The Gentle Warning
By Timothy Shay Arthur, 1853
"Do not accept the offer, Florence!" said her friend Carlotti.
A shadow of disappointment went over the face of the fair girl, who had just communicated the pleasing fact that she had received an offer of marriage.
"You cannot be happy as the wife of Herman Leland," added Carlotti.
"How little do you know my heart," returned the fond girl.
"No, it is because I know it so well, that I say what I do. If your love is poured out for Herman Leland, Florence--it will be as water on the desert sand."
"Why do you affirm this, Carlotti?"
"A woman can truly love only the moral virtue of her husband."
"I do not clearly understand you."
"It is only genuine goodness of heart which conjoins in marriage."
"Just so far as selfish and evil affections find a place in the mind of either the husband or wife--will be the ratio of unhappiness in the marriage state. If there is any truth in morals, be assured that this is so. It is neither intellectual attainments nor personal attractions which make happiness in marriage. Far, very far from it. All depends upon the quality of the moral virtues. If these are good--happiness will come as a natural consequence; but if they are evil--misery will inevitably follow so close a union."
"Then you affirm that Mr. Leland is an evil-minded man?"
"Neither of us know him well enough to say this positively, Florence. Judging from what little I have seen, I would call him a selfish man; and no selfish man can be a good man, for selfishness is the basis of all evil."
"I am afraid you are prejudiced against him, Carlotti."
"If I have had any prejudices in the matter, Florence, they have been in his favor. Well-educated, refined in his manners, and variously accomplished--he creates, on nearly all minds, a favorable impression. Such an impression did I at first feel. But the closer I drew near to him, the less satisfied did I feel with my first judgment. On at least two occasions, I have heard him speak lightly of true religion."
"Of mere sectarianism, perhaps."
"No; he once spoke lightly of a mother for making it a point to require all her children to repeat their prayers before going to bed. On another occasion, he alluded to one of the sacraments of the church in a way that produced an inward shudder. From that time, I have looked at him with eyes from which the scales have been removed; and the more I seek to penetrate beneath the surface of his character, the more do I see what repels me. Florence, dear, let me urge you, as one who tenderly loves you and earnestly desires to see you happy--to weigh the matter well, before you assent to this proposal."
"I'm afraid, Carlotti," said Florence in reply to this, "that you have let small causes influence your feelings toward Mr. Leland. We all speak lightly, at times, even on subjects regarded as sacred--not because we despise them, but from casual thoughtlessness. It was, no doubt, so with Mr. Leland on the occasion to which you refer."
"We are rarely mistaken, Florence," replied Carlotti, "as to the real sentiment involved in the words used by those with whom we converse. Words are the expressions of thoughts, and these the form of affections. What a man really feels in reference to any subject, will generally appear in the tones of his voice, no matter whether he speaks lightly or seriously. Depend upon it, this is so. It was the manner in which Leland spoke, which satisfied me as to his real feelings, more than the language he used. Judging him in this way, I am well convinced that, in his heart, he despises true religion; and no man who does this, can possibly make a right-minded woman happy."
The gentle warning of Carlotti was not wholly lost on Florence. She had great confidence in the judgment of her friend, and did not feel that it would be right to wholly disregard her admonitions.
"What answer can I make?" said she, drawing a long sigh. "He urges an early response to his suit."
"Duty to yourself, Florence, demands a time for consideration. Marriage is a thing of too vital consequence to be decided upon hurriedly. Say to him in reply, that his offer is unexpected, and that you cannot give an immediate answer, but will do so at the earliest possible moment."
"So cold a response, may offend him."
"If it does, then he will exhibit a weakness of character unfitting him to become the husband of a sensible woman. If he is really attracted by your good qualities, he will esteem you the more for this act of prudence. He will understand that you set a high regard upon the marriage relation, and do not mean to enter into it unless you know well the person to whom you commit your happiness in this world, and, in all probability, the next."
"A coldly calculating spirit, Carlotti, which closely weighs and balances the merits and defects of one beloved, is, in my view, hardly consonant with true happiness in marriage. All have defects of character. All are born with evil inclinations of one kind or another. Love seeks only for good in the object of affection. Affinities of this kind are almost spontaneous in their birth. We love more from impulse than from any clear appreciation of character--perceiving good qualities by a kind of instinct, rather than searching for them."
"A doctrine, Florence," said Carlotti, "which has produced untold misery in the married life! As I said at first, it is only the moral virtue of her husband that a woman can love--it is only this, as a uniting principle, which can make two married partners one. The qualities of all minds, express themselves in words and actions--and, by a close observance of these latter, we may determine the nature of the former. We cannot perceive them with sufficient clearness to arrive at a sound judgment: the only safe method is to determine the character of the tree--by its fruits. Take sufficient time to arrive at a knowledge of Mr. Leland's character by observation, and then you can accept or reject him under the fullest assurance that you are acting wisely."
"Perhaps you are right," murmured Florence. "I will weigh carefully what you have said."
And she did so. Much to the disappointment of Mr. Leland, he received a reply from Florence asking a short time for reflection.
When Florence next met the young man, there was, as a natural consequence, some slight embarrassment on both sides. On separating, Florence experienced a certain unfavorable impression toward him, although she could not trace it to anything he had said or done. At their next meeting, Leland's reserve had disappeared, and he exhibited a better flow of spirits. He was more off his guard than usual, and said a good many things that rather surprised Florence.
Impatient of delay, Leland again pressed his suit; but Florence was further than ever, from being ready to give an answer. She was not prepared to reject him, and as little prepared to give a favorable answer. Her request to be allowed further time for consideration, wounded his pride; and, acting under its influence, he determined to have his revenge on her by suing for the hand of another maiden, and bearing her to the altar, while she was hesitating over the offer he had made. With this purpose in view, he penned a kind and polite note, approving her deliberation, and desiring her to take the fullest time for reflection. "Marriage," said he, in this note, "is too serious a matter to be decided upon hastily. It is a life-union, and the parties who make it, should be well satisfied that there exists a mutual fitness for each other."
Two days passed after Florence received this note, before seeing her friend Carlotti. She then called upon her in order to have further conversation on the subject of the proposal she had received. The tenor of this note had produced a favorable change in her feelings, and she felt strongly disposed to make a speedy termination of the debate in her mind, by accepting her attractive suitor.
"Are you not well?" was her first remark on seeing Carlotti, for her friend looked pale and troubled.
"Not very well, dear," replied Carlotti, making an effort to assume a cheerful aspect.
The mind of Florence was too intent on the one interesting subject which occupied it, to linger long on any other theme. But a short time elapsed before she said, with a warmer glow on her cheeks--
"I believe I have made up my mind, Carlotti."
"The offer of Mr. Leland."
"Well, what is your decision?" Carlotti held her breath for an answer.
"I will accept him."
Without replying, Carlotti arose, and going to a drawer, took therefrom a letter addressed to herself and handing it to Florence, said--
There was something ominous in the manner of Carlotti, which caused Florence to become agitated. Her hands trembled as she unfolded the letter. It bore the date of the day previous, and read thus--
"My Dear Carlotti: From the first moment I saw you, I felt that you were the one destined to make me happy or miserable. Your image has been present to me, sleeping or waking, ever since. I can turn in no way that your image is not before me. The oftener I have met you, the more have I been charmed by the gentleness, the sweetness, the purity, and excellence of your character. With you to walk through life by my side--I feel that my feet would tread a flowery way; but if Heaven has not this blessing in store for me, I shall be, of all men, most miserable. My heart is too full to write more. And have I not said enough? Love speaks in brief but eloquent language. Dear young lady, let me hear from you speedily. I shall be wretched until I know your decision. Heaven give my suit a favorable issue!
Yours, devotedly, Herman Leland."
A deadly paleness overspread the countenance of Florence as the letter dropped from her hands; and she leaned back against her friend to prevent falling to the floor. But, in a little while, she recovered herself.
"And this to you?" said she, with a quivering lip, as she gazed earnestly into the face of her friend.
"Yes, Florence, that to me."
"Can I trust my own senses? Is this not some dream? Let me look at it again."
And Florence stooped for the letter, and fixed her eyes upon it once more. The language was plain, and the handwriting she knew too well.
"False-hearted!" she murmured, in a low and mournful voice, covering her face and sobbing.
"Yes, Florence," said her friend, "he is false-hearted. How thankful am I, that you have escaped! Evidently in revenge for your prudent deliberation, he has sought an alliance with another. Had that other one accepted his heartless proposal, he would have met your favorable answer to his suit with insult."
For a long time, Florence wept on the bosom of her friend. Then her feelings grew calmer, and her mind became clear.
"What an escape!" fell from her lips as she raised her head and turned her still pale face toward Carlotti. "Thanks, my wiser friend, for your timely, yet gentle warning! Your eyes saw deeper than mine."
"Yes, yes; you have made an escape!" said Carlotti. "With such a man--your life could only have been wretched."
"Have you answered his letter?" asked Florence.
"Not yet. But if you are inclined to do so, we will, on the same sheet of paper and in the same envelope, each decline the honor of an alliance. Such a rebuke he deserves, and we ought to give it!"
And such a rebuke they gave.
A few months later, and Leland led to the altar a young lady reputed to be an heiress.
A year afterward, just on the eve of Florence's marriage to a gentleman in every way worthy to take her happiness in his keeping, she sat alone with her fast friend Carlotti. They were conversing of the bright future.
"And for all this joy in store for me, Carlotti," said Florence, leaning toward her friend and laying her hand affectionately on her cheek, "I am indebted to you."
"To me? How to me, dear?" asked Carlotti.
"You saved me from an alliance with Leland. Oh, into what an abyss of wretchedness would I have fallen! I heard today that, after cruelly abusing poor Agnes in Charleston, where they moved--Leland finally abandoned her. Can it be true?"
"It is, I believe, too true. Agnes came back to her friends last week, bringing with her a babe. I have not seen her; but those who have tell me that her story of suffering makes the heart ache! She looks ten years older!"
"Ah me!" sighed Florence. "Marriage--how much it involves! Even now, as I stand at its threshold, with so much that looks bright in the future, I tremble. Of Edward's excellent character and goodness of heart, all bear testimony. He is everything I could wish; but will I make him happy?"
"Not all you could wish," said Carlotti, seriously. "None are perfection here on earth--and you must not expect this. You will find, in your husband's character, faults. Anticipate this; but let the anticipation prepare you to bear with rather than be hurt when they appear, and do not seek too soon to correct them. Instead, explore his mind for the good it contains, and seek to develop and strengthen it. Looking intently at what is good in him, you will not be likely to see faults looming up and assuming a magnitude beyond their real dimensions. But when faults appear, as they assuredly will, compare them with your own; and, as you would have him exercise forbearance toward you--exercise forbearance toward him. Be wise in your love, my friend. Wisdom and love are married partners. If you separate them, neither is a safe guide. But if you keep them united, like a rower who pulls both oars, you will glide swiftly forward in a smooth sea."
Florence bent her head as she listened, and every word of her friend made its impression. Long after, were they remembered and acted upon, and they saved her from hours of pain.
Florence is a happy wife; but how near did she come to making shipwreck of her love-freighted heart! There are times when, in thinking of it, she trembles.