Thistle-down

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856


There is no time like these clear September nights, after sunset, for a revery. If it is a calm evening, and an intense light fills the sky, and glorifies it, and you sit where you can see the new moon, with the magnificent evening star beneath it, you must be rather dull, indeed, if you cannot then dream the most 'heavenly' dreams!

But Rosalie Sherwood, poor young creature, is in no dreaming mood this lovely Sabbath night. Her heart is crushed in such an utter helplessness, as leaves no room in it for hope: her brain is too acutely sensitive, just now, for visions. The thistle-down, in beautiful fairy-like procession, floats on and up before her eyes, and as she watches the frail things, they assume a new interest to her; she feels a human sympathy with them. Like the viewless winds they come, from whence she knows not; and go, where? none can tell. They are homeless, and she is like them; but she is not as they, purposeless.

If you could look into her mind, you would see how she has nerved it to a great determination; how that, mustering visions and hopes once cherished, she had gone forward to a bleak and barren path, and stands there very resolute, yet, in the first moment of her resolve, miserable; no, she had not yet grown strong in the suffering; she cannot 'this' night stand up and bear her burden with a smile of triumph.

Rosalie Sherwood was an only child, the daughter of a humble friend Mrs. Melville had known from girlhood. 'She', poor creature, had neither lived nor died innocent.

On her death-bed, Cecily Sherwood gave her unrecognised child to the care of one who promised, in the sincerity of her passion, to be a mother to the unfortunate infant. And during the eighteen years of that girl's life, from the hour of her mother's death to the day when she was left without hope in the world, Rosalie 'had' found a parent in the rigid but always kind and just Mary Melville.

This widow lady had one son; he was four years old when her husband died, which was the very year that the little Rosalie was brought to Melville House. The boy's father had been considered a man of great wealth but when his affairs were settled, after his decease, it was found that the debts of the estate being paid, little more than a competency remained for the widow. But the lady was fitted, by a life of self-discipline, even in her luxurious home, to calmly meet this emergency. With the remnant of an imagined fortune, she retired to an humbler residence, where, in quiet retirement, she gave her time to managing household affairs, and superintending the home education of the children.

Her son Duncan, and the young Rosalie, had grown up together, until the girl's twelfth birth-day, constant playmates and pupils in the same school. No one, not even the busiest busy-body, had ever been able to detect the slightest partiality in Mrs. Melville's treatment of her children; and, indeed, it had been quite impossible that she should ever regard a child so winningly beautiful as Rosalie, with other than the tenderest affection. Under a light and careless rein, the girl had been a difficult one to manage, for there was a light little fire in her eyes, that told of strong will and deep passions; and besides, her striking appearance had won sufficient admiration to have completely spoiled her, if a guardian the most vigilant as well as most discerning, had not been ever at hand to speak the right word to, and do the right thing with her.

Mrs. Melville was a thoroughly religious woman, and seriously conscious of the responsibility she incurred in adopting the infant. She could not quiet her conscience with the reflection that she had done a wonderfully good thing in giving Rosalie a home and education; the chief pity she felt for the unfortunate orphan, led her to exercise an uncommon care, that all tendency to evil should be eradicated from the heart of the brilliant girl while she was yet young; that a sense of right, such as should prove abiding, might be impressed on her tender mind. And her labor of love met with a return which might well have made the mother proud.

There had been no officious voice to whisper to Rosalie Sherwood the story of the doubtful position which she occupied in the world. She was an orphan, the adopted child of the lady whom she devoutly loved with all a daughter's tenderness; this she knew, and it was all she knew; and Mrs. Melville was resolved that she should never know more.

The son of the widow had been educated for the ministry. He was now twenty-two years old, and was soon to be admitted to the ministry. In this he was following out his own wish, and the most cherished hope of his mother, and it seemed to all who knew him, as though the Head of the Church had set his seal upon Duncan from his boyhood. He was so mild and forbearing, so discreet and generous, so earnest and so honest; meek, and holy of heart was the thought of any one who looked upon his placid, youthful face. Yet, he had, besides his gentleness, that without which his character might have subsided into a mere puerile weakness; a firmness of purpose; a reverence for duty; a strict sense of right, equal to that which marked his mother among women. Duncan Melville's abilities were of a high order; perhaps not of the very highest, though, if his ambition were only equal to his powers, they would surely seem so to the world.

His voice had a sweet persuasive tone, that was fitted to 'win' souls, yet it could ring like a clarion, when the grandeur of his themes fired his soul. With the warmest hopes and the deepest interest, they, who knew the difficulties and trials attending the profession he had chosen, looked on this young man.

Duncan and Rosalie had long known the nature of the tie which bound them together members of one family and they never called themselves brother and sister, after the youth came home a graduate from college. For, from the time when absence empowered him to look as a stranger would look on Rosalie, from that time he saw her elegant and accomplished, and bewitching as she was, and other than fraternal affection was in his heart for her.

And Rosalie, too, loved him, just as Duncan, had he spoken his passion, would have prayed her to love him. She had long ago made him the standard of all manly excellence; and when he came back, after three years of absence, she was not inclined to revoke her early decision; therefore was she prepared to read the language of Duncan's eyes, and she consecrated her heart to him.

During the years which followed his return from college, until he was prepared for ordination, he did not once 'speak' to her of his love, which was growing all the while stronger and deeper, as the river course that, flowing to the ocean, receives every day fresh impetus and force from the many tiny springs that commingle with it. Duncan Melville never 'thought' of wedding another than Rosalie Sherwood.

It was, as I said, near the time appointed for his ordination, when he felt, for the first time, as though he had a 'right' to speak openly with her of all his hopes. He asked her, then, what, in soul language, he had long before asked, a question which she had as emphatically, in like language, answered to be his partner for life, in weal or woe.

He had tried to calmly consider Rosalie's character as a Christian minister should consider the character of her whom he would make the sharer of his peculiar lot; and setting every preference aside, Duncan felt that she was fitted to assist, and to bear with him. She was as truthful as the day, strong-minded and generous; humane and charitable a woman full of reverence and veneration.

He knew that it was only a fear that she should not 'adorn' the Christian name, that kept her back from the altar of the church, and he loved her for that spirit of humility, knowing that she was "on the Lord's side," and that grace, before long, would be given to her, to proclaim it in doing 'all' His commandments.

It was certainly with a joyful and confident heart that, after he had spoken with Rosalie, Duncan sought his mother, to tell her of the whole of that bright future which opened now before him.

How then was he overcome with amazement and grief when Mrs. Melville told him it was a union to which she could never consent! Then, for the first time in his life, the astonished young man heard of that stain which was on the name poor Rosalie bore.

He heard the story to the end, and, with a decision and energy that would have settled the matter with almost any other than his mother, he declared, "Yet for all that, I will not give her up."

"It would not be expected that you would fulfill the engagement. Rosalie herself would not allow it, if she knew the truth of the matter."

"But she need not know it. There is no existing necessity. Is it not enough that she is good and precious 'to me'? She is a noble woman, whose life has been, thanks to your guidance, beautiful and lofty."

"God knows, I 'have' striven to do my duty by her but I know what I would have done if I had ever thought you would wish to change your relations with her, Duncan."

"The world has not her equal! It is cruel it is sinful in you, mother, to oppose our union."

"She 'is' a lovely woman; but, my son, there are myriads like her."

"No 'not one'! Tell me you will never breathe a word of what you have told me 'to her'!"

"Never."

"Oh! thank you! thank you, mother! you could not wish another daughter."

"But for that I have told you, I could not wish another."

"Then I say you must not work this great injustice on us. Rosalie loves me. She has promised to be mine. You will break my heart."

"You are deluded and strongly excited, my son, or you would never speak so to me," said the mother, with that persisting firmness with which the physician resorts to a desperate remedy for a desperate disease. Then she spoke to him of all the relations in life he might yet be called upon to assume; of the misery which very possibly might follow this union in after days. Hours passed on, and the conference was not ended, until, with a crushed heart, and a trembling voice, Duncan arose, abruptly, while his mother yet spoke, and he said,

"If the conclusion to which you have urged me, in God's sight, is just, He will give me He will give Rosalie, too strength to abide by it. But I can never speak to her of this, and I must find another home than yours and hers. You must speak 'for me', mother; and let me charge you, do it gently. Do not tell her 'all'. Let her think what she will, believe, as she must, that I am a wretch, past pardon; but do not blight her peace by telling 'all'."

"I promise you, Duncan," was the answer, spoken through many tears, and in the deepest sorrow.

An hour after, he was on the way from the village that he might spend the coming Sabbath in another town.

And, after he was gone, the mother sought her younger, her dearly loved child. Rosalie heard that familiar step on the stairway; she had seen Duncan hurrying away from the house, and she knew the conference was over; but she had no fear for the result. So she hushed the glad tumultuous beating of her heart, and tried to veil the brightness of her eyes as she heard the gentle tapping at her door that announced the mother coming.

As for Mrs. Melville, her heart quite failed her when she went into the pleasant room, and sat down close by Rosalie. In spite of all the strengthening thoughts of duty which she had taken with her as a support in that interview, she was now at a sore loss, for it had been a bitter grief to her kind heart when, of old, for duty's sake, she made her children unhappy. How then could she endure to take away their life's best joy, their richest hope? It was a hard thing; and many moments passed before she could nerve her strong spirit to utter the first word. Rosalie, anxious and impatient, too but unsuspecting, at last exclaimed, "What can it be that so much troubles you, mother?"

Then Mary Melville spoke but with a voice so soft and sad, so faint with emotion, that it seemed not at all her voice. She said, "I want you to consider that what I say to you, dear child, has given me more pain even to think of than I have ever felt before. Duncan has told me of your engagement to marry with him; and it has been my duty, my most sorrowful duty, oh! believe me, to tell him that such a tie must never unite you. He can never be your husband; you can never be his wife."

She paused, exhausted by her emotion; she could not utter another syllable. Rosalie, who had watched her with fixed astonishment as she listened to the words, was the first to speak again, and she tried to say, calmly, "Of course, you have a reason for saying so. It is but just that I should know it."

"It cannot 'be' known. If I had ever in my life deceived you, Rosalie, you might doubt me now, when I assure you that an impediment, which cannot be named, exists to the marriage. Have I not been a mother to you always?" she asked, appealingly, imploringly: "I love you as I love Duncan, and it cuts me to the heart to grieve you."

"Has Duncan given you an answer?"

"Yes, Rosalie."

"And it ?"

"He has trusted to his mother!" she said, almost proudly.

"Rather than me," quickly interrupted Rosalie.

"Rather than do that which is wrong; which might hereafter prove the misery of you both, my child."

"Where is he? Why does he not come himself to tell me this? If the thing is really true, 'his' lips should have spoken it, and not another's."

"Oh! Rosalie, he could not do it. I believe his heart is broken. Do not look so upon me. Is it not enough that I bitterly regret, that I shall always deplore, having not foreseen the result of your companionship? Say only that you do believe I have striven to do the best for you always, as far as I knew how. I implore you, 'say it'."

"Heaven knows I believe it, mother. When will Duncan come home again?"

"Monday; not before."

When Monday morning came, on the desk in Rosalie's room this letter was found

"I cannot leave you forever, Duncan; I cannot go from your protecting care, mother, without saying all that is in my heart. I have no courage to look on you, my brother, again. Mother! our union, which we had thought life-lasting, is broken. I cannot any longer live in the world's sight as your daughter by adoption. I would have done so. I would have remained in any capacity, as a slave, even, for I was bound by gratitude for all that you have done for me, to be with you always at least so long as you could wish. If you had unveiled the mystery, and allowed me to stand before you, recognizing myself as 'you' know me, I would have stayed. I would have been to you, Duncan, only as in childhood a proud yet humble sister, rejoicing in your triumphs, and sharing by 'sympathy' in your griefs. I would have put forth fetters on my heart; the indwelling spirit should henceforth have been a stranger to you. I 'know' I could have borne even to see another made your wife; but in a mistaken kindness you put this utterly beyond my power. Too much has been required, and I am found lacking! If even the most miserable fate that can befall an innocent woman; if the curse of illegitimacy were upon me, I could bear that thought even, and acknowledge the justice and wisdom that did not consider me a fit associate for one whose birth is recognized by a parent's pride and fondness.

"But, dear Mrs. Melville, I must be cognisant of the relation, whatever it is, that I bear you. I cannot, I will not, consent to appear nominally your daughter, when you scorn to receive me as such.

"'Mother' in my dear mother's name, I thank you for the generous love you have ever shown me: for the generous care with which you have attended to the development of the talents God gave me. For I am now fitted to labor for myself. I thank you for the watchful guardianship that has made me what I am, a woman self-reliant and strong. I thank you for it, from a heart that has learned only to love and honor you in the past eighteen years. And I call down the blessings of the infinite God upon you, as I depart. Hereafter, always, it will be my endeavor to live worthily of you to be 'all' that you have, in your more than charity, capacitated me to be. Duncan, you will not forget me?

"I do not ask it. But pray for me, and live up to the fullness of your being of your heart and of your intellect. There is a happy future for you. I have no word of counsel, no feeble utterance of encouragement to leave you you will not need such from 'me'. God bless and strengthen you in every good word and work it shall be the constant hope of the sister who 'loves' you. Mother, farewell!"

This letter was written on the Sabbath eve on which our story opens written in a perfect passion yes, of grief, and of despair. The anger that Rosalie may at first have felt, gave way to the wildest sorrow now but her resolution was taken, and her heart was really strong to bear the resolution out.

After the sudden and most unlooked-for disappearance, the mother and son sought long, and I need not say how anxiously, for Rosalie. But their search was vain, and, at last, as time passed on, she became to the villagers as one who had never been. But never by the widow was she forgotten; and oh! there was in the world one heart that sorrowed with a constant sorrow, that hoped with a constant hope for her.

He had lost her, and Duncan sought for no other love among women. When all his searching for Rosalie proved unavailing, the minister applied himself with industry to the work of his calling, and truly he met here with his reward; for as he was a blessing to the people of his parish, in time they almost adored him. He was a spiritual physician whom God empowered to heal many a wounded and stricken heart; but there was a cross of suffering which he bore himself, which could not be removed. It was his glory that he bore it with martyr-like patience that he never uttered a reproachful word to her through whom he bore it.

As years passed away, the gifted preacher's impassioned eloquence, and stirring words, bowed many a proud and impenitent soul with another love than that he wished to inspire, still he sought not among any of them companionship, or close friendship. They said, at last, considering his life spent in the most rigid performance of duty, that "'he was too high-church to marry'," that he did not believe such union consonant with the duties a minister! But the mother knew better than this 'she' knew a name that was never spoken now in Rosalie's old home, that was dearer than life to the heart of her son; and desolate and lonely as he oft-times was, she never 'dared' ask him to give to her a daughter to take unto himself a wife.

In a splendid old cathedral a solemn ceremonial was going forward, on the morning of a holy festival. A bishop was to be consecrated.

A mighty crowd assembled to witness the ceremony, and the mother of Duncan Melville was there, the happiest soul in all that company, for it was on 'her' son that the high honor was to be laid.

How beautiful was the pale, holy countenance of the minister, who, in the early strength of his manhood, was accounted worthy to fill that great office for which he was about to be set apart! He was a man "acquainted with grief," you had known it by the resigned, submissive expression of his face; you had known that the passions of mortals had been all but chilled in him, by the holy light in his tranquil eyes. Duncan 'had' toiled he 'had' born a burden!

A thousand felt it, looking on the noble front where religion undefiled, and peace, and holy love, and charity, had left for themselves unmistakable evidences: and, more than all, one being felt it who had not looked upon that man for years not since the lines of grief and care had marked the face and form of Duncan Melville. There was reason for the passionate sobs of one heart, crushed anew in that solemn hour; there was pathos such as no other voice could give to the prayers which went up to God from one woman's heart, in the great congregation, for him. Poor, loving, still-beloved Rosalie! She was there, her magnificent figure bent humbly from the very commencement to the close of the ceremonial; there, her beautiful eyes filled with tears of love, and grief, and despair; there, crushed as the humblest flower the glorious beauty!

And the good man at the altar, for whom the prayers and the praise ascended, thought of her in that hour! Yes, in that very hour he remembered how 'one' would have looked on him that day, could she have come, his wife, to witness how his brethren and the people loved and honored him. He thought of her, and as he knelt at the altar, even there he prayed for her; but not as numbers thought upon the name of Rosalie Sherwood that day; for she also was soon to appear before a throng, and there was a myriad hearts that throbbed with expectancy, and waited impatiently for the hour when they should look upon her.

Bishop Melville had retired at noonday to his study, that he might be for a few moments alone. He was glancing over the sermon he was to deliver that afternoon, when his mother, his proud and happy mother, came quickly into the room, laid a sealed note on the table and instantly withdrew, for she saw how he was occupied. When he had finished his manuscript, the bishop opened the note and read could it have been with careless eyes?

"Duncan, I have knelt in the house of the Lord, today, and witnessed your triumph. Ten years ago, when I went desolate and wretched from your house, I might have prophesied your destiny. Come, tonight, and behold 'my' triumph at the opera-house!
Your sister,
ROSALIE."

Do you think that, as he read that summons, he hesitated as to whether he should obey it? If his bishopric had been sacrificed by it, he would have gone; if disgrace and danger had attended his footsteps, he would have obeyed her bidding! The love which had been strengthening in ten long years of loneliness and bereavement, was not now to stop, to question or to fear.

"Accompany me, dear mother, this evening; I have made an engagement for you," he said, as he went, she hanging on his arm, to the cathedral for afternoon service.

"Willingly, my son," was the instant answer, and Duncan kept her to her word.

But it was with wondering, with surprise that she did not attempt to conceal, and with questions which were satisfied with no definite reply, that Mrs. Melville found herself standing with her son in an obscure corner of the opera-house that night. Soon all her expressions of astonishment were hushed but by another cause than the mysterious inattention of her son: a queenly woman appeared upon the stage; she lifted her voice, and sobbed the mournful wail which opens the first scene in.

For years there had not been such a sensation created among the frequenters of that place, as now, by the appearance of this stranger. The wild, singular style of her beauty made an impression that was heightened by every movement of her graceful figure, every tone of her rich melodious voice. She seemed for the time the very embodiment of the sorrow to which she gave an expression, and the effect was a complete triumph.

Mary Melville and her son gazed on the 'debutante' they had no word, no look for each other: for they recognized in her voice, the tones of a grief of which long ago they heard the prelude and every note found its echo in the bishop's inmost heart.

"Come away! let us go home! Duncan, this is no place for us for 'you'. It is disgrace to be here," was the mother's passionate plea, when at last Rosalie disappeared, and other forms stood in her place.

"We will stay and save her," was the answer, spoken with tears and trembling, by the man for whom, in many a quiet home, prayers in that very hour ascended. "She is mine 'now', and no earthly consideration or power shall divide us."

And looking for a moment in her son's face steadfastly, the lady turned away sighing and tearful, for she knew that she must yield then, and she had fears for the future.

A half-hour passed and the star of the night reappeared, resplendent in beauty, triumphing in hope again her marvelous voice was raised, not with the bitter cry of despair that was hopeless but glad and mirthful, angelic in its joy.

Again the mother's eyes were turned on him beside her and a light was on that pale forehead a smile on that calm face a gladness in those eyes such as she had not seen there in long, long years; but though she looked with a mother's love upon the one who stood the admiration of all eyes, crowned with the glory-crown of perfection in her art, she could not with Duncan hope. For, alas! her woman-heart knew too well the ordeal through which the daughter of her care and love must have passed before she came into 'that' presence where she stood now, who could tell if still the mistress of herself and her destiny? who could tell if pure and undefiled?

That night and the following day, there were many who sought admittance to the parlors of Rosalie Sherwood; they would lay the homage of their trifling hearts at her feet. But all these sought in vain; and why was this? Because such admiring tribute was not what the noble woman sought; 'and' because, before she had risen in the morning, a letter, written in the solitude of night, was handed to her, which barred and bolted her doors against the curious world.

"Rosalie! Rosalie! look back through the ten years that are gone; I am answering your letter of long ago with words; I have a thousand times answered them with my heart, until the thoughts which have crowded there, filled it almost to breaking. We have met met at last you and I! But did you call that a triumph when you stood in God's house, and saw them lay their consecrating hands upon me? Heaven forgive me! I was thinking of you then and thinking, too, that if this honor was in any way to be considered a 'reward', the needful part was missing you were not there! Yet you 'were' there, you have written to me; ah! but not 'Rosalie, my wife', the woman I loved better than 'all' on earth the 'acknowledged' woman, her whose memory I have borne about with me until it was a needful part of my existence. You were by when the people came to see me consecrated and I obeyed your call; I saw 'you' when the people anointed you with the tears of their admiration and praise. If you read my heart at all, today, you 'knew' how I had suffered you 'saw' that I had grown old in sorrow. Was I mistaken tonight in the thought that you, too, had not been unmindful of 'our' past; that you were not satisfied with the popular applause; that you, also, have been lonely, that you have wept; that you have trodden in the path of duty with weariness?

"There is but one barrier now in the wide world that shall interpose between us Rosalie, it is your own will. If I was ever anything to you, I beseech you to think calmly before you answer, and do not let your triumph tonight, blind you to the fact which you once recognized, which can make us happy 'yet'. I trust you as in our younger days; nothing, nothing but your own words could convince me that you are not worthy to take the highest place among the ladies of this land. Oh, let the remembrance that I have been faithful to you through all the past, plead for me, if your pride should rise up to condemn me. Let me come and plead 'with' you, for I know not what I write."

The answer returned to this letter was as follows "I learned long ago, the bar that prevented our union; it is in existence still, Duncan. Your mother alone shall decide if it is insurmountable. I have never, even for a moment, doubted your faithfulness; and it has been to me an unspeakable comfort to 'know' that none had supplanted me in your affections. In the temptations, and struggles, and hardships I have known, it has kept me above and beyond the world, and if the last night's triumph proves to be but the opening of a new life for me on earth, the recollection of what you are, and that you care for me, will prove a rock of defense, and a stronghold of hope always. Severed from, or united with you I am yours forever."

Seven days after there was a marriage in the little church of that remote village, where Duncan Melville and Rosalie Sherwood passed their childhood. Side by side they stood now, once again, where the baptismal service had long since been read for them, and the mother of the bishop gave the bride away!