The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 1/Number 1/Longfellow
It was sunset. The day had been one of the sultriest of August. It would seem as if the fierce alembic of the last twenty-four hours had melted it like the pearl in the golden cup of Cleopatra, and it lay in the West a fused mass of transparent brightness. The reflection from the edges of a hundred clouds wandered hither and thither, over rock and tree and flower, giving a strange, unearthly brilliancy to the most familiar things.
A group of children had gathered about their mother in the summer-house of a garden which faced the sunset sky. The house was one of those square, stately, wooden structures, white, with green blinds, in which of old times the better classes of New England delighted, and which remain to us as memorials of a respectable past. It stood under the arches of two gigantic elms, and was flanked on either side with gardens and grounds which seemed designed on purpose for hospitality and family freedom.
The evening light colored huge bosquets of petunias, which stood with their white or crimson faces looking westward, as if they were thinking creatures. It illumined flame-colored verbenas, and tall columns of pink and snowy phloxes, and hedges of August roses, making them radiant as the flowers of a dream.
The group in the summer-house requires more particular attention. The father and mother, whom we shall call Albert and Olivia, were of the wealthiest class of the neighbouring city, and had been induced by the facility of railroad travelling, and a sensible way of viewing things, to fix their permanent residence in the quiet little village of Q----. Albert had nothing in him different from multitudes of hearty, joyous, healthily constituted men, who subsist upon daily newspapers, and find the world a most comfortable place to live in. As to Olivia, she was in the warm noon of life, and a picture of vitality and enjoyment. A plump, firm cheek, a dark eye, a motherly fulness of form, spoke the being made to receive and enjoy the things of earth, the warm-hearted wife, the indulgent mother, the hospitable mistress of the mansion. It is true that the smile on the lip had something of earthly pride blended with womanly sweetness,--the pride of one who has as yet known only prosperity and success, to whom no mischance has yet shown the frail basis on which human hopes are built. Her foot had as yet trod only the high places of life, but she walked there with a natural grace and nobleness that made every one feel that she was made for them and they for her.
Around the parents were gathered at this moment a charming group of children, who with much merriment were proceeding to undo a bundle the father had just brought from the city.
"Here, Rose," said little Amy, a blue-eyed, flaxen-haired pet, who seemed to be a privileged character, "let _me_ come; don't be all night with your orderly ways; let me cut that string." A sharp flash of the scissors, a quick report of the bursting string, and the package lay opened to the little marauder. Rose drew back, smiled, and gave an indulgent look at her eager younger sister and the two little ones who immediately gathered around. She was one of those calm, thoughtful, womanly young girls, that seem born for pattern elder sisters, and for the stay and support of mothers' hearts. She watched with a gentle, quiet curiosity the quick and eager fingers that soon were busy in exposing the mysteries of the parcel.
"There's a dress for Rose," said Amy, triumphantly drawing out a delicate muslin; "I can always tell what's for her."
"How?" put in the father, who stood regarding the proceeding with that air of amused superiority with which the wearers of broadcloth look down on the mysteries of muslin and barége.
"How?" said Amy, "why, because they look just like her. If I were to see that lilac muslin in China, I should say it was meant for Rose. Now this is mine, I know,--this bright pink; isn't it, mamma? No half shades about me!"
"No, indeed," said her mother; "that is your greatest fault, Amy."
"Oh, well, mamma, Rose has enough for both; you must rub us together, as they do light red and Prussian blue, to make a neutral tint. But oh, what a ribbon! oh, mother, what a love of a ribbon! Rose! Rose! look at this ribbon! And oh, those buttons! Fred, I do believe they are for your new coat! Oh, and those studs, father, where did you get them? What's in that box? a bracelet for Rose, I know! oh, how beautiful! perfectly exquisite! And here--oh!"
Here something happened to check the volubility of the little speaker; for as she hastily, and with the license of a petted child, pulled the articles from the parcel, she was startled to find lying among the numerous colored things a black crape veil. Sombre, dark, and ill-omened enough it looked there, with pink, and lilac, and blue, and glittering _bijouterie_ around it!
Amy dropped it with instinctive repugnance, and there was a general exclamation, "Mamma, what's this? how came it here? what did you get this for?"
"Strange!" said Olivia; "it is a _mourning veil_. Of course I did not order it. How it came in here nobody knows; it must have been a mistake of the clerk."
"Certainly it is a mistake," said Amy; "we have nothing to do with mourning, have we?"
"No, to be sure; what should we mourn for?" chimed in little Fred and Mary.
"What a dark, ugly thing it is!" said Amy, unfolding and throwing it over her head; "how dismal it must be to see the world through such a veil as this!"
"And yet till one has seen the world through a veil like that, one has never truly lived," said another voice, joining in the conversation.
"Ah, Father Payson, are you there?" said two or three voices at once.
Father Payson was the minister of the village, and their nearest neighbor; and not only their nearest neighbor, but their nearest friend. In the afternoon of his years, life's day with him now stood at that hour when, though the shadows fall eastward, yet the colors are warmer, and the songs of the birds sweeter, than even in its jubilant morning.
God sometimes gives to good men a guileless and holy second childhood, in which the soul becomes childlike, not childish, and the faculties in full fruit and ripeness are mellow without sign of decay. This is that songful land of Beulah, where they who have travelled manfully the Christian way abide awhile to show the world a perfected manhood. Life, with its battles and its sorrows, lies far behind them; the soul has thrown off its armor, and sits in an evening undress of calm and holy leisure. Thrice blessed the family or neighborhood that numbers among it one of these not yet ascended saints! Gentle are they and tolerant, apt to play with little children, easy to be pleased with simple pleasures, and with a pitying wisdom guiding those who err. New England has been blessed in numbering many such among her country pastors; and a spontaneous, instinctive deference honors them with the title of Father.
Father Payson was the welcome inmate of every family in the village, the chosen friend even of the young and thoughtless. He had stories for children, jokes for the young, and wisdom for all. He "talked good," as the phrase goes,--not because he was the minister, but because, being good, he could not help it; yet his words, unconsciously to himself, were often parables, because life to him had become all spiritualized, and he saw sacred meanings under worldly things.
The children seized him lovingly by either hand and seated him in the arbor.
"Isn't it strange," said Amy, "to see this ugly black thing among all these bright colors? such a strange mistake in the clerk!"
"If one were inclined to be superstitious," said Albert, "he might call this an omen."
"What did you mean, sir," asked Rose, quietly seating herself at his feet, "by 'seeing life through this veil'?"
"It was a parable, my daughter," he said, laying his hand on her head.
"I never have had any deep sorrow," said Olivia, musingly; "we have been favored ones hitherto. But why did you say one must see the world through such a medium as this?"
"Sorrow is God's school," said the old man. "Even God's own Son was not made perfect without it; though a son, yet learned he obedience by the things that he suffered. Many of the brightest virtues are like stars; there must be night or they cannot shine. Without suffering, there could be no fortitude, no patience, no compassion, no sympathy. Take all sorrow out of life, and you take away all richness and depth and tenderness. Sorrow is the furnace that melts selfish hearts together in love. Many are hard and inconsiderate, not because they lack capability of feeling, but because the vase that holds the sweet waters has never been broken."
"Is it, then, an imperfection and misfortune never to have suffered?" said Olivia.
Father Payson looked down. Rose was looking into his face. There was a bright, eager, yet subdued expression in her eyes that struck him; it had often struck him before in the village church. It was as if his words had awakened an internal angel, that looked fluttering out behind them. Rose had been from childhood one of those thoughtful, listening children with whom one seems to commune without words. We spend hours talking with them, and fancy they have said many things to us, which, on reflection, we find have been said only with their silent answering eyes. Those who talk much often reply to you less than those who silently and thoughtfully listen. And so it came to pass, that, on account of this quietly absorbent nature, Rose had grown to her parents' hearts with a peculiar nearness. Eighteen summers had perfected her beauty. The miracle of the growth and perfection of a human body and soul never waxes old; parents marvel at it in every household as if a child had never grown before; and so Olivia and Albert looked on their fair Rose daily with a restful and trusting pride.
At this moment she laid her hand on Father Payson's knee, and said earnestly,--"Ought we to pray for sorrow, then?"
"Oh, no, no, no!" interrupted Olivia, with an instinctive shudder,--such a shudder as a warm, earnest, prosperous heart always gives as the shadow of the grave falls across it,--"don't say yes!"
"I do not say we should pray for it," said Father Payson; "yet the Master says, 'Blessed are they that mourn,' not 'Blessed are they that prosper.' So heaven and earth differ in their judgments."
"Ah, me!" said Olivia, "I am afraid I have not courage to wish to be among the blessed."
"Well," said Albert, whom the gravity of the discussion somewhat disturbed. "let us not borrow trouble; time enough to think of it when it happens. Come, the dew is falling, let us go in. I want to show Father Payson some peaches that will tempt his Christian graces to envy. Come, Rose, gather up here."
Rose, in a few moments, gathered the parcel together, and quietly flitted before them into the house.
"Now," said Albert, "you'll see that girl will have everything quietly tucked away in just the right place; not a word said. She is a born housewife; it's in her, as much as it is in a pointer to show game."
"Rose is my right hand," said Olivia; "I should be lost without her."
Whence comes it, that, just on the verge of the great crises and afflictions of life, words are often spoken, that, to after view, seem to have had a prophetic meaning? So often do we hear people saying, "Ah, the very day before I heard of this or that, we were saying so and so!" It would seem sometimes as if the soul felt itself being drawn within the dark sphere of a coming evil, of which as yet nothing outward tells. Then the thoughts and conversation flow in an almost prophetic channel, which a coming future too well interprets.
The evening passed cheerfully with our friends, notwithstanding the grave conversation in the arbor. The mourning veil was laid away in a drawer along with many of its brilliant companions, and with it the thoughts it had suggested; and the merry laugh ringing from the half-open parlor-door showed that Father Payson was no despiser of the command to rejoice with them that do rejoice.
Rose played and sung, the children danced, and the mirth was prolonged till a late hour in the evening.
Olivia and Albert were lingering in the parlor after the departure of the family, busy in shutting windows, setting back chairs, and attending to all the last duties of orderly householders.
A sudden shriek startled them; such a shriek as, once heard, is never forgotten. With an answering cry of horror, they rushed up the stairs. The hall lamp had been extinguished, but the passage and staircase were red with a broad glare from the open door of the nursery.
A moment more showed them the drapery of the bed in which their youngest child was sleeping all in flames; then they saw a light form tearing down the blazing curtains.
"Oh, Rose! Rose! take care, for God's sake! your dress! you'll kill yourself! oh, God help us!"
There were a few moments--awful moments of struggle--when none knew or remembered what they did; a moment more and Rose lay panting in her father's arms, enveloped in a thick blanket which he had thrown around her burning night-dress. The fire was extinguished, the babe lay unawakened, and only the dark flecks of tinder scattered over the bed, and the trampled mass on the floor, told what had been. But Rose had breathed the hot breath of the flame, deadly to human life, and no water could quench that inward fire.
A word serves to explain all. The child's nurse had carelessly set a lamp too near the curtains, and the night breeze had wafted them into the flame. The apartment of Rose opened into the nursery, and as she stood in her night-dress before her mirror, arranging her hair, she saw the flashing of the flame, and, in the one idea of saving her little sister, forgot every other. That act of self-forgetfulness was her last earthly act; a few short hours of patient suffering were all that remained to her. Peacefully as she had lived, she died, looking tenderly on her parents out of her large blue eyes, and only intent to soothe their pain.
"Yes, I suffer," she said, "but only a short pain. We must all suffer something. My Father thinks a very little enough for me. I have had such a happy life, I _might_ bear just a little pain at the last."
A little later her mind seemed to wander. "Mamma, mamma," she said, hurriedly, "I put the things all away; the lilac muslin and the barége. Mamma, that veil, the mourning veil, is in the drawer. Oh, mamma, that veil was for you; don't refuse it; our Father sends it, and he knows best. Perhaps you will see heaven through that veil."
It is appalling to think how near to the happiest and most prosperous scene of life stands the saddest despair. All homes are haunted with awful possibilities, for whose realization no array of threatening agents is required,--no lightning, or tempest, or battle; a peaceful household lamp, a gust of perfumed evening air, a false step in a moment of gayety, a draught taken by mistake, a match overlooked or mislaid, a moment's oversight in handling a deadly weapon,--and the whole scene of life is irretrievably changed!
It was but a day after the scene in the arbor, and all was mourning in the so lately happy, hospitable house; everybody looked through tears. There were subdued breathings, a low murmur, as of many listeners, a voice of prayer, and the wail of a funeral hymn,--and then the heavy tread of bearers, as, beneath the black pall, _she_ was carried over the threshold of her home, never to return.
And Olivia and Albert came forth behind their dead. The folds of the dark veil seemed a refuge for the mother's sorrow. But how did the flowers of home, the familiar elms, the distant smiling prospect look through its gloomy folds,--emblem of the shadow which had fallen between her heart and life? When she looked at the dark moving hearse, she wondered that the sun still shone, that birds could sing, and that even her own flowers could be so bright.
Ah, mother! the world had been just as full of sorrow the day before; the air as full of "farewells to the dying and mournings for the dead"; but thou knewest it not! Now the outer world comes to thee through the _mourning veil_!
But after the funeral comes life again,--hard, cold, inexorable life, knocking with business-like sound at the mourner's door, obtruding its common-place pertinacity on the dull ear of sorrow. The world cannot wait for us; the world knows no leisure for tears; it moves onward, and drags along with its motion the weary and heavy-laden who would fain rest.
Olivia would have buried herself in her sorrows. There are those who refuse to be comforted. The condolence of friends seems only a mockery; and truly, nothing so shows the emptiness and poverty of human nature as its efforts at condolence.
Father Payson, however, was a visitor who would not be denied; there was something of gentle authority in his white hairs that might not be resisted. Old, and long schooled in sorrow, his heart many times broken in past years, he knew all the ways of mourning. His was no official common-place about "afflictive dispensations." He came first with that tender and reverent silence with which the man acquainted with grief approaches the divine mysteries of sorrow; and from time to time he cast on the troubled waters words, dropped like seeds, not for present fruitfulness, but to germinate after the floods had subsided.
He watched beside a soul in affliction as a mother waits on the crisis of a fever whose turning is to be for life or for death; for he well knew that great sorrows never leave us as they find us; that the broken spirit, ill set, grows callous and distorted ever after.
He had wise patience with every stage of sorrow; he knew that at first the soul is blind, and deaf, and dumb. He was not alarmed when returning vitality showed itself only in moral spasms and convulsions; for in all great griefs come hours of conflict, when the soul is tempted, and complaining, murmuring, dark, skeptical thoughts are whirled like withered leaves through all its desolate chambers.
"What have I learned by looking through this veil?" said Olivia to him, bitterly, one day when they were coming out of a house where they had been visiting a mourning family. "I was trusting in God as an indulgent Father; life seemed beautiful to me in the light of his goodness; now I see only his inflexible severity. I never knew before how much mourning and sorrow there had been even in this little village. There is scarcely a house where something dreadful has not at some time happened. How many families here have been called to mourning since we have! I have not taken up a paper in which I have not seen a record of two or three accidental deaths; some of them even more bitter and cruel than what has befallen us. I read this morning of a poor washerwoman, whose house was burned, and all her children consumed, while she was away working for her bread. I read the other day of a blind man whose only son was drowned in his very presence, while he could do nothing to help him. I was visiting yesterday that poor dress-maker whom you know. She has by toil and pains been educating a fine and dutiful son. He is smitten down with hopeless disease, while her idiot child, who can do nobody any good, is spared. Ah, this mourning veil has indeed opened my eyes; but it has taught me to add all the sorrows of the world to my own; and can I believe in God's love?"
"Daughter," said the old man, "I am not ignorant of these things. I have buried seven children; I have buried my wife; and God has laid on me in my time reproach, and controversy, and contempt. Each cross seemed, at the time, heavier than the others. Each in its day seemed to be what I least could bear; and I would have cried, '_Anything but this!_' And yet, now when I look back, I cannot see one of these sorrows that has not been made a joy to me. With every one some perversity or sin has been subdued, some chain unbound, some good purpose perfected. God has taken my loved ones, but he has given me love. He has given me the power of submission and of consolation; and I have blessed him many times in my ministry for all I have suffered, for by it I have stayed up many that were ready to perish."
"Ah," said Olivia, "you indeed have reason to be comforted, because you can see in yourself the fruit of your sorrows; but I am not improving; I am only crushed and darkened,--not amended."
"Have patience with thyself, child; weeping must endure for a night; all comes not at once. 'No trial _for the present_ seemeth joyous'; but '_afterwards_ it yieldeth the peaceable fruit';--have faith in this _afterwards_. Some one says that it is not in the tempest one walks the beach to look for the treasures of wrecked ships; but when the storm is past we find pearls and precious stones washed ashore. Are there not even now some of these in your path? Is not the love between you and your husband deeper and more intimate since this affliction? Do you not love your other children more tenderly? Did you not tell me that you had thought on the sorrows of every house in this village? Courage, my child! that is a good sign. Once, as you read the papers, you thought nothing of those who lost friends; now you notice and feel. Take the sorrows of others to your heart; they shall widen and deepen it. Ours is a religion of sorrow. The Captain of our salvation was made perfect through suffering; our Father is the God of all consolation; our Teacher is named the Comforter; and all other mysteries are swallowed up in the mystery of the Divine sorrow. 'In all our afflictions He is afflicted.' God refuseth not to suffer;--shall we?"
There is no grave so desolate that flowers will not at last spring on it. Time passed with Albert and Olivia with healing in its wings. The secret place of tears became first a temple of prayer, and afterwards of praise; and the heavy cloud was remembered by the flowers that sprung up after the rain. The vacant chair in the household circle had grown to be a tender influence, not a harrowing one; and the virtues of the lost one seemed to sow themselves like the scattered seeds of a fallen flower, and to spring up in the hearts of the surviving ones. More tender and more blessed is often the brooding influence of the sacred dead than the words of the living.
Olivia became known in the abodes of sorrow, and a deep power seemed given her to console the suffering and distressed. A deeper power of love sprung up within her; and love, though born of sorrow, ever brings peace with it. Many were the hearts that reposed on her; many the wandering that she reclaimed, the wavering that she upheld, the desolate that she comforted. As a soul in heaven may look back on earth, and smile at its past sorrows, so, even here, it may rise to a sphere where it may look down on the storm that once threatened to overwhelm it.
It was on the afternoon of just such another summer day as we have described at the opening of our story, that Olivia was in her apartment, directing the folding and laying away of mourning garments. She took up the dark veil and looked on it kindly, as on a faithful friend. How much had she seen and learned behind the refuge of its sheltering folds! She turned her thoughts within herself. She was calm once more, and happy,--happy with a wider and steadier basis than ever before. A new world seemed opened within her; and with a heart raised in thankfulness she placed the veil among her most sacred treasures.
Yes, there by the smiling image of the lost one,--by the curls of her glossy hair,--by the faded flowers taken from her bier, was laid in solemn thankfulness the Mourning Veil.