The Unruly Member
Timothy Shay Arthur
"In trouble again! Ah, Flora! That restless little tongue of yours is a sad transgressor. Why will you not learn to be more careful? Why do you not place a guard upon your lips, as well as upon your actions?"
"So I do, aunt, when I think myself in the company of tattlers and mischief-makers."
"I do not think Mary Lee either a tattler or a mischief-maker," replied the aunt gravely.
"Then why did she run off to Ellen Gray, and tell her what I had said?"
"She might have done so from far different motives than those you are inclined to attribute to her," said Mrs. Marion, the aunt of Flora Mere. "And from my knowledge of her character, I feel very sure that her conduct in this has been governed by a strict regard to right principles."
"But what possible end could she have had in view in repeating to Ellen my thoughtlessly spoken words? It could do her no good."
"There she is at the door now," Mrs. Marion replied, glancing out of the window. "We will ask the question directly, as soon as Betty has admitted her."
The blood mounted to Flora's cheeks as her aunt said this, and her own eyes caught a glimpse of the young lady whose conduct she had been so strongly condemning. The aunt and her niece sat silent until Mary Lee entered.
Here we will take the opportunity to mention the cause of the unpleasant state of affairs between Flora and her young friend. On the day before, while in company with Mary Lee, and one or two other of her acquaintances, she very thoughtlessly and not exactly in the right spirit, repeated some remarks she had heard about Ellen Gray that reflected upon her rather unfavorably. Mary Lee at once attempted to vindicate her friend, but Flora maintained that the allegations were certainly true, for she had them from an undoubted source. Mary asked that source, but she declined mentioning it, on the ground that she did not wish to violate the confidence reposed in her by the individual who related the facts she had repeated.
"It would, perhaps, be better not to mention anything of this kind," said Mary Lee, "unless the author be given, and full liberty, at the same time, to make the most free inquiries as to the truth of what is alleged."
"And get up to your ears in hot water," returned Flora, tossing her head.
"Even that would be better than to let any one suffer from an untrue statement."
"Ah! But suppose it should be true?"
"Let the guilt rest upon the right head — where it ought to rest. But save the innocent from unjust allegations. That is my doctrine."
"A very good doctrine, no doubt," Flora returned; "if you can act it out."
Here the subject was dropped. On the next morning, Mary Lee called in to see her young friend Ellen Gray. After conversing for a short time she said —
"I heard, yesterday, Ellen, that at Mrs. Harvey's party, you acted towards Mr. Mason with much discourtesy of manner, besides actually telling an untruth."
"I am unconscious of having done either the one or the other of these," Ellen replied, in a quiet tone.
"I believed you innocent," said Mary, with a brightening countenance. "But what ground is there for the idle, ill-natured gossip that has got on the wind?"
"Not much, if any. I declined dancing with Mr. Mason, as I had a perfect right to do."
"Did you tell him you were engaged for the next cotillion?"
"No, certainly not, for I had no engagement then."
"It is said that when he asked you to dance, you excused yourself on the plea that you were already engaged."
"Who says this?"
"How does she know?"
"That I cannot tell. She declined giving her authority."
"Then, of course, I must believe her the author of the fabrication."
"No — that does not certainly follow. I do not believe Flora would be guilty of such a thing. But, like too many, she is ready to believe another capable of doing almost anything that may happen to be alleged. And like the same class of people, too ready to repeat what she has heard, no matter how injuriously it may affect the subject of the allegation — while a false principle of honor prevents the open declaration of the source from which the information has been derived."
"Be that as it may, I shall see Flora Mere at once, and ask her for the authority upon which the statement rests."
"It was to give you an opportunity of doing this, that I have come and freely told what I heard."
"Thank you, Mary. I wish all the world were as frank and as conscientious as you are. I shall, of course, mention from whom I derived my information."
"You are at perfect liberty to do so. I try never to say or do anything that requires concealment."
It was, perhaps, an hour afterward, that Flora Mere was surprised by a visit from Ellen Gray. She had an instinctive consciousness of the cause of this visit, which made the blood mount to her face, as she took the hand of her friend. She was not long in doubt.
"Flora," said Ellen, a few minutes after she had entered. "Mary Lee came in to see me this morning, and mentioned that you had made statements about me which are not true — as that I refused to dance with Mr. Mason under the plea of a prior engagement, when, in fact, no such engagement existed."
"I think Mary Lee had very little to do!" Flora returned petulantly, the color deepening on her face and brow, "to tattle about what she hears in company."
"But reflect," said Ellen, mildly, "that the charge against me was one of falsehood — no light charge — and that Mary had every reason to believe me incapable of uttering what was not true. And further, remember, that you declined giving your informant, so as to place it in her power to ascertain upon what basis the statement rested. Reverse the case. Suppose I had heard that you had done some wrong act; and, instead of carefully satisfying myself whether it were really so or not, were to begin circulating the story wherever I went. Would you not deem her a true friend, who, instead of joining in the general condemnation, were to come to you and put into your power to vindicate your character? Certainly you would. Just in the relation which that true friend would, under the imagined circumstances, stand to you, now stands Mary Lee to me. She has put into my power to arrest a report which I find is circulating to my injury. It is true that I declined dancing with Mr. Mason. But it is not true that I stated to him that I was engaged. I was not engaged, and to have said that I was, would have been to have told a deliberate falsehood. May I, then, ask you from what source you derived your information?"
Flora cast her eyes upon the floor, and sat silent for some time. Her pride struggled hard with her sense of justice. At length she said, looking up, and breathing heavily —
"I would rather not mention my informant, Ellen. It will only make difficulty. You will go to her, and then there will be trouble. I think you had better let the matter rest where it is. I do not, now, believe what I heard. The person who told me, was, no doubt, mistaken."
"But, Flora, that would not be right. You have already repeated what you heard so publicly, that it is possible at least fifty people now believe me guilty of having spoken a lie. You should have reflected beforehand. Now it is too late to let the matter drop. My character is at stake, and I am bound to vindicate it. This I shall have to do in such a manner as to fully clear myself from the charge. The consequence will be, as you may at once perceive, that upon you will rest the burden of having originated a false charge against me. Then, if not now, you will feel it your duty to give the name of your friend. This, you had much better do at once. No doubt she has been led into a mistake by a too hasty judgment of my acts, but half understood. She may have observed Mr. Mason ask me to dance, and have naturally inferred that I declined on the ground of a previous engagement. This being in her mind, she may have too hastily concluded, when she soon afterwards saw me accept another offer, that I had not spoken the truth at the time I refused to dance with Mason. All this can easily be explained, and the matter put to rest."
Flora hesitated for a short time, and then said —
"It was Araminta Thomas who told me."
"Thank you for this information. Will you now go with me to see Araminta?"
"I would rather not," Flora returned.
"I think it would be better for you to do so, Flora," urged Ellen. But she could not be persuaded.
"I must then go alone," said Ellen, rising and bidding Flora goodbye.
In a little while she was at the house of Araminta Thomas. Ellen entered at once upon the business of her visit, by stating what she had heard. Araminta looked confused, but denied saying that Ellen had actually told Mr. Mason she was engaged for the next cotillion.
"Then what did you say?" mildly asked Ellen.
"I said," replied Araminta, "that I saw you decline Mason's offer for your hand."
"But did not say that I told him I was engaged?"
"Not positively; I only inferred, as was natural, that you declined on that ground."
"Was your communication to Flora mere inferential?"
"But she says you told her that you heard me say I was engaged."
"In that she is mistaken. I inferred that your refusal to dance was for the reason stated. But I did not know that it was, and, therefore only gave my own impression."
"Which Flora has taken for the truth, and so repeated."
"On my authority?"
"Yes. After having been pressed by me very closely."
"In that she was wrong. But I suppose I was as wrong in giving an impression which might not be a true one, as she has been in giving my impressions as actual facts, and making me responsible for them. But will you, as matters have taken this serious and unexpected turn, give me the exact truth. I will then, so far as in my power lies, endeavor to correct what I have done."
"Most cheerfully. You know as well as I do, that Mr. Mason has not acted in some things with that honor and integrity that befit a gentleman?"
"It was on this ground that I declined. He asked me if I was engaged in the next set? I said no. He then offered his hand, which I declined. In a little while after, and while sitting beside you, a gentleman wished to have me as a partner. I accepted his invitation. This is the simple truth."
"And so it seems," said Araminta with a sober face, "that while you were rebuking vice, and standing up with dignified, virtuous firmness in the cause of our gender — I was misjudging you! And not only that, was so far influenced by an improper spirit as to impart to others my wrong impressions to your injury. Alas! poor, weak human nature! I feel rebuked and humbled. More for what I thought than for what I said, for out of the heart proceeds evil thoughts. If I had not had something wrong in my heart, I would not have been so ready to misjudge you. But all that I can do to repair the wrong, I am ready to do."
"All I ask is, that you correct Flora, and take some little care, that, where she has imparted a wrong impression, the true one is given in its place."
"That I will do with all my heart," Araminta replied. "I will see Flora this very hour."
"Do so, and you shall have not only my thanks, but my esteem and love. We are all liable to do wrong. But to confess and repair the wrong we have done, as far as we can, is noble. In so doing, power is given us to conquer in all the temptations that may assail us."
As soon as Ellen had retired, Araminta went out and called upon Flora. She found her troubled and mortified at the turn matters had taken. She tried to excuse herself for what she had done, and insisted, at first, that Araminta had actually stated all she had said of Ellen Gray's conduct. But this point she soon had to give up. Araminta was too positive, and her own memory a little too clear on the subject. In fact, when the whole truth came fully to the light, it was very apparent, that if there were any falsehood in the matter — she was the most guilty. Certain it was, that Ellen Gray was innocent, in every particular, of the charge that had been made against her.
Mrs. Marion knew nothing of all this, until the day after Ellen Gray had called upon Flora. Then her niece, whose troubled looks had not escaped her notice, gave a narrative of what had occurred. It was in reply to this that the opening remarks of our story were made. When Mary Lee came in, as the reader has seen, Flora received her coldly. Mrs. Marion, on the contrary, welcomed her with genuine cordiality.
"I am glad to see you, Mary," she said — "and particularly at this time. It seems there has been a misunderstanding among you young ladies, and that Flora is not altogether pleased with the part you have taken."
"It is to see her in regard to that very matter, that I am here this morning," Mary said. "I know she blames me for having told Ellen Lee what I did. But in that I acted conscientiously. I did to another as I would have another do to me. I acted towards Ellen as I would act towards Flora, were I to hear any one making statements that were calculated to injure her. The result, I think, should satisfy Flora that I was right in doing what I have done. Ellen, it now appears, was entirely innocent of the charge made against her — as I knew she must be. Araminta Thomas, to whom the report has been traced, regrets extremely, that upon her hasty inferences, so serious a matter has grown up. She acknowledged that she only inferred that Ellen told an untruth. Flora took this inference for a direct assertion, and thence came the charge of falsehood against Ellen Gray. Has not, then, the result proved that the course I took was the only right one? Does it not show that I would have been guilty of a great wrong, if, to save the feelings of any one, I had left an innocent person to bear the imputation of wrong?"
"It certainly does, Mary. And Flora cannot but see it in the same light."
"And she will, surely, forgive me the pain I have occasioned her," resumed Mary, "seeing that I had no selfish end to gain in what I did, but was moved only by the desire to vindicate injured innocence."
This appeal softened Flora's feelings toward Mary Lee. She saw that she was wrong, and that Mary was right. Mary had been governed by a high-minded regard for right. Pride soon yielded.
"Mary," said she, taking her hand, while the tears came into her eyes, "I confess that I have been wrong, and you right. I shall not soon forget this lesson. Forgive the unkind thought I have had of you, and say to Ellen, from me, that I do most sincerely regret the part I have taken in this matter."
"Will I ever learn to be guarded in my remarks!" Flora said, to her aunt, after Mary had left them. "This is the third time I have been called to account for speaking of others, within the last few months."
"Never, I suppose," Mrs. Marion replied, "until you learn to guard your thoughts as well as your words. If, like Mary Lee, you were less disposed to give credence to every disparaging report circulated about others, you would need no guard placed over your tongue. It is from the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. A good man, out of the good treasure of his heart, brings forth good things: and an evil man, out of the evil treasure, brings forth evil things. Try and keep this in mind. If you are more ready to believe an evil report than a good report of others, be sure that all is not right with you, and more especially, if you feel an inward pleasure in convicting them of wrong. A truly good mind is always grieved at improper conduct in others, and ever seeks to palliate, rather than to judge with severity. It gives but slow credence to evil reports. Truly regard the good of all around you, and there will be no need of placing a bridle on your tongue."