Shadows from a Clouded Brow
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1853
A little thing clouded the brow of Mrs. Abercrombie — a very little thing. But if she had known how wide the shadows were often diffused, and how darkly they fell, at times, on some hearts — she would have striven more earnestly, we may believe, to keep the sky of her spirit undimmed.
It will not be uninstructive to note the incidents, in a single day, of Mrs. Abercrombie's life — to mark the early cloud upon her brow, and then to glance at the darkly falling shadows.
Mr. Abercrombie was a man of sensitive feelings, and though he had striven for many years to overcome his sensitiveness, he had been no more able to change this hereditary weakness, than the leopard his spots or the Ethiopian his skin. At home, the lightest jar of discord disturbed him painfully, and often, for many hours. The clouded brow of his wife ever threw his heart into shadow; and the dusky veil was never removed, until sunlight radiated again from her countenance. It was all in vain that he tried to be indifferent to these changeful moods — to keep his spirits above their influence; in the very effort at disenthralment, he was more firmly bound.
From some cause, unknown to her husband, there was a cloud on the brow of Mrs. Abercrombie one morning, as she took her place at the breakfast-table. Mr. Abercrombie was reading, with his usual interest, the newspaper, and the children were sporting in the nursery, when the bell summoned them to the dining-room. All gathered, with pleasant thoughts of good cheer, around the table, and Mr. Abercrombie, after helping the little ones, was about mentioning to his wife some pleasant piece of news which he had just been reading, when, on lifting his eyes to her countenance, he saw that it was clouded. The words died on his lips; a shadow darkened over his feelings, and the meal passed in almost total silence — at least so far as he was concerned. Once or twice he ventured a remark to Mrs. Abercrombie; but the half-fretful tone in which she replied, only disturbed him the more.
Soon the pleasant aspect of the children's countenances changed, and they became faultfinding and irritable. Both parents were fretted at this reaction upon their own states of mind, and manifested, at some slight misconduct on the part of one or two of the children, a degree of ill-nature that instantly transferred itself to those against whom it was directed, and became apparent in their fellowship one with another.
Before summoned from the nursery, these children were playing together in the utmost harmony and good feeling; on returning thereto, the activity of another and far less amiable spirit was manifest; and instead of merry shouts and joyous laughter — angry words and complaining cries sounded through the apartment.
As Mr. Abercrombie left the house, Mrs. Abercrombie entered the nursery, attracted by the notes of discord. Had there been sunshine on her countenance, and firm but gentle remonstrance on her tongue — a quick change would have become apparent. But, before this, the shadows she had thrown around her had darkened the atmosphere of her dwelling, and were now reflected back upon her heart, enshrouding it in deeper gloom. The lack of harmony among her children increased her mental disturbance, obscured her perceptions, and added to her state of irritability. She could not speak calmly to them, nor wisely endeavor to restore the harmony which had been lost. Her words, therefore, while, by their authoritative force, they subdued the storm — left the sky black with clouds which poured down another and fiercer tempest the moment her presence was removed.
But this state of things could not be permitted. The mother reappeared, and, after some hurried inquiries into the cause of disturbance among her children, took for granted the statement of those who were most forward in excusing themselves and accusing others, and unwisely resorted to punishment — unwisely, in the first place, because she decided hastily and from first appearances; and in the second place, because she was in no state of mind to administer punishment. The consequence was, that she punished those least to blame, and thereby did a great wrong. Of this she was made fully aware after it was too late. Then, indignant at the false accusation by which she had been led into the commission of an unjust act, she visited her wrath with undue severity, and in unfitting anger, upon the heads of the real offenders.
By this time, the children were in a state of intimidation. It was plain that their mother was fairly aroused, and each deemed it best to be as quiet and inoffensive as possible. The appearance of harmony being thus restored, Mrs. Abercrombie, whose head and heart were now both throbbing with pain, retired in a most unhappy state of mind to her chamber, where she threw herself into a large chair, feeling unutterably wretched.
And what was the origin of all this discord and misery? Why came that cloud, in the beginning, to the brow of Mrs. Abercrombie — that cloud, whose shadow had already exercised so baleful an influence? The cause was slight, very slight. But do not, fair reader, blame Mrs. Abercrombie too severely, nor say this cause was censurably inadequate. The touch of a feather will hurt an inflamed part. Ah! does not your own experience in life affirm this. Think of the last time the cloud was on your brow, and ask yourself as to the adequacy of the cause.
"But what was the cause?" you inquire. Well, don't smile: a pair of stockings had been sent home for Mrs. Abercrombie, late on the evening previous, and one of her first acts in the morning was to try them on. They did not fit! Now, Mrs. Abercrombie intended to go out on that very morning, and she wished to wear these stockings. "Enough to fret her, I would say!" exclaims one fair reader. "A slight cause, indeed!" says another, tossing her curls.
We crave pardon, gentle ladies all, if, in our estimate of causes, we have spoken too lightly of this. But we have, at least, stated the case fairly. Mrs. Abercrombie's brow was clouded because the new stockings did not fit her fair foot — a member, by the way, of which she was more than a little vain.
For an hour Mrs. Abercrombie remained alone in her chamber, feeling very sad; for, in that time, reflection had come, and she was by no means satisfied with the part she had been playing, nor altogether unconscious of the fact that from her clouded brow, had fallen the shadows now darkening over her household. As soon as she had gained sufficient control of herself to act toward her children more wisely and affectionately, the mother took her place in the nursery, and with a tenderness of manner that acted like a charm, attracted her little ones to her side, and inspired them with a new and better spirit. To them, sunshine was restored again; and the few rays which penetrated to the mother's heart — lighted its dim chambers, and touched it with a generous warmth.
But the shadows from Mrs. Abercrombie's clouded brow fell not alone upon her household. The spirit that pervades the home-circle, is often carried forth by those who go out into the world. It was so in this case. Mr. Abercrombie's feelings were overcast with shadows when he entered the store. There was a pressure, in consequence, upon his bosom, and a state of irritability which he tried, though feebly and ineffectually, to overcome.
"Where is Edward?" he inquired, soon after his arrival.
Edward was a lad, the son of a poor widow, who had recently been employed in Mr. Abercrombie's store.
"He hasn't come in yet," was answered.
"Not come yet?" said Mr. Abercrombie, in a fretful tone.
"This is the third time he has been late within the past week, is it not?"
"Very well — it shall be the last time."
At this moment, the boy came in. Mr. Abercrombie looked at him sternly for a moment, and then said —
"You won't suit me, sir. I took you on trial, and am satisfied. You can go home now!"
The poor lad's face crimsoned instantly, and he tried to say something about his mother's being sick, but Mr. Abercrombie waved his hand impatiently, and told him that he didn't wish to hear any excuse.
Scarcely had the boy left the presence of Mr. Abercrombie, before this hasty action was repented of. But the merchant's pride was strong — he was not the man to acknowledge an error. His word had passed, and could not be recalled. Deeper were the shadows which now fell upon his heart — more fretted the state of mind which supervened.
Ah! the shadows would have been deeper still, could he have seen that unhappy boy a little while afterward, as, with his face buried in the pillow which supported the head of his sick mother, he sobbed until his whole frame quivered. Had Mr. Abercrombie only asked the reason why his appearance at the store was so late on this morning, he would have learned that the delay had been solely occasioned by needful attendance on his sick and almost helpless mother; and on a little further inquiry, humanity would have dictated approval, rather than censure and punishment. But, concerning all this painful consequence of his ill-nature, the merchant knew nothing. How rarely do we become cognizant of the evil wrought upon others, by our hasty and ill-judged actions!
The shadow was still on Mr. Abercrombie's feelings, when, half an hour afterward, a man came to him and said —
"It will be impossible for me to pay the whole of that note today."
"You'll have to do it," was the quiet answer. Mr. Abercrombie frowned darkly as he thus replied.
"Don't say that, Mr. Abercrombie. I only need help to the amount of two hundred dollars."
"I do say it. You must raise the money somewhere else. I don't like this way of doing business. When a man gives his note — he should make it a point of honor to pay it."
"Oh, very well," said the man. "I'm sorry if I've troubled you. I'll get the money from a friend. Good day."
And he turned off abruptly, and left the store. Mr. Abercrombie felt rebuked. He had a large balance in the bank, and could have accommodated him without the smallest inconvenience. In another state of mind, he would have done so cheerfully.
"O dear!" sighed the unhappy merchant, speaking mentally; "what has come over me? I'm losing all control of myself. This will never, never do. I must set a guard upon my lips."
And he did so. Conscious of his state of irritability, he subdued his tones of voice, and restrained utterance when tempted to angry or inconsiderate speech. Not again during the day, was he guilty of such inexcusable conduct as in the instances mentioned; yet the shadow remained upon his feelings, strive as he would to throw off the gloomy impression.
It was late in the day when Mr. Abercrombie turned his steps homeward. How little was he satisfied with himself! And now, when he remembered, with painful distinctness, the clouded brow of his wife — how little promise was there of home-sunlight, to dispel the gloom of his own feelings!
As the hand of the merchant rested upon his own door, he almost dreaded to enter. He shrank from meeting his wife's clouded visage. The shadows were dark when he left in the morning, and experience told him that he need scarcely hope to find them dispelled. Happily, though still in the sky, the clouds were broken, and gleams of sunshine came breaking through. Ah! if they had only possessed sufficient power to disperse the shadows which all day long had been gathering around the heart of Mr. Abercrombie! But that was impossible. Self-respect had been forfeited; and a consciousness of having, in his impatient haste, acted unjustly, haunted his thoughts. And so, the shadows which were not to be dispersed by the feeble sun-rays from the countenance of his wife, gradually diffused themselves, until the light that struggled with them grew pale.
"Did you know," said Mrs. Abercrombie, breaking in upon the oppressive silence that followed, after all had retired for the night but herself and husband, "that the mother of Edward Wilson is very poor and in a decline?"
"I was not aware of it," was the brief response.
"It is so. Mrs. Archer was here this afternoon, and was telling me about them. Mrs. Wilson, who, until within a few weeks past, has been able to earn something, is now so weak that she cannot leave her bed, and is solely dependent on the earnings of her son. How much do you pay him?"
"Only three dollars a week," answered Mr. Abercrombie, shading his face with his hand.
"Only three dollars! How can they live on that? Mrs. Archer says that Edward is one of the best of lads — that he nurses his mother, and cares for her with unfailing tenderness; indeed, he is her only attendant. They are too poor to pay for the services of a doctor. Could you not afford to increase his wages?"
"I might, perhaps," said Mr. Abercrombie, abstractedly, still shading his face.
"I wish you would," was the earnest reply. "It will be a real charity."
Mr. Abercrombie made no response; and his wife pursued the subject no further. But the former lay awake for hours after retiring to bed, pondering the events of the day which had just closed.
The sun had gone down amid clouds and shadows; but the morrow dawned brightly. The brow of Mrs. Abercrombie was undimmed as she met her family at the breakfast-table on the next morning, and every countenance reflected its cheerful light. Even Mr. Abercrombie, who had something on his conscience that troubled him, gave back his portion of the general good feeling. Lighter far was his step as he went forth and took his way to his store. His first act on his arriving there, was, to ease his conscience of the pressure thereon, by sending for Edward Wilson, and restoring him to his place under new and better auspices.
And thus, the shadows passed; yet, not wholly were they expelled. The remembrance of pain abides long after the smarting wound has healed; and the heart which has once been enveloped in shadows, never loses entirely its sense of gloomy oppression. How guarded all should be lest clouds gather upon the brow — for we know not on whose hearts their shadows may fall.