Chapter V. The Letter

Mary returned to the quietude of her room. The red of twilight had faded, and the silver moon, round and fair, was rising behind the thick boughs of the apple-trees. She sat down in the window, thoughtful and sad, and listened to the crickets, whose ignorant jollity often sounds as mournfully to us mortals as ours may to superior beings. There the little hoarse, black wretches were scraping and creaking, as if life and death were invented solely for their pleasure, and the world were created only to give them a good time in it. Now and then a little wind shivered among the boughs, and brought down a shower of white petals which shimmered in the slant beams of the moonlight; and now a ray touched some tall head of grass, and forthwith it blossomed into silver, and stirred itself with a quiet joy, like a new-born saint just awaking in Paradise. And ever and anon came on the still air the soft, eternal pulsations of the distant sea,—sound mournfullest, most mysterious, of all the harpings of Nature. It was the sea,—the deep, eternal sea,—the treacherous, soft, dreadful, inexplicable sea; and he was perhaps at this moment being borne away on it,—away, away,—to what sorrows, to what temptations, to what dangers, she knew not. She looked along the old, familiar, beaten path by which he came, by which he went, and thought, ‘What if he never should come back?’ There was a little path through the orchard out to a small elevation in the pasture-lot behind, whence the sea was distinctly visible, and Mary had often used her low-silled window as a door when she wanted to pass out thither; so now she stepped out, and, gathering her skirts back from the dewy grass, walked thoughtfully along the path and gained the hill. Newport harbour lay stretched out in the distance, with the rising moon casting a long, wavering track of silver upon it; and vessels, like silver-winged moths, were turning and shifting slowly to and fro upon it, and one stately ship in full sail passing fairly out under her white canvas, graceful as some grand, snowy bird. Mary’s beating heart told her that there was passing away from her one who carried a portion of her existence with him. She sat down under a lonely tree that stood there, and, resting her elbow on her knee, followed the ship with silent prayers, as it passed, like a graceful, cloudy dream, out of her sight.

Then she thoughtfully retraced her way to her chamber; and as she was entering, observed in the now clearer moonlight what she had not seen before,—something white, like a letter, lying on the floor. Immediately she struck a light, and there, sure enough, it was,—a letter in James’s handsome, dashing hand; and the little puss, before she knew what she was about, actually kissed it, with a fervour which would much have astonished the writer, could he at that moment have been clairvoyant. But Mary felt as one who finds, in the emptiness after a friend’s death, an unexpected message or memento; and all alone in the white, calm stillness of her little room her heart took sudden possession of her. She opened the letter with trembling hands, and read what of course we shall let you read. We got it out of a bundle of old, smoky, yellow letters, years after all the parties concerned were gone on the eternal journey beyond earth.

‘My dear Mary,—

‘I cannot leave you so. I have about two hundred things to say to you, and it’s a shame I could not have had longer to see you; but blessed be ink and paper! I am writing and seeing to fifty things besides; so you musn’t wonder if my letter has rather a confused appearance.

‘I have been thinking that perhaps I gave you a wrong impression of myself, this afternoon. I am going to speak to you from my heart, as if I were confessing on my death-bed. Well, then, I do not confess to being what is commonly called a bad young man. I should be willing that men of the world generally, even strict ones, should look my life through and know all about it. It is only in your presence, Mary, that I feel that I am bad and low and shallow and mean, because you represent to me a sphere higher and holier than any in which I have ever moved, and stir up a sort of sighing and longing in my heart to come towards it. In all countries, in all temptations, Mary, your image has stood between me and low, gross vice. When I have been with fellows roaring drunken, beastly songs,—suddenly I have seemed to see you as you used to sit beside me in the singing-school, and your voice has been like an angel’s in my ear, and I have got up and gone out sick and disgusted. Your face has risen up calm and white and still, between the faces of poor lost creatures who know no better way of life than to tempt us to sin. And sometimes, Mary, when I have seen girls that, had they been cared for by good, pious mothers, might have been like you, I have felt as if I could cry for them. Poor women are abused all the world over; and it’s no wonder they turn round and revenge themselves on us.

‘No, I have not been bad, Mary, as the world calls badness. I have been kept by you. But do you remember you told me once, that, when the snow first fell and lay so dazzling and pure and soft, all about, you always felt as if the spreads and window-curtains that seemed white before were dirty? Well, it’s just like that with me. Your presence makes me feel that I am not pure,—that I am low and unworthy,—not worthy to touch the hem of your garment. Your good Dr. H. spent a whole half-day, the other Sunday, trying to tell us about the beauty of holiness; and he cut, and pared, and peeled, and sliced, and told us what it wasn’t, and what was like it, and wasn’t; and then he built up an exact definition, and fortified and bricked it up all round; and I thought to myself that he’d better tell ’em to look at Mary Scudder, and they’d understand all about it. That was what I was thinking when you talked to me for looking at you in church instead of looking towards the pulpit. It really made me laugh in myself to see what a good little ignorant, unconscious way you had of looking up at the Doctor, as if he knew more about that than you did.

‘And now as to your Doctor that you think so much of, I like him for certain things, in certain ways. He is a great, grand, large pattern of a man,—a man who isn’t afraid to think, and to speak anything he does think; but then I do believe, if he would take a voyage round the world in the forecastle of a whaler, he would know more about what to say to people than he does now; it would certainly give him several new points to be considered. Much of his preaching about men is as like live men as Chinese pictures of trees and rocks and gardens,—no nearer the reality than that. All I can say is, “It isn’t so; and you’d know it, Sir, if you knew men.” He has got what they call a system,—just so many bricks put together just so; but it is too narrow to take in all I see in my wanderings round this world of ours. Nobody that has a soul, and goes round the world as I do, can help feeling it at times, and thinking, as he sees all the races of men and their ways, who made them, and what they were made for. To doubt the existence of a God seems to me like a want of common sense. There is a Maker and a Ruler, doubtless; but then, Mary, all this invisible world of religion is unreal to me. I can see we must be good, somehow,—that if we are not, we shall not be happy here or hereafter. As to all the metaphysics of your good Doctor, you can’t tell how they tire me. I’m not the sort of person that they can touch. I must have real things,—real people; abstractions are nothing to me. Then I think that he systematically contradicts on one Sunday what he preaches on another. One Sunday he tells us that God is the immediate efficient Author of every act of will; the next he tells us that we are entire free agents. I see no sense in it, and can’t take the trouble to put it together. But then he and you have something in you that I call religion,—something that makes you good. When I see a man working away on an entirely honest, unworldly, disinterested pattern, as he does, and when I see you, Mary, as I said before, I should like at least to be as you are, whether I could believe as you do or not.

‘How could you so care for me, and waste on one so unworthy of you such love? Oh, Mary, some better man must win you; I never shall and never can;—but then you must not quite forget me; you must be my friend, my saint. If, through your prayers, your Bible, your friendship, you can bring me to your state, I am willing to be brought there,—nay, desirous. God has put the key of my soul into your hands.

‘So, dear Mary, good-bye! Pray still for your naughty, loving

‘Cousin James.’

Mary read this letter, and re-read it, with more pain than pleasure. To feel the immortality of a beloved soul hanging upon us, to feel that its only communications with Heaven must be through us, is the most solemn and touching thought that can pervade a mind. It was without one particle of gratified vanity, with even a throb of pain, that she read such exalted praises of herself from one blind to the glories of a far higher loveliness.

Yet was she at that moment, unknown to herself, one of the great company scattered through earth who are priests unto God,—ministering between the Divine One, who has unveiled himself unto them, and those who as yet stand in the outer courts of the great sanctuary of truth and holiness. Many a heart, wrung, pierced, bleeding with the sins and sorrows of earth, longing to depart, stands in this mournful and beautiful ministry, but stands unconscious of the glory of the work in which it waits and suffers. God’s kings and priests are crowned with thorns, walking the earth with bleeding feet and comprehending not the work they are performing.

Mary took from a drawer a small pocket-book, from which dropped a lock of black hair,—a glossy curl, which seemed to have a sort of wicked, wilful life in every shining ring, just as she had often seen it shake naughtily on the owner’s head. She felt a strange tenderness towards the little wilful thing, and, as she leaned over it, made in her heart a thousand fond apologies for every fault and error.

She was standing thus when Mrs. Scudder entered the room to see if her daughter had yet retired.

‘What are you doing there, Mary?’ she said, as her eye fell on the letter. ‘What is it you are reading?’

Mary felt herself grow pale: it was the first time in her whole life that her mother had asked her a question that she was not from the heart ready to answer. Her loyalty to her only parent had gone on even-handed with that she gave to her God; she felt, somehow, that the revelations of that afternoon had opened a gulf between them, and the consciousness overpowered her.

Mrs. Scudder was astonished at her evident embarrassment, her trembling, and paleness. She was a woman of prompt, imperative temperament, and the slightest hesitation in rendering to her a full, outspoken confidence had never before occurred in their intercourse. Her child was the core of her heart, the apple of her eye, and intense love is always near neighbour to anger; there was therefore an involuntary flash from her eye and a heightening of her colour, as she said,—‘Mary, are you concealing anything from your mother?’

In that moment Mary had grown calm again. The wonted serene, balanced nature had found its habitual poise, and she looked up innocently, though with tears in her large blue eyes, and said,—‘No, mother,—I have nothing that I do not mean to tell you fully. This letter came from James Marvyn; he came here to see me this afternoon.’

‘Here?—when? I did not see him.’

‘After dinner. I was sitting here in the window, and suddenly he came up behind me through the orchard-path.’

Mrs. Katy sat down with a flushed cheek and a discomposed air; but Mary seemed actually to bear her down by the candid clearness of the large blue eye which she turned on her as she stood perfectly collected, with her deadly-pale face and a brilliant spot burning on each cheek.

‘James came to say good-bye. He complained that he had not had a chance to see me alone since he came home.’

‘And what should he want to see you alone for?’ said Mrs. Scudder, in a dry, disturbed tone.

‘Mother,—everybody has things at times which they would like to say to some one person alone,’ said Mary.

‘Well, tell me what he said.’

‘I will try. In the first place he said that he always had been free, all his life, to run in and out of our house, and to wait on me like a brother.’

‘Hum!’ said Mrs. Scudder; ‘but he isn’t your brother for all that.’

‘Well, then he wanted to know why you were so cold to him, and why you never let him walk with me from meetings, or see me alone as we often used to. And I told him why,—that we were not children now, and that you thought it was not best; and then I talked with him about religion, and tried to persuade him to attend to the concerns of his soul; and I never felt so much hope for him as I do now.’

Aunt Katy looked sceptical, and remarked,—‘If he really felt a disposition for religious instruction, Dr. H. could guide him much better than you could.’

‘Yes,—so I told him, and I tried to persuade him to talk with Dr. H.; but he was very unwilling. He said, I could have more influence over him than anybody else,—that nobody could do him any good but me.’

‘Yes, yes,—I understand all that,’ said Aunt Katy,—‘I have heard young men say that before, and I know just what it amounts to.’

‘But, mother, I do think James was moved very much, this afternoon. I never heard him speak so seriously; he seemed really in earnest, and he asked me to give him my Bible.’

‘Couldn’t he read any Bible but yours?’

‘Why, naturally, you know, mother, he would like my Bible better, because it would put him in mind of me. He promised faithfully to read it all through.’

‘And then, it seems, he wrote you a letter.’ ‘Yes, mother.’

Mary shrank from showing this letter, from the natural sense of honour which makes us feel it indelicate to expose to an unsympathising eye the confidential outpourings of another heart; and then, she felt quite sure that there was no such intercessor for James in her mother’s heart as in her own. But over all this reluctance rose the determined force of duty; and she handed the letter in silence to her mother.

Mrs. Scudder took it, laid it deliberately in her lap, and then began searching in the pocket of her chintz petticoat for her spectacles. These being found, she wiped them, accurately adjusted them, opened the letter and spread it on her lap, brushing out its folds and straightening it, that she might read with the greater ease. After this she read it carefully and deliberately; and all this while there was such a stillness, that the sound of the tall varnished clock in the best room could be heard through the half-opened door.

After reading it with the most tiresome, torturing slowness, she rose, and laying it on the table under Mary’s eye, and, pressing down her finger on two lines in the letter, said, ‘Mary, have you told James that you loved him?’

‘Yes, mother, always. I always loved him, and he always knew it.’

‘But, Mary, this that he speaks of is something different. What has passed between——’

‘Why, mother, he was saying that we who were Christians drew to ourselves and did not care for the salvation of our friends; and then I told him how I had always prayed for him, and how I should be willing even to give up my hopes in heaven, if he might be saved.’

‘Child,—what do you mean?’

‘I mean, if only one of us two could go to heaven, I had rather it should be him than me,’ said Mary.

‘Oh, child! child!’ said Mrs. Scudder, with a sort of groan,—‘has it gone with you so far as this? Poor child!—after all my care, you are in love with this boy,—your heart is set on him.’

‘Mother, I am not. I never expect to see him much,—never expect to marry him or anybody else;—only he seems to me to have so much more life and soul and spirit than most people,—I think him so noble and grand,—that is, that he could be, if he were all he ought to be,—that, somehow, I never think of myself in thinking of him, and his salvation seems worth more than mine;—men can do so much more!—they can live such splendid lives!—oh, a real noble man is so glorious!’

‘And you would like to see him well married, would you not?’ said Mrs. Scudder, sending, with a true woman’s aim, this keen arrow into the midst of the cloud of enthusiasm which enveloped her daughter. ‘I think,’ she added, ‘that Jane Spencer would make him an excellent wife.’

Mary was astonished at a strange, new pain that shot through her at these words. She drew in her breath and turned herself uneasily, as one who had literally felt a keen dividing blade piercing between soul and spirit. Till this moment, she had never been conscious of herself; but the shaft had torn the veil. She covered her face with her hands; the hot blood flushed scarlet over neck and brow; at last, with a beseeching look, she threw herself into her mother’s arms.

‘Oh, mother, mother, I am selfish, after all!’

Mrs. Scudder folded her silently to her heart, and said, ‘My daughter, that is not at all what I wished it to be; I see how it is;—but then you have been a good child; I don’t blame you. We can’t always help ourselves. We don’t always really know how we do feel. I didn’t know, for a long while, that I loved your father. I thought I was only curious about him, because he had a strange way of treating me, different from other men; but, one day, I remember, Julian Simons told me that it was reported that his mother was making a match for him with Susan Emery, and I was astonished to find how I felt. I saw him that evening, and the moment he looked at me I saw it wasn’t true; all at once I knew something I never knew before,—and that was, that I should be very unhappy, if he loved any one else better than me. But then, my child, your father was a different man from James;—he was as much better than I was as you are than James. I was a foolish, thoughtless young thing then. I never should have been anything at all, but for him. Somehow, when I loved him, I grew more serious, and then he always guided and led me. Mary, your father was a wonderful man; he was one of the sort that the world knows not of; sometime I must show you his letters. I always hoped, my daughter, that you would marry such a man.’

‘Don’t speak of marrying, mother. I never shall marry.’

‘You certainly should not, unless you can marry in the Lord. Remember the words, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?”’

‘Mother, James is not an infidel.’

‘He certainly is an unbeliever, Mary, by his own confession; but then God is a Sovereign and hath mercy on whom He will. You do right to pray for him; but if he does not come out on the Lord’s side, you must not let your heart mislead you. He is going to be gone three years, and you must try to think as little of him as possible;—put your mind upon your duties, like a good girl, and God will bless you. Don’t believe too much in your power over him:—young men, when they are in love, will promise anything, and really think they mean it; but nothing is a saving change, except what is wrought in them by sovereign grace.’

‘But, mother, does not God use the love we have to each other as a means of doing us good? Did you not say that it was by your love to father that you first were led to think seriously?’

‘That is true, my child,’ said Mrs. Scudder, who, like many of the rest of the world, was surprised to meet her own words walking out on a track where she had not expected them, but was yet too true of soul to cut their acquaintance because they were not going the way of her wishes. ‘Yes, all that is true; but yet, Mary, when one has but one little ewe lamb in the world, one is jealous of it. I would give all the world, if you had never seen James. It is dreadful enough for a woman to love anybody as you can, but it is more to love a man of unsettled character and no religion. But then the Lord appoints all our goings: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps;—I leave you, my child, in His hands.’ And, with one solemn and long embrace, the mother and daughter parted for the night.

It is impossible to write a story of New England life and manners for a thoughtless, shallow-minded person. If we represent things as they are, their intensity, their depth, their unworldly gravity and earnestness, must inevitably repel lighter spirits, as the reverse pole of the magnet drives off sticks and straws.

In no other country were the soul and the spiritual life ever such intense realities, and everything contemplated so much (to use a current New-England phrase) ‘in reference to eternity.’ Mrs. Scudder was a strong clear-headed, practical woman. No one had a clearer estimate of the material and outward life, or could more minutely manage its smallest item; but then a tremendous, eternal future had so weighed down and compacted the fibres of her very soul, that all earthly things were but as dust in comparison to it. That her child should be one elected to walk in white, to reign with Christ when earth was a forgotten dream, was her one absorbing wish; and she looked on all the events of life only with reference to this. The way of life was narrow, the chances in favour of any child of Adam infinitely small; the best, the most seemingly pure and fair, was by nature a child of wrath, and could be saved only by a sovereign decree, by which it should be plucked as a brand from the burning. Therefore it was, that, weighing all things in one balance, there was the sincerity of her whole being in the dread which she felt at the thought of her daughter’s marriage with an unbeliever.

Mrs. Scudder, after retiring to her room, took her Bible, in preparation for her habitual nightly exercise of devotion, before going to rest. She read and re-read a chapter, scarce thinking what she was reading,—aroused herself,—and then sat with the book in her hand in deep thought. James Marvyn was her cousin’s son, and she had a strong feeling of respect and family attachment for his father. She had, too, a real kindness for the young man, whom she regarded as a well-meaning, wilful youngster; but that he should touch her saint, her Mary, that he should take from her the daughter who was her all, really embittered her heart towards him.

‘After all,’ she said to herself, ‘there are three years,—three years in which there will be no letters, or perhaps only one or two,—and a great deal may be done in three years, if one is wise;’—and she felt within herself an arousing of all the shrewd womanly and motherly tact of her nature to meet this new emergency.

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