It is a hard condition of our existence here, that every exaltation must have its depression. God will not let us have heaven here below, but only such glimpses and faint showings as parents sometimes give to children when they show them beforehand the jewelry and pictures, and stores of rare and curious treasures, which they hold in store for the possession of their riper years. So it very often happens that the man who, entranced by some rapturous excitement, has gone to bed an angel, feeling as if all sin were for ever vanquished, and he himself immutably grounded in love, may wake the next morning with a sick headache; and if he be not careful may scold about his breakfast like a miserable sinner.

We will not say that our dear little Mary rose in this condition next morning; for although she had the headache, she had one of those natures in which somehow or other the combative element seems to be left out, so that no one ever knew her to speak a fretful word. But still, as we have observed, she had the headache and the depression, and then came the slow, creeping sense of a wakening-up through all her heart and soul, of a thousand thousand things that could be said only to one person, and that person one that it would be temptation and danger to say them to.

She came out of her room to her morning work with a face resolved and calm, but expressive of languor, with slight signs of some inward struggle.

Madame de Frontignac, who had already heard the intelligence, threw two or three of her bright glances upon her at breakfast, and at once divined how the matter stood. She was of a nature so delicately sensitive to the most refined shades of honour, that she apprehended at once that there must be a conflict; though, judging by her own impulsive nature, she made no doubt that all would at once go down before the mighty force of reawakened love.

After breakfast she would insist upon following Mary about through all her avocations. She possessed herself of a towel, and would wipe the teacups and saucers while Mary washed. She clinked the glasses and rattled the cups and spoons, and stepped about as briskly as if she had two or three breezes to carry her train; and chattered half-English and half-French, for the sake of bringing into Mary’s cheek the shy, slow dimples that she liked to watch. But still Mrs. Scudder was around, with an air as provident and forbidding as that of a setting hen who watches her nest; nor was it till after all things had been cleared away in the house, and Mary had gone up into her little attic to spin, that the opportunity long sought came, of diving to the bottom of this mystery.

Enfin, Marie, nous voilà! are you not going to tell me anything, when I have turned my heart out to you like a bag? Chère enfant! how happy you must be!’ she said, embracing her.

‘Yes, I am very happy,’ said Mary, with calm gravity.

Very happy!’ said Madame de Frontignac, mimicking her manner. ‘Is that the way you American girls show it when you are very happy? Come, come, ma belle, tell little Verginie something. Thou hast seen this hero, this wandering Ulysses. He has come back at last—the tapestry will not be quite as long as Penelope’s. Speak to me of him. Has he beautiful black eyes, and hair that curls like a grape-vine? Tell me, ma belle.’

‘I only saw him a little while,’ said Mary; ‘and I felt a great deal more than I saw. He could not have been any clearer to me than he always has been in my mind.’

‘But I think,’ said Madame de Frontignac, seating Mary as was her wont, and sitting down at her feet, ‘I think you are a little “triste” about this! Very likely you pity the poor priest! It is sad for him, but a good priest has the church for his bride, you know.’

‘You do not think,’ said Mary, speaking seriously, ‘that I shall break my promise, given before God, to this good man?’

Mon Dieu, mon enfant! You do not mean to marry the priest after all! Quelle idée!

‘But I promised him,’ said Mary.

Madame de Frontignac threw up her hands with an expression of vexation.

‘What a pity, my little one, you are not in the true Church! Any good priest could dispense you from that.’

‘I do not believe,’ said Mary, ‘in any earthly power that can dispense us from solemn obligations which we have assumed before God, and on which we have suffered others to build the most precious hopes. If James had won the affections of some girl, thinking as I do, I should not feel it right for him to leave her and come to me. The Bible says that the just man is he that sweareth to his own hurt and changeth not.’

‘This is the sublime of duty!’ said Madame de Frontignac, who, with the airy facility of her race, never lost her appreciation of the fine points of anything that went on under her eyes. But nevertheless she was inwardly resolved, that picturesque as this ‘sublime of duty’ was, it must not be allowed to pass beyond the limits of a fine art, and so she recommenced.

Mais c’est absurde! This beautiful young man, with his black eyes and his curls—a real hero—a Theseus, Mary; just come home from killing a Minotaur—and loves you with his whole heart—and this dreadful promise! Why haven’t you any sort of people in your Church that can unbind you from promises? I should think the good priest himself would do it!’

‘Perhaps he would,’ said Mary, ‘if I would ask him; but that would be equivalent to a breach of it. Of course no man would marry a woman that asked to be dispensed.’

‘You are an angel of delicacy, my child; c’est admirable! but after all, Mary, this is not well! Listen now to me: you are a very sweet saint, and very strong in goodness. I think you must have a very strong angel that takes care of you; but think, chère enfant, think what it is to marry one man while you love another.’

‘But I love the Doctor,’ said Mary, evasively.

Love!’ said Madame de Frontignac. ‘Oh, Marie! you may love him well, but you and I both know that there is something deeper than that! What will you do with this young man? Must he move away from this place, and not be with his poor mother any more? Or can you see him, and hear him, and be with him after your marriage, and not feel that you love him more than your husband?’

‘I should hope that God would help me to feel right,’ said Mary.

‘I am very much afraid He will not, ma chère’ said Madame. ‘I asked Him a great many times to help me when I found how wrong it all was, and He did not. You remember what you told me the other day, “that if I would do right I must not see that man any more.” You will have to ask him to go away from this place. You can never see him, for this love will never die till you die! That you may be sure of. Is it wise? Is it right, dear little one? Must he leave his home for ever for you? Or must you struggle always, and grow whiter and whiter and whiter, and fade away into heaven like the moon this morning, and nobody know what is the matter? People will say you have the liver-complaint, or the consumption, or something. Nobody ever knows what we women die of.’

Poor Mary’s conscience was fairly posed. This appeal struck upon her sense of right, as having its grounds. She felt inexpressibly confused and distressed.

‘Oh, I wish somebody would tell me exactly what is right!’ she said.

‘Well, I will!’ said Madame de Frontignac. ‘Go down to the dear priest and tell him the whole truth. My dear child, do you think if he should ever find it out after your marriage, he would think you used him right?’

‘And yet mother does not think so! Mother does not wish me to tell him!’

Pauvrette! Always the mother! Yes, it is always the mothers that stand in the way of the lovers. Why cannot she marry the priest herself?’ she said, between her teeth, and then looked up, startled and guilty, to see if Mary had heard her.

‘I cannot!’ said Mary. ‘I cannot go against my conscience, and my mother, and my best friend—’

At this moment the conference was cut short by Mrs. Scudder’s provident footstep on the garret stairs. A vague suspicion of something French had haunted her during her dairy-work, and she resolved to come and put a stop to the interview by telling Mary that Miss Prissy wanted her to come and be measured for the skirt of her dress.

Mrs. Scudder, by the use of that sixth sense peculiar to mothers, had divined that there had been some agitating conference, and had she been questioned about it, her guesses as to what it might be, would probably have given no bad résumé of the real state of the case. She was inwardly resolved that there should be no more such for the present, and kept Mary employed about various matters relating to the dresses so scrupulously, that there was no opportunity for anything more of the sort that day.

In the evening James Marvyn came down, and was welcomed with the greatest demonstrations of joy by all but Mary, who sat distant and embarrassed after the first salutations had passed.

The Doctor was innocently parental; but we fear there was small reciprocation of the sentiments he expressed on the part of the young man.

Miss Prissy, indeed, had had her heart somewhat touched, as good little women’s hearts are apt to be by a true love story, and had hinted something of her feelings to Mrs. Scudder in a manner which brought such a severe rejoinder as quite humbled and abashed her, so that she coweringly took refuge under her former declaration, that ‘to be sure there couldn’t be any man in the world better worthy of Mary than the Doctor.’ While still at her heart she was possessed with that troublesome preference for unworthy people which stands in the way of so many excellent things. But she went on vigorously sewing on the wedding-dress, and pursing up her small mouth into the most perfect and guarded expression of non-committal, though, she said afterwards ‘it went to her heart to see how that poor young man did look sitting there, just as noble and as handsome as a pictur’. She didn’t see for her part how anybody’s heart could stand it. Then, to be sure, as Mrs. Scudder said, the poor Doctor ought to be thought about. Dear, blessed man! What a pity it was things would turn out so! Not that it was a pity that Jim came home! That was a great providence! But a pity they hadn’t known about it sooner. Well, for her part, she didn’t pretend to say; the path of duty did have a great many hard places in it,’ &c.

As for James, during his interview at the cottage, he waited and tried in vain for one moment’s solitary conversation. Mrs. Scudder was immovable in her motherly kindness, sitting there smiling and chatting with him, but never stirring from her place by Mary.

Madame de Frontignac was out of all patience, and determined in her small way to do something to discompose the fixed state of things. So, retreating to her room, she contrived, in very desperation, to upset and break a wash-pitcher, shrieking violently in French and English at the deluge which came upon the sanded floor and the little piece of carpet by the bedside.

What housekeeper’s instincts are proof against the crash of breaking china? Mrs. Scudder fled from her seat, followed by Miss Prissy—

‘Ah, then and there was hurrying to and fro’

—while Mary sat, quiet as a statue, bending over her sewing, and James, knowing that it must be now or never, was, like a flash, in the empty chair by her side, with his black moustache very near the bent, brown head.

‘Mary,’ he said, ‘you must let me see you once more. All is not said! is it? Just hear me—hear me once alone!’

‘Oh, James! I am too weak! I dare not! I am afraid of myself.’

‘You think,’ he said, ‘that you must take this course, because it is right; but is it right? Is it right to marry one man when you love another better? I don’t put this to your inclination, Mary; I know it would be of no use. I put it to your conscience.’

‘Oh, I never was so perplexed before!’ said Mary. ‘I don’t know what I do think. I must have time to reflect. And you, oh, James! you must let me do right. There will never be any happiness for me if I do wrong—nor for you either.’

All this while the sounds of running and hurrying in Madame de Frontignac’s room had been unintermitted, and Miss Prissy, not without some glimmerings of perception into the state of things, was holding tight on to Mrs. Scudder’s gown, detailing to her a most capital receipt for mending broken china, the history of which she traced regularly through all the families in which she had ever worked, varying the details with small items of family history, and little incidents as to the births, marriages, and deaths of different people for whom it had been employed, with all the particulars of how, where, and when, so that the time of James for conversation was by this means indefinitely extended.

‘Now,’ he said to Mary, ‘let me propose one thing. Let me go to the Doctor and tell him the truth.’

‘James, it does not seem to me that I can. A friend who has been so considerate, so kind, so self-sacrificing and disinterested, and whom I have allowed to go on with this implicit faith in me so long. Should you, James, think of yourself only?’

‘I do not, I trust, think of myself only,’ said James. ‘I hope that I am calm enough and have a heart to think for others. But I ask you, is it doing right to him to let him marry you in ignorance of the state of your feelings? Is it a kindness to a good and noble man to give yourself to him only seemingly, when the best and noblest part of your affection is gone wholly beyond your control. I am quite sure of that, Mary. I know you do love him very well, that you would make a most true, affectionate, constant wife to him, but what I know you feel for me is something wholly out of your power to give to him, is it not now?’

‘I think it is,’ said Mary, looking gravely and deeply thoughtful. ‘But then, James, I ask myself, what if all this had happened a week hence? My feelings would have been just the same, because they are feelings over which I have no more control than over my existence. I can only control the expression of them. But in that case you would not have asked me to break my marriage vow, and why now shall I break a solemn vow deliberately made before God? If what I can give him will content him, and he never knows that which would give him pain, what wrong is done him?’

‘I should think the deepest possible wrong done me,’ said James, ‘if, when I thought I had married a wife with a whole heart, I found that the greater part of it had been before that given to another. If you tell him, or if I tell him, or your mother, who is the more proper person, and he chooses to hold you to your promise, then, Mary, I have no more to say. I shall sail in a few weeks again, and carry your image for ever in my heart; nobody can take that away, and that dear shadow will be the only wife I shall ever know.’

At this moment Miss Prissy came rattling along towards the door, talking, we suspect designedly, in quite a high key. Mary hastily said,

‘Wait, James, let me think. To-morrow is the Sabbath-day. Monday I will send you word or see you.’

And when Miss Prissy returned into the best room, James was sitting at one window and Mary at another, he making remarks in a style of most admirable commonplace on a copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which he had picked up in the confusion of the moment, and which at the time Mrs. Katy Scudder entered, he was declaring to be a most excellent book, and a really truly valuable work.

Mrs. Scudder looked keenly from one to the other, and saw that Mary’s cheek was glowing like the deepest heart of a pink shell, while in all other respects she was as cold and calm. On the whole she felt satisfied that no mischief had been done.

We hope our readers will do Mrs. Scudder justice. It is true that she yet wore on her third finger the marriage ring of a sailor lover, and his memory was yet fresh in her heart; but even mothers who have married for love themselves somehow so blend their daughter’s existence with their own as to conceive that she must marry their love and not her own.

Beside this, Mrs. Scudder was an Old Testament woman, brought up with that scrupulous exactitude of fidelity in relation to promises which would naturally come from familiarity with a book where covenant-keeping is represented as one of the highest attributes of Deity, and covenant-breaking as one of the vilest sins of humanity. To break the word that had gone forth out of one’s mouth was to lose self-respect and all claim to the respect of others, and to sin against eternal rectitude.

As we have said before, it is almost impossible to make our light-minded modern times comprehend the earnestness with which these people lived. It was in the beginning no vulgar nor mercenary ambition that made Mrs. Scudder desire the Doctor as a husband for her daughter. He was poor, and she had had offers from richer men. He was often unpopular, but he was the man in the world she most revered, the man she believed in with the most implicit faith, the man who embodied her highest idea of the good; and therefore it was that she was willing to resign her child to him.

As to James, she had felt truly sympathetic with his mother and with Mary in the dreadful hour when they supposed him lost, and had it not been for the great perplexity occasioned by his return she would have received him as a relative with open arms. But now she felt it her duty to be on the defensive, an attitude not the most favourable for cherishing pleasing associations in regard to another. She had read the letter giving an account of his spiritual experience with very sincere pleasure as a good woman should, but not without an internal perception how very much it endangered her favourite plans. But when Mary had calmly reiterated her determination, she felt sure of her. For had she ever known her to say a thing she did not do?

The uneasiness she felt at present was not the doubt of her daughter’s steadiness, but the fear that she might have been unsuitably harassed or annoyed.

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