The First Marriage in the Family
Timothy Shay Arthur
"HOME!" How that little word strikes upon the heart strings, awakening all the sweet memories that had slept in memory's chamber! Our home was a "pearl of price" among homes; not for its architectural elegance — for it was only a four gabled, brown country house, shaded by two ancient oak trees; nor was its interior crowded with luxuries that charm every sense and come from every climate. Its furniture had grown old with us, for we remembered no other; and though polished as highly as furniture could be, by daily scrubbing, was somewhat the worse for wear, it must be confessed.
But neither the house nor its furnishing makes the home; and the charm of ours lay in the sympathy that linked the nine that called it "home" to one another. Father, mother, and seven children — five of them gay-hearted girls, and two boys, petted just enough to be spoiled — not one link had ever dropped from the chain of love, or one corroding drop fallen, upon its brightness.
"One star differs from another in glory," even in the firmament of home. Thus — though we could not have told a stranger which sister or brother was dearest — from our gentlest "eldest," an invalid herself — but the comforter and counselor of all beside, to the curly-haired boy, who romped and rejoiced in the appellation of "baby," given five years before — still an observing eye would soon have singled out sister Ellen as the sunbeam of our Heaven, the "morning star" of our constellation. She was the second in age — but the first in the inheritance of that load of responsibility, which in such a household falls naturally upon the eldest daughter. Eliza, as I have said, was ill from early girlhood; and Ellen had shouldered all her burden of care and kindness, with a light heart and a lighter step. Upstairs and down in the cellar, in the parlor, nursery, or kitchen — at the piano or the wash-tub — with pen, pencil, needle, or ladle — sister Ellen was always busy, always with a smile on her cheek and a song on her lip.
Quietly, happily, the months and years went by. We never realized that change was to come over our little band. To be sure, when mother would look in upon us, seated together with our books, paintings, and needle-work, and say, in her gentle way, with only a half-sigh, "Ah, girls, you are living your happiest days!" we would glance into each other's eyes, and wonder who would go first. But it was a wonder that passed away with the hour, and ruffled not even the surface of our sisterly hearts. It could not be always so — and the change came at last!
Sister Ellen was to be married!
It was like the crash of a thunderbolt in a clear summer sky! Sister Ellen — the fairy of the hearthstone, the darling of every heart — which of us could spare her? Who had been so presumptuous as to estimate her worth? For the first moment, this question burst from each surprised, half-angry sister of the blushing, tearful, Ellen! It was only for a moment; for our hearts told us that nobody could help loving her, who had looked through her loving blue eyes, into the clear well-spring of the heart beneath. So we threw our arms around her and sobbed without a word!
We knew very well that the young clergyman, whose Sunday sermons and gentle admonitions had won all hearts, had been for months a weekly visitor to our fireside circle. With baby Georgie on his knee, and Georgie's brothers and sisters clustered about him, he had sat through many an evening charming the hours away, until the clock startled us with its unwelcome nine o'clock warning; and the softly spoken reminder, "Girls, it is bed-time!" woke more than one stifled sigh of regret. Then sister Ellen must always go with us to lay Georgie in his little bed; to hear him and Annette repeat the evening prayer and hymn her lips had taught them; to comb out the long brown braids of Emily's head; to rob Arthur of the story book, over which be would have squandered the "midnight oil;" and to breathe a kiss and a blessing over the pillow of each other sister, as she tucked the warm blankets tenderly about them.
We do not know how often of late she had stolen down again, from these sisterly duties, after our senses were locked in sleep; or if our eyes and ears had ever been open to the fact, we could never have suspected the minister to be guilty of such a plot against our peace! That name was associated, in our minds, with all that was superhuman. The old gray-haired pastor, who had gone to his grave six months previous, had sat as frequently on that same oaken arm-chair, and talked with us. We had loved him as a father and friend, and had almost worshiped him as the embodiment of all attainable goodness. And when Mr. Neville came among us, with his high, pale forehead, and soul-kindled eye, we had thought his face also "the face of an angel" — too glorious for the print of mortal passion! Especially after, in answer to an urgent call from the people among whom he was laboring, he had frankly told them that his purpose was not to remain among them, or anywhere on his native shore; that he only waited the guidance of Providence to a home in a foreign climate. After this much-bewailed disclosure of his plans, we placed our favorite preacher on a higher pinnacle of saintship!
But sister Ellen was to be married — and married to Mr. Neville. And then — "Oh, sister, you are not going away, to India!" burst from our lips, with a fresh gush of sobs.
I was the first to look up into Ellen's troubled face. It was heaving with emotions that ruffled its calmness, as the tide-waves ruffle the sea. Her lips were firmly compressed; her eyes were fixed on some distant dream, glassed with two tears, that stood still in their chalices, forbidden to fall. I almost trembled as I caught her glance.
"Sister! Agnes — Emily!" she exclaimed, in a husky whisper. "Hush! be calm! Don't break my heart! Do I love home less than — "
The effort was too much; the words died on her lips. We lifted her to bed, frightened into forgetfulness of her own grief. We soothed her until she, too, wept freely and passionately, and, in weeping, grew strong for the sacrifice to which she had pledged her heart.
We never spoke another word of remonstrance to her tender heart, though often, in the few months that flitted by us together, we used to choke with sobbing, in some talk which hinted of the coming separation, and hurry from her presence to cry alone.
Our mother has told us the tidings with white lips that quivered tenderly and sadly. No love is so uniformly unselfish as a mother's, surely; for though she leaned on Ellen as the strong staff of her declining years, she sorrowed not as we did, that she was going. She was happy in the thought that her child had found that "pearl of price" in a cold and evil world — a true, noble, loving heart to guide and protect her.
Father sat silently in the chimney-corner, reading in the family Bible. He was looking further than any of us — to the perils that would environ his dearest daughter, and the privations that might come upon her young life, in that unhealthy, uncivilized corner of the globe, where she was going. Both our parents had dedicated their children to God; and they would not cast even a shadow on the path of self-sacrifice and duty their darling had chosen.
To come down to the unromantic little details of wedding preparations; how we stitched and trimmed, packed and prepared with tears in our eyes; and seasoned the wedding cake with sighs. But there is little use in thinking over these things. Ellen was first and foremost in all, as she had always been in every emergency, great or small. Nothing could be made without her. Even the bride's cake was taken from the oven by her own fair hands, because no one — servant, sister, or even mother — was willing to run the risk of burning sister Ellen's bride's cake; and "she knew just how to bake it."
We were not left alone in our sadness, for Ellen had been loved by more than those under the home-roof. Old and young, poor and rich, united in bringing their gifts, regrets, and blessings to the chosen companion of the pastor whom they were soon to lose. There is something in the idea of missionary life that touches the sympathy of every heart which mammon has not too long seared. To see one, with sympathies and refinements like our own, rend the strong ties that bind to country and home, comfort and civilization, for the good of the lost and degraded heathen, brings too strongly into relief, by contrast, the selfishness of most human lives led among the gaieties and luxuries of this world.
The day, the hour came. The ship was to sail on the ensuing week; and it must take away our idol.
She stood up in the village church, that all who loved her, and longed for another sight of her sweet face, might look upon her, and speak the simple words that should link hearts for eternity. We sisters stood all around her — but not too near; for our hearts were overflowing, and we could not wear the happy faces that should grace a train of bridesmaids. She had cheered us through the day with sunshine from her own heart, and even while we are arraying her in her simple white muslin, like a lamb for sacrifice, she had charmed our thoughts into cheerfulness. It seemed like some dream of fairy land, and she the embodiment of grace and loveliness, acting the part of some Queen for little while. The dream changed to a far different reality, when, at the door of her mother's room, she put her hand into that of Henry Neville, and lifted her eye with a look that said, "Where you go, I will go," even from all beside!
Tears fell fast in that assembly; though the good old matrons tried to smile, as they passed around the bride, to bless her, and bid her good-bye. A little girl, in a patched but clean frock, pushed forward, with a bouquet of violets and strawberry-blossoms in her hand.
"Here, Miss Elly — please, Miss Elly," she cried, half-laughing, half-sobbing, "I picked them just for you!"
Ellen stooped and kissed the little eager face. The child burst into tears, and caught the folds of her dress, as though she would have buried her face there. But a strong-armed woman, mindful of the bride's attire, snatched the child away.
"And for what would you be whimpering in that style, as if you had any right to Miss Ellen?"
"She was always good to me, and she's my Sunday-school teacher," pleaded the little girl, in a subdued undertone.
Agnes drew her to her side, and silently comforted her.
"Step aside — Father Herrick is here!" said one, just then.
The crowd around the bridal pair opened, to admit a white-haired, half-blind old man, who came leaning on the arm of his rosy grand-daughter. Farther Herrick was a retired deacon, whose good words and works had won for him a place in every heart of that assembly.
"They told me she was going," he murmured to himself; "they say 'tis her wedding. I want to see my little girl again — bless her!"
Ellen sprang forward, and laid both her white trembling hands in the large hand of the good old man. He drew her near his failing eyes; and looked searchingly into her young, soul-lit countenance.
"I can just about see you, darling; and they tell me I shall never see you again! Well, well, if we go in God's way we shall all get to Heaven, and it's all light there!" He raised his hand over her head, and added, solemnly, "The blessing of blessings be upon you, my child. Amen!"
"Amen!" echoed the voice of Henry Neville.
And Ellen looked up with the face of an angel.
So she went from us! Oh! the last moment of that parting hour has burnt itself into my being forever! Could the human heart endure the agony of parting like that, realized to be indeed the last — lighted by no ray of hope for eternity! Would not reason reel under the pressure?
It was hard to bear; but I have no words to tell of its bitterness. She went to her missionary life, and we learned at last to live without her, though it was many a month before the little ones could forget to call on "Sister Ellen" in any impulse of joy, grief, or childish need. Then the start and the sigh, "Oh, dear, she's gone — sister is gone!" And fresh tears would flow.
Gone — but not lost; for that first marriage in the family opened to us a fountain of happiness, as pure as the spring of self-sacrifice could make it. Our household darling has linked us to a world of needy and perishing souls. God bless her and her charge! Dear sister Ellen! there may be many another breach in the family — we may all be scattered to the four winds of the earth — but no change can come over us like that which marked the first marriage.