Fruits of Sorrow
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856
I was recovering from a long illness. Reclining upon my couch, with its carefully arranged pillows and snowy drapery, I enjoyed to the utmost, the sensation of renewed life which, with increasing strength, thrilled through every vein. The sashes were raised, and through the closed blinds came the soft breath of a June morning, bearing on its invisible wings, the mingled perfume of a thousand flowers. On a table within reach of my hand, stood a vase filled with rare exotics, and by my side sat the dear friend who had brought this beautiful offering.
I never tire of gazing on flowers; but now something inexplicable attracted my attention to the countenance of Lucy Latimer — a countenance which, notwithstanding her thirty-five years, still wore a calm and mournful beauty. Upon her features beamed their usual sweet and benevolent smile, yet at intervals a convulsive spasm distorted the small mouth or contracted the broad, fair brow, and I thought that, more than once, a bright tear glistened in her downcast eye.
For the first time the thought flashed across my mind that there might be "a story" connected with the life of Lucy. I had known her from my childhood, and her course had been ever the same. She had few pleasures, but many duties. She had literally gone about doing good. A true sister of charity, wherever misfortune came in the extensive circle of her influence — she was seen binding up the broken heart, and pouring the oil of consolation upon the bruised spirit. For all ailings, mental or physical, she had a ready sympathy. From the couch of the sufferer, hurried by some devouring pestilence to the confines of eternity — she shrank not, while life remained. She smoothed the pillow of the consumptive, and held the cooling draught to fever-parched lips; and, above all, her warnings and her prayers often led their object to exclaim, in true penitence and submission, "Not my will, O Lord, but may Yours be done!"
Did a fond mother bend in agony over the form of her departed darling? Lucy's gentle soothings brought comfort to her sorrowing heart. Did some young wife see the husband of her heart's choice, the father of her little ones, stricken in his prime, and borne away to the silent tomb? the soft voice of Lucy awakened her to present duties, and reminded her of the loving care of Him who is the "Father of the fatherless, and the widow's God." In short, she who had been an only child, and was now an orphan, seemed never to feel the lack of kindred; for she was the daughter, the sister, the beloved friend of all who suffered.
"Dear Lucy," said I suddenly, after a long silence, during which all these thoughts had passed in review before me, "you are very sad today, and I know by the dreamy look of your eyes, that it is some sorrowful memory of the past which thus disturbs you. Will you not tell me what it is? You have never spoken to me of your past life; yet I remember having heard my mother say, long ago, that your youth had been blighted by some fearful misfortune. If it is not too painful, will you tell me about it? I feel that I can sympathize with you, though, before this illness, I have hardly known sorrow or pain."
Lucy's face was turned from me as I spoke; but when I concluded, she arose, and approaching the bed, stooped and kissed me. Then, without saying a word, she buried her face in the pillow, and gave way to an uncontrollable burst of tears. Surprised and grieved that I should have caused such pain to that dear friend, who, under all previous circumstances, had seemed calm and self-controlled, I mingled my tears with hers, beseeching her forgiveness, and endeavoring to soothe her by the gentlest words. But the repressed sorrows of years, had found vent in tears which could not at once be checked. After a long time, however, her sobs ceased, and when, at length, she raised her face, nothing but the mournful expression of her moistened eye told of the conflict which, of late, had raged so fiercely in her soul.
"Forgive, my dear young friend," said she, "these tears which may have seemed to reproach your kindness. On this day, the anniversary of my bitter trials, a word recalls their memory; but believe me, your gentle expressions of sympathy alone could have unsealed the fountain of my grief. But I will tell you the story of my youth, and then you will cease to wonder at my occasional hours of sadness or even violent grief.
"When the month of June, 1832, was ushered in, I, like you now, was young, and lived with my parents in a luxurious home; but, unlike you, I had one great sorrow. I had been long engaged to William Alleine, a young clergyman, who had devoted his life to the work of a missionary. We were to have been married on the first of June, and to have gone out to India as missionaries. But William was in declining health. A cold, taken during the previous winter, while in the exercise of church duties, had preyed upon a delicate constitution, and it was now feared that that scourge of northern climates, consumption, had marked him for its prey. At the time appointed for our marriage and embarking, he was too ill to leave his room, and the ship sailed without us.
"You may well believe that it was a bitter trial to this noble young man, full of earnest enthusiasm in the cause he had espoused, to be thus cut short in a career which promised to be one of more than ordinary usefulness. But he bowed meekly to his Maker's will, with scarcely a murmur at the blighting of all his hopes. But with little of his child-like confidence in our heavenly Father — I rose in fierce rebellion at this unexpected disappointment. Alas! how little did I dream of the sorrows yet in store for me! or how soon my proud heart would be humbled by repeated afflictions!
"William's father lived at Southbridge, six miles from my own home, and there, at an early hour, I was summoned on the 16th of June. William was very ill, the old servant said. He had broken a blood-vessel in his lungs during the previous night, and, believing that his hours were numbered, he earnestly desired to see me.
"I had returned from Southbridge but a few days before, and left him apparently better — so much so, that we had planned a quiet marriage as soon as he would be able to ride over to us. For this I was, if possible, more anxious than himself, that I might gain the sweet privilege of being his constant nurse. Thus when I saw Mr. Alleine's carriage drive to the gate, I ran eagerly down the path, expecting to see dear William alight from it. Judge then of my disappointment at the intelligence I received.
"Making my preparations with tearful haste, I was soon on my way, and anxiously urging greater speed. The journey seemed interminable, but we arrived at last, and springing from the carriage, I soon stood by the bedside of my dying William. The bed, for freer circulation of air, was drawn to the center of the room. Opposite to it was the vine-covered window which opened into the garden, from whence rose the perfume of countless flowers, the busy hum of bees from the quaint old bee-hive in its sunniest nook, and the song of birds from out the branches of the magnificent Chestnut trees which, even in the sultriest noon, threw their cooling shadows upon the house. Without, all was life and joy; within, gloom and the shadow of death.
"There lay William, but how changed! The pallid brow, the sunken eye, the labored breath — all told how swift were the strides which the destroyer was taking with his victim. But a holy calm sat on brow and lip, for to him death had no terrors. A bright smile beamed on his pale face as he saw me, and he feebly raised his arms to clasp my neck as I knelt beside him and wept with grief that would not be controlled.
"'Weep not, my beloved one,' he said, in feeble accents; 'mourn not, my Lucy, our parting will not be long, and we shall meet above. Gladly would I have lived to have passed the years with you here; but God wills otherwise, and let us not repine. Grieve not, Lucy, that He is so soon taking me from this world where poison lurks in every cup, where danger follows our footsteps in every path, and where the blight of sin is on all we hold most dear.'
"With a violent effort I controlled the manifestations of my sorrow. But it was his office to cheer me; the words of the dying, infused courage into the heart that was so soon to be left alone. But few more words passed between us, for, exhausted by the violent hemorrhage and long suffering, he needed sleep to refresh him for the farewells which soon must take place. I passed my arm beneath his head, and, after a glance of undying affection from those glorious eyes which had always beamed with love for me — he closed them in a soft slumber, as peaceful as an infant's upon its mother's bosom. His sleep was long, and when he awoke, the shadows of evening were falling, and the honeysuckle at the window had filled the room with the rich fragrance that twilight dews always win from its perfumed chalices. It seemed the fitting incense to bear the pure soul to Heaven.
"This slumber had been refreshing, and William was able to converse with his parents and every member of the household. Never will anything connected with that evening fade from the memory of those who stood around that death-bed, and listened to his inspired words. His glorious intellect, almost cleared from the dull film of mortality, grappled with ideas seemingly too great for human utterance; and his words fell upon the ear solemnly, as 'oracles from beyond the grave.' Never had the lamp of his affections burned brighter. As dear, exceedingly, as the loved ones who now surrounded him had ever been, in this hour words failed to express his affection for them. And as his eye, full of love, wandered over the circle, each felt that the bond which connected our spirits was one which would endure to all eternity. He spoke at intervals for several hours, but at length fell into a quiet slumber, and all, except his parents and myself, departed to seek repose. He awoke again at midnight, and with kind consideration, entreated his aged and grief-worn parents to seek the rest which they so much needed.
"'Lucy will remain with me,' he said, in answer to his mother's remonstrances; 'she is young, and will not feel the loss of sleep, while watching will make you ill, mother. And do not fear to leave me, for Lucy is the gentlest and kindest of nurses.'
"Left alone, hours of sweet communion ensued between myself and William. He seemed much better. He felt, as he said, no pain, and at times his voice rang out full, clear, and harmonious, as in health. He spoke of our early love, hallowed as it was by many pleasant memories, and besought me not to allow the current of my affections, thus suddenly checked, to return and create bitterness at their source; but, rather, that I should permit it to flow out in widening channels, till it should embrace all who needed love or kindness, and till its blessed waters should create fresh fertility in desert hearts, and cause flowers to bloom by desolate firesides. His apparent ease lulled me into security, and I almost hoped his life would be prolonged. At any rate, his words gave me courage to live and perform my appointed work, and to await with patience, our reunion in Heaven.
"After a time, he was silent, and lay motionless with closed eyes. Alarmed by his death-like stillness, I arose and knelt beside his pillow to listen to his breathing. He moved slightly as my lips touched his, and murmured, as I thought, a few incoherent words of prayer.
"I remembered no more, till I awoke with a startle an hour after, and found the gray light of early dawn struggling with the dying flame of the lamps in the room, and the morning breeze blowing chill through the open windows. But colder still was the cheek against which mine rested. I sprang to my feet, and gazed earnestly at the pale, upturned face. Alas! it was the face of the dead!
"Oh, the agony of that moment! With a wild, thrilling shriek, the wail of a breaking heart, I sank fainting upon the floor!
"It was a long time before consciousness returned, and then my first thought went back to that dying scene. I attempted to rise, but still faint, I fell back upon the pillow. But, after a time, strength returned, and I arose and returned to William's room. A long, white object lay in the center of the room, for hours had passed and his remains had been prepared for the grave. It was long before I could summon courage to look upon the face of the dead; but at length I raised the snowy linen that covered it, and all my wild, rebellious feelings were rebuked by the calm and placid smile which rested upon those features, to which even death could not impart rigidity. It told of peace and perfect joy, and, as I gazed, there grew in my soul a sweet calm and resignation.
"I sat many hours with the grief-stricken parents, beside that shrouded form. Noon came and passed, and the day was waning to its close, when a messenger arrived from my home, and I was summoned from my mournful vigil to meet him in the hall. He was a stranger, but his face expressed sympathy.
"'It grieves me much, Miss Latimer,' said he, 'to be the bearer of unpleasant tidings, more especially as I have just learned the sad event which has occurred here.
'But I am directed by Dr. Sutemeyer to summon you to your parents, who are both attacked by the cholera, which, within the last twenty-four hours, has appeared in our city. My carriage is at the door, and I will return as soon as you are ready.'
"I listened like one entranced. William dead — and my parents perhaps dying! Yet I had left them in health but a day ago. I must fly to them, yet could I leave the dear remains of William? But I thought of his words of the preceding night, and they gave me courage. With desperate calmness, I ascended to the room of death, pressed my last kiss on William's cold brow, bade farewell to the bereaved parents, and in a few moments found myself retracing the road I had traveled yesterday on a similar errand.
"Such was the wild tumult of my thoughts, that I scarcely noted the lapse of time before I reached my home. The sun had set, and in the dim twilight, the house looked very desolate. There were no lights in the windows, no sounds from the open doors, for all had fled on the first alarm of the pestilence. In the hall I was met by Dr. Sutemeyer. He was our family physician; I had known him from my childhood, and never before had he met me without a smile. But now he looked grave and very sad, and I knew that my fears had not exaggerated the reality. I would have rushed past him, but he detained me.
"'Tell me,' said I, 'if they live. Let me go to them at once. Do not retain me!'
"But the good doctor still held my hand.
"'Summon all your fortitude, my dear child,' said he. 'Can you bear to hear that your father is dead?'
"'My father!' I shrieked. 'Oh, do not tell me he is dead! And my mother! — let me go to them. Do not detain me! — I will be calm, indeed I will!' I continued, as I saw the look of hesitation on the good doctor's face.
"His strong arm aided me up the staircase, and in a moment more, I stood beside the corpse of my beloved father. Still cold and pale he lay, whom but two days since I had left in perfect health. Could it be that his pious, loving smile would never rest on me more, or his kind voice greet my ear?
"But a moment I lingered there, for he was beyond my aid, and my mother's moan smote my ear reproachfully from the next room. In vain I sprang to her relief; in vain I called her by every endearing name; in vain were all my cares. An hour after I entered the house — I was an orphan! During all the watches of that terrible night, I sat alone by the dead bodies of my parents — utterly alone, for even the good doctor had departed to the bedsides of new sufferers. In the early morning they were laid in the churchyard, and when I returned to my splendid but now desolate home, I felt that no tie now bound me to my race.
"For days and weeks, the dull apathy of despair rested upon my soul, and I wandered about my once cheerful home without aim or employment. During all this time, the disease which had made me an orphan, was walking with fearful strides over the land. Our beautiful city had become one vast charnel-house. Day and night the death-carts with their dreadful burden went on their mournful way to the burying-places. Happy firesides were fast becoming desolate, and, at length, the universal wail of sorrow pierced even the dull apathy which had fallen upon me. I roused myself, and went forth among the sick. I stood, day by day, by the bedside of the pestilence-stricken. I wiped the death-sweat from pallid brows; I bathed the convulsed limbs; I prepared the healing draught — and many an eye gazed upon me with gratitude in the hour of suffering. I found my reward springing up amidst my exertions, for, in ministering to the sufferings of others — my own were lessened. I blessed the dying words of William, which had pointed me to an antidote to my own grief, so unselfish, and so complete.
"At length the summer of 1832 drew to its close, and the pestilence raged no more among us. But my attendance upon the sick had introduced to my notice many cases of want. My sphere of duty was ample, nor has it ever lessened, and I still find my happiness in contributing to that of others. My days and years glide calmly on, and I await in patience, the time when I shall rejoin my loved ones in a world where there is neither sorrow nor parting."
She ceased — but her simple story had left its impression. I drew from it juster views of life and human responsibility. It has left me wiser, if not better, and so I trust it will leave my readers.