You will never read a story that is more inspiring and challenging than Ishmael. The heights of success achieved by this young man reveal little of the utter poverty into which he was born. He entered life motherless and poor, and despite the wishes of everyone around, he survived and flourished in his paltry environment. His commitment to character and integrity and his singular focus on preserving his mother’s name gave his life focus and purpose. His perseverance and determination to educate himself in law gave him the opportunity to influence the highest levels of government. E.D.E.N. Southworth captures the rich panorama of sights and sounds in rural Maryland in the decades prior to the Civil War. When you reach the end, don’t despair—the drama continues in the sequel, Self-Raised!
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E. D. E. N. Southworth
or IN THE DEPTHS
First published in 1876
Copyright © 2019 SIN Libris Digital
This story, in book form, has been called for during several years past, but the author has reserved it until now; not only because she considers it to be her very best work, but because it is peculiarly a national novel, being founded on the life and career of one of the noblest of our countrymen, who really lived, suffered, toiled, and triumphed in this land; one whose inspirations of wisdom and goodness were drawn from the examples of the heroic warriors and statesmen of the Revolution, and who having by his own energy risen from the deepest obscurity to the highest fame, became in himself an illustration of the elevating influence of our republican institutions.
“In the Depths” he was born indeed—in the very depths of poverty, misery, and humiliation. But through Heaven’s blessing on his aspirations and endeavors, he raised himself to the summit of fame.
He was good as well as great. His goodness won the love of all who knew him intimately. His greatness gained the homage of the world. He became, in a word, one of the brightest stars in Columbia’s diadem of light.
His identity will be recognized by those who were familiar with his early personal history; but for obvious reasons his real name must be veiled under a fictitious one here.
His life is a guiding-star to the youth of every land, to show them that there is no depth of human misery from which they may not, by virtue, energy and perseverance, rise to earthly honors as well as to eternal glory.
Emma D. E. N. Southworth.
But if thou wilt be constant then,
And faithful of thy word,
I’ll make thee glorious by my pen
And famous by my sword.
I’ll serve thee in such noble ways
Was never heard before;
I’ll crown and deck thee all with bays,
And love thee evermore.
“Well, if there be any truth in the old adage, young Herman Brudenell will have a prosperous life; for really this is a lovely day for the middle of April—the sky is just as sunny and the air as warm as if it were June,” said Hannah Worth, looking out from the door of her hut upon a scene as beautiful as ever shone beneath the splendid radiance of an early spring morning.
“And what is that old adage you talk of, Hannah?” inquired her younger sister, who stood braiding the locks of her long black hair before the cracked looking-glass that hung above the rickety chest of drawers.
“Why, la, Nora, don’t you know? The adage is as old as the hills and as true as the heavens, and it is this, that a man’s twenty-first birthday is an index to his after life—if it be clear, he will be fortunate; if cloudy, unfortunate.”
“Then I should say that young Mr. Brudenell’s fortune will be a splendid one; for the sun is dazzling!” said Nora, as she wound the long sable plait of hair around her head in the form of a natural coronet and secured the end behind with—a thorn! “And, now, how do I look? Ain’t you proud of me?” she archly inquired, turning with “a smile of conscious beauty born” to the inspection of her elder sister.
That sister might well have answered in the affirmative had she considered personal beauty a merit of high order; for few palaces in this world could boast a princess so superbly beautiful as this peasant girl that this poor hut contained. Beneath those rich sable tresses was a high broad forehead as white as snow; slender black eyebrows so well defined and so perfectly arched that they gave a singularly open and elevated character to the whole countenance; large dark gray eyes, full of light, softened by long, sweeping black lashes; a small, straight nose; oval, blooming cheeks; plump, ruddy lips that, slightly parted, revealed glimpses of the little pearly teeth within; a well-turned chin; a face with this peculiarity, that when she was pleased it was her eyes that smiled and not her lips; a face, in short, full of intelligence and feeling that might become thought and passion. Her form was noble—being tall, finely proportioned, and richly developed.
Her beauty owed nothing to her toilet—her only decoration was the coronet of her own rich black hair; her only hair pin was a thorn; her dress indeed was a masterpiece of domestic manufacture—the cotton from which it was made having been carded, spun, woven, and dyed by Miss Hannah’s own busy hands; but as it was only a coarse blue fabric, after all, it would not be considered highly ornamental; it was new and clean, however, and Nora was well pleased with it, as with playful impatience she repeated her question:
“Say! ain’t you proud of me now?”
“No,” replied the elder sister, with assumed gravity, “I am proud of your dress because it is my own handiwork, and it does me credit; but as for you—”
“I am Nature’s handiwork, and I do her credit!” interrupted Nora, with gay self-assertion.
“I am quite ashamed of you, you are so vain!” continued Hannah, completing her sentence.
“Oh, vain, am I? Very well, then, another time I will keep my vanity to myself. It is quite as easy to conceal as to confess, you know; though it may not be quite as good for the soul,” exclaimed Nora, with merry perversity, as she danced off in search of her bonnet.
She had not far to look; for the one poor room contained all of the sisters’ earthly goods. And they were easily summed up—a bed in one corner, a loom in another, a spinning-wheel in the third, and a corner-cupboard in the fourth; a chest of drawers sat against the wall between the bed and the loom, and a pine table against the opposite wall between the spinning-wheel and the cupboard; four wooden chairs sat just wherever they could be crowded. There was no carpet on the floor, no paper on the walls. There was but one door and one window to the hut, and they were in front. Opposite them at the back of the room was a wide fire-place, with a rude mantle shelf above it, adorned with old brass candlesticks as bright as gold. Poor as this hut was, the most fastidious fine lady need not have feared to sit down within it, it was so purely clean.
The sisters were soon ready, and after closing up their wee hut as cautiously as if it contained the wealth of India, they set forth, in their blue cotton gowns and white cotton bonnets, to attend the grand birthday festival of the young heir of Brudenell Hall.
Around them spread out a fine, rolling, well-wooded country; behind them stood their own little hut upon the top of its bare hill; below them lay a deep, thickly-wooded valley, beyond which rose another hill, crowned with an elegant mansion of white free-stone. That was Brudenell Hall.
Thus the hut and the hall perched upon opposite hills, looked each other in the face across the wooded valley. And both belonged to the same vast plantation—the largest in the county. The morning was indeed delicious, the earth everywhere springing with young grass and early flowers; the forest budding with tender leaves; the freed brooks singing as they ran; the birds darting about here and there seeking materials to build their nests; the heavens benignly smiling over all; the sun glorious; the air intoxicating; mere breath joy; mere life rapture! All nature singing a Gloria in Excelsis! And now while the sisters saunter leisurely on, pausing now and then to admire some exquisite bit of scenery, or to watch some bird, or to look at some flower, taking their own time for passing through the valley that lay between the hut and the hall, I must tell you who and what they were.
Hannah and Leonora Worth were orphans, living alone together in the hut on the hill and supporting themselves by spinning and weaving.
Hannah, the eldest, was but twenty-eight years old, yet looked forty; for, having been the eldest sister, the mother-sister, of a large family of orphan children, all of whom had died except the youngest, Leonora—her face wore that anxious, haggard, care-worn and prematurely aged look peculiar to women who have the burdens of life too soon and too heavily laid upon them. Her black hair was even streaked here and there with gray. But with all this there was not the least trace of impatience or despondency in that all-enduring face. When grave, its expression was that of resignation; when gay—and even she could be gay at times—its smile was as sunny as Leonora’s own. Hannah had a lover as patient as Job, or as herself, a poor fellow who had been constant to her for twelve years, and whose fate resembled her own; for he was the father of all his orphan brothers and sisters as she had been the mother of hers. Of course, these poor lovers could not dream of marriage; but they loved each other all the better upon that very account, perhaps.
Lenora was ten years younger than her sister, eighteen, well grown, well developed, blooming, beautiful, gay and happy as we have described her. She had not a care, or regret, or sorrow in the world. She was a bird, the hut was her nest and Hannah her mother, whose wings covered her. These sisters were very poor; not, however, as the phrase is understood in the large cities, where, notwithstanding the many charitable institutions for the mitigation of poverty, scores of people perish annually from cold and hunger; but as it is understood in the rich lower counties of Maryland, where forests filled with game and rivers swarming with fish afford abundance of food and fuel to even the poorest hutters, however destitute they might be of proper shelter, clothing, or education.
And though these orphan sisters could not hunt or fish, they could buy cheaply a plenty of game from the negroes who did. And besides this, they had a pig, a cow, and a couple of sheep that grazed freely in the neighboring fields, for no one thought of turning out an animal that belonged to these poor girls. In addition, they kept a few fowls and cultivated a small vegetable garden in the rear of their hut. And to keep the chickens out of the garden was one of the principal occupations of Nora. Their spinning-wheel and loom supplied them with the few articles of clothing they required, and with a little money for the purchase of tea, sugar, and salt. Thus you see their living was good, though their dress, their house, and their schooling were so very bad. They were totally ignorant of the world beyond their own neighborhood; they could read and write, but very imperfectly; and their only book was the old family Bible, that might always be seen proudly displayed upon the rickety chest of drawers.
Notwithstanding their lowly condition, the sisters were much esteemed for their integrity of character by their richer neighbors, who would have gladly made them more comfortable had not the proud spirit of Hannah shrunk from dependence.
They had been invited to the festival to be held at Brudenell Hall in honor of the young heir’s coming of age and entering upon his estates.
This gentlemen, Herman Brudenell, was their landlord; and it was as his tenants, and not by any means as his equals, that they had been bidden to the feast. And now we will accompany them to the house of rejoicing. They were now emerging from the valley and climbing the opposite hill. Hannah walking steadily on in the calm enjoyment of nature, and Nora darting about like a young bird and caroling as she went in the effervescence of her delight.
Her sweet song died, and a vague unrest
And a nameless longing filled her breast.
The sisters had not seen their young landlord since he was a lad of ten years of age, at which epoch he had been sent to Europe to receive his education. He had but recently been recalled home by his widowed mother, for the purpose of entering upon his estate and celebrating his majority in his patrimonial mansion by giving a dinner and ball in the house to all his kindred and friends, and a feast and dance in the barn to all his tenants and laborers.
It was said that his lady mother and his two young lady sisters, haughty and repellent women that they were, had objected to entertaining his dependents, but the young gentleman was resolved that they should enjoy themselves. And he had his way.
Nora had no recollection whatever of Herman Brudenell, who had been taken to Europe while she was still a baby; so now, her curiosity being stimulated, she plied Hannah with a score of tiresome questions about him.
“Is he tall, Hannah, dear? Is he very handsome?”
“How can I tell? I have not seen him since he was ten years old.”
“But what is his complexion—is he fair or dark? and what is the color of his hair and eyes? Surely, you can tell that at least.”
“Yes; his complexion, as well as I can recollect it, was freckled, and his hair sandy, and his eyes green.”
“Oh-h! the horrid fright! a man to scare bad children into good behavior! But then that was when he was but ten years old; he is twenty-one today; perhaps he is much improved.”
“Nora, our sheep have passed through here, and left some of their wool on the bushes. Look at that little bird, it has found a flake and is bearing it off in triumph to line its little nest,” said Hannah, to change the subject.
“Oh, I don’t care about the bird; I wish you to tell me about the young gentleman!” said Nora petulantly, adding the question: “I wonder who he’ll marry?”
“Not you, my dear; so you had better not occupy your mind with him,” Hannah replied very gravely.
Nora laughed outright. “Oh, I’m quite aware of that; and as for me, I would not marry a prince, if he had red hair and a freckled face; but still one cannot help thinking of one’s landlord, when one is going to attend the celebration of his birthday.”
They had now reached the top of the hill and come upon a full view of the house and grounds.
The house, as I said, was a very elegant edifice of white free-stone; it was two stories in height, and had airy piazzas running the whole length of the front, both above and below; a stately portico occupied the center of the lower piazza, having on each side of it the tall windows of the drawing-rooms. This portico and all these windows were now wide open, mutely proclaiming welcome to all comers. The beautifully laid out grounds were studded here and there with tents pitched under the shade trees, for the accommodation of the out-door guest, who were now assembling rapidly.
But the more honored guests of the house had not yet begun to arrive.
And none of the family were as yet visible.
On reaching the premises the sisters were really embarrassed, not knowing where to go, and finding no one to direct them.
At length a strange figure appeared upon the scene—a dwarfish mulatto, with a large head, bushy hair, and having the broad forehead and high nose of the European, with the thick lips and heavy jaws of the African; with an ashen gray complexion, and a penetrating, keen and sly expression of the eyes. With this strange combination of features he had also the European intellect with the African utterance. He was a very gifted original, whose singularities of genius and character will reveal themselves in the course of this history, and he was also one of those favored old family domestics whose power in the house was second only to that of the master, and whose will was law to all his fellow servants; he had just completed his fiftieth year, and his name was Jovial.
And he now approached the sisters, saying:
“Mornin’, Miss Hannah—mornin’, Miss Nora. Come to see de show? De young heir hab a fool for his master for de fust time today.”
“We have come to the birthday celebration; but we do not know where we ought to go—whether to the house or the tents,” said Hannah.
The man tucked his tongue into his cheek and squinted at the sisters, muttering to himself:
“I should like to see de mist’ess’ face, ef you two was to present yourselves at de house!”
Then, speaking aloud, he said:
“De house be for de quality, an’ de tents for de colored gemmen and ladies; an’ de barn for de laborin’ classes ob de whites. Shall I hab de honor to denounce you to de barn?”
“I thank you, yes, since it is there we are expected to go,” said Hannah.
Jovial led the way to an immense barn that had been cleaned out and decorated for the occasion. The vast room was adorned with festoons of evergreens and paper flowers. At the upper end was hung the arms of the Brudenells. Benches were placed along the walls for the accommodation of those who might wish to sit. The floor was chalked for the dancers.
“Dere, young women, dere you is,” said Jovial loftily, as he introduced the sisters into this room, and retired.
There were some thirty-five or forty persons present, including men, women, and children, but no one that was known to the sisters. They therefore took seats in a retired corner, from which they watched the company.
“How many people there are! Where could they all have come from?” inquired Nora.
“I do not know. From a distance, I suppose. People will come a long way to a feast like this. And you know that not only were the tenants and laborers invited, but they were asked to bring all their friends and relations as well!” said Hannah.
“And they seemed to have improved the opportunity,” added Nora.
“Hush, my dear; I do believe here come Mr. Brudenell and the ladies,” said Hannah.
And even as she spoke the great doors of the barn were thrown open, and the young landlord and his family entered.
First came Mr. Brudenell, a young gentleman of medium height, and elegantly rather than strongly built; his features were regular and delicate; his complexion fair and clear; his hair of a pale, soft, golden tint; and in contrast to all this, his eyes were of a deep, dark, burning brown, full of fire, passion, and fascination. There was no doubt about it—he was beautiful! I know that is a strange term to apply to a man, but it is the only true and comprehensive one to characterize the personal appearance of Herman Brudenell. He was attired in a neat black dress suit, without ornaments of any kind; without even a breastpin or a watch chain.
Upon his arm leaned his mother, a tall, fair woman with light hair, light blue eyes, high aquiline features, and a haughty air. She wore a rich gray moire antique, and a fine lace cap.
Behind them came the two young lady sisters, so like their mother that no one could have mistaken them. They wore white muslin dresses, sashes of blue ribbon, and wreaths of blue harebells. They advanced with smiles intended to be gracious, but which were only condescending.
The eyes of all the people in the barn were fixed upon this party, except those of Nora Worth, which were riveted upon the young heir.
And this was destiny!
There was nothing unmaidenly in her regard. She looked upon him as a peasant girl might look upon a passing prince—as something grand, glorious, sun like, and immeasurably above her sphere; but not as a human being, not as a young man precisely like other young men.
While thus, with fresh lips glowingly apart, and blushing cheeks, and eyes full of innocent admiration, she gazed upon him, he suddenly turned around, and their eyes met full. He smiled sweetly, bowed lowly, and turned slowly away. And she, with childlike delight, seized her sister’s arm and exclaimed:
“Oh, Hannah, the young heir bowed to me, he did indeed!”
“He could do no less, since you looked at him so hard,” replied the sister gravely.
“But to me, Hannah, to me—just think of it! No one ever bowed to me before, not even the negroes! and to think of him—Mr. Brudenell—bowing to me—me!”
“I tell you he could do no less; he caught you looking at him; to have continued staring you in the face would have been rude; to have turned abruptly away would have been equally so; gentlemen are never guilty of rudeness, and Mr. Brudenell is a gentleman; therefore he bowed to you, as I believe he would have bowed to a colored girl even.”
“Oh, but he smiled! he smiled so warmly and brightly, just for all the world like the sun shining out, and as if, as if—”
“As if what, you little goose?”
“Well, then, as if he was pleased.”
“It was because he was amused; he was laughing at you, you silly child!”
“Do you think so?” asked Nora, with a sudden change of tone from gay to grave.
“I am quite sure of it, dear,” replied the elder sister, speaking her real opinion.
“Laughing at me,” repeated Nora to herself, and she fell into thought.
Meanwhile, with a nod to one a smile to another and a word to a third, the young heir and his party passed down the whole length of the room and retired through an upper door. As soon as they were gone the negro fiddlers, six in number, led by Jovial, entered, took their seats, tuned their instruments, and struck up a lively reel.
There was an, immediate stir; the rustic beaus sought their belles, and sets were quickly formed.
A long, lanky, stooping young man, with a pale, care-worn face and grayish hair, and dressed in a homespun jacket and trousers, came up to the sisters.
“Dance, Hannah?” he inquired.
“No, thank you, Reuben; take Nora out—she would like to.”
“Dance, Nora?” said Reuben Gray, turning obediently to the younger sister.
“Set you up with it, after asking Hannah first, right before my very eyes. I’m not a-going to take anybody’s cast-offs, Mr. Reuben!”
“I hope you are not angry with, me for that, Nora? It was natural I should prefer to dance with your sister. I belong to her like, you know. Don’t be mad with me,” said Reuben meekly.
“Nonsense, Rue! you know I was joking. Make Hannah dance; it will do her good; she mopes too much,” laughed Nora.
“Do, Hannah, do, dear; you know I can’t enjoy myself other ways,” said the docile fellow.
“And it is little enjoyment you have in this world, poor soul!” said Hannah Worth, as she rose and placed her hand in his.
“Ah, but I have a great deal, Hannah, dear, when I’m along o’ you,” he whispered gallantly, as he led her off to join the dancers.
And they were soon seen tritting, whirling, heying, and selling with the best of them—forgetting in the contagious merriment of the music and motion all their cares.
Nora was besieged with admirers, who solicited her hand for the dance. But to one and all she returned a negative. She was tired with her long walk, and would not dance, at least not this set; she preferred to sit still and watch the others. So at last she was left to her chosen occupation. She had sat thus but a few moments, her eyes lovingly following the flying forms of Reuben and Hannah through the mazes of the dance, her heart rejoicing in their joy, when a soft voice murmured at her ear.
“Sitting quite alone, Nora? How is that? The young men have not lost their wits, I hope?”
She started, looked up, and with a vivid blush recognized her young landlord. He was bending over her with the same sweet ingenuous smile that had greeted her when their eyes first met that morning. She drooped the long, dark lashes over her eyes until they swept her carmine cheeks, but she did not answer.
“I have just deposited my mother and sisters in their drawing-room, and I have returned to look at the dancers. May I take this seat left vacant by your sister?” he asked.
“Certainly you may, sir,” she faltered forth, trembling with, a vague delight.
“How much they enjoy themselves—do they not?” he asked, as he took the seat and looked upon the dancers with a benevolent delight that irradiated his fair, youthful countenance.
“Oh, indeed they do, sir,” said Nora, unconsciously speaking more from her own personal experience of present happiness than from her observation of others.
I wish I could arrive at my majority every few weeks, or else have some other good excuse for giving a great feast. I do so love to see people happy, Nora. It is the greatest pleasure I have in the world.”
“Yet you must have a great many other pleasures, sir; all wealthy people must,” said Nora, gaining courage to converse with one so amiable as she found her young landlord.
“Yes, I have many others; but the greatest of all is the happiness of making others happy. But why are you not among these dancers, Nora?”
“I was tired with my long walk up and down hill and dale. So I would not join them this set.”
“Are you engaged for the next?”
“Then be my partner for it, will you?”
“Oh, sir!” And the girl’s truthful face flashed with surprise and delight.
“Will you dance with me, then, for the next set?”
“Yes, sir, please.”
“Thank you, Nora. But now tell me, did you recollect me as well as I remembered you?”
“But that is strange; for I knew you again the instant I saw you.”
“But, sir, you know I was but a baby when you went away?”
“That is true.”
“But how, then, did you know me again?” she wonderingly inquired.
“Easily enough. Though you have grown up into such a fine young woman, your face has not changed its character, Nora. You have the same broad, fair forehead and arched brows; the same dark gray eyes and long lashes; the same delicate nose and budding mouth; and the same peculiar way of smiling only with your eyes; in a word—but pardon me, Nora, I forgot myself in speaking to you so plainly. Here is a new set forming already. Your sister and her partner are going to dance together again; shall we join them?” he suddenly inquired, upon seeing that his direct praise, in which he had spoken in ingenuous frankness, had brought the blushes again to Nora’s cheeks.
She arose and gave him her hand, and he led her forth to the head of the set that was now forming, where she stood with downcast and blushing face, admired by all the men, and envied by all the women that were present.
This was not the only time he danced with her. He was cordial to all his guests, but he devoted himself to Nora. This exclusive attention of the young heir to the poor maiden gave anxiety to her sister and offense to all the other women.
“No good will come of it,” said one.
“No good ever does come of a rich young man paying attention to a poor girl,” added another.
“He is making a perfect fool of himself,” said a third indignantly.
“He is making a perfect fool of her, you had better say,” amended a fourth, more malignant than the rest.
“Hannah, I don’t like it! I’m a sort of elder brother-in-law to her, you know, and I don’t like it. Just see how he looks at her, Hannah! Why, if I was to melt down my heart and pour it all into my face, I couldn’t look at you that-a-way, Hannah, true as I love you. Why, he’s just eating of her up with his eyes, and as for her, she looks as if it was pleasant to be swallowed by him!” said honest Reuben Gray, as he watched the ill-matched young pair as they sat absorbed in each other’s society in a remote corner of the barn.
“Nor do I like it, Reuben,” sighed Hannah.
“I’ve a great mind to interfere! I’ve a right to! I’m her brother-in-law to be.”
“No, do not, Reuben; it would do more harm than good; it would make her and everybody else think more seriously of these attentions than they deserve. It is only for tonight, you know. After this, they will scarcely ever meet to speak to each other again.”
“As you please, Hannah, you are wiser than I am; but still, dear, I must say that a great deal of harm may be done in a day. Remember, dear, that (though I don’t call it harm, but the greatest blessing of my life) it was at a corn-shucking, where we met for the first time, that you and I fell in love long of each other, and have we ever fell out of it yet? No, Hannah, nor never will. But as you and I are both poor, and faithful, and patient, and broken in like to bear things cheerful, no harm has come of our falling in love at that corn-shucking. But now, s’pose them there children fall in love long of each other by looking into each other’s pretty eyes—who’s to hinder it? And that will be the end of it? He can’t marry her; that’s impossible; a man of his rank and a girl of hers! his mother and sisters would never let him! and if they would, his own pride wouldn’t! And so he’d go away and try to forget her, and she’d stop home and break her heart. Hannah, love is like a fire, easy to put out in the beginning, unpossible at the end. You just better let me go and heave a bucket of water on to that there love while it is a-kindling and before the blaze breaks out.”
“Go then, good Reuben, and tell Nora that I am going home and wish her to come to me at once.”
Reuben arose to obey, but was interrupted by the appearance of a negro footman from the house, who came up to him and said:
“Mr. Reuben, de mistess say will you say to de young marster how de gemmen an’ ladies is all arrive, an’ de dinner will be sarve in ten minutes, an’ how she ’sires his presence at de house immediate.”
“Certainly, John! This is better, Hannah, than my interference would have been,” said Reuben Gray, as he hurried off to execute his mission.
So completely absorbed in each other’s conversation were the young pair that they did not observe Reuben’s approach until he stood before them, and, touching his forehead, said respectfully:
“Sir, Madam Brudenell has sent word as the vis’ters be all arrived at the house, and the dinner will be ready in ten minutes, so she wishes you, if you please, to come directly.”
“So late!” exclaimed the young man, looking at his watch, and starting up, “how time flies in some society! Nora, I will conduct you to your sister, and then go and welcome our guests at the house; although I had a great deal rather stay where I am,” he added, in a whisper.
“If you please, sir, I can take her to Hannah,” suggested Reuben.
But without paying any attention to this friendly offer, the young man gave his hand to the maiden and led her down the whole length of the barn, followed by Reuben, and also by the envious eyes of all the assembly.
“Here she is, Hannah. I have brought her back to you quite safe, not even weary with dancing. I hope I have helped her to enjoy herself,” said the young heir gayly, as he deposited the rustic beauty by the side of her sister.
“You are very kind, sir,” said Hannah coldly.
“Ah, you there, Reuben! Be sure you take good care of this little girl, and see that she has plenty of pleasant partners,” said the young gentleman, on seeing Gray behind.
“Be sure I shall take care of her, sir, as if she was my sister, as I hope someday she may be,” replied the man.
“And be careful that she gets a good place at the supper-table—there will be a rush, you know.”
“I shall see to that, sir.”
“Good evening, Hannah; good evening, Nora,” said the young heir, smiling and bowing as he withdrew from the sisters.
Nora sighed; it might have been from fatigue. Several country beaus approached, eagerly contending, now that the coast was clear, for the honor of the beauty’s hand in the dance. But Nora refused one and all. She should dance no more this evening, she said. Supper came on, and Reuben, with one sister on each arm, led them out to the great tent where it was spread. There was a rush. The room was full and the table was crowded; but Reuben made good places for the sisters and stood behind their chairs to wait on them. Hannah, like a happy, working, practical young woman in good health, who had earned an appetite, did ample justice to the luxuries placed before them. Nora ate next to nothing. In vain Hannah and Reuben offered everything to her in turn; she would take nothing. She was not hungry, she said; she was tired and wanted to go home.
“But wouldn’t you rather stay and see the fireworks, Nora?” inquired Reuben Gray, as they arose from the table to give place to someone else.
“I don’t know. Will—will Mr.—I mean Mrs. Brudenell and the young ladies come out to see them, do you think?”
“No, certainly, they will not; these delicate creatures would never stand outside in the night air for that purpose.”
“I—I don’t think I care about stopping to see the fireworks, Reuben,” said Nora.
“But I tell you what, John said how the young heir, the old madam, the young ladies, and the quality folks was all a-going to see the fireworks from the upper piazza. They have got all the red-cushioned settees and arm-chairs put out there for them to sit on.”
“Reuben, I—I think I will stop and see the fireworks; that is, if Hannah is willing,” said Nora musingly.
And so it was settled.
The rustics, after having demolished the whole of the plentiful supper, leaving scarcely a bone or a crust behind them, rushed out in a body, all the worse for a cask of old rye whisky that had been broached, and began to search for eligible stands from which to witness the exhibition of the evening.
Reuben conducted the sisters to a high knoll at some distance from the disorderly crowd, but from which they could command a fine view of the fireworks, which were to be let off in the lawn that lay below their standpoint and between them and the front of the dwelling-house. Here they sat as the evening closed in. As soon as it was quite dark the whole front of the mansion-house suddenly blazed forth in a blinding illumination. There were stars, wheels, festoons, and leaves, all in fire. In the center burned a rich transparency, exhibiting the arms of the Brudenells.
During this illumination none of the family appeared in front, as their forms must have obscured a portion of the lights. It lasted some ten or fifteen minutes, and then suddenly went out, and everything was again dark as midnight. Suddenly from the center of the lawn streamed up a rocket, lighting up with a lurid fire all the scene—the mansion-house with the family and their more honored guests now seated upon the upper piazza, the crowds of men, women, and children, white, black, and mixed, that stood with upturned faces in the lawn, the distant knoll on which were grouped the sisters and their protector, the more distant forests and the tops of remote hills, which all glowed by night in this red glare. This seeming conflagration lasted a minute, and then all was darkness again. This rocket was but the signal for the commencement of the fireworks on the lawn. Another and another, each more brilliant than the last, succeeded. There were stars, wheels, serpents, griffins, dragons, all flashing forth from the darkness in living fire, filling the rustic spectators with admiration, wonder, and terror, and then as suddenly disappearing as if swallowed up in the night from which they had sprung. One instant the whole scene was lighted up as by a general conflagration, the next it was hidden in darkness deep as midnight. The sisters, no more than their fellow-rustics, had never witnessed the marvel of fireworks, so now they gazed from their distant standpoint on the knoll with interest bordering upon consternation.
“Don’t you think they’re dangerous, Reuben?” inquired Hannah.
“No, dear; else such a larned gentleman as Mr. Brudenell, and such a prudent lady as the old madam, would never allow them,” answered Gray.
Nora did not speak; she was absorbed not only by the fireworks themselves, but by the group on the balcony that each illumination revealed; or, to be exact, by one face in that group—the face of Herman Brudenell.
At length the exhibition closed with one grand tableau in many colored fire, displaying the family group of Brudenell, surmounted by their crest, arms, and supporters, all encircled by wreaths of flowers. This splendid transparency illumined the whole scene with dazzling light. It was welcomed by deafening huzzas from the crowd. When the noise had somewhat subsided, Reuben Gray, gazing with the sisters from their knoll upon all this glory, touched Nora upon the shoulder and said:
“I am looking,” she said.
“What do you see?”
“The fireworks, of course.”
“And what beyond them?”
“The great house—Brudenell Hall.”
“The party on the upper piazza.”
“With Mr. Brudenell in the midst?”
“Now, then, observe! You see him, but it is across the glare of the fireworks! There is fire between you and him, girl—a gulf of fire! See that you do not dream either he or you can pass it! For either to do so would be to sink one, and that is yourself, in burning fire—in consuming shame! Oh, Nora, beware!”
He had spoken thus! he, the poor unlettered man who had scarcely ever opened his mouth before without a grievous assault upon good English! he had breathed these words of eloquent warning, as if by direct inspiration, as though his lips, like those of the prophet of old, had been touched by the living coal from Heaven. His solemn words awed Hannah, who understood them by sympathy, and frightened Nora, who did not understand them at all. The last rays of the finale were dying out, and with their expiring light the party on the upper piazza were seen to bow to the rustic assembly on the lawn, and then to withdraw into the house.
And thus ended the fête day of the young heir of Brudenell Hall.
The guests began rapidly to disperse.
Reuben Gray escorted the sisters home, talking with Hannah all the way, not upon the splendors of the festival—a topic he seemed willing to have forgotten, but upon crops, stock, wages, and the price of tea and sugar. This did not prevent Nora from dreaming on the interdicted subject; on the contrary, it left her all the more opportunity to do so, until they all three reached the door of the hill hut, where Reuben Gray bade them good-night.
If we are nature’s, this is ours—this thorn
Doth to our rose of youth rightly belong;
It is the show and seal of nature’s truth
When love’s strong passion is impressed in youth.
What a contrast! the interior of that poor hut to all the splendors they had left! The sisters both were tired, and quickly undressed and went to bed, but not at once to sleep.
Hannah had the bad habit of laying awake at night, studying how to make the two ends of her income and her outlay meet at the close of the year, just as if loss of rest ever helped on the solution to that problem!
Nora, for her part, lay awake in a disturbance of her whole nature, which she could neither understand nor subdue! Nora had never read a poem, a novel, or a play in her life; she had no knowledge of the world; and no instructress but her old maiden sister. Therefore Nora knew no more of love than does the novice who has never left her convent! She could not comprehend the reason why after meeting with Herman Brudenell she had taken such a disgust at the rustic beaus who had hitherto pleased her; nor yet why her whole soul was so very strangely troubled; why at once she was so happy and so miserable; and, above all, why she could not speak of these things to her sister Hannah. She tossed about in feverish excitement.
“What in the world is the matter with you, Nora? You are as restless as a kitten; what ails you?” asked Hannah.
“Nothing,” was the answer.
Now everyone who has looked long upon life knows that of all the maladies, mental or physical, that afflict human nature, “nothing” is the most common, the most dangerous, and the most incurable! When you see a person preoccupied, downcast, despondent, and ask him, “What is the matter?” and he answers, “Nothing,” be sure that it is something great, unutterable, or fatal! Hannah Worth knew this by instinct, and so she answered:
“Nonsense, Nora! I know there is something that keeps you awake; what is it now?”
“Really—and indeed it is nothing serious; only I am thinking over what we have seen today!”
“Oh! but try to go to sleep now, my dear,” said Hannah, as if satisfied.
“I can’t; but, Hannah, I say, are you and Reuben Gray engaged?”
“How long have you been engaged?”
“For more than twelve years, dear.”
“My—good—gracious—me—alive! Twelve years! Why on earth don’t you get married, Hannah?”
“He cannot afford it, dear; it takes everything he can rake and scrape to keep his mother and his little brothers and sisters, and even with all that they often want.”
“Well, then, why don’t he let you off of your promise?”
“Nora!—what! why we would no sooner think of breaking with each other than if we had been married, instead of being engaged all these twelve years!”
“Well, then, when do you expect to be married?”
“I do not know, dear; when his sisters and brothers are all grown up and off his hands, I suppose.”
“And that won’t be for the next ten years—even if then! Hannah, you will be an elderly woman, and he an old man, before that!”
“Yes, dear, I know that; but we must be patient; for everyone in this world has something to bear, and we must accept our share. And even if it should be in our old age that Reuben and myself come together, what of that? We shall have all eternity before us to live together; for, Nora, dear, I look upon myself as his promised wife for time and eternity. Therefore, you see there is no such thing possible as for me to break with Reuben. We belong to each other forever, and the Lord himself knows it. And now, dear, be quiet and try to sleep; for we must rise early tomorrow to make up by industry for the time lost today; so, once more, good-night, dear.”
Nora responded to this good-night and turned her head to the wall—not to sleep, but to muse on those fiery, dark-brown eyes that had looked such mysterious meanings into hers, and that thrilling deep-toned voice that had breathed such sweet praise in her ears. And so musing, Nora fell asleep, and her reverie passed into dreams.
Early the next morning the sisters were up. The weather had changed with the usual abruptness of our capricious climate. The day before had been like June. This day was like January. A dark-gray sky overhead, with black clouds driven by an easterly wind scudding across it, and threatening a rain storm.
The sisters hurried through their morning work, got their frugal breakfast over, put their room in order, and sat down to their daily occupation—Hannah before her loom, Nora beside her spinning-wheel. The clatter of the loom, the whir of the wheel, admitted of no conversation between the workers; so Hannah worked, as usual, in perfect silence, and Nora, who ever before sung to the sound of her humming wheel, now mused instead. The wind rose in occasional gusts, shaking the little hut in its exposed position on the hill.
“How different from yesterday,” sighed Nora, at length.
“Yes, dear; but such is life,” said Hannah. And there the conversation ended, and only the clatter of the loom and the whir of the wheel was heard again, the sisters working on in silence. But hark! Why has the wheel suddenly stopped and the heart of Nora started to rapid beating?
A step came crashing through the crisp frost, and a hand was on the door-latch.
“It is Mr. Brudenell! What can he want here?” exclaimed Hannah, in a tone of impatience, as she arose and opened the door.
The fresh, smiling, genial face of the young man met her there. His kind, cordial, cheery voice addressed her: “Good morning, Hannah! I have been down to the bay this morning, you see, bleak as it is, and the fish bite well! See this fine rock fish! will you accept it from me? And oh, will you let me come in and thaw out my half-frozen fingers by your fire? or will you keep me standing out here in the cold?” he added, smiling.
“Walk in, sir,” said Hannah, inhospitably enough, as she made way for him to enter.
He came in, wearing his picturesque fisherman’s dress, carrying his fishing-rod over his right shoulder, and holding in his left hand the fine rock fish of which he had spoken. His eyes searched for and found Nora; whose face was covered with the deepest blushes.
“Good morning, Nora! I hope you enjoyed yourself yesterday. Did they take care of you after I left?” he inquired, going up to her.
“Yes, thank you, sir.”
“Mr. Brudenell, will you take this chair?” said Hannah, placing one directly before the fire, and pointing to it without giving him time to speak another word to Nora.
“Thank you, yes, Hannah; and will you relieve me of this fish?”
“No, thank you, sir; I think you had better take it up to the madam,” said Hannah bluntly.
“What! carry this all the way from here to Brudenell, after bringing it from the bay? Whatever are you thinking of, Hannah?” laughed the young man, as he stepped outside for a moment and hung the fish on a nail in the wall. “There it is, Hannah,” he said, returning and taking his seat at the fire, “you can use it or throw it away, as you like.”
Hannah made no reply to this; she did not wish to encourage him either to talk or to prolong his stay. Her very expression of countenance was cold and repellent almost to rudeness. Nora saw this and sympathized with him and blamed her sister.
“To think,” she said to herself, “that he was so good to us when we went to see him; and Hannah is so rude to him, now he has come to see us! It is a shame! And see how well he bears it all, too, sitting there warming his poor white hands.”
In fact, the good humor of the young man was imperturbable. He sat there, as Nora observed, smiling and spreading his hands out over the genial blaze and seeking to talk amicably with Hannah, and feeling compensated for all the rebuffs he received from the elder sister whenever he encountered a compassionate glance from the younger, although at the meeting of their eyes her glance was instantly withdrawn and succeeded by fiery blushes. He stayed as long as he had the least excuse for doing so, and then arose to take his leave, half smiling at Hannah’s inhospitable surliness and his own perseverance under difficulties. He went up to Nora to bid her good-by. He took her hand, and as he gently pressed it he looked into her eyes; but hers fell beneath his gaze; and with a simple “Good-day, Nora,” he turned away.
Hannah stood holding the cottage door wide open for his exit.
“Good morning, Hannah,” he said smilingly, as he passed out.
She stepped after him, saying:
“Mr. Brudenell, sir, I must beg you not to come so far out of your way again to bring us a fish. We thank you; but we could not accept it. This also I must request you to take away.” And detaching the rock fish from the nail where it hung, she put it in his hands.
He laughed good-humoredly as he took it, and without further answer than a low bow walked swiftly down the hill.
Hannah re-entered the hut and found herself in the midst of a tempest in a tea-pot.
Nora had a fiery temper of her own, and now it blazed out upon her sister—her beautiful face was stormy with grief and indignation as she exclaimed:
“Oh, Hannah! how could you act so shamefully? To think that yesterday you and I ate and drank and feasted and danced all day at his place and received so much kindness and attention from him besides, and today you would scarcely let him sit down and warm his feet in ours! You treated him worse than a dog, you did, Hannah. And he felt it, too. I saw he did, though he was too much of a gentleman to show it! And as for me, I could have died from mortification!”
“My child,” answered Hannah gravely, “however badly you or he might have felt, believe me, I felt the worse of the three, to be obliged to take the course I did.”
“He will never come here again, never!” sobbed Nora, scarcely heeding the reply of her sister.
“I hope to Heaven he never may!” said Hannah, as she resumed her seat at her loom and drove the shuttle “fast and furious” from side to side of her cloth.
But he did come again. Despite the predictions of Nora and the prayers of Hannah and the inclemency of the weather.
The next day was a tempestuous one, with rain, snow, hail, and sleet all driven before a keen northeast wind, and the sisters, with a great roaring fire in the fireplace between them, were seated the one at her loom and the other at her spinning-wheel, when there came a rap at the door, and before anyone could possibly have had time to go to it, it was pushed open, and Herman Brudenell, covered with snow and sleet, rushed quickly in.
“For Heaven’s sake, my dear Hannah, give me shelter from the storm! I couldn’t wait for ceremony, you see! I had to rush right in after knocking! pardon me! Was ever such a climate as this of ours! What a day for the seventeenth of April! It ought to be bottled up and sent abroad as a curiosity!” he exclaimed, all in a breath, as he unceremoniously took off his cloak and shook it and threw it over a chair.
“Mr. Brudenell! You here again! What could have brought you out on such a day?” cried Hannah, starting up from her loom in extreme surprise.
“The spirit of restlessness, Hannah! It is so dull up there, and particularly on a dull day! How do you do, Nora? Blooming as a rose, eh?” he said, suddenly breaking off and going to shake hands with the blushing girl.
“Never mind Nora’s roses, Mr. Brudenell; attend to me; I ask did you expect to find it any livelier here in this poor hut than in your own princely halls?” said Hannah, as she placed a chair before the fire for his accommodation.
“A great deal livelier, Hannah,” he replied, with boyish frankness, as he took his seat and spread out his hands before the cheerful blaze. “No end to the livelier. Why, Hannah, it is always lively where there’s nature, and always dull where there’s not! Up yonder now there’s too much art; high art indeed—but still art! From my mother and sisters all nature seems to have been educated, refined, and polished away. There we all sat this morning in the parlor, the young ladies punching holes in pieces of muslin, to sew them up again, and calling the work embroidery; and there was my mother, actually working a blue lamb on red grass, and calling her employment worsted work. There was no talk but of patterns, no fire but what was shut up close in a horrid radiator. Really, out of doors was more inviting than in. I thought I would just throw on my cloak and walk over here to see how you were getting along this cold weather, and what do I find here? A great open blazing woodfire—warm, fragrant, and cheerful as only such a fire can be! and a humming wheel and a dancing loom, two cheerful girls looking bright as two chirping birds in their nest! This is like a nest! and it is worth the walk to find it. You’ll not turn me out for an hour or so, Hannah?”
There was scarcely any such thing as resisting his gay, frank, boyish appeal; yet Hannah answered coldly:
“Certainly not, Mr. Brudenell, though I fancy you might have found more attractive company elsewhere. There can be little amusement for you in sitting there and listening to the flying shuttle or the whirling wheel, for hours together, pleasant as you might have first thought them.”
“Yes, but it will! I shall hear music in the loom and wheel, and see pictures in the fire,” said the young man, settling himself, comfortable.
Hannah drove her shuttle back and forth with a vigor that seemed to owe something to temper.
Herman heard no music and saw no pictures; his whole nature was absorbed in the one delightful feeling of being near Nora, only being near her, that was sufficient for the present to make him happy. To talk to her was impossible, even if he had greatly desired to do so; for the music of which he had spoken made too much noise. He stayed as long as he possibly could, and then reluctantly arose to leave. He shook hands with Hannah first, reserving the dear delight of pressing Nora’s hand for the last.
The next day the weather changed again; it was fine; and Herman Brudenell, as usual, presented himself at the hut; his excuse this time being that he wished to inquire whether the sisters would not like to have some repairs put upon the house—a new roof, another door and window, or even a new room added; if so, his carpenter was even now at Brudenell Hall, attending to some improvements there, and as soon as he was done he should be sent to the hut.
But no; Hannah wanted no repairs whatever. The hut was large enough for her and her sister, only too small to entertain visitors. So with this pointed home-thrust from Hannah, and a glance that at once healed the wound from Nora, he was forced to take his departure.
The next day he called again; he had, unluckily, left his gloves behind him during his preceding visit.
They were very nearly flung at his head by the thoroughly exasperated Hannah. But again he was made happy by a glance from Nora.
And, in short, almost every day he found some excuse for coming to the cottage, overlooking all Hannah’s rude rebuffs with the most imperturbable good humor. At all these visits Hannah was present. She never left the house for an instant, even when upon one occasion she saw the cows in her garden, eating up all the young peas and beans. She let the garden be utterly destroyed rather than leave Nora to hear words of love that for her could mean nothing but misery. This went on for some weeks, when Hannah was driven to decisive measures by an unexpected event. Early one morning Hannah went to a village called “Baymouth,” to procure coffee, tea, and sugar. She went there, did her errand, and returned to the hut as quickly as she could possibly could. As she suddenly opened the door she was struck with consternation by seeing the wheel idle and Nora and Herman seated close together, conversing in a low, confidential tone. They started up on seeing her, confusion on their faces.
Hannah was thoroughly self-possessed. Putting her parcels in Nora’s hands, she said:
“Empty these in their boxes, dear, while I speak to Mr. Brudenell.” Then turning to the young man, she said: “Sir, your mother, I believe, has asked to see me about some cloth she wishes to have woven. I am going over to her now; will you go with me?”
“Certainly, Hannah,” replied Mr. Brudenell, seizing his hat in nervous trepidation, and forgetting or not venturing to bid good-by to Nora.
When they had got a little way from the hut, Hannah said:
“Mr. Brudenell, why do you come to our poor little house so often?”
The question, though it was expected, was perplexing.
“Why do I come, Hannah? Why, because I like to.”
“Because you like to! Quite a sufficient reason for a gentleman to render for his actions, I suppose you think. But, now, another question: ‘What are your intentions towards my sister?’”
“My intentions!” repeated the young man, in a thunderstruck manner. “What in the world do you mean, Hannah?”
“I mean to remind you that you have been visiting Nora for the last two months, and that today, when I entered the house, I found you sitting together as lovers sit; looking at each other as lovers look; and speaking in the low tones that lovers use; and when I reached you, you started in confusion—as lovers do when discovered at their love-making. Now I repeat my question, ‘What are your intentions towards Nora Worth?’”
Herman Brudenell was blushing now, if he had never blushed before; his very brow was crimson. Hannah had to reiterate her question before his hesitating tongue could answer it.
“My intentions, Hannah? Nothing wrong, I do swear to you! Heaven knows, I mean no harm.”
“I believe that, Mr. Brudenell! I have always believed it, else be sure that I should have found means to compel your absence. But though you might have meant no harm, did you mean any good, Mr. Brudenell?”
“Hannah, I fear that I meant nothing but to enjoy the great pleasure I derived from—from—Nora’s society, and—”
“Stop there, Mr. Brudenell; do not add—mine; for that would be an insincerity unworthy of you! Of me you did not think, except as a marplot! You say you came for the great pleasure you enjoyed in Nora’s society! Did it ever occur to you that she might learn to take too much pleasure in yours? Answer me truly.”
“Hannah, yes, I believed that she was very happy in my company.”
“In a word, you liked her, and you knew you were winning her liking! And yet you had no intentions of any sort, you say; you meant nothing, you admit, but to enjoy yourself! How, Mr. Brudenell, do you think it a manly part for a gentleman to seek to win a poor girl’s love merely for his pastime?”
“Hannah, you are severe on me! Heaven knows I have never spoken one word of love to Nora.”
“‘Never spoken one word!’ What of that? What need of words? Are not glances, are not tones, far more eloquent than words? With these glances and tones you have a thousand times assured my young sister that you love her, that you adore her, that you worship her!”
“Hannah, if my eyes spoke this language to Nora, they spoke Heaven’s own truth! There! I have told you more than I ever told her, for to her my eyes only have spoken!” said the young man fervently.
“Of what were you talking with your heads so close together this morning?” asked Hannah abruptly.
“How do I know? Of birds, of flowers, moonshine, or some such rubbish. I was not heeding my words.”
“No, your eyes were too busy! And now, Mr. Brudenell, I repeat my question: Was yours a manly part—discoursing all this love to Nora, and having no ultimate intentions?”
“Hannah, I never questioned my conscience upon that point; I was too happy for such cross-examination.”
“But now the question is forced upon you, Mr. Brudenell, and we must have an answer now and here.”
“Then, Hannah, I will answer truly! I love Nora; and if I were free to marry, I would make her my wife tomorrow; but I am not; therefore I have been wrong, and very wrong, to seek her society. I acted, however, from want of thought, not from want of principle; I hope you will believe that, Hannah.”
“I do believe it, Mr. Brudenell.”
“And now I put myself in your hands, Hannah! Direct me as you think best; I will obey you. What shall I do?”
“See Nora no more; from this day absent yourself from our house.”
He turned pale as death, reeled, and supported himself against the trunk of a friendly tree.
Hannah looked at him, and from the bottom of her heart she pitied him; for she knew what love was—loving Reuben.
“Mr. Brudenell,” she said, “do not take this to heart so much: why should you, indeed, when you know that your fate is in your own hands? You are master of your own destiny, and no man who is so should give way to despondency. The alternative before you is simply this: to cease to visit Nora, or to marry her. To do the first you must sacrifice your love, to do the last you must sacrifice your pride. Now choose between the courses of action! Gratify your love or your pride, as you see fit, and cheerfully pay down the price! This seems to me to be the only manly, the only rational, course.”
“Oh, Hannah, Hannah, you do not understand! you do not!” he cried in a voice full of anguish.
“Yes, I do; I know how hard it would be to you in either case. On the one hand, what a cruel wrench it will give your heart to tear yourself from Nora—”
“Yes, yes; oh, Heaven, yes!”
“And, on the other hand, I know what an awful sacrifice you would make in marrying her—”
“It is not that! Oh, do me justice! I should not think it a sacrifice! She is too good for me! Oh, Hannah, it is not that which hinders!”
“It is the thought of your mother and sisters, perhaps; but surely if they love you, as I am certain they do, and if they see your happiness depends upon this marriage—in time they will yield!”
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