is only to remind the forgetful majority, that there are necessarily many reasons why men and women who have had a common starting-point in life, should find themselves ere long at such different goals.
I would suggest to them to consider the essential impressionability of the human heart, especially in its period of early development, to examine the nature of every external influence that weighs upon it, and if the innocence of childhood has been recklessly forfeited with time, to reserve their judgment until every aspect of the circumstances has been impartially viewed.
I do not deny that the cradle in which I passed the first hours of comfort and ease I have ever known, was rocked by a hand as loving as that which rested caressingly upon the royal brow of the baby Victoria. From the very first I was a peculiarly situated child, surrounded by many comforts of which the majority of well-born children are deprived, and deprived of many comforts by which lowly-born children are surrounded. I was happiest when I was too young to distinguish between pleasure and pain, and, as it were to provide for the emptiness of much of my after life, destiny willed that my memory should be the strongest and most comforting faculty of my soul.
My mother died when I was but a few days old, and thus it is that I have never known the real love or care of a true parent. Before I had celebrated my third birthday there was another Mrs. Hampden presiding over our household, but she was not my mother. This I never learned as a direct fact, in simple words, until I had grown older; but there is another channel through which truths of this sorrowful nature oftentimes find their way: strange suspicions were creeping by degrees into my heart, which with time gained great headway, and resolved themselves into a questioning doubt, whether there had not been a day when another, and a kinder face bent over my little cot, and smiled upon me with a sweetness that did not chill and estrange me from it.
I had never been told in simple words, that my own mother lay under one of those tall silent tombstones in the graveyard, where old Hannah, our tried and trustworthy servant, was wont to go at times and pray. No one had whispered to me that my father's second wife was, by right, a stranger to the most sacred affections of my young soul, but I learned the truth by myself.
When my growing heart began to seek and ask for the tender, patient solicitude, which is to the child what the light and heat of the summer sun are to the frailest tendril, no answer came to my mute appeal. My little weaknesses and childish errors were never met with that enduring forbearance which is the distinctive outgrowth of a loving maternity. My trifling joys were rarely smiled upon, my petty sorrows never shared nor soothed by that unsympathetic guardian of my youth, and so I grew up by myself in a strange sort of isolation, alienated in heart and spirit from those with whom of necessity I came in daily contact.
And yet in many ways, my fathers' wife bestowed both care and consideration upon me. My physical necessities were ever becomingly attended to. I was allowed to sit at the table with her, which privilege suggested no lack of substantial and dainty provisions, and my governess was an accomplished and very discreet lady, whom my step-mother secured after much trouble and worry; but here the limit was drawn to her self-imposed duties; having done this much she rested satisfied that she had so far outstepped the obligations of her neutral position.
When I look back upon this period from the observatory of to-day, I can afford to be more impartial in my judgments than I was in my youth and immaturity. I know now, that my father's second wife was naturally one of those selfish, narrow-hearted women, who never go outside of their personal lot to taste or give pleasure. She had not the faintest conception of what the cravings or desires of a truly sensitive nature may be, and therefore knew nothing of the possible consequences of the cold and unfeeling neglect with which my young life was blighted.
And even, had anyone told her, that her every word and action were calculated to make a deep-rooted impression upon me, she would have shrugged her shoulders pettishly, I doubt not, and declared that it was "not her fault," that "some people were enough to provoke a saint."
This was the woman whom the learned Doctor Hampden brought home to conduct his household. He had found her under the gas-light at a fashionable gathering, and was taken with her, he hardly knew why. She was not very handsome, nor very winning, and certainly, not very clever, but her family was a rare and tender off-shoot from an unquestionably ancient and time-honored aristocracy, and, in consequence, she carried her head high enough above the ordinary social level, to have attracted a still more potent attention than Dr. Hampden's.
I have heard that many a brow was arched in questioning surprise, when the engagement was formally announced, and that nothing but the ripening years of the prospective bride could have reconciled her more sympathetic friends who belonged to that class of curious meddlers that infest every society from pole to pole.
My father was undoubtedly a gentleman, and this was most condescendingly admitted by his wife's fastidious coterie. A gentleman by birth, by instinct, in dress, manners, taste, profession, and general bearing. Moreover, he was a gentleman of social and political influence, whose name had crept into journals and newspapers of popular fame: in other words, he was one of "the men" of his day, with a voice upon all public matters that agitated his immediate sphere. Wherever he went, he was a gentleman of consequence, and carried no mean individuality with him: he was that sort of a man one expects to find married and settled in life, though here conjecture about him must begin and end.
There are not a few men of his stamp in the world, and the reader I doubt not has met them as frequently as I have myself. Sometimes they are pillars of the state, leaders of political parties, with their heads full of abstract calculations and wonderful statistics. Again they are scientists, of a more or less exalted standing, artists, antiquarians, agnostics, and undertakers, and they are all harmless, respectable Benedicts, you know it without being told. You conclude it from instinctively suggested premises, and yet in resting at such an important conclusion nothing could have persuaded you to halt at the every day, half-way house of courtship.
These men impress their fellow-men with the strange belief that matrimony was for them a pre-ordained, forechosen vocation, a thing to be done systematically according to reasons and rules, and the trivial mind that would fain dwell upon a time in such methodical lives, when heart predominated over head must apologize to the world of sentiment and pass on to some less sensitive point of consideration.
My father, as I have said, was quite a consequential individual, his very white, and very stiff, and very shining shirt-front insinuated as much; his satiny black broadcloth confirmed it, and even the little silk guard, that rested consciously upon his immaculate linen, sustained the presumption. But for those and a few other reasons, he was looked upon as a man of rigid method and severe discipline, a man outside the grasp of ordinary human susceptibility, or, in more familiar terms, a man "without a heart."
I remember, on one particular occasion, when the oft-ruffled serenity of my step-mother's temperament was wonderfully agitated, that she reproached him most touchingly for the utter absence of this tender, palpitating organ; and turning towards her with a smile of the blandest amusement, he explained to her, in a tone of remonstrative sarcasm, laying two rigid fingers of one hand argumentatively in the open palm of the other, "that no man could live without a heart," that it was an essential element of existence, that its professional name was derived from the Latin cor or cordis, that it was "the great central organ of circulation, with its base directed backward towards the spine, and its point, forward and downward, towards the left side, and that at each contraction it would be felt striking between the fifth and sixth ribs about four inches from the medium line." "So you see, my dear," he concluded calmly and coldly, "that you talk nonsense, when you say I have no heart." That was my father's disposition; to suspect that any one, or anything else could hope for the privilege of making his heart beat, except this natural physical contraction, were a vain and empty surmise indeed. And yet he had been twice married; the question may suggest itself, had he ever loved? I dare say he had analysed his amative propensity thoroughly, and knew to what extent it existed within him, but when a man can reconcile himself to the belief that on the "middle line of the skull, at the back part of his head, there is a long projection, below which, and between two similar protuberances, is his Organ of amativeness," or that by which he learns "the lesson of life, the sad, sad lesson of loving," methinks he is not outraged by a public opinion which casts him down in disgust from the pedestal of respectable humanity, and this option I will leave to the reader, even though the subject in this instance be my own parent.
Whether his second wife, and the only Mrs. Hampden with whom we shall have to deal, was disappointed in her expectations of her husband, or not, is a something which I could only suspect, or at most, arrive at from the indications of appearances, as I am entirely ignorant of what the nature of such expectations may have been.
The domestic atmosphere of our home was apparently healthy, and untroubled by foreign or unpleasant elements; our surroundings were apparently comfortable, and the family apparently satisfied. What more could be desired? Critics complain of the indiscreet writer, who raises the thick impenetrable veil, which is supposed to screen a domestic, political or social grievance from the common eye of all three conditions. Even he who makes a little rend, with his own pen, for his own ambition's sake, is not pardoned, and so if every picture which the world holds up to view, presents a fair and brilliant surface, whose business may it be to ask in an insinuating tone, whether the other side is just as enchanting or not?
If the world insists upon calling an apparently happy home, happy in reality, then ours was indisputably so, but the world and I have long since ceased to agree upon matters of such a nature.
My father was married for some time to his second wife before any material change came into their lives. I took advantage of the interval and grew considerably, having proved a most opportune victim on many an occasion for my disappointed step-mother's ill-humour. This latter personage had contracted several real or imaginary disorders and absorbed her own soul, with all its most tender attributes, in her constant demand and need for a sympathy and solicitude which were nowhere to be found. Her husband had retired by degrees into the exclusive refuge of his scientific and literary pursuits, and lived as effectually apart from the woman he had married, as far as friendly intercourse and mutual confidence were concerned, as though they were strangers.
And yet, whenever Mrs. Hampden found herself well enough to go out, my father accompanied her with the most amiable urbanity; thus, from time to time, they appeared among the gay coterie to which they always belonged in name, looking as happy and contented as most husbands and wives do, who, for half a dozen years or so, have been trying one another's patience with more or less success.
Thus by a strange unfitness of things, will one unheeded uncared-for little life drift out by itself into an open sea of dangers and difficulties, with nothing more wholesome to distract it during the long lonely hours of many successive days, as they come and go, than its own morbid tendencies.
Necessarily, this abnormal growth of an impressionable young soul, began to speak for itself, in accents which would have caught the ready, willing ear of an attentive parent, had mine been such. In my twelfth year I was as much a woman as I am to-day, matured and hardened by an experience that would have blighted a more yielding and less obdurate spirit.
Convinced, that in point of fact, I was alone in the world, dependent upon my own resources for whatever little truant ray of sunshine I might get from the golden flood that illuminated the world outside me, and forced by rigid, arbitrary circumstances to train my growing convictions into many a hazardous channel, left to myself to grope among the dawning mysteries of life, that are a burden to age and experience even when lightened by the helping hand of a common sympathy, I ceased before long to struggle against these abstract foes that made a mockery of my childish strength and resistance.
For the first few years of my life, therefore, I had been my own care, my own and only friend, and oftentimes my own—but not only—enemy. Occasionally my father chatted with me, but that was mostly when I was in good humour, and would not let him get an insight into the secret workings of my busy little heart. But, even supposing I had, with a child's instinctive confidence in its parent, gone to him in my lonely hours, and thrown my hands convulsively about his neck, to tell my tale of trifling woes, what difference would it have made? Very little. He would have given me a silver coin or two, and told me to run away and amuse myself, that he was busy and could not spare his time for idle amusement. No one knew this better than I did; the memory of one such experiment tried in my very early youth will never leave my mind: it seemed to me that no future, however laden with compensating joys, could efface the dreary outlines which this childish experience had stamped upon my heart.
That day, when full of a pent-up sorrow I had boldly decided to seek comfort on my father's knee, is, and ever will be, a living, breathing present to me. In stifled sobs, I tried to tell my little tale of grief, and was about to bury my tear-stained face upon his shoulder, when he raised his eyes impatiently, and brushed away, with a peevish gesture, one of my salt tears that lay appealingly upon the smooth broadcloth covering of his arm: he chided me for crying so very immoderately, saying, he hated "little girls that cried," and drawing a silver piece from his pocket, he slipped it into my little trembling hand, and banished me from the room.
I never forgot this, from my dignified, gentlemanly father, although in my outward conduct there was nothing which insinuated the slightest reproach for the pain he had given me on that occasion.
When I left his cheerless presence, I remember going back to my play-room and throwing myself wearily into my little rocking-chair, where, with my face turned to the wall, I cried as if my baby-heart would break.
Here I rehearsed each feature of my bitter disappointment, and as my young spirit rose in proud and angry revolt against a fate that could wound me so undeservedly, I flung the wretched coin, with which my thoughtless parent sought to buy his ease and comfort from me, violently upon the floor.
Through my blinding tears I watched it roll quietly over the carpet and stop suddenly against the prostrate figure of a doll that lay at a little distance from where I sat. This incident changed the whole tenor of my rebellious thought; in the earlier part of the day I had dressed this doll in very fine clothes, intending to carry it to the house of a poor neighbor, who lived in the rear of my father's premises, and whose baby-girl was confined, through some hopeless deformity, to the narrow limits of an invalid chair.
Something prevented me from carrying out this generous design at the time, but the discarded coin unexpectedly revived my abandoned project, and turned my thoughts into a pleasant channel. I rose up and dried my eyes, and putting on my little sun-bonnet, gathered up the fashionable wax lady and the piece of despised money, and stealing down a quiet back-stairway, I went out on my mission of charity.
When I reached the home of my little invalid friend, I peered noiselessly in at the window, as was my custom, lest, perhaps, I should awaken her from one of her quiet slumbers, but this time she was not sleeping; she sat upright in her chair with pillows at her back, and her thin hair fell from her bowed head over the worn and dog-eared pages of her mother's prayer-book. It was her only other companion, besides her mother and me, and through many long, lonely hours she was wont to turn the leaves backward and forward, dwelling with the instinctive reverence of unsullied childhood, upon the homely and inartistic representations it contained of the beautiful Drama of the Redemption.
Such things, though seemingly trifling to relate, at this remote period, when the sinful and foolish vanities of the world have crowded themselves in between me and my cherished memories of that holy epoch, I now regard as the true and unmistakeable key-note of my after life.
For, was it not to little Ella Wray I first assumed the attitude of the worldling: subscribing to the laws and exigencies of conventionality before I had suspected the existence of such an influence? When she praised me, and thanked me, and urged me to be grateful to the kind Father who had willed my surroundings to be those of comfort and prosperity, what did I do? Good reader! I smiled half consciously, and thus sanctioned her belief in my domestic happiness. I veiled the sorrow that dwelt in my young heart with the shadows of a borrowed playfulness, and I sullied the baby innocence of my unsuspecting soul with a smiling lie.
But even in its infancy, human nature is prone to every passing weakness that assails it. To know that other eyes looked out from a narrower sphere upon my individual portion, and found it rich in advantages over many others: to feel that in spite of all my harassing little cares, my life could assume an exterior aspect of smoothness and happiness, was a short-lived, though powerful stimulant, even to my childish heart; and I could not forfeit the small pleasure I took in the consciousness, that at least my sufferings were hidden, though my pleasures were widely known, by laying bare the actual condition of my affairs.
Naturally enough, this feeling has but strengthened and matured with time and experience, and to-day, scattered broadcast over the world, are friends of my childhood, my girlhood, and my womanhood, who look upon my life as a tolerably beautiful thing, set apart by a lenient destiny for a perpetual sunshine to brighten.
Ah well! Who knows, in this strange world whether there are many happier than I? May it not be that other faces wear the mask of smiles with which I myself have played a double part? I think I know enough of human nature now, to suspect with Reason, that this livery of contentment and joy which dazzles our eyes at intervals, as we review the multitudes of the laughing and the gay, is a thing to be put on and off at will, like any other garment; and hence is it that the earthly happiness of men and women is susceptible of a relative definition only. I do not wish to argue that such a thing as happiness itself has become as obsolete in our day as hoop-skirts and side-combs, for, from the earliest reflections I have ever indulged in, I have concluded that it is quite easy to attain to a tolerable degree of happiness, if external influences be not too desperately at variance with our efforts to arrive at its tempting goal: and even now, when I have made my way through some of the densest and darkest fogs of experience, I know I should be happy yet, if, some day, I may see the masses in revolt against the unjust tenets of nineteenth century convenances, and advocating in its stead the beautiful doctrine of "soul to soul as hand to hand."
Possibly, all these regretful conclusions are a sequel to the early disappointments and sorrows of my younger days, for, I admit, that though I thrived after a fashion under their depressing influence, they had, most necessarily, a peculiar effect upon my temperament.
The one thing that wearied me above and more than all others, was the changeless monotony of my existence; every day a tiresome repetition of another, which forced me to attribute little or no value to time.
I was not old enough to be sent to school, although I had entered upon what is called the years of discretion, but my father's wife had a high-bred fear, lest in sending me to an educational establishment I should indulge my uncouth tendencies by cultivating unfashionable acquaintances, that in after years, might possibly, in some remote, indefinite way, reflect upon her own unimpeachable dignity.
There came a day, however, when exacting circumstances obliged her to look upon the prospect of placing me at school with a more impartial eye. A change was creeping, slowly, but surely, into our lives: hardly for the better in one way, and yet, in the end, I must acknowledge, that to it I owe much of the happiness I have ever known.
Whether or not my obdurate step-mother was in reality as susceptible as a woman should be, I am not free to say; but when, after a few years of wedded life, the prospect of maternity began to grow less shadowy and more reliable, her heart did seem to swell at rare intervals with a real, or assumed pity for the little woman who had been left to wander about motherless and friendless, spending her young life, unheeded, among the cheerless apartments of her own father's house.
While this new phase of existence was unfolding itself before her eyes, like the lava from a long-slumbering volcano, a kind word or deed was born now and then of the momentary influence. She would stroke my head with a gesture of repenting, amending tenderness, give me a bunch of gay ribbons for my last new doll, or even read me a thrilling tale from my Christmas book of nursery fictions; but that impulse was necessarily short-lived, and once it became spent, the crater of her heart closed up again, and all was as cold and quiet as before.
To my untutored mind, this relaxation, limited though it was, became a perplexing mystery. I was conscious of no improvement in my attitude towards my step-mother, I had not even wished, or determined to show her any more marked affection or respect than I had ever done, and this, to tell the truth, was precious little.
I did not know then, that this generous impulse of hers was independent of her own desire or will, that it filled her heart without her sanction or command, just as her life-blood did; that it permeated her very being, when she neither sought nor expected it, and that as it was self-creative, so would it of itself find a satisfactory outlet in expressions and actions of tender womanly solicitude.
As soon as my half-brother made his entrance into the world, however, things took another turn. I was no longer the free, unfettered creature I had been for the first part of my life. I could no longer dispose of my days and hours as I liked best, but was on the contrary forced to devote many of them to occupations of a most distasteful nature.
The coming of this insignificant stranger into our home seemed a disturbing and restless evil in my eyes. Naturally my stepmother was beside herself with ecstacy, but why should she have expected the rest of the household to be as absurdly enthusiastic?
When baby slept, the silence and stillness of death were sacredly and solemnly imposed upon all. When baby was awake, the clatter provoked for its infantship's pleasure was noisome and deafening to all.
With the advent of this undesirable relative into our home is associated, for me, the remembrance of all such impatient entreaties as, "Amey, bring your toys here to baby—Amey, come and sing to baby—Amey, come and rock baby to sleep"—and I, though striving to encourage a good intention and a hopeful outlook, finally succumbed to the very human perversity of my soul, and when every atom of ordinary endurance had given out, I realized that I had ended by loathing the very name, or sight, or idea of the unwelcome baby.
Then, came a fresh burden of domestic worries to my unfortunate step-mother. She could not trust her darling to the care of servants; each one that she tried seemed determined to kill the little idol; they handled it as roughly and carelessly as if it were an ordinary baby; shook it when it screamed and refused to rock it while it slept. In the end, with the undaunted heroism of unselfish maternity, she resigned herself wholly and entirely to the exclusive care of her beloved offspring, ministering to its ever increasing and multiplying wants, with an admirable forebearance and kindness. Poor woman! she found more than ample field for her patience and perseverance.
Blest with the healthiest of lungs, my new step-brother had no scruples about asserting himself loudly and peevishly at all hours of the day and night; rending the air with prolonged and impatient screams that wounded the sensitive mother's heart deeply, and irritated the rest of the household beyond endurance.
By degrees its much tried parent was made to realize that this noisy acquisition to her home was considered unquestionably and irreclaimably, her own. No one envied it to her, and as no one sought to share any of the possible benefits that might follow in its wake, neither did they seek to bear any of the burden of its existence in the smallest detail.
The overjoyed, yet afflicted mother, was welcome to whatever comfort or happiness her prophetic soul foresaw as a recompense to all this endless worry and trouble. Even my father grew unsympathetic, and actually arose one night when baby's plaintive minor key was resounding through the house, and closed his bed-room door most emphatically, to keep out the disturbing echoes that had broken in upon his comfortable repose.
None of this passed unnoticed by my fretted stepmother, whose open soul absorbed every passing instance of this nature, and stowed away its keen impressions to be acted upon later, when time had modified her responsibilities, and granted her a little respite from the troubles of to-day.
In the agitated meanwhile I had begun to try my young wings. I felt myself growing inwardly and outwardly; something was stirring my heart with unusual palpitations. I was beginning to realize that life after all did not mean what daily passed within the narrow arena of my home; something whispered to me that outside those paltry limits, far away over all the spires and chimney-tops, where the sky was so bright and blue, life, real life, unfolded itself under many a varied aspect, and with this suspicion, sprung up a lingering dissatisfaction, a longing for something which no words of mine could define.
How clearly does this epoch of my life stand forth from the dreary background of experience as I look at it from the watch-tower of to-day? How I know now that this was the farewell passage of my childhood, which was winging its flight, and leaving me to struggle with the naked realities of life, which had hitherto been hidden and undreamt of mysteries to me.
Ah! that passage of childhood, what a void it makes in the growing heart; and how quietly its place is filled by unworthier influences. Does all the abstract wealth, which there might be in the growth and development of those who learn the alphabet of life upon our knee, take one pang from the natural and pardonable sorrow with which we watch the heavy footprint of an inevitable experience, crushing out the last frail remnant of childhood from the hearts of those who such a little while before were our "little ones?"
There is something far more appealing to the parent's heart in the half worn stocking of the child who toddled from its cradle to its grave, than in the mighty quill of her grey-haired poet son, rusted though it be in the service of his art. In the broken stem of an unfinished life, a mother mourns a host of possibilities that can never now be realized; if we may credit the prophecies of such sorrowing mothers who, bending over the cradle from which some baby-spirit has just passed into the kingdom of the little ones, tell in broken accents of sorrow and regret of all the promises of goodness and greatness which have been sacrificed with that life, we must truly admit that the world in all its wealth of heroes, bold and brave, its bards, its poets, its grand masters of the quill, the chisel and the brush, has not on record such another career as has been blighted in its bloom each time the stern death-angel stood beside an infant's cot.
And, if there are evils in our day which no human power can baffle or subdue, with which reason and morals are struggling in vain, we must not forget, as we dwell upon them, what the possible, nay even probable mission was, of each little pair of dimpled hands that he crossed on each still unheaving bosom, wherein might have been buried secrets and mysteries which the world will now never know.
Yet, methinks, this transit from the cradle to the coffin is not so sad in all its bearings as that other death of childhood, which introduces us, not into a safe and definite eternity, but only into another phase of temporal life; when the toys and the picture books are stowed away, when the mind and heart are awakening in their beautiful, untarnished susceptibility to the impressions of a world of perils and of sorrows.
Not unlike our final passage is it either, for we go through it once, and once only, and from its threshold our footsteps are directed towards good or evil, for after-life. Let us remember this always, when we are tempted to pass our rigid judgments upon our fellow-creatures. Let us not lose sight of these occult impediments of fate, that may have caused our fallen brother to halt and stagger in the way of righteousness almost in spite of his watchfulness and eager intentions to do what is good.
Without wearying the reader with a detailed account of that period of my life immediately associated with the advent of my interesting half-brother, I can permit myself to mention a few things which were only a very natural outgrowth of this altered condition of our domestic affairs.
First and foremost be it understood that I looked upon this new-comer as a contribution sent by nature to fill up the gap that existed between my step-mother's affections and mine, and naturally enough, according as this child grew he drifted our two lives farther and farther asunder. He absorbed all the latent sympathy and love from the maternal heart, and as such ardent sentiments had long been aliens from my breast, he had nothing to draw from the second source but a placid and harmless indifference.
My father held a reception occasionally in his sanctum, whither baby was carried with great pomp and ceremony to be smiled upon approvingly until his good humour gave way, as soon as the little features wrinkled ominously my father waved his hand towards the door, escorting mother, and child, and nurse with the most eager courtesy out of the room.
I need not tell my readers that the machinery of our domestic life was sadly awry; neither in separate parts, nor as a whole, did it work properly or satisfactorily, the metal was harsh and the little wheels could never be got to run briskly or smoothly. How could they? I think of all the hopeless conditions on earth, that which aspires to be able to blend human lives together, which have no more leaning towards one another than virtue to vice, is the maddest and vainest of all.
An absence of common sympathies between two human hearts, will drift them apart in spite of the hugest efforts that can be made to attract them to a point of mutual interest; they who hope either by subterfuge or unselfish zeal, to reconcile phases of human character that have not originally sprung from a common root of harmonious unison or contrast, are as sure to see their ambition as ingloriously defeated as if they had revived the search for the philosopher's stone.
And yet how much estrangement there is among men and women who, if they had never been bound together by the sacred and solemn pledges of wedded love, are supposed still to live according to a precept of universal charity? How indifferent they become to one another's fortune or fate? How repulsive to them the very suggestion of entering generously into one another's lives to share each other's pleasures and pains?
The world is full of this occult antagonism; every day Christians, as I have known them, look upon the happiness or sorrow of their brother toilers as so much subtracted from their own glad or miserable experience. Hence do they begrudge the smiles of fortune that cheer another life outside their own, and are so easily satisfied to see furrows on other brows than their own. I know that the human heart is instinctively covetous of earthly happiness, and, in nine cases out of ten argues that its end justifies the means, whatever they may be, of insuring it. But I also know, that those fitful flashes of sunlight that cross the path of struggling mortals in the course of an ordinary human life, are too visionary and short-lived to begin to repay us for the unworthy barter of our better selves, which is the price of such transient joys.
What is real happiness but a memory or an anticipation? Do we realize that it presides over our daily lives? Not until it has become a thing of the past; and as for the happiness of anticipation, it is not worth much when we take into account the vague uncertainty of the issues of time, and the instability of unborn to-morrows.
In a word then, our pleasure is nothing but a negative sensation while it lasts; we are conscious that, for the time being, the burdensome fetters of sorrow are loosened, and our souls expand in a glorious freedom, the power of fate is temporarily suspended, the pressure is removed from our spirit which soars about in its native element, like a captive bird set free, flapping its poor paralysed wings that from long imprisonment have almost forgotten their use—but pain!
Ah! surely no one questions whether pain is a positive sensation or not; no one at least whose head has been bowed by adversity until his lips have touched the bitter waters, and tasted perhaps largely of their unpleasantness! Pain is vastly more to the human heart than the absence of pleasure; pain is not merely an emptiness, or void, created by the flight of more cheerful influences; it has a more definite and distinct acceptation than this would allow; it has as many dark and melancholy meanings as there are suffering souls in existence; it has its phases of youth and maturity, now hopeful, now despairing, either our enemy or our friend.
It professes to dwell among the children of men with the very strictest impartiality, for pain is an aristocrat and a pauper; pain rides in fine carriages, and clothes itself in fine linen; it smiles and sings as often as it mourns and weeps; pain is learned, and it is ignorant; it underlies the deepest, tenderest love, and it instigates the darkest, bitterest hatred; in a word it is a weed which infests the very choicest parterres of our minds and hearts, it thrives among the buds and blossoms of men's intellects, and abounds above all among the flowers and fruits of his affections; it is indigenous to both soils, and no toiler, however industrious or persevering, has ever yet succeeded in subduing its ravages.
It is no wonder then that we sometimes go on a wild-goose chase after pleasure; it is not surprising that the wisest of us make foolish attempts to grasp the will-o'-the-wisp that has been coaxing and deceiving men for centuries. It is surprising that our persistent self-confidence persuades our better sense that where countless generations of pleasure-seekers have failed we can hope to succeed.
This parenthetical deviation is the fruit of my deep reflections concerning this early period of my development; it is the web which the deft fingers of my memory have woven around many a quiet reverie; the substance of many a fire side cogitation, the phantoms of many a twilight's dreaming.
I doubt not, that in that world of speculative opinions and questionings, I have met the kindred spirits of many of my fellow beings, clad in the ideal personality with which my thought invests people, at the cross of those four great roads towards which, from all corners of the earth, the spirits of mankind come trooping. We have only to close our lids upon our external surroundings and swift as thought itself is our passage into that fairy land of our reverie.
As early as my tenth year I had begun to build castles in the open fire and to people the gloaming with whispering shadows; somehow the habit has grown with me through all these years, with this difference, however: in the reveries of my womanhood the heroes and heroines come to me, from a long vanished past, clothed in a misty reality, and associated with every joy and sorrow of my life.
In my childhood these were typical visions, the anticipation of a restless impatience which yearned for the touchstone of sober experience, to-day they are the re-creation of memory, and a rehearsal of all those circumstances that have made sober experience a comprehensive word for me.
Not that my life has made a heroine of me either in the world's eyes or my own. I dare say, to the passive observer, it is plain and ordinary enough. It is when we take away the flesh and blood reality, which is the temple of the moral man, that the common-place aspects of life become strange and attractive.
Subtract one of those every-day lives from the busy, moving mass of humankind and place it under the microscope; bring up to the visible surface all that has lain hidden for years from the casual glance of the general observer; lay bare the secret tenor of its every thought and motive and impulse. Is it any longer the thing it seemed to be when jostled about in the busy throng?
Pluck one of the dusty blades of grass that grow unheeded by the roadside; there are hundreds of them at your feet so much alike that the one you chose had no identity, whatever, until you had, by chance or design, separated it from the rest. Bear it away to your home and place it under a powerful lens; is it still the same uninteresting blade it was a moment ago out in the noisy and crowded thoroughfare? Why does your gaze become riveted upon what is revealed? Ah! you discern that such homely things are not at all what you have been wont to think them. You are astonished to find how each individual trifle is in itself a wonderful creation, swarming with a hidden and undreamt of life, feeding a multitude of appetites, satisfying countless cravings, struggling with a most powerful vitality, and challenging powers, whose unseen tyranny is unsuspected by more than half the world.
No wonder, then, that a singled-out human life excites our astonishment; no wonder that we look upon an isolated fellow-creature as if he were not one of us, but removed by adventitious circumstances far above or below the common level of men and women.
It is not always the exaggerating pen of the author that creates heroes and heroines out of our prosy humanity, and it is an undeniable and stable fact that truth is far stranger than fiction. It is because we men and women will conceal the realities of our lives from one another, and under the banner of an all-enduring pride, struggle for the privilege of living under a surface of smooth, unruffled evenness, that humanity has become susceptible of so many false and misleading interpretations.
As every human life has its crises and turning-points for better or worse, it will not surprise the reader to learn that there came a day when Destiny, having nothing else to do, probably, turned her good-humoured attention towards mine.
The commemoration of the coming into the world of my step-mother's illustrious darling had been celebrated with due and undue festivities and enthusiasm from the rising to the setting of a golden June sun. Whether from an excess of spasmodic affectionate hugging, which, by the way, was the chief feature of these joyful monthly, and quarterly, and half-yearly solemnities, or not, the little being in question was most unmanageably peevish and ill-humoured for three or four days following these occasions of ecstatic thanksgiving.
One would imagine that by this time I had had sense enough to train myself into a placid resignation over such circumstances of my life, as seemed to me to be presided over by some inevitable ill-luck, but, on the contrary, a growing perversity began to stimulate me at this epoch more eagerly than ever to rebel against decrees so openly unfair to me, and unable or unwilling, to cope with this moral enemy that had taken so firm a hold of me, I yielded myself up, a sort of helpless and reckless victim to its wiles, at the sacrifice, I must admit, of my personal peace and comfort.
Usually, at this period I surprised and annoyed myself, when, in passing accidentally before some tell-tale mirror, I saw the reflection of a distressed and impatient scowl: usually, too, I was conscious of my step being quick and angry, I was not aware, however, that it was a growing deformity of my moral nature, oozing out thus in every look and tone and gesture.
I had no apprehension of a dawning crisis that would call upon me to declare war against my worse or better self, for, of course, they could not both be mistress of the field. How could I, all untaught, suspect that upon the issue of such a victory would depend the happiness or misery of my after life?
Fortunately for me, some kind unseen hand was stretching forth in the hour of my need, somebody's deft fingers snatched the tangled web that had gone so far astray in the weaving, and in the nick of time made a hazardous effort to smoothen the silken threads for the busy loom that waits not for the slow or the erring.
I was standing on the gravel path beside a bed of flowers that was the object of my fondest care, one fair summer morning, immediately after a festive celebration in baby's honour. My cherished, but homely, wall flowers were dripping in the morning sunlight, and every leaf on my blossomless geraniums was carefully saturated.
I stood, with my faded water-pot carelessly dangling from three fingers of one hand, looking so absorbedly down the avenue after the vanishing outlines of a glittering carriage that had just rolled splendidly by, that the dregs of my water-can trickled all unheeded by me, down the side of my new sateen frock, accomplishing what, in the eyes of my step-mother, would seem nothing less than an absolute ruin and wreck.
My attention was riveted upon the liveried driver and shining gilded trimmings of this handsome conveyance, and a flood of serious reflections suddenly burst upon me. I had begun to imagine myself the lucky centre of a thousand and one happy possibilities. I was grown up, and out in the world, the wife of a very rich man, with costly plumes in my bonnet, and rich lace on my showy parasol, like the lady who had just driven by: I was quite my own mistress, with servants and other people to obey me. I had a dashing barouche of my own, and was rolling in conscious grandeur past my step-mother's window, with the back of my expensive bonnet turned towards the half-closed shutter, through which she was sure to be peering enviously—when the laths of the very shutter in question were shaken impatiently, and a hasty, authoritative voice cried out, "If you've nothing else to do but spoil your new pink frock out there, Amelia Hampden, I wish you would come in and play with your baby-brother for awhile;" and then, as the blind and voice were lowered, I heard the usual "enough to provoke a saint," which was the finishing touch to every reprimand I either did, or did not, deserve.
History repeats itself; nothing is surer. Here was I hand in hand with a well-known hero of the Arabian Nights, weeping in open-mouthed sorrow and astonishment over my basket of shattered glassware. I had broken the salutary precept which exhorts us sanguine mortals not to count our chickens before they are hatched, and now mourned the prescribed result, an ice-cold shower bath in a Canadian December could hardly be a more undesirable and unlooked for intrusion than was this unappreciated and pressing invitation of Mrs. Hampden's in my ears at this particular moment.
The rude awakening which her words caused me made me look quite absurd in my own eyes, and with the sudden consciousness that I had been making a fool of myself, pondering over such shadowy improbabilities, as they seemed to me now, I turned sharply and impatiently from the spot where I had been standing, and passing through a rustic gateway at the end of the walk, I flung my innocent water-pot, with a gesture of desperate anger, in among the cedar-bushes that skirted the causeway leading into the lawn, and passed into the house.
It has been written, that "nothing like the heavy step betrays the heavy heart," and if this be true, the matter of weight regarding the seat of my affections, on this particular morning, was not a trivial one. With an inflamed and spiteful wilfulness, I stamped my feet with a louder and heavier tread on each step, as I ascended to answer my unwelcome summons.
When I reached my step-mother's bed-chamber, the heavy curtain of padded repp, which was suspended for the prevention of such draughts as might be smuggled in through key-holes, or other minute openings caused by an ill-fitting door, was drawn quite across the entrance, and in my hasty and unforeseeing impatience I pushed it rudely aside with rough hands and admitted myself within the sacred precincts, just in time to see myself branded by my own actions, an intolerable little imp, who, on this occasion, if never before, was "enough to provoke a saint."
In drawing the curtain so hastily from the entrance, I had pushed the panels of the door rudely in, which unexpected treatment caused that oft-abused fixture to swing unusually far back on its hinges, and knock with a heart-rending violence against the edge of baby's frail little cot, over which the fretted mother was now bending breathlessly.
In a moment the terrible nature of my misdeed burst upon me; my step-mother's horrified countenance and the baby's frightened screams were a simultaneous and forcible indication of what awful results may spring from a trifling source. I became angry with myself, for once, and with a very contrite countenance, I went towards my step-mother and held my arms out repentantly, offering to soothe the refractory darling, all by myself.
But, by this time her indignation had found a voice, and interrupted my eager solicitude for reparation with a volley of well-merited reproaches. Stamping her slipper emphatically upon the ground, and declaring that "I would pay for this," she turned to the screaming little mortal who was struggling nervously among lace and finery, with no small show of an ill-temper of its own, and resumed the patient and would be soothing lullaby, whose efficacy in the first instance had been so ruthlessly spoiled by my impetuous conduct.
Not daring to leave the room again until summarily dismissed by the ruling power, I stood guiltily by the doorway with a look of sullen helplessness on my face, toying half indifferently with the ends of a pink ribbon that was fastened artistically to my frock. Suddenly, the unforgiving baby sent forth a fresh volley of screams, and the irate mother turned towards me with a new and awful scowl and bade me—"Begone" that "my very presence terrified the child."
Nothing loth to leave this scene of confusion of which I myself was the direct cause, I turned abruptly and quitted the apartment in an impertinent silence. My step, so long as I thought my step-mother could hear it, was quick and haughty.
I passed along the corridor above, and down the broad front stairway, rattling the heels of my garden shoes on the tiles of the hall below with rather unnecessary emphasis. A loud slamming of the library door—which shook the pendants of the gasaliers and caused a momentary quaking of the whole house—announced my exit into the side garden, where I threaded my way among trees and flowerbeds to a vine-covered summer-house that stood at the end of the lawn. Arrived here, I flung myself upon one of the rustic benches that lined the walls, and throwing my arms at full length across the small table that stood beside me, I laid my face down upon them and burst into tears. After all, I was only a child, though so obstinate and impulsive: only a child, and yet I was very miserable. Reader, have you ever been persuaded to a popular, though strange belief, that our happiest are our youngest days? Are you able to look regretfully back upon your long-vanished yesterdays and wish that destiny might, for one short moment of time, let you hold them in your hands, to live them all over again? If so, indeed your youth must have been an exceptionally happy one: for whether I speak from a personal experience or from observation, I cannot agree that the paths of childhood are flooded with Life's sunshine, or overgrown with Fortune's flowers. If we look back upon our earliest sorrows (and who are they that have none to look upon?), and take into consideration the narrow limits of our capacity for either pleasure or pain when we are young, we must admit that a broken doll or a lost penny are, after all, as fruitful of genuine and hopeless misery in their way, as are, in after-life, a broken heart or a lost friend.
I do believe that on that June morning, when full of an untold sorrow, I stole away to the most secret and secluded spot I could find, I was not less miserable than I have been many a June morning since, though the best of life's hard lessons have been learned in the meantime. It seemed to me that all my hopes, and wishes, and endeavors would always be vain and fruitless; I could not see a bright side anywhere I looked. I was always doing and saying the wrong things; I was in everybody's way: no one wanted me, no one cared for me—why was I ever born? I had no companions. My stepmother looked down upon the dangerous habit of allowing children to cultivate juvenile friendships indiscriminately, and I was not sufficient unto myself for distractions that would keep me quietly out of the way. What good was I? I was always ill-humored, vexing my step-mother and making baby cry. It was plain to see that I was one too many in the world, and whatever I did with myself I would be surely trespassing upon somebody's privilege, outraging somebody's patience, and making myself a nuisance generally. If there was a better place, thought I, I wonder would I go there when all this discord of my present life had killed me? Besides, old Hannah had told me that I had another mother in that vague "better place." Every night at Hannah's knee I recited a little prayer for her, and asked her to watch over me, to guard me from evil and make me worthy of joining her some day in her happy home. If my "other mother" was so sweet and kind and good, as Hannah told me in confiding whispers she was, why did she not come to me when I was in tears and tell me how to be good like her? She was too far away, I supposed, up among the blue sunlit clouds, where all was bright and cheerful: an angel-mother with beautiful white wings like the picture in Hannah's prayer-book, and a sweet smiling face that always looked down on me, watching my words and actions. And while I thought thus, I saw many such white-winged angels floating noiselessly about in an exquisite confusion, and distant strains of music, as Hannah said they sang, filled my listening ears. I felt myself being lifted gently by tender, unseen hands, and I wondered whether they would bear me far up above spire and tower, away from all the worries of this desolate world, into that happy sphere beyond where all is peace, and joy, and contentment.
On a sudden, I opened my eyelids and looked up. A cry of "Mr. Dalton!" escaped my lips before I had met his answering glance. I had understood the situation and buried my face upon his shoulder, to hide the fast gathering tears that swelled into an after-flood and threatened to deluge my already tell-tale cheeks. I was no longer thrown recklessly upon the wooden summer-house bench. The gentle hands that raised me in my dream and bore me heavenward, were not those of a far-off angel, as I understood the term, they were the strong brawny palms of a man of four-and-thirty years, not so strong that their touch could not be as gentle as a mother's own, not so brawny that they could not dry the tearful lids of a sleeping child without disturbing its repose.
He had taken me in his arms and pillowed my drooping head upon his manly breast. When I opened my eyes he was looking dreamily, half sadly, half smilingly, into my face. He was not what you, reader, would call a handsome man, for you never knew him. To you, and to all the world perhaps but me, he would be no more than a man in a crowd. But I need not here bring forward the wonderful power of association which is the underlying beauty reflected from many a homely surface to eyes that prize and cherish them. What though a thing possess not in reality those charms with which it is identical in our minds and hearts? That which we believe to be, is, as effectually for us as if its existence were sanctioned and sustained by all mankind, and so far as personal conviction goes there is no standard outside the individual one. My idea of the beautiful is the only beautiful I can ever really acknowledge or enjoy, and yet how far astray may it not be from the concurrent idea of the majority, which is supposed to be the only true standard.
With a quick though earnest purpose, Mr. Dalton laid his strong warm hand upon my head and turned my tearful face towards him. There was a hovering smile around the pale, calm countenance that met my shy and half averted look.
"Who is this?" he asked, peering into my misty eyes. "Is this Amey Hampden, I wonder, or have I made some dreadful mistake?"
I saw immediately that he suspected me of having been a naughty girl, and my sensitive pride was breaking into revolt. I tried to force myself from his steady hold, but his knitted fingers were as iron fetters about me. I had nothing left to do but give way to an outburst of rising ill-humor, or through my gathering tears, to make an humble confession of all that had passed that morning. While I debated with myself I was conscious of his steady gaze being fixed upon me. I saw the half-mischievous smile vanish from the corners of his eyes and mouth; my lips were trembling with a suppressed sorrow. He saw it, and bending over me asked in a tender, solicitous voice:
"What is the matter, little Amey? Are you ill? Come, tell me" he urged, with a gentle firmness turning me around and taking both my hands in his own large ones.
"No, no, Mr. Dalton, Amey is not ill" I answered, sighing and looking away. "I wish she was though" I continued after a pause, "ill enough to die."
And this was all I could say, for my lips trembled ominously, though there were now no unshed tears in my eyes.
The expression on my companion's face changed suddenly. He had worn a half amused, half sympathetic look all along, as if my little troubles were something he could afford to smile upon, and persuade even myself to laugh at, but I fancy my voice must have been unusually sorrowful, as I am sure my face was unusually tear-stained and disfigured, for he drew me to him a little closer and toying ever so affectionately and kindly with my flowing hair, his tone was gently remonstrative as he said:
"Amey, do you know that you use very wicked words when you talk like this? You are a very comfortable and fortunate little girl in many ways, and because something disagreeable happens now and then you must not be so impatient and want to die. If you did die now" he continued slowly and emphatically—then paused and added, "maybe you would be sorry."
"I don't care" came from me in a half defiant retort, "I couldn't be sorrier than I am now. I am not comfortable and I am not fortunate, and disagreeable things are always happening, and if I can't die soon," I went on waxing quite tragic, "I'll run away."
I stopped short after this, thinking I had put a splendid finishing-touch to my out-spoken determination. I do not know whether I expected Mr. Dalton to faint with fright and surprise on hearing such a daring declaration from me. If I did, I must have been sadly disappointed when I detected a shadow of that hovering smile flitting back across his features, and heard him ask in a provoking tone.
"Away! Where, Amey?"
The incisive ridicule implied in these words urged me to a still more reckless defiance, and affecting a very cutting sneer I answered—
"Perhaps you think I am not in earnest, Mr. Dalton, but you'll see! Remember I have told you that I am wretched, and it's all her fault When I am gone you can tell papa that 'twas all her doing, that she hated me and I hated her, and I thought 'twas better to go away—and I will go away Mr. Dalton"—I emphasized—"away into the bush, and if no one comes to take me I'll do like the babes in the woods, and the little birds will cover me with nice green leaves when I'm dead."
There were no tears now, I had worked myself into a dry rage and could look my monitor full in the face; my little arms were crossed with a determination worthy of maturer years, and I was grand with the conviction of having frightened this big man into a belief of my rambling threats. I was a little disconcerted, however, when he looked at me seriously and said in a slow measured tone:
"Then this is not the Amey Hampden that I have known all along. She would never have said such ugly things as those I have just heard; she was not a selfish little girl, and would fear to displease her friends or those who loved her."
He was winning me over, but before I yielded I must aim another arrow.
"I guess you're right after all Mr. Dalton" I answered swinging one kid shoe in an aimless indifferent manner, and looking purposely away at the leg of the rustic table, "cause this Amey Hampden hasn't got any friends, or any one to love her, either."
"Are you telling the truth now, Amey? Look at me and repeat that," he interrupted quickly.
I wished to be very brave, and turned my eyes full upon him; he took my chin in his large, warm palm and looked steadily into my face for a moment. I was conquered, and he saw it; he stooped and kissed me, and we both laughed as I said
"Well; you never said you were my friend."
He arose, and taking me by the hand, we strolled over the lawn and passed into the library together.
Ernest Dalton was nearly twenty-five years my senior!
It is now an old and respected adage that "coming events cast their shadows before," and had I only been at all alive to the growing changes in the routine of our daily life, I might easily have detected the outline of some hovering shadow which was heralding the advent of some strange, and hitherto undreamt of interruption, into the questionably peaceful monotony of my early career.
One fine August morning, some weeks after my tragic interview with Mr. Dalton, I sat on the step of the outer kitchen stairway, which led into an artistically cultivated vegetable patch at the rear of the house, absorbed in the intensely interesting occupation of cutting some elegantly-coloured ladies out of a superannuated fashion-plate.
On the step above me was my garden hat, inverted, into which I deposited my paper "swells" according as I trimmed them: on the step below me sat old Hannah, scraping some new potatoes, according to her established principles of economy. We both worked diligently and silently for awhile, and then old Hannah, pausing with a half cleaned potatoe in one hand and a knife dripping with water in the other, looked at me seriously for a moment and said half meditatively:
"Well now; arn't you the baby, Miss Amelia, to spend your time over that foolish stuff; fitter for you be knitting a little garter, or hemming a little handkerchief for yourself."
I smiled, and without raising my eyes from the critical curve of my paper lady's bustle, which I was then rounding most carefully, I answered:
"I suppose I might do better with my time, Hannah, if I knew how, but as I don't, I'd rather be doing this than nothing."
"It says a lot for Miss Forty, then," Hannah put in indignantly, "to think you're goin' into your teens before long and that's all you know how to do!"
"Miss de Fortier did not come to teach me sewing and knitting, Hannah. She taught me lessons."
"Lessons how are you! And what's become of them if she did? Oh, its a fine way children are brought up in this country," the old woman went on half in soliloquy; "a bit of this and a bit of that and not much of either. I pity the housekeepers ye'll make yet. God help the poor men that are waiting for ye. Many's the missing button and broken sock they'll have to put up with!"
"Well, Hannah," I interrupted, beginning an impromptu justification and defence—but Hannah was destined never to have her conviction shaken, for just then I heard a sharp rapping at the library window, and gathering up the fragments of my fashion-plate in my linen pinafore, I ran outside and looked towards that end of the house. My father was standing at the open casement, and beckoned me to go to him. Whether from the novelty of the occurrence, or the instinctive awe in which I stood of my father, I immediately let go the margin of my pinafore, dropping scissors and ladies and all, in a most brusque and heedless manner, and hastened into the library, while I was smoothing out the wrinkled folds of my clean, starched apron.
In my excitement I had forgotten to wonder at the strange circumstance, but when my little hand clutched the great knob of the library door and turned it, and when the placid countenance of my step-mother looked up at me from a comfortable easy-chair at the opposite side of the room, I felt that some awful moment had dawned on my existence. With as much nerve and self-control as a child usually displays on such an occasion, I closed the door behind me and walked towards the window where my father was standing.
He was clad in a gown of ruby cashmere, and wore an expensive cap and slippers to match; the girdle was untied, leaving the rich chenille tassels to trail almost upon the ground, and the velvet fronts so elaborately embroidered were crushed rudely aside by his hands, which were thrust into his breeches pockets.
When I came up to where he stood, he turned slowly around and viewed me in my diminutive entirety from head to foot. Unable to restrain her love of interference any longer, my step-mother here advised me parenthetically to "stand up straight," sustaining her reasons for thus counselling me by the cheerful intelligence that "I was disposed to be round-shouldered any way, and should do my best to check the deformity." I raised my head and lowered my shoulders in silent obedience to this meek injunction, preparing myself inwardly for an attack of a much less generous and still more personal nature than this. What was my surprise when my father, taking a step towards me, and placing one hand half affectionately on my head, remarked in a rather playful and, for him, quite a frivolous tone:
"Oh, we none of us go straight to Heaven, do we, Amey? We must bend our shoulders and droop our heads a little first."
I was grateful to him for coming thus to my rescue, although I understood neither the meaning of his ambiguous words, nor the motives which prompted him to use them. I see more clearly through them now, however.
"But," he continued, taking me by the hand and leading me towards the lounge behind him, "this is not exactly what I want to talk to you about; I admit that you are backward in many respects, but that is not altogether your fault."
I was looking at him with riveted attention while he spoke, sublimely innocent of the import of a single word he uttered.
"And," he added, in a slower and more directly communicative tone, as he disengaged his hand from mine and leaned his arm on the back of the lounge behind me, "I have decided to send you to a first-rate school, Amey, where you will have a chance to perfect yourself in every way; do you think you will like to go away to school?" he asked, so timidly that one would have thought my opinion on the matter could have some little value.
Before I had time to master this question with all its ponderous possibilities, my step-mother observed obligingly,
"Of course she would like it, Alfred, and even if she wouldn't you know she ought to go; Amelia herself knows," she continued, without looking at me, "that she is quite a dunce for her age, and will need to work very hard in order to make up for lost time. So, your father and I have decided," she added conclusively, "that you shall go to boarding-school, Amelia, as early next month as you can be got ready."
The word "boarding-school" was to me, perhaps, the vaguest and most indefinite in the English language. I knew that such places existed, but it had never entered into my juvenile conception of things to associate them in any way with my present or future career. In my dreamings I had often pictured myself as grown up and matured; I had even pictured my womanhood so far as tying two of Hannah's long aprons about my waist, one in front and the other behind, and with a shawl thrown cornerwise over my shoulders, to fancy myself a lady in "long dresses" like the "Miss Hartmanns" that called upon my step-mother.
I had wished to be the wife of a great, rich man, that I might do as I pleased with myself, and be "somebody" with my airs and graces, but I had never met such an obstacle in the long rambles of my reverie as "going to school." When, therefore, the subject was thrust upon me without any preparation, I felt as if I had seen a ghost and was told to go and speak to it, that it wouldn't harm me; and, lest the reader should attribute my emotion to a more natural, and, I dare say, becoming sentiment, I will confess that it was owing purely to the nervous shock which I sustained at the unexpected mention of so important a change in my life, that my eyes filled up with tears, and that I gave way to other ambiguous signs of appropriate agitation.
All this, however, was neither here nor there, so far as the fixed intention of my parents was concerned to dispose of me for an indefinite period of time, and within three weeks of that day when the announcement was first made to me, I was crying myself to sleep in a narrow little bed, hundreds of miles away from my father's house.
Perhaps there was not another girl among the three hundred boarders of Notre Dame Abbey, that had such little reason to be home-sick as Amey Hampden; and yet—God help us! into what strange moods we are prone to fall! When a wide-spreading distance had thrust itself between me and the home of my early days, I could not help feeling that, after all, my heart had tendrils like other people's, and that this separation had torn them rudely away from the objects, few or many, worthy or unworthy, around which they had twined with a clinging firmness.
The bare, white-washed walls of this strange dormitory brought out in touching relief the cosy corners of my own little room at home, and the strict and rigid discipline, to which I felt I never could conform, made me look back with a hopeless regret upon the wandering, aimless hours I had spent unfettered, before I became a pupil of this bleak institution.
I did not know then, as I know now, that it is not the house which makes the home; that white-washed walls and painted floors may melt into artistic beauty, where glows the never smouldering fire of Christian love; and I have searched the world in vain for many a year, among riches and luxuries and comforts, but I have never had the smallest glimpse of that same abiding, enduring and self-sacrificing love which presided over me, waking or sleeping, smiling or weeping, during my happy, yet transient sojourn, in that distant Abbey of Notre Dame.
Within its walls my childhood melted into girlhood, and my girlhood into womanhood, and still, when I look out over the tree-tops, away beyond the misty mountains in the west, towards the spot where this my truly happiest home lies nestled, when with one sweeping stroke of my active pen I cancel twenty years of my life, and am back again a laughing, careless girl among my school companions, what is time to me? Only a huge and ugly shadow flitting between me and all that I have ever loved or cherished! A shadow, however, that flickers and bounds away, when, with her magic lantern, memory floods the vista of the past, with the light of "other days."
When I returned to my father's house to spend a short vacation among my earliest friends, I had entered upon my sixteenth year. I had of course, in the interval, been visited alternately by my father and step-mother, who kept me quite au courant of all that transpired in their fashionable world in my absence.
I had received photographs of my interesting half brother, which made me familiar with the changes wrought in him physically, by time; but all this had no satisfaction for me, who would rather one glimpse of old Hannah's frilled cap, or one peep through the narrow panes of Ella Wray's humble cottage, than all the spicy intelligences of the doings and sayings of possibly great people, for whom, however, I cared but very little.
At the close of our summer session of that year my father brought me home for a visit of three months. I had grown considerably, and for a person of tolerably good health, was very slender, which gave me the appearance of being yet taller than I was, and I felt an instinctively spiteful satisfaction in the consciousness that I had quite overcome any tendencies I might ever have had towards being round-shouldered; the regular calisthenic exercises which we went through at the convent had made a decided change for the better in my personal appearance.
I was not long at home before I detected a resolution on the part of my step-mother to adopt a new, and altogether plausible, attitude towards me. I was no longer a child; that was a self-evident fact: neither was I yet what society calls a "young lady," but now-a-days an interesting medium has been established and acknowledged; it is the first grade wherein the embryo society belles are initiated into all the intricacies of high life. It has its own peculiarities, its flutters of excitement, its rounds of pleasures, and distractions of every kind, aye—it has even its gossip, although the whisperers are but budding misses with golden or raven locks floating down their backs.
It is the adolescent stage: where the lisp or drawl, most popular in the advanced circles, is affected with unquestionable propriety: when growing girls of susceptible sixteen, or thereabout, are meekly subjected to a rigid training and instruction by their older and more sophisticated sisters, when they learn "dauncing" and "tennis" and "riding," and go to small-and-earlies where a few grown couples are also invited to amuse them, or rather I should say instruct them.
Quite unconscious of any such prescribed routine being the "thing" among my family circle, I was almost stupefied by the look of distracted horror which flashed over my step-mother's face, when, the week after my arrival, I shocked her sensitive good breeding by a coarse betrayal of my unpardonable ignorance.
It was a perfect June day, flooded with a bright but not overwarm sunshine; the young leaves on the maple boughs outside my bed-room window were swaying gently against the lattice, and below in the freshly trimmed garden the flowers were unfolding their early beauty to the summer warmth.
I had sought the safe retreat of my room, that I might, as I had promised, write long and loving letters to some of my much-regretted school-friends. When all my preparations were ready, and I had dated the first of these effusions, I was disturbed by a timid knock at the door. I laid down my pen resignedly and went to open: it was the pert housemaid, who delivered "Mrs. Hampden's request that Miss Amelia would kindly begin to dress."
"Dress for what?" said I, in impatient surprise. "This is Tuesday, Miss," the pampered maid answered insinuatingly, "Mrs. Hampden will be at home."
"So will I, Janet," I interrupted hastily, "and my present toilet is quite good enough for the house."
With this rejoinder I closed the door a little forcibly, and went back to my writing. I had only time to trace—"My darling Ruby,"—when, without intimation or announcement of any kind, my step-mother burst into my room, with her hair half dressed, and her toilet jacket flying loosely about her,—
"Do you want to disgrace us in the eyes of these prattling servants, Amelia Hampden?" she began in a hoarse undertone, beckoning towards the hall outside: "the idea of not understanding my message any better than that," she went on in a whisper of reproachful despair. "Anyone would know, that when you've been away so long, you will be sure to have people calling on you, so put away that"—she added imperatively, pointing disdainfully to my treasured writing materials—"and dress yourself. The Merivale girls, and the Hunters, and all those others will be here before you are half ready."
I obeyed in placid silence; this was not the first hint which circumstances had thrown out of what was before me, while I remained at home. We were very stylish, very fashionable people, it seemed, although I was so unworthy of sustaining my part of the reputation, in my insignificant opinion we were very silly and very empty-minded creatures, and it was with this very encouraging conviction that I proceeded to stow away my pen and paper, to renounce the rare pleasure I had counted upon for two days before that, and to prepare myself for the possible intrusion of some juvenile Merivales and Hunters.
Janet came in to dress my hair and fasten my new kid boots, and otherwise bore me with endeavors to beautify me for my reception. It was a task, however, that was soon ended, and half an hour later I was seated in the drawing room below listening passively to the small talk of some very well dressed girls who had opened the list of my ceremonious callers.
Having never seen them before, my demeanor was naturally timid and restrained, they were two sisters, and the younger one did all or most of the talking. They were very well dressed, and altogether non-committal, as far as speech and manners were concerned, but our vocabulary of drawing-room chat very soon became exhausted, and with a quiet "good afternoon" they arose and passed out.
As they left the drawing-room they were met at the door by two other young misses who, at sight of them, raised their chins considerably above their natural level, and swept in without condescending to bestow even an accidental glance upon them. From where I sat I observed all this quietly, and with an effort to suppress a smile of bland amusement, I arose and greeted my new-comers—the Merivales! Alice glided towards me with an air of imposing consciousness, and thrust a tiny, gloved hand into mine, and then with a graceful gesture she turned towards her companion and murmured faintly, "my cousin, Miss Holgate—Miss Hampden."
I bowed and smiled, and directed them to convenient seats, the situation was becoming more and more trying to my inclination to laugh outright. When we were all three comfortably deposited in our chairs, Alice Merivale turned her beaming countenance languidly towards me and remarked that "it was a perfectly lovely aufternoon," and while I smiled my eager corroboration, her cousin surreptitiously observed, that it was "fairly delicious."
Then followed exclamations over my long absence, and questions too numerous ever to require answers, they were much more finished talkers than their predecessors, and when I thought we had touched upon every subject which could interest us mutually, Alice asked in a most insinuating tone if I had "known Florrie Grant before I went away to to school?"
Florrie and Carrie Grant were the slighted heroines who had just gone out. Fully alive to the import of her question, I affected a most placid expression of countenance and voice, and answered that I had not.
"I thought so," she remarked with an incisive smile, looking significantly at her cousin, then changing her tone to one of most provoking haughtiness, she drooped her white lids over a daintily plush satchel she held between her hands and drawled out a languid
"How do you like her?"
I felt that I was taking in Miss Merivale's tone and words and meaning with a wincing suspicious glance. I was being initiated, and the sensation was so utterly different from anything I had ever experienced before, that my self-control suffered a momentary suspension, when words came to me I used them with a particular emphasis.