"The foolish thing!" said my Aunt Rachel, speaking warmly, "to get hurt at a mere word. It's a little hard that people can't open their lips, but somebody is offended."
"Words are things!" said I, smiling.
"Very light things! A person must be tender indeed, that is hurt by a word."
"The very lightest thing may hurt — if it falls on a tender place."
"I don't like people who have these tender places," said Aunt Rachel. "I never get hurt at what is said to me. No — never! To be ever picking and mincing, and chopping off your words — to be afraid to say this or that — for fear somebody will be offended! I can't stand it."
"People who have these tender places can't help it, I suppose. This being so, ought we not to regard their weakness?" said I. "Pain, either of body or mind, is hard to bear, and we should not inflict it causelessly."
"People who are so sensitive," replied Aunt Rachel, growing warmer, "ought to shut themselves up at home, and not come among sensible, good-tempered people. As far as I am concerned, I can tell them, one and all, that I am not going to pick out every hard word from a sentence as carefully as I would seeds from a grape. Let them crack them with their teeth, if they are afraid to swallow them whole."
Now, for all thatj Aunt Rachel was a kind, good soul, in the main, and, I could see, was sorry for having hurt the feelings of Mary Lane. But she didn't like to acknowledge that she was in the wrong; that would detract too much from the self-delight with which she regarded herself. Knowing her character very well, I thought it best not to continue the little argument about the importance of words, and so changed the subject. But, every now and then, Aunt Rachel would return to it, each time softening a little towards Mary. At last she said,
"I'm sure it was a little thing. A very little thing. She might have known that nothing unkind was intended on my part."
"There are some subjects, aunt," I replied, "to which we cannot bear the slightest allusion. And a sudden reference to them is very apt to throw us off of our guard. What you said to Mary has, in all probability touched some weakness of character, or opened some wound that time has not been able to heal. I have always thought her a sensible, good-natured girl."
"And so have I. But I really cannot think that she has showed her good sense or good nature in the present case. It is a very bad failing this, of being over-sensitive; and exceedingly annoying to one's friends."
"It is, I know; but still, all of, us have a weak point, and to her who is assailed, we are very apt to betray our feelings."
"Well, I say now, as I have always said — I don't like to have anything to do with people who have these weak points. This being hurt by a word, as if words were blows, is something that does not come within the range of my sympathies."
"And yet, aunt," said I, "we all have weak points. Even you are not entirely free from them."
"Me!" Aunt Rachel bristled.
"Yes; and if even as light a thing as a word were to fall upon them, you would suffer pain."
"Please, sir," said Aunt Rachel, with much dignity of manner; she was chafed by my words, light as they were, "inform me where these weaknesses, of which you are pleased to speak, lie."
"Oh, no; you must excuse me. That would be very much out of place. But I only stated a general fact that appertains to all of us."
Aunt Rachel looked very grave. I had laid the weight of words upon a weakness of her character, and it had given her pain. That weakness was a peculiarly good opinion of herself. I had made no allegation against her; and there was none in my mind. My words simply expressed the general truth that we all have weaknesses, and included her in their application. But she imagined that I referred to some particular defect or fault, and armor-proof as she was against words, they had wounded her.
For a day or two Aunt Rachel remained more sober than was her custom. I knew the cause, but did not attempt to remove from her mind any impression my words had made. One day, about a week after, I said to her,
"Aunt Rachel, I saw Mary Lane's mother this morning."
"Ah?" The old lady looked up at me inquiringly.
"I don't wonder your words hurt the poor girl," I added.
"Why? What did I say?" quickly asked Aunt Rachel.
"You said that she was a jilt."
"But I was only jest, and she knew it. I did not really mean anything. I'm surprised that Mary should be so foolish."
"You will not be surprised when you know all," was my answer.
"All? What all? I'm sure I wasn't in earnest. I didn't mean to hurt the poor girl's feelings." My aunt looked very much troubled.
"No one blames you, Aunt Rachel," said I. "Mary knows you didn't intend wounding her."
"But why should she take a little word go much to heart? It must have had more truth in it than I supposed."
"Did you know that Mary refused an offer of marriage from Walter Green last week?"
"Why no! It can't be possible! Refused Walter Green?"
"They've been intimate for a long time."
"She certainly encouraged him."
"I think it more than probable."
"Is it possible, then, that she did really jilt the young man?" exclaimed Aunt Rachel.
"This has been said of her," I replied. "But so far as I can learn, she was really attached to him, and suffered great pain in rejecting his offer. Wisely she regarded marriage as the most important event of her life, and refused to make so solemn a contract with one in whose principles she had not the fullest confidence."
"But she ought not to have encouraged Walter, if she did not intend marrying him," said Aunt Rachel, with some warmth.
"She encouraged him so long as she thought well of him. A closer view revealed points of character hidden by distance. When she saw these her feelings were already deeply involved. But, like a true woman, she turned from the offered hand, even though while in doing so her heart palpitated with pain. There is nothing false about Mary Lane. She could no more trifle with a lover than she could commit a crime. Think, then, how almost impossible it would be for her to hear herself called, under existing circumstances, even in sport, a jilt, without being hurt. Words sometimes have power to hurt more than blows. Do you not see this, now, Aunt Rachel?"
"Oh, yes, yes. I see it; and I saw it before," said the old lady. "And in the future I will be more careful of my words. It is pretty late in life to learn this lesson — but we are never too late to learn. Poor Mary! It grieves me to think that I should have hurt her so much."
Yes, words often have in them a smarting force, and we cannot be too guarded how we use them. "Think twice before you speak once," is a trite but wise saying. We teach it to our children very carefully, but are too apt to forget that it has not lost its application to ourselves.