Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856
A lady sat alone in her own room one clear evening, when the silver stars were out, and the moon shone as pure as the spirit of peace upon the rebellious earth. How lovely was every outward thing! How beautiful is God's creation! The window curtains were drawn close, and the only light in the cheerful room, was given by a night-lamp that was burning on the mantel-piece.
The occupant, who perhaps had numbered about thirty-five years, was sitting by a small table in the center of the room, her head leaning upon one slender hand; the other lay upon the open page of a book in which she had endeavored to interest herself. But the effort had been vain; other and stronger feelings had overpowered her; there was an expression of suffering upon the gentle face, over which the tears rained heavily. For a brief moment she raised her soft blue eyes upward with an appealing look, then sunk her head upon the table before her, murmuring,
"Father! forgive me! it is good for me. Give me strength to bear everything. Pour your love into my heart, for I am desolate — if I could but be useful to one human being — if I could make one person happier, I would be content. But no! I am desolate — desolate! Whose heart clings to mine with the strong tendrils of affection? Who ever turns to me for a smile? Oh! this world is so cold — so cold!"
And that sensitive being wept passionately, and pressed her hand upon her bosom as if to still its own yearnings.
Mary Clinton had met with many sorrows; she was the youngest of a large family; she had been the caressed darling in her early days, for her sweetness won every heart to love. She had dwelt in the warm breath of affection, it was her usual sunshine, and she gave it no thought while it blessed her; a cold word or look was an unfamiliar thing. A most glad-hearted being she was once! But death came in a terrible form, folded her loved ones in his icy arms and bore them to another world! A kind father, a tender mother, a brother and sister, were laid in the grave, in one short month, by the cholera.
One brother was yet left, Mary she was taken to his home, for he was a wealthy merchant. But there seemed a coldness in his splendid house, a coldness in his wife's heart. Sick in body and in mind, the bereft one resolved to travel South, and visit among her relations, hoping to awaken her interest in life, which had lain dormant through grief. She went to that sunny region, and while there, became acquainted with a man of fine intellect and fascinating manners, who won her affections, and afterwards proved unworthy of her.
Again the beauty of her life was darkened, and with a weary heart she wore out the tedious years of her joyless existence. She was an angel of charity to the poor and suffering. She grew lovelier through sorrow. A desire to see her brother, her nearest and dearest relative, called her North again, and when our story opens she was in the bosom of his home, a member of his family.
He loved her deeply, yet she felt like an alien — his wife had not welcomed her as a sister should. Aunt Mary's heart went out toward's Alice, her eldest niece, a beautiful and loving creature just springing into womanhood. But the fair girl was mirthful and thoughtless, flattered and caressed by everybody. She knew sadness only by the name. She had no dream that she could impart a deep joy, by giving forth her young heart's love to the desolate stranger.
The hour had grown late, very late, and Aunt Mary still leaned her head upon the table buried in thoughts, when the bounding step of Alice outside the door aroused her from her revery. She listened, almost hoping to see her friendly face peeping in, but wearied with the enjoyment of the evening, the fair young belle hastened on to her chamber, and her aunt heard the door close. Rising from her seat at the table, Miss Clinton approached a window, and threw back the curtains that the midnight air might steal coolingly over her brow. Her eye fell upon the rich bracelet that clasped her arm, a gift of her brother, and then with a sad smile, she surveyed the pure dress of delicate white she wore. "Ah!" she sighed, "I am robed for a scene of gayety, but how sad the heart that beats beneath this boddice! How glad I was to escape from the company; loneliness in the crowd is so sad a feeling." At that moment the door of her room opened, and Alice came laughing in, her glowing face all bright and careless.
"Oh! Aunt Mary," she exclaimed, "do help me! I cannot unclasp my necklace, and my patience has all oozed out at the tips of my fingers. There! you have unfastened it already. Well! I believe I never will be good for anything!" And Alice laughed as heartily, as if the idea was charming. "When did you leave the parlours, Aunt Mary? I never missed you at all. Father said you left early, when I met him just now on the stairs."
"I did leave early," replied Miss Clinton. "I felt like being entirely alone, so I sought my own room."
"Have you been reading, aunt? I would think you would feel lonely!"
"I read very little," was the reply, in a sad tone. No remark was made on her loneliness.
"It seems so strange to me, Aunt Mary, that you are so fond of being alone. I like company so much," said Alice, looking in her quiet face. "But I must go," she added; she paused a moment, then pressed an affectionate kiss upon her aunt's cheek, and whispered a soft "good night." Miss Clinton cast both arms around her, and drew her to her heart, with an eagerness that surprised Alice. Twice she kissed her, then hastily released her as if her feeling had gone forth before she was aware of it.
Alice stood still before her a moment, and her careless eyes took a deeply searching expression as they dwelt upon the countenance before her. Something like sadness passed over her face, and her voice was deeper in its tone, as she repeated, "Good night, dear Aunt Mary!" With a slow step she left the room, mentally contrasting her own position with that of her aunt. Circumstances around her and the society with which she mingled, tended to drown reflection, and call into play only the brighter and gayer feelings, which flutter on the surface of our being. She had never known the luxury of devoting an hour to genuine meditation on the world within — or the great world without.
The earth was to her a garden of joy; she lived upon it only to enjoy herself. Like many selfish people, Alice's mother made an idol of her beautiful child, because she was a part of herself; and Mrs. Clinton was not one to perform a mother's duty faithfully in instilling right views of life into her daughter's mind. Thus, with a depth of feeling, and rich gifts of mind, Alice fluttered on her way like a light-winged butterfly, her soul's pure wells of tender thought unknown to her.
How many millions pass through a whole long life, with the deepest and holiest secrets of their being, still unlocked by their heedless hands! How few see anything to live for, but the outward sunshine of prosperity, which is an idle sunshine — compared with the ever-strengthening light which may grow in the spirit! How strong, how great, how beautiful may life be — when smiled upon by our Creator! how weak, how abject, how trampled upon, when turned away from his face!
With better and more quiet emotions, Aunt Mary retired to rest. "I can love others — even if I am not beloved," she murmured, and the dove of peace fluttered its white wing over her. Her resigned prayer was, "Lord, into your hands I commit my spirit." Tears of earnest humility had washed away all bitterness from the wrung heart of that lovely being. How beautiful was the angel smile which played over her face, in her pure dreams!
A few weeks after, Alice entered her aunt's room one drizzling, damp, foggy, uncomfortable day. "Such miserable weather!" she exclaimed, throwing herself idly into an arm-chair; "I believe I have got the blues for once in my life. I don't know what to do with myself; it makes me perfectly melancholy to look out of the window, and nothing in the house wears a cheerful aspect. Mother has a headache; when I proposed reading to her, she very politely asked me if I would let her remain alone. She says I always want to sing, read, or talk incessantly — if she wishes to be quiet. I can't play on the piano, for it is heard from attic to basement. I don't want to read alone, for I have such a desire to be sociable — now, Aunt Mary, you have a catalogue of my troubles — can't you relieve me, for I am really miserable, if I don't look so!" Alice broke into a laugh, although it did not bubble right up from her merry heart as usual.
"If your attention was fully engaged, you would not mind the weather so much," remarked Aunt Mary, with a quiet smile. "You are not in a mood to enjoy a book just now, so what will you do, my dear?"
"Mend stockings, or turn my room upside down, and then arrange it neatly," said Alice in a speculative tone. "There is nothing in the house to interest me; there is Patty in the kitchen, I have just been paying her a visit. She is as busy as a bee, and as happy as a queen. I believe poor people are happier than the rich — in such weather as this, at least."
"Because they are useful, Alice; go busy yourself about some physical labour for an hour or two, then come back to me, and I predict your face will be as sunshiny as ever. I am in earnest — you need not look so incredulous!"
"What shall I do?" asked the young girl laughing. "I don't know how to do a single thing in domestic matters. Mother says I shall never work. It would spoil my fairy fingers, I presume — a terrible consequence!"
"But seriously Alice, you are not so entirely incapable of doing anything, are you?"
"I am positively, but I can learn if I choose. I believe I will sweep my room and put it in order, as a beginning. That will be something new: now I will try my best!" Alice sprang from her chair, and tripped from the room quite pleased with the idea. A smile broke over Miss Clinton's features, after her niece had left her alone. "How easily Alice might be trained to better things, by love and gentleness," she said half aloud. "Oh! if she would only love me, and turn to me fondly. How I would delight to breathe a genial prayer over the buds of promise in her youthful heart, and fan them to warmer life."
More than an hour flew by, as Aunt Mary sat in thought, devising plans to awaken her favorite to a true sense of her duties — to a knowledge of her capabilities for happiness and usefulness. We may be useful with a heart full of sadness; but we can rarely taste of happiness, unless we are desirous to benefit someone besides ourselves. A quietness came over the lonely one as she mused — a spirit of beautiful repose; for she forgot all thoughts of her own enjoyment, in caring for another.
"You are quite a physician, Aunt Mary, to a diseased mind," exclaimed Alice, breaking her revery as she came in with a smiling face, after the performance of her unaccustomed labour. "I am quite in tune again now. I believe there is a little philosophy in being busy occasionally, after all."
"There is really," replied Aunt Mary, raising her deep blue eyes to Alice's face, with their pleasant expression; "and there is also usefulness in recreation — in abandoning yourself for a time to innocent gayety. An hour of enjoyment is refreshing and beneficial."
"Why, Aunt Mary!" said Alice in some surprise, "I had no idea that you thought so. You are always so industrious and quiet, I imagined you disapproved of the merriment of ordinary people. When we have a large company, you almost always retire early. Why do you do so, aunt, may I ask you?"
Aunt Mary was silent a moment, then she said gently, "When I think I can add to the ease or enjoyment of any person present, I take pleasure in staying; but when I feel that I am rather a restraint than otherwise, I retire — to weep. You are yet young and beautiful, my child, for you have never known such feelings. I am too selfish, or I would not be sad so often; it is right that I should pass through such a school of discipline. I hope it has already made me better." The look of resignation that beamed from Miss Clinton's tearful eyes, caused a chord in Alice's heart to tremble with a strange blending of love, sweetness, and sorrow.
"You should be happy, if anyone should, dear aunt," she said in a low voice, and she partly averted her head, to conceal the tears that started down her cheek. "I am happy so often," she resumed, turning around and seating herself upon an ottoman at her aunt's feet. "You deserve so much more than I — to be as good as you are, Aunt Mary. I would almost change situations, for then I should be sure of going to Heaven."
"You can be just as sure in your own position, as in that of any other person. But, dear child, the more deeply we scan our hearts, the more we see there to conquer, in order that we may become fit companions for God."
Alice remained thoughtful for some moments, then she folded her hands over Aunt Mary's lap, and lifted her eyes to the loving face that bent over her. "Be my guardian angel," she prayed tearfully, "your love is so pure; a gentleness comes over me, when I am with you. All tumultuous feelings sink down to repose. I have not known you, Aunt Mary; you have shown me today how lovely goodness is. I can feel it in your presence. Oh! to possess it! I fear it will be long years before I grow so gentle in my spirit — so unselfish — so like a child of God!"
"Hush, hush!" was Aunt Mary's gentle interruption. "You do not know me yet, Alice. Perhaps I appear far better than I am."
Alice smiled, and laying her arm around Aunt Mary's neck, drew down her face, and kissed her affectionately, whispering, "You will be my guide — I ask no better."
"Thank you, thank you," broke from Aunt Mary's lips; she pressed Alice's cheek with the ardent haste of love and gratitude; then yielding to the emotions that thrilled her heart, she burst into tears, and wept with a joy she had long been a stranger to. She felt that her life would no longer be useless, if she could live for Alice, and lift up her heart to God.
How beautiful in its freshness, is the early day when the light of a good resolve breaks like a halo over the soul, and by its power, seeks to win it from its selfish idols! Earnest and strong is the hopefulness that bids us labor trustingly to become all we yearn to be — all we may be.
How tremblingly Aunt Mary leaned upon her Savior! Experience had taught her the weakness of her fluttering heart; sorrow was familiar, yet she prayed not to shrink from it.
How clear and vigorous was the mind of Alice — how shadowless was her unerring path to be — how all weakness departed before the sudden thought that rose up in her soul! How rich was the light that beamed from her steady eye — how calm and trusting the slight smile that parted her lips! How meek and confiding she was, and yet how full of strength! She was a young seeker after truth, and she realized not yet, that that same truth was the power to which she must bow every rebellious thing within her. Months rolled on, and the quiet gladness in her heart made it a delight to her to do anything and everything it seemed her duty to do. The unexplored world within, opened to her gaze, and threw a glory upon creation. Infinitely priceless in her eyes, were the thousand hearts around her, in which the Lord had kindled the undying lamp of life.
One evening, at rather a late hour, Alice sought the chamber of her aunt and seated herself quietly beside her, saying in a subdued voice as she took her hand, "I am inexpressibly sad tonight, Aunt Mary. There is no very particular reason why I should feel so; no one can soothe me but you. Put your arms around me, Aunt Mary, and talk to me — give me some strength to go forward in the way I have chosen. I almost despair — I have no good influence, no moral courage. Perhaps, after all, my efforts to become better have been in vain, and I shall sink back into my former state. If all who are my friends were like you, it would be an easy thing to glide on with the stream. But I am in the midst of peril — I never knew until tonight that it was hard to speak with a cold rigour to our friends when they merit it. If I were despised, or neglected, I could more easily fix my thoughts on Heaven. I dread so to hurt the feelings of anyone."
"What do you refer to, dear?" inquired Aunt Mary, tenderly.
"My friend Eleanor Temple, and her brother Theodore, have been spending the evening with me. You know how gay and witty they are. In answer to a remark of mine, Theodore gravely quoted a passage of Scripture, which applied to my observation in an irresistibly ludicrous manner. I yielded to a hearty laugh which I could not restrain; it came so suddenly I had no time for thought. But in a moment after, my conscience smote me, and I felt that my respect for Theodore had lessened. I had no right to rebuke him, even if I had the moral courage, for my laughter was encouragement. I turned away from him and spoke to Eleanor; I was displeased with myself, and I felt a sort of inward repugnance to him. But that was not the end; several times afterwards Theodore did the same thing.
"There are subjects which are not fit food for merriment;' I said once in an embarrassed manner. 'If I do wrong — it is not deliberately done.' Theodore was silent a moment, and he looked at me as if he hardly knew how to understand me — then smiling, he turned the conversation, and was as gay as ever. When they had taken their leave, I entered the parlour again, and threw myself in a seat by the open window. I turned the blind, and looked out after them. Eleanor had caught the fringe of her mantilla in the railing of the area. I was about to speak with her on the little accident, when Theodore laughed, and said to his sister, 'Alice is as fond of playing characters, as an actress. She attempted to reprove me, for the very thing she had laughed at a little while before. Rather inconsistent in our favorite, Nelly, don't you think so?' Eleanor laughed, and said good-naturedly, 'Alice is impulsive, she doesn't measure what she says, before it comes out.'
"I rose, and left the window. I felt sad, and peculiarly discomposed and dissatisfied with myself. I knew that I had tried to do right in some degree, and it grated on my feelings that my effort should be called 'a playing of a character.' Oh! if I could only live with good people altogether, who would bear with me, and trust my motives! You have my story, Aunt Mary, it amounts to nothing, but I am so sad."
"Life is made up of trifles," said Aunt Mary. "Few circumstances are so trivial that we may not draw a lesson from them. Do not feel sad, Alice, because you are misunderstood. Do not repine on account of your position; no one could fill it but yourself, or you would not be placed in it. Be resigned to meet those who call out unpleasant feelings; they teach you better your own nature, than ever the angels could. They bring forth what is evil in you — that it may be conquered. Do not understand me to mean that you should ever seek those who may harm you. But a day can hardly pass over our heads, that we do not meet with people who ruffle that harmony of soul we so labor after. It is keenly felt when one is as young, and in a better life as you are. You need strength, and then you will be calm and even. Time, patience, combating, prayer, good-will to man, must bring your soul to order — then you will bear upon the spirits of others with a still, purifying power which will soothe and soften like far-off music. You have it in your power to do much good; your Creator has blessed you with that inexpressible sympathy which may glide gently into another human heart and open its secret springs almost unconsciously to the possessor. I have watched you, child of my love, and perhaps I know you better than you know yourself. There are many latent germs within your being. Oh! Alice, pray God to expand them to heavenly life. Bear on — and live for something worthy a creature God has made."
Aunt Mary paused in an unusual emotion; her cheek glowed deeply, and the burning softness of her eyes chained Alice's look as with a spell, to their angel expression. The heart of the young girl throbbed almost to bursting, with the world of undeveloped feeling that rushed over her. It was a moment which many have experienced — a moment which breaks over the young for the first time with such a thrill — she realized that God had gifted her with power — with a soul that might and must have its influence. Bowing her head upon Aunt Mary's knee, she wept; and a flood of joy, humility, and thanksgiving came over her, as she more deeply dedicated herself to the holy Lord, and laid her gifts upon His altar.
Aunt Mary's words sunk peacefully into her soul, and a clear light irradiated it and filled it with a calmness that made all things right. With a look of irrepressible tenderness, and a voice full of low music, Alice said to Aunt Mary, as she rose to retire, "You have charmed away every discordant note that was touched tonight, dear aunt. How unaccountable are our sudden changes of mood! You have now thrown over me your own spirit of peaceful repose and contentment. Good-night, and thank you!"
"Well, I am content, entirely content," soliloquized Aunt Mary, when the loved form of the child of her heart had disappeared. "To try to bless another — how richly does the blessing fall back upon my own soul! Yes! I have my joys. Why am I ever so ungrateful as to murmur at anything that befalls me? I am blessed — a sunshine is breaking over the tender earth for me; all clouds are gone."
With feelings much changed from what they were a few months previous, Aunt Mary sought the window, and with loving and devoted eyes dwelt upon the night and stillness of the heavens — so boundless and so pure. The moon was full; near it was one bright cloud of silver drapery, upon the edge of which rested a single star. "So shall it be with me," she murmured, "be the clouds that float over the heavens of my soul bright or dark, the star of holy trust shall linger near, ever bringing peace to my bosom."
About two years after, on a winter evening, there was a large company assembled at Mr. Clinton's dwelling. It was in party for Alice, for that day completed her twentieth year. As she moved from one spot to another, her sweet face radiant with happiness. Aunt Mary's eyes followed her with a devoted expression, which betrayed that the lovely being was her dearest earthly treasure. The merry girl was now a glad-hearted, but thoughtful woman. An innocent mirthfulness lingered around her, which time itself would never subdue, except for a brief season, when her sweet laugh broke out with a natural, rich suddenness; there was a catching joy in it, which could not be withstood. She was the gentle hostess to perfection; with tact enough to discover congenial spirits, and bring them together, finding her own pleasure in the cheerful home thus made. She possessed the rare but happy art of making every body feel perfectly at home, one knew not why.
For a moment, Alice stood alone with her little hand resting upon the center-table. Behind her, two rather fashionable young men were talking and laughing somewhat too loud, and jesting upon sacred things. A look of pain passed over the face of the fair listener as she slowly turned round, and said in a low but earnest tone, "Don't, Theodore! Excuse me, but such trifling pains me." The young gentlemen both appeared mortified. "Pardon me! Alice," exclaimed Theodore Temple, "I will try to break that habit for your sake. I was not aware that it pained you so much — a lady's word is law!" and he bowed gallantly.
"No, no! Base your giving up of the habit, upon principle, then it will be permanent. Much obliged for the compliment" — Alice bowed with assumed dignity, and her sweet face dimpled into a playful smile, "but I have no faith in these pretty speeches. Remember, now, I have your promise to try to break the habit; you will forfeit your word if you do not" Thus saying, and without waiting for a reply, the young lady left them.
"I believe Miss Clinton is right, after all," remarked Temple's companion. "What is the use of jesting on such sacred subjects? We never feel any better after it, and we subject ourselves to the displeasure of those who respect these things. I pass my word to give it up, if you will, Temple."
"Agreed!" was Theodore's brief answer. Without saying how mingled the motive might have been, which induced the young men to forsake the habit, they did forsake it permanently.
Aunt Mary's lonely life was at last smiled upon by a sunbeam — and that sunbeam was the soul of Alice, which she had turned to the light. For that cherished being, Aunt Mary would have offered up her life, and there would have been a joy in the sacrifice. Strongly and nobly were their hearts knit together — beautiful is the devotedness of holy, unselfish love! Blessed are two sincere hearts, which may be opened to each other, pouring out the tide of feeling hoarded in the inward soul — such revelations are for moments when the yearning heart will not be hushed to calmness. But "there is a moonlight in human life," and there is also a blessing in that subdued hour which whispers wearily to the loving one, of weaknesses and sins, with a prayer for consoling strength to triumph yet, leaving them in the dust.
Thus was it with Mary and Alice Clinton; their souls were as open as the day to each other. They traveled along life's pathway with earnest purpose, fulfilling the many and changing duties which fell upon them, ever catching rich gleams of joy from above. And sorrows came too! but they purified, and taught the slumbering soul its rarest wealth — its deepest sympathies with all things good and heavenly. It seemed a slight thing that took away the desolation from the heart of Aunt Mary — she turned away from self, and devoted her efforts to the eternal happiness of another.
Is there one human being in the wide world so desolate, that he may not do likewise? Only a mite may be cast in, but God has made none of his children so poor, as to be without an influence. The humblest effort, if it is all that can be made, is as full of greatness at the core, as the most ostentatious display.