Poor Cousin Eunice
By Timothy Shay Arthur, 1861
"I have a letter from Windham," said Mr. Gregory. It was nearly five minutes after he had come in, one cold Saturday evening in November. A fire had been made up in the dining-room, and his wife and two oldest daughters, Harriet and Lizzy, were sitting in its congenial glow when he entered, and joined the circle that opened to receive him.
"No. Helen is dead."
There was surprise, but no sorrow in the voices that uttered and echoed the word--"Dead."
"Yes, she died last Monday."
"Who is the letter from--cousin Eunice?" asked Mrs. Gregory.
"No; it is from Judge Hemming."
"Ah! Why did he write?"
"I don't know."
"What does he say?"
"He simply mentions the fact that Helen died last Monday, and was interred on Wednesday; and that Eunice is, for the present, at his house."
"At the judges house!" There was a tone of surprise in the voice of Mrs. Gregory.
"Is she going to stay there?"
"I infer not. Had any such arrangement been made, or in contemplation, the judge would have said so. She is there only temporarily, I infer--that is, until we send for her."
"O dear, dear father, don't do that!" said Harriet, visibly disturbed at this suggestion.
"We don't want Eunice here," added Lizzy, the second daughter.
"We can't have her," said Mrs. Gregory, positively.
"She has no other living relatives," remarked Mr. Gregory, "and it will not look well for us to turn away from the poor orphan. We cannot wholly disregard appearances. She is now at Judge Hemming's, and it is evident that the judge, out of respect to us, took interest enough in Eunice to give her a home until we could make arrangements to receive her."
"I wish he hadn't meddled himself in the affair," remarked Mrs. Gregory, in no amiable tone of voice. "Eunice is nothing to us."
"She is your brother's child," said her husband, with enough of rebuke in his voice to indicate his better feelings on the subject about which they were talking in such a heartless manner.
"No matter. When he married Helen Leeds, he put a distance between us that was never diminished; and when he died, I held his widow as a stranger."
Mr. Gregory did not answer to this. He had a kinder heart, and it had been warming toward the motherless little girl ever since the reception of Judge Hemming's letter.
The brother of Mrs. Gregory had married, in the view of that lady, socially below his family position; and as Mrs. Gregory was simply a woman of the world, she never gave his wife countenance or favor. His death occurred some years before the period at which our story commences; and now, by the death of his widow--their only child, a daughter in her eighteenth year, was left alone in the world, and penniless. No wonder that a woman like Mrs. Gregory should feel bothered. If Judge Hemming had not received Eunice into his family, nor written to her husband giving information of the sister-in-law's death--the case would have presented a better aspect. Some provision might have been made for the girl in her native place; but now, respect for the good opinion of Judge Hemming and the circle in which he moved, demanded of them such a recognition of Eunice as would place her side by side with their own daughters. In other words, she must be taken into their family.
Mr. Gregory answered the judge's letter, and enclosed one for Eunice, in which he offered her a home. The letter to Eunice was brief, but kind and sincere. In the course of a week there came a reply from the girl, thanking Mr. Gregory for his offer of a home, and saying that she would be in Boston within a two weeks. She asked to be lovingly remembered to her aunt and cousins, adding that it would have been grateful to her feelings, to have received a letter from one of them.
"Harriet," said Mr. Gregory, "you must write to your cousin. It isn't kind!"
"Indeed, father, you must excuse me," answered the young lady, in a cold, proud manner. "I have nothing to say!"
"You could say a kind word to a motherless girl. Think of her lonely, sorrowful condition. It should fill your heart with tenderness and pity."
But Mr. Gregory could make no impression on the proud, unfeeling girl, who was wholly influenced by her mother's estimate of the case.
At the end of a two weeks, cousin Eunice arrived.
Mr. Gregory met her at the railway station. He had not seen her for five years, but recognized her in a moment by the large, dark, chestnut brown eyes which he had thought so beautiful in her mother. Her reception, when he presented her at home, was not cordial. The aunt and cousins scarcely veiled their reluctance at receiving her, with a decent politeness. They pushed her away from them to the utmost distance in their power, and she moved back, instinctively, at the pressure, and stood afar off--not in tearful submission to her fate, nor in proud defiance--but in such calm, womanly dignity, that her aunt and cousins were puzzled in their efforts to make up an estimate of her character.
She had disappointed them. Her picture, in their minds, had been that of an ordinary looking girl--plain, uninteresting, shrinking--a nobody whom they could snub, and slight, and insult at will. But, instead, Eunice came among them dignified in manner, and impressive in person and bearing. Her face was lovely, rather than plain, and her eyes large, dark, and of that liquid depth which we sometimes see in eyes that appear looking at us from a far distance, and that hold us with a power which we can neither define nor break.
As we said, at the first meeting Mrs. Gregory and her daughters pushed Eunice away from them with a cold repulsion to which her sensitive, but womanly spirit, yielded instantly, and she took her position at such a distance that they were never able to get near her afterward. She was not one to snub, and slight, and insult at will--as they had imagined. O no! There was a tone and an air about her which forbade this. They could be cold and formal, but not insolent--for the calm dignity of her manner, her self-poise, and self-consciousness, repressed rudeness and enforced respect. She never intruded conversation on her aunt and cousins, but often talked with Mr. Gregory when in their presence, in a way to surprise and shame them--the shame being for their own mental inferiority.
As Eunice was in mourning, there was a good reason why she did not see company, and her presence in the Gregory family was scarcely known in their circle of visiting acquaintances. Occasionally she was seen by one and another of their more intimate friends, and when questions were asked in regard to her, she was slightingly referred to as a poor relative to whom they had given a home.
Nearly six months had passed since Eunice came into her uncle's family, and she was almost as much a stranger there as on the day of her entrance. Mr. and Mrs. Gregory were sitting alone one evening, about this time, when Eunice came down from her room and joined them. Mr. Gregory met her with his usual kind manner, Mrs. Gregory with her usual distant politeness. She had, evidently, come with the purpose of talking to them on some matter concerning herself, and she did not keep them waiting.
"For your kindness," she began, with a slight unsteadiness in her voice, which soon grew calm, "in giving me a home up to this time, I shall ever be grateful. I would not have intruded upon you so long, if heart and brain had been strong enough for the work of self-support. Both are strong enough now, I believe, and I have made my arrangements to leave you next week."
"Leave us, Eunice? I don't understand you! For where, and for what?" Mrs. Gregory spoke in real surprise.
"I am going into Miss Barton's school as a teacher," calmly answered the girl.
"No, Eunice," said Mr. Gregory, "you shall do nothing of the kind. You have a home here, and are welcome. What has possessed you to think of such a thing?"
"I have never intended, Uncle, to burden you with my support," Eunice replied. "Your kind offer of a home I accepted gratefully, while my heart was too heavy with its recent sorrow to bear me out in the world. I am stronger now, and independence is a native element of my character."
"In Miss Barton's school!" exclaimed Mrs. Gregory, giving voice at length, to her astonishment.
"Yes, ma'am," answered Eunice.
"Where Lisette goes?"
"No--never!" she said firmly. "I'm not going to have my niece a teacher in that school. No--nor in any school in Boston!"
"Why not?" asked Eunice.
"Are you beside herself!" said Mrs. Gregory.
"You must reconsider this whole matter," said Mr. Gregory. "I'm sorry it was not mentioned before. Have you really engaged with Miss Barton?"
"My niece! Such a disgrace!" ejaculated Mrs. Gregory, carried away by her feelings. "What will be thought of this?"
"I will call on Miss Barton, and cancel the engagement," said Mr. Gregory, in the kindest manner. "I regret that you have not felt at home here, but we will try to make things more agreeable. Don't think that you are a burden to us."
"Uncle Gregory," replied Eunice, "I settled this matter long ago. I am too self-reliant and too just, I hope, to live in idle dependence. Since I have been here, I have tried to make myself useful, and to repay your generous kindness in all ways which were in my power. It has been done inadequately, I know--but the heart of gratitude was there, and it will never cease to beat. Now I must go, as I have said."
Remonstrance and persuasion were alike unavailing. At the time specified, Eunice left her uncle's house, and assumed the duties of a teacher in Miss Barton's school--greatly to the scandal and mortification of Mrs. Gregory and her daughters, and greatly to the satisfaction of Eunice's own independent mind. The six months she had spent in her uncle's family had been months of painful humiliation, and the time was only prolonged to this period for the reason which has been given.
Among the visiting acquaintances of the Gregory's home, was a young man named Edmondson. He was a lawyer, whose talents had already attracted public notice, and of whom almost everyone predicted a brilliant future. A small fortune had come to him recently, from a distant relative. His talents, person, prospects, and fortune--moderate though it was--gave an aggregate of attractions that made him of no slight consideration in the eyes of Mrs. Gregory, who thought him just the man of all others, whom she would like to see the husband of Harriet.
In consequence, she was always very gracious to him, and never let a good opportunity for turning his thought toward this daughter pass unimproved. Harriet, in common parlance, was quite in love with him--that is, as much so as was possible for a girl so selfish, worldly, and heartless, to be. He filled her fancy better than any other man she had yet seen. His fortune was not large, but his family was good, and he had talents that were likely to command fortune. Moreover, there were distant relatives possessing large wealth, and the probabilities, it had been reasoned among the Gregory's, were largely in favor of his sharing a portion of this wealth in time.
"What happened to that brown-eyed niece of yours, Mrs. Gregory?" asked Mr. Edmondson , one day; "I haven't seen her in some time."
"She is not with us any longer," replied Mrs. Gregory. Her manner told the young man that he had touched a disagreeable subject.
"Ah! I was not aware that she had left you."
Mrs. Gregory said nothing more; but the impression on Mr. Edmondson was unfavorable to Eunice. Sometime afterward, a thought of this girl passing through his mind, he said to a lady with whom he happened to be conversing, "Did you ever see a young lady in black at Mr. Gregory's?"
"Yes. A dark-eyed, elegant-looking girl, with something queenly in her manner."
"O, yes. I've met her there occasionally."
"She always seemed to hold herself at a distance."
"That was her manner."
"Was there anything wrong about her?"
"Why do you ask?"
"I inferred as much, from the aspect of Mrs. Gregory, when I inquired about her not long ago."
"Ah! Then you asked after her? What reply did you receive?"
"The unsatisfactory one, that she did not reside with them any longer. From her manner, I inferred that there was something wrong with the young lady."
"Would you like to know of that something wrong?"
"It gives me no pleasure, to hear wrong of anyone: but, in the few times that I saw her, the girl interested me, and I would, therefore, like to know the truth in regard to her."
"She left the house of her uncle and aunt, to become a teacher in Miss Barton's school," said the lady.
"Because she had too much independent spirit to eat the bread of dependence."
"Is that so?" There was a quick lighting up of Mr. Edmondson's face.
"And is there nothing wrong beyond this?"
"Nothing that I have heard. Against her purity of character, slander, I take it, dare not even whisper. And Miss Barton says, that in sweetness of temper, womanly dignity, self-reliance, and Christian patience in the discharge of duty--she is peerless."
"I like all that!" replied the young man, with enthusiasm. "Here we have a real woman--not a weak, selfish, proud, indolent, spoiled nursling of a luxurious home, reared by as weak and selfish a mother, and kept in laces and satins, and pillowed on down--for some silly man who is weak enough to take her, in the hope of getting a wife! Of what use to anyone in this world of care, sorrow, trial, reverses, and disappointments--is a silly doll like that? He is a fool, who tries the voyage of life with such a helpless companion. I pity him when the sky darkens, and the storms fall! The niece, I infer, was poor."
"Yes. A brother of Mrs. Gregory married a girl whose position in life did not suit her high notions; and so neither himself nor wife had any countenance with her. The brother died some years ago, and his widow, a true and good woman, as I have learned, struggled alone with poverty, to raise and educate her daughter. She died, after well accomplishing her work. The Gregory's then offered Eunice a home. They were written to, I believe, by Judge Hemming, of Windham; and she was taken into their family, as I infer, merely to save appearances."
"Why, a girl like this one is worth a hundred idle fashionables!" said Mr. Edmondson. "I must know her."
"Win her and wear her, if you can, my young friend," said the lady. "But such as she are not lightly won. Fruit of this quality does not hang low, but on the higher branches; and those who pluck it, must climb."
"Thank you for the hint," replied the young man. "I will climb."
A few months afterward, Mrs. Gregory received this note from Miss Barton: "Dear Madam: I think it is my duty to inform you that a gentleman, Mr. Harvey Edmondson, is in the habit of visiting your niece frequently; and they are often out together in the evening. I have spoken to her once or twice on the subject, but have not received answers that were altogether satisfactory. I have every confidence in her as a pure, good girl; and yet, as I cannot feel sure of Mr. Edmondson's honorable intentions, I am naturally concerned. As her nearest relative, I think it best that you should be advised of the facts as they exist."
There was considerable stir among the Gregory's, on receipt of this letter. The worst was inferred by all; no, not by all, for Mr. Gregory's thought went first to the truth, though it wavered a little under the unwavering conclusions of his wife. What was to be done? With Eunice, they could have no influence; for, since the step which had made her a teacher, instead of an idle dependent, there had been no fellowship between them. As a mere teacher, she could not be received by them as an equal and friend--and she would not meet them on any other footing. So, she could not be admonished or controlled. The only mode of interference suggested, was that of Mr. Gregory, as directed upon the young man himself. Mrs. Gregory insisted upon it, that her husband should caution the young lawyer against any further advance in that direction. She remembered how she had herself given Mr. Edmondson the impression there was something wrong about Eunice; and now conscience--no, a dread of family disgrace in the person of her niece--troubled her considerably. It was plain to her, that she had herself put the destroyer on the track of her niece.
"Have you seen Mr. Edmondson yet?" she asked, almost daily, of her husband. But Mr. Gregory, whose anxieties on the subject had never been very disturbing, invariably said no.
About this time, cards of invitation were received from a family of high social standing in the city--a family whose position was not based on wealth, but on something harder to acquire, and more enduring. The Gregory's were flattered by the notice taken of them in this invitation, and were at special pains, like all vulgar people, to make an imposing appearance on the occasion.
The company was not large, but select; and, certainly, Mrs. Gregory and her two daughters did make an appearance. There was no other such display of costly laces and jewels in the room. The guests were in two large parlors, opening into each other by folding doors. Soon after the arrival of the Gregory's, Mr. Edmondson moved through the room in which they sat, and seeing them, joined their circle. There was nothing of coldness or reserve on the part of Mrs. Gregory or her daughters, toward the man whose apparent relation with respect to their niece and cousin, was of a questionable character--but a fluttering pleasure that was not concealed. No one who saw the smiles with which he was received, and the pleased affability that was maintained, could have imagined how the case really stood.
Mr. Edmondson was still talking with the Gregory's, when a movement indicated a selection of partners for dancing. The young man, instead of asking Harriet to take a place with him on the floor, merely bowed and withdrew. In a little while, mirthful music filled the air, and beauty wheeled in intertwining circles through the rooms. No one offered a hand to either of the Miss Gregory's, and they sat in some disappointment, where they had taken their places, on entering the parlors. Mr. Edmondson was on the floor, in the other room, but they were not, at first, from their position, able to make out his partner, of whom they could only get fleeting glimpses, as she swept to the outer circles in the mazy figures. They saw that she was tall, beautifully formed, and graceful in her movements, but attired with exceeding plainness. Her face did not happen to be toward them, when her person was seen.
Who was she? That was the one question in their thoughts. The solution came. As the figures took a reverse motion, the faces of the dancers were seen successively, and that of Mr. Edmondson's partner was presented to the eyes of Mrs. Gregory and her daughters, radiant with beauty and feeling.
"What a sweet, pure, lovely face it is," remarked a lady, who had seen the countenance of Mr. Edmondson's partner. She addressed Mrs. Gregory, but received no response. If she had looked closely, she would have noticed a sickly pallor on her face.
"His fiancÚ, I believe," said another lady, turning to the one who had spoken.
"Ah! Is that so?" With some interest.
"Yes, and I admire the manly independence which has determined his choice."
"Why so? It strikes me, judging from the countenance I saw just now, that manly independence could have very little to do with the selection."
"And I presume had not; but we are apt to speak after this fashion, when a young man in his position and with his prospects, selects a poor girl for his life companion--one standing quite alone in the world, and self-dependent."
"And this is her case?"
"Who is she?"
"A Miss Hadley."
"What of her?"
"She is a teacher in Miss Barton's school."
"Yes--and I am told that she chose the life of a teacher, in preference to idle dependence on wealthy relatives who offered her a home."
"Noble girl! I like that!" was the warm-spoken response. "The true woman proved itself there. Our young friend showed good sense, as well as good taste. But, who are these relatives? Do they live in Boston?"
"Yes, but I have not heard their names. They are, as I understand, rich nobodies, who offered her a home to save appearances, but who never countenanced her after she elected independence and a teacher's life."
"And Mr. Edmondson is really going to marry her?"
"O, yes. That is all settled, I hear."
"Then I shall claim her as a friend. Give me the womanly quality, and I will let others content themselves with the effigies of women, elaborately made up, which flutter in our social circles like butterflies, and who are about as substantial as these aerial beings. Money will give you such vain creatures by the hundred; but solid substance-women are of rarer production!"
The Gregory's heard no more, for the two ladies arose and went to another part of the room. But that was quite enough to make their pride, vanity, and self-estimation as limp as a wet ribbon. It was just as the lady had said. Eunice had become the affianced of Mr. Edmondson; and it was in recognition of this, that she was the guest, on that evening, of a lady whose social position was among the first in Boston; and when, in a few months afterward, she became a bride, she passed into a circle of refinement and intelligence which never opened, except specially and in cold formality, to mere butterflies like her aunt and cousins.