A Lady of the Olden School
I WILL first tell you about her mansion, as the frame of a picture has something to do with the impression it makes. Look back to the close of the last century, and come with me to a parallelogram of white wood, characterized by amplitude and durability. The doors and windows are in the right place, and a broad hall dividing the house longitudinally gave free pas sage for the summer air. Alternate columns of the white rose and the sweet-brier were trained quite to the eaves of the slightly-projecting roof. Paved walks, leading to the principal entrances, intersected the green court-yard, and lightly swung the gate upon its hinges, under the protection of a pair of noble spruce-trees, like tutelary deities, over whom the seasons had no power.
Three gardens were there, where the heart of childhood especially disported itself. In the one, principally devoted to flowers, was a geometrical disposition of parts, which the fathers were accustomed to call "a knot." Enthroned in the heart of the central bed was the peony, in its rich mantle-its full, red checks looking more apoplectic than queenly. Troops of tulips, ill every variety of costume, guarded it, and the lily peeresses, in their creamy satin robes, declined their graceful heads as in a royal presence. Damask roses, scattered here and there, as if scarce in hereditary rank, looked down with contempt upon usurpation. Violets and bluebells nestled lovingly at the feet of the aristocracy. Soldiers in green flirted with the ragged ladies, regardless of the monk so near in his somber hood. Lilacs, and snow-balls, and the hardier shrubbery, made pioneer settlements, or partially screened the spot consecrated to the domestic materia medica. There flourished the hoarhound and tansey; thyme and balm armed themselves against the formidable array of fevers; the climbing hop and heavy-headed poppy lulled your senses to forgetfulness; and the honest, rough-leaved sage seemed inwardly repeating the old Latin proverb, "Car moriator homn, dem salis crescet in hatur?"
The two other gardens were devoted to fruit-trees and esculents, and kept in perfect order. In their beautiful bounds might often be seen walking, yes, and working, too, the lady of the mansion. Her knowledge of horticulture and floriculture had become practical, as well as theoretical. Somewhat above the common h[e]ight, all her movements were marked by grace and dignity. Her clear, blue eye was singularly expressive, and her voice an echo of the souls harmony. She had grown old in this lovely retreat; but Time had respected the beauty which he had been unable to conquer and was reluctant to impair. Birth and marriage had nurtured her in aristocracy and affluence. The discipline of sorrow, that had held in check this flood of prosperity, was severe: the death of three fair sons, her only children, in the bloom of childhood, and early widowhood. Deep sympathy for all who mourned, ineffable tenderness for the little ones, and a pious trust in the Fatherly hand that had smitten her, were the results of affliction.
Emphatically was she a lady of the old school, looking well to the ways of her household touching every spring of order and economy--thinking nothing beneath her that promoted the comfort and improvement of those whom God had gathered under her own roof. A sacred relation seemed to her to grow out of the circumstance of sharing the same home, which she strove to make conducive to rational happiness.
If in her worldly ambition had ever existed, it had been so chastened by the adversity of suffering as to leave only apparent the elements of exquisite refinement and high intellectual culture. Her piety partook more of her own idiom of character than of the spirit of the times, combining active benevolence with an innate forbearance, and having no admixture of that bigotry which would fain extinguish every light which its own torch hath not kindled.
To liberality of sentiment was added a free expenditure of money and of time, as the needs of those around her suggested. Counsel was sought for from her, experience and wisdom having made her a kind of Delphic oracle. She took the minute concerns of others into her heart, having more room for them from the circumstance that self did not monopolize the usual amount of space. The colored person and the poor Indian-for the remnant of an aboriginal tribe dwelt near her -were received with courtesy and kindness, whether they came for bread, or for a garment, or for the sweetness of advice.
Her benevolence was proverbial. Gifts for display formed no part of it. Her almoners were trained to an invisible ministry. Food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless were ever found in her hospitable abode. That a bounty so unrestricted should be sometimes abused, was to have been expected. There were those who counseled her to more of worldly wisdom, or a sterner discrimination.
Among these was a gentleman whom she greatly respected-the brother of her departed husband. The residence of his family being opposite to her own, he daily came to inquire after her welfare, and to offer that counsel and aid which are so soothing and acceptable to the widowed heart. The winter of life had fallen upon him, but without chilling his fine social feelings. He had never changed the gentlemanly costume, which was then beginning to be somewhat antique-the white, full-bottomed wig- the cocked three-cornered hat-large silver buckles in the shoes, and smaller ones at the knees-with fair, plaited ruffles at the bosom and over the hands.
Seated side by side, in her scrupulously neat parlor, he might sometimes be heard to say,
"You have been deceived lately in some of your objects of charity. The good are unsuspicious, and the designing ready to turn it to their own advantage."
"I know," she would reply, with that sweet-toned voice, "I have sometimes given to the unworthy. But how shall I discriminate, not having power to read the heart? Suspicion might save us from imposition on some occasions, and on others seal up our sympathies from the deserving. God sendeth rain upon the just and the unjust. If we too rigidly adjust our scales, may we not withhold from those poor who are his family? Does he require us to proportion our bounties accurately to the merits of the receiver? Methinks I had rather give to ten unworthy persons than neglect one lowly servant of my Lord."
"Your arguments honor your benevolence, my sister. Shall I say that they impeach your judgment? I know you do not intend to reward deceit or encourage vice. Indiscriminate alms tempt the thriftless to continue in indolence, and the sinner to repeat his sin. Both these results are an injury to the community."
"What, then, do you consider the safest mode of charity?"
"Undoubtedly that of investing capital in the industry of the poor. Thus you preserve their self-respect and lead them to a right use of their being and its capacities. Whoever undertakes to support the family of an intemperate man, takes from him the strongest motive to his own reformation."
"Brother, your theory is good, but the practice difficult. Childhood, sickness, and imbecility must always be exceptions. The roaming beggar would evade it. It can be only well tested in the families of the active and healthful poor. I have myself distributed wool and flax among this class, and found them gladly received and faithfully manufactured. This afforded them profitable occupation and me an opportunity, through the intercourse that followed, of becoming better acquainted with their character and habits, and ministering to their improvement.
"Systems like these can not be too highly praised; but they will never become general. Love of ease is the insuperable barrier. As long as the gift of money, with little inquiry, involves no labor, quiets conscience, and is the form of charity of which the world takes cognizance with praise, it will be apt to prevail."
Conversations of this nature were prone to end by the kind gentleman's forgetting to practice what he preached, and leaving a donation for some of the numerous pensioners of his sister.
In the days of which we speak, large private collections of books in the provincial towns were almost unknown. Yet in the library of this lady was a cabinet of dark, rich wood, whose shelves were stored with standard authors, selected by her husband during a visit to London. In their pages she found aliment for intellect and taste, and solace for loneliness. Most frequently drawn from their recesses were Tillotson and Sherlock, and the witty South; among historians, Burnet and Clarendon; and that keen, political satire, "Chrysal; or, the Adventures of a Guinea;" of the English Augustan age, Steele and Addison, Pope, Dryden, and Young, but especially the "Night Thoughts" of the latter, which was her daily companion.
That same precious cabinet had a nook for children. Meager enough would it be thought nowadays, when Genius and Fancy take them upon their wings, and Science and Literature bow to them at every turn. What do you think was in that small and rather secret nook, climbed after, surreptitiously peeped into, and even rifled by the little ones? I take shame at writing the list which then excited my cupidity: "Grumbolumbo," "Mother Goose," "The Bag of Nuts ready Cracked," "Robinson Crusoe," and the dramatic elegy of "Who Killed Cock Robin?"
This lady of the olden school had a delightful habit of gathering around her, by invitation, groups of her juvenile friends. Who knew so well as she how to make them happy, and, at the same time, better and wiser. Seated around her every eye was fixed, every heart a listener. Stories she told then, either from the inspired volume or the broad range of history, with which she was familiar. Songs she sang them, her voice being one of great compass and melody. Flowers she had for them, as little text-books of botany, or themes to illustrate the bounty of the Giver. Her skillful and flying scissors produced for them imitations of the beautiful things of creation-birds on the nest, squirrels among the branches, clusters of grapes, and wreaths of the rose and lily-keepsakes that they pressed in their Bibles, or sent to distant friends as forget-me-nots. When the sun grew low, she seated them at her tea-table, not thinking it beneath her to minister bountifully yet judiciously to those animal appetites, which, among juveniles, are wont to have so keen a life. As their social visits were generally on the afternoons of Saturday, some earnest precept about reverencing the Sabbath, obeying parents, loving brothers and sisters, making playmates and all people happy, were so tenderly mingled with the parting kiss as to be as a germ in memory for all future time.
The good thus done by this childless mother, whose heart yearned over those whom Jesus Christ took in his arms and blessed, will be known in that world where all hallowed influences are traced to their true source. Thus loving and loved-making woman's own sphere beautiful and more and more venerated by each succeeding race-she serenely numbered four score and eight years. Beautiful was she to the last. Like unto the angels was she, when they stood around her couch and claimed her company.
Let no one think that extreme age need be unlovely or lonely. More than seventy years had scattered almond-blossoms on her temples ere I saw the light. Yet by that intuition by which children discern the loving and the good, I drew near to her in a companionship blessing and blessed; and now, after this lapse of years, tears of gratitude suffuse my eye at the memory of- her sublimated goodness-her active and beautiful old age.