The Friends, or
Luxuries Lost and Happiness Won
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856
It was a pleasant day in June, the month of roses, when the young earth seems to send on the balmy air a whispered thanksgiving to Heaven for her rich and gentle beauty. The fresh foliage grows brighter as the sweet breath of the summer wind plays among the leaves, and sportively kisses the fragrance from the lovely flowers, wafting it over the green meadows and quiet plains.
At the open casement of a little white cottage, two young girls were seated; one sewing, the other reading aloud, yet often pausing to utter the elevating thoughts the volume suggested. They were about the same age, and might number some eighteen years. The reader was very beautiful. Her dark hair was arranged with exquisite taste around her finely formed head, and a Grecian braid confined the shining ringlets which would have shaded too closely the white intellectual brow. Her usually proud face was now soft and yielding as a child's in its look of confidence and love. A thoughtful tenderness dwelt in her large black eyes, as they rested on her friend, while a faint smile stole over her lip, telling how hushed was every unholy feeling, and betraying a heart full of sisterly affection.
Her companion, who possessed no beauty except that which is reflected from a pure heart, was seated on a low chair by her side, and as she raised her gentle countenance to that of her friend, it wore a look of almost spiritual loveliness.
The intimacy between Ellen Wilson and her beautiful friend, commenced at school. The latter was wealthy and talented, and therefore received the homage of her companions, which was probably rendered to her "acres of charms;" for even children learn to hold "filthy lucre" in the same estimation as their elders.
Gertrude Saunders was the only daughter of a rich merchant, a native of England, who had early come to this country, where he married a poor, but beautiful and intelligent girl. His wife lived but a few years after her marriage, and Gertrude was a stranger to a mother's care from the age of three years. Mr. Saunders, wholly absorbed in money-making, cultivated none of the gentler affections. He possessed that calculating spirit, which so often chills the love of a young heart.
As the fair girl grew towards womanhood, she yearned for a friend who might appreciate the deep feelings known only to her own soul. The sweetness and sincerity of Ellen's manners, combined with her intelligence, won Gertrude's admiration; and the fact that the friendless orphan showed less eagerness than anyone else to become intimate with her, and always wore an air of gentle self-respect when they met, perhaps impelled the proud heiress to sue for the friendship of one who was regarded by many young ladies of the institution, as too poor to be blessed with their familiarity.
Since they had left school, Gertrude resided in the city, where she shone in the courts of fashion, as a "bright particular star." Rich, beautiful, and highly gifted — she met with adulation at every step, and although she received it with apparent indifference, its flattering breath fell upon her too haughty spirit like a grateful incense. She had few female friends among her fashionable acquaintances, for close observation had taught her, that she must seek for friendship where luxury and self-indulgence had not enervated the intellect, and put to silence the low, sweet murmurings of affection that would gladly breathe over the soul like the music of Heaven.
Gertrude possessed strong feelings, and many noble qualities; but these were often thrown into the shadow by one great fault — pride. When she left her luxurious home in the city, and found herself in the simple white cottage where Ellen dwelt in her grandmother's family, this blemish in her character apparently vanished, and the affections of her better nature gushed forth; new thoughts found entrance in her bosom, and she felt a desire to put away every evil thing within her, and become gentle and unselfish as her companion.
How great is the influence of a friend! and how important that we should select only those whose influence will deepen in our hearts, the little goodness that may have found root there, instead of choking it with weeds of hasty and evil growth!
There was now in the communion of the friends, a deeper interest than ever; a sadness they had never known before; they were about to be separated for two long years, and what changes might not occur before they met again? Many times their eyes filled with tears, as they dwelt with lingering tenderness on the happy hours they had spent together, which had given so bright a glow to their existence. Yet, though such reflections might lessen the pain of separation, still it was pain.
A wealthy aunt of Ellen's, whose health idleness and dissipation had rendered delicate, had persuaded her husband that it was necessary for her to cross the ocean, and sojourn in a foreign climate, in order to recover her lost bloom. It was decided that they should be absent two years, and Ellen had been invited by her aunt to accompany her as a companion. With the delighted curiosity of a young girl, she consented, and when she could forget the endearments of home, her heart beat high with enthusiasm as she anticipated the time when her feet should press the classic soil of Europe.
The day of separation at length came, and the rosy light of morning streamed in the chamber occupied by the friends. They had risen early, and hour after hour slipped away as they felt the luxury of being alone for the last time, and pouring out their full hearts to each other. But the time drew near, and, with arms drawn closely around each other, they knelt at the bedside, and the fervency of that last prayer hung over their spirits long after the ocean had divided them.
Two years passed away, and during that time, the heart of Gertrude Saunders had grown familiar with deep trials of its own. Her father had imbibed the spirit of speculation, and, as was the case with many others, instead of increasing his wealth — it tore from his grasp, all that he possessed. The love of money was his ruling passion, and when he discovered that his riches were lost beyond recall, he felt a blow from which he never recovered. His energies seemed to leave him entirely, and he sank into a low, desponding state of mind, which necessarily impaired his bodily health. Gertrude was called upon to bear the death of her father, soon after the loss of that wealth which she had not known how to value, until it was taken away.
When Ellen Wilson returned to her native land, her manners yet frank and simple, and her heart still glowing with the same warm love towards the beautiful girl she had left with prospects so fair — Gertrude was poor, lonely, and an orphan. She had no near relatives to offer her a home, and many people she thought were interested in her, proved cold and indifferent when she most needed friends. Pride impelled her to shrink from everyone she had known in prosperity — even those who might and perhaps would have aided her. The unhappy girl obtained a boarding place in a retired part of the city, and, with bitterness in her bosom, sought and with difficulty procured some employment in plain sewing, which barely defrayed her most urgent expenses.
Buried in loneliness, she brooded morbidly over the events which had so changed the whole world to her. Yet, amid all her gloomy thoughts and dark forebodings, when her mind reverted to Ellen, a ray of hope visited her, and the desolate girl longed for the time when she might be cheered by the affectionate kindness of that gentle being. No sight she more desired than, "That face of faithful friend — fairest when seen in darkest day."
At last her wishes were gratified. On her return, Ellen eagerly sought Gertrude's humble residence. With a beating heart, the long-absent one ascended the stairs that led to the chamber of the once rich heiress. Her trembling hand was laid upon the latch, and yet she lingered to still the emotions which thrilled her bosom. She listened to hear if anyone was within, but no sound met her ear. Again her fingers pressed the latch; it yielded to her touch, and with a noiseless step, she entered the room. Gertrude sat sewing, apparently buried in painful thought. Her face was pale and thin, and tears gushed into the eyes of her gentle visitor as she paused a moment, unobserved, and marked the change which suffering had wrought in those beautiful features.
"Oh! Gertrude!" broke huskily from her lips. And with a faint scream of joy, the astonished girl sprang from her chair, and the long-parted friends were clasped in each other's arms. They wept long together, and their hearts communed more deeply than if words had broken that blessed silence. When they had seated themselves, Gertrude said, in a low tone,
"We expected changes, dear Ellen, when we parted, but I little dreamed that I would know so much wretchedness. My best feelings are wasted by sorrow; and everything that was good and beautiful in my spirit, is withered and dead. One deep, warm, kindly feeling found a dwelling-place in my bosom; I could weep over the troubles of others — but now, I am changed; there is nothing left of my former self. Oh! Ellen, you will find nothing in me to love" — and the wretched girl leaned her head on the shoulder of her friend, and gave way to a flood of passionate tears.
Ellen replied only by drawing her arm more fondly around her, and brushing the hair from the hot brow of the weeping girl, upon which she pressed her lips, while her own tears fell fast. How eloquent, then, was that silent caress, the lingering lips upon the forehead!
When Gertrude had ceased weeping, Ellen broke the silence by saying,
"Everything appears darker than it really is, dearest. If you will, you may be happy again. Your best feelings are not wasted; you are beginning to know yourself. Circumstances have developed the evil feelings which appear new to you, yet you possessed them before, although they were never called into action. Now that you are aware of their existence, dear Gertrude, overcome them — and you will be purer and happier than if they yet remained in their unconscious slumber. The green spot in your soul is not withered; dark clouds have hidden it, and you think the fierce tempest has laid all waste. There was an object in that wild storm; it was to purify that chosen spot, and protect it from greater ills.
"Try to be resigned to what God has ordered, Gertrude, and forget your own sufferings in efforts to be useful to others; then the sun of true happiness will break in upon your spirit with its pleasant warmth, refreshing the new and delicate germs of goodness, that they may be strengthened by future storms and outlive them. When happiness depends on external things — it must ever rest on a broken reed. To be real, it must spring from love and gentleness within; then its clear light of purity and joy may be shed with blessings upon the hearts of others. Every evil thing that is banished from our bosoms, renders our reform easier; and it is true that if it is our constant aim to become better, that God will strengthen us, and impart to us pure thoughts and heavenly affections."
"Ah! Ellen!" returned Gertrude, with a faint smile, "I almost imagine that you an angel. I can feel that you are good and pure, and if I could always be with you, I think I might learn what true happiness is."
She leaned her head upon her hand for some moments, lost in deep and earnest thought; her brow knit at times, but there was no bitterness in her look. At length, the troubled expression vanished, her slightly quivering lip grew firmer, and in a voice low and tremulous with its weight of new-born, elevated feeling, she said,
"I know it is easier to resolve, than to follow a resolution under all circumstances; yet, if I may have strength from above, my life shall no longer be wasted in idle repinings. If I cannot impart happiness to others, my spirit may at least learn not to cast a gloom. But how can I always resist despondency? How can I stifle every selfish emotion? Ah! Ellen, it is no slight thing to change our very natures!"
"It is the work of a lifetime, dear Gertrude, yet do not be discouraged; if we do the best we can, God will assist us. But now let me turn to another subject, and tell you some good news; you must give up this sewing which confines you from six o'clock in the morning till near midnight. My home shall be your home!"
"But," interrupted Gertrude, "I cannot be dependent; and even if I were willing, the addition of one would be felt in your family."
"You mistake me," said Ellen, "we are not to be idle. A good school is very much needed in our vicinity, and if you will consent, we will take upon ourselves the office of school madams. I think we can soon get accustomed to teaching of children. What is your opinion?"
Tears sprung into the eyes of Gertrude, as she replied,
"You are not compelled to labor, Ellen, and it is only for my sake that this school is proposed. Tell me, would you have thought of it, if I yet possessed the luxuries I once did?"
"Well, I suppose not," answered her friend, with a frank and playful smile, "so I am indebted to you for the brightest idea that ever entered my dull cranium. But we shall be perfectly happy, I am sure, Gertrude; we can be together every day, and we must make our duties, a source of pleasure."
A smile, grateful, yet tender and subdued in its loveliness — passed over the face of Gertrude; a fountain of purer feelings was opened in her heart, and it thrilled with new-born hopes, and yet was chastened with a pensive fear, lest her late despondency might banish her half-sad, yet sweet emotions.
Night warned Ellen to depart, and the fair girls separated with the pure halo of unselfish friendship around them.
A few weeks afterwards, on a little house in a certain town, a new sign might be seen, bearing these words, "School for Young Ladies." Within, a pleasing scene was presented.
In one corner our friend Ellen was seated, her sweet countenance bright with happy feelings. She was gently encouraging to greater efforts in spelling, half a dozen female urchins, who were grouped around her. The innocent children clung to her, and looked up in her kind face with that confidence they always manifest towards those who treat them with uniform tenderness.
Not far distant, Gertrude directed a class in painting, and only those who are familiar with the pencil can tell with what anxious delight she marked the improvement of one pupil in a favorite piece, or how she longed to seize the brush and with a few careless touches, remodel a landscape another poor girl was half-discouraged over. The face of the lovely mistress wore a look of cheerful dignity. One word, spoken in a kind, affectionate tone, was sufficient to gain implicit obedience to her commands; and the warm interest she manifested towards all under her care, rendered her beloved with all the children.
Every day, when the school was dismissed, the young teachers sallied forth, their steps impeded by some rosy-cheeked damsels, who invariably sued for the honor of taking their hands and walking by the "madams."
Experience taught Gertrude that the power of being useful and making others happy gave her a far more abiding joy than she had ever felt when surrounded by luxury, and seeking only self-gratification. A closer intimacy rendered the friends more deeply attached, and no blight ever marred the beauty of their perfect friendship.