IT was in answer to Arthur's letter, expressing great anxiety to hear from home, in consequence of so long a time having passed without his receiving his usual letters, that Mr. Weston wrote him of Alice's illness. She was then convalescing, but in so feeble and nervous a condition, that Dr. Lawton advised Arthur's remaining where he was—wishing his patient to be kept even from the excitement of seeing so dear a relative. Mr. Weston insisted upon Arthur's being contented with hearing constantly of her improvement, both from himself and Mrs. Weston. This, Arthur consented to do; but in truth he was not aware of the extent of the danger which had threatened Alice's life, and supposed it to have been an ordinary fever. With what pleasure did he look forward, in his leisure moments, to the time when it would be his privilege always to be near her; and to induce the tedious interval to pass more rapidly, he employed himself with his studies, as constantly as the season would allow. He had formed a sincere attachment to Abel Johnson, whose fine talents and many high qualities made him a delightful companion. Mr. Hubbard was a connection of young Johnson's, and felt privileged often to intrude himself upon them. It really was an intrusion, for he had at present a severe attack of the Abolition fever, and he could not talk upon any other subject. This was often very disagreeable to Arthur and his friend, but still it became a frequent subject of their discussion, when Mr. Hubbard was present, and when they were alone.
In the mean time, the warm season was passing away, and Alice did
not recover her strength as her friends wished.
No place in the country could have been more delightful than Exeter was at that season; but still it seemed necessary to have a change of scene. September had come, and it was too late to make their arrangements to go to the North, and Alice added to this a great objection to so doing. A distant relation of Mr. Weston, a very young girl, named Ellen Graham, had been sent for, in hopes that her lively society would have a good effect on Alice's unequal spirits; and after much deliberation it was determined that the family, with the exception of Miss Janet, should pass the winter in Washington. Miss Janet could not be induced to go to that Vanity Fair, as she called it; and if proper arrangements for her comfort could not be made, the project would have to be given up. After many proposals, each one having an unanswerable difficulty, the old lady returned from town one day, with a very satisfied countenance, having persuaded Mrs. Williams, a widow, and her daughter, to pass the winter at Exeter with her. Mrs. Williams was a much valued friend of the Weston family, and as no objection could be found to this arrangement, the affair was settled. Alice, although the cause of the move, was the only person who was indifferent on the subject. Ellen Graham, young and gay as she was, would like to have entered into any excitement that would make her forget the past. She fancied it would be for her happiness, could the power of memory be destroyed. She had not sufficient of the experience of life to appreciate the old man's prayer, "Lord, keep my memory green."
Ellen at an early age, and an elder brother, were dependent, not
for charity, but for kindness and love, on relatives who for a long
time felt their guardianship a task. They were orphans; they bore
each other company in the many little cares of childhood; and the boy,
as is not unusual in such a case, always looked to his sister for
counsel and protection, not from actual unkindness, but from coldness
and unmerited reproof. They
never forgot their parting with their mother—the agony with which she held them to her bosom, bitterly reflecting they would have no such resting-place in the cold world, in which they were to struggle.
Yet they were not unkindly received at their future home. Their uncle and aunt, standing on the piazza, could not without tears see the delicate children in their deep mourning, accompanied only by their aged and respectable colored nurse, raise their eyes timidly, appealing to them for protection, as hand in hand they ascended the steps. It was a large and dreary-looking mansion, and many years had passed since the pictures of the stiff looking cavalier and his smiling lady, hanging in the hall, had looked down upon children at home there. The echoes of their own voices almost alarmed the children, when, after resting from their journey, they explored the scenes of their future haunts. On the glass of the large window in the hall, were the names of a maiden and her lover, descended from the cavaliers of Virginia. This writing was cut with a diamond, and the children knew not that the writing was their parents'. The little ones walked carefully over the polished floors; but there seemed nothing in all they saw to tell them they were welcome. They lifted the grand piano that maintained its station in one of the unoccupied rooms of the house; but the keys were yellow with age, and many of them soundless—when at last one of them answered to the touch of Ellen's little hand, it sent forth such a ghostly cry that the two children gazed at each other, not knowing whether to cry or to laugh.
Children are like politicians, not easily discouraged; and Ellen's "Come on, Willy," showed that she, by no means, despaired of finding something to amuse them. They lingered up stairs in their own apartment, William pointing to the moss-covered rock that lay at the foot of the garden.
"Willy, Willy, come! here is something," and Willy fol-
lowed her through a long passage into a room, lighted only by the rays that found entrance through a broken shutter. "Only see this," she continued, laying her hand on a crib burdened with a small mattress and pillow; "here too," and she pointed to a little child's hat that hung over it, from which drooped three small plumes. "Whose can they be?"
"Come out o' here, children," said the nurse, who had been seeking them. "Your aunt told me not to let you come into this part of the house; this was her nursery once, and her only child died here."
The children followed their nurse, and ever afterward the thought of death was connected with that part of the house. Often as they looked in their aunt's face they remembered the empty crib and the drooping plumes.
Time does not always fly with youth; yet it passed along until Ellen had attained her sixteenth year, and William his eighteenth year. Ellen shared all her brother's studies, and their excellent tutor stored their minds with useful information. Their uncle superintended their education, with the determination that it should be a thorough one. William did not intend studying a profession; his father's will allowed him to decide between this, or assuming, at an early age, the care of his large estate, with suitable advisers.
Ellen made excellent progress in all her studies. Her aunt was anxious she should learn music, and wished her to go to Richmond or to Alexandria for that purpose, but Ellen begged off; she thought of the old piano and its cracked keys, and desired not to be separated from her brother, professing her dislike to any music, but her old nurse's Methodist hymns.
William was tall and athletic for his age, passionate when roused
by harshness or injustice, but otherwise affectionate in his
disposition, idolizing his sister. His uncle looked at him with
surprise when he saw him assume the
independence of manner, which sat well upon him; and his aunt sometimes checked herself, when about to reprove him for the omission of some unimportant form of politeness, which in her days of youth was essential. Ellen dwelt with delight upon the approaching time, when she would be mistress of her brother's establishment, and as important as she longed to be, on that account. Though she looked upon her uncle's house as a large cage, in which she had long fluttered a prisoner, she could not but feel an affection for it; her aunt and uncle often formal, and uselessly particular, were always substantially kind. It was a good, though not a cheerful home, and the young look for joy and gaiety, as do the flowers for birds and sunshine. Ellen was to be a ward of her uncle's until she was of age, but was to be permitted to reside with her brother, if she wished, from the time he assumed the management of his estate.
The young people laid many plans for housekeeping. William had not any love affair in progress, and as yet, his sister's image was stamped on all his projects for the future.
Two years before Ellen came to Exeter, William stood under his sister's window, asking her what he should bring her from C——-, the neighboring town. "Don't you want some needles," he said, "or a waist ribbon, or some candy? make haste, Ellen; if I don't hurry, I can't come home to-night."
"I don't want any thing, Willie; but will you be sure to return to-night? I never sleep well when you are away. Aunt and I are going on Tuesday to C——-; wait, and we will stay the night then."
"Oh, no," said William, "I must go; but you may depend upon my being back: I always keep my promises. So good-by."
Ellen leaned from the window, watching her handsome brother as he
rode down the avenue leading into the road.
He turned in his saddle, and bowed to her, just before he passed from her sight.
"Oh, mammy," she said to her attendant, for she had always thus affectionately addressed her; "did you ever see any one as handsome as Willie?"
"Yes, child," she replied, "his father was, before him. You both look like your father; but Master Willie favors him more than you do. Shut down the window, Miss Ellen, don't you feel the wind? A strong March wind aint good for nobody. Its bright enough overhead to-day, but the ground is mighty damp and chilly. There, you're sneezin; didn't I tell you so?"
Late in the same day Ellen was seated in the window, watching her brother's return; gaily watching, until the shadows of evening were resting on his favorite rocks. Then she watched anxiously until the rocks could no longer be seen; but never did he come again, though hope and expectation lingered about her heart until despair rested there in their place.
William was starting on horseback, after an early dinner at the tavern in C——-. As he put his foot in the stirrups, an old farmer, who had just driven his large covered wagon to the door, called to him.
"You going home, Mr. William?" said he.
"Yes, I am; but why do you ask me?"
"Why, how are you going to cross Willow's Creek?" asked the old man.
"On the bridge," said William, laughing; "did you think I was going to jump my horse across?"
"No, but you can't cross the bridge," said the farmer, "for the bridge is broken down."
"Why, I crossed it early this morning," said William.
"So did I," said the farmer, "and thank God, I and my team did not
go down with it. But there's been a mighty freshet above, and
Willow's Creek is something like my wife—she's an angel when she aint
she's the devil himself when any thing puts her out. Now, you take my advice, and stay here to-night, or at any rate don't get yourself into danger."
"I must go home to-night," said William; "I have promised my sister to do so. I can ford the creek;" and he prepared again to start.
"Stop, young man," said the farmer, solemnly, "you mind the old saying, 'Young people think old people fools, but old people know young people are fools.' I warn you not to try and ford that creek to-night; you might as well put your head in a lion's mouth. Haven't I been crossing it these fifty years? and aint I up to all its freaks and ways? Sometimes it is as quiet as a weaned baby, but now it is foaming and lashing, as a tiger after prey. You'd better disappoint Miss Ellen for one night, than to bring a whole lifetime of trouble upon her. Don't be foolhardy, now; your horse can't carry you over Willow's Creek this night."
"Never fear, farmer," said William. "I can take care of myself."
"May the Lord take care of you," said the farmer, as he followed the youth, dashing through the town on his spirited horse. "If it were not for this wagon-load, and there are so many to be clothed and fed at home, I would follow you, but I can't do it."
William rode rapidly homeward. The noonday being long passed, the skies were clouding over, and harsh spring winds were playing through the woods.
William enjoyed such rides. Healthy, and fearing nothing, he was
a stranger to a feeling of loneliness. Alternately singing an old
air, and then whistling with notes as clear and musical as a flute, he
at last came in sight of the creek which had been so tranquil when he
crossed it in the morning. There was an old house near, where lived
the people who received the toll. A man and his wife, with a large
family of children, poor people's in-
heritance, had long made this place their home, and they were acquainted with all the persons who were in the habit of traveling this way.
William, whom they saw almost daily, was a great favorite with the children. Not only did he pay his toll, but many a penny and sixpence to the small folks besides, and he was accustomed to receive a welcome.
Now the house was shut up. It had rained frequently and heavily during the month, and the bright morning, which had tempted the children out to play, was gone, and they had gathered in the old house to amuse themselves as they could.
The bridge had been partly carried away by the freshet. Some of the beams were still swinging and swaying themselves with restless motion. The creek was swollen to a torrent. The waters dashed against its sides, in their haste to go on their way. The wind, too, howled mournfully, and the old trees bent to and fro, nodding their stately heads, and rustling their branches against each other.
"Oh, Mr. William, is it you?" said the woman, opening the door. "Get off your horse, and come in and rest; you can't go home to-night."
"Yes, I can though," said William, "I have often forded the creek, and though I never saw it as it is now, yet I can get safely over it, I am sure."
"Don't talk of such things, for the Lord's sake," said Mrs. Jones. "Why, my husband could not ford the creek now, and you're a mere boy."
"No matter for that," said William. "I promised my sister to be at home to-night, and I must keep my word. See how narrow the creek is here! Good-by, I cannot wait any longer, it is getting dark."
"Don't try it, please don't, Mr. William," again said Mrs. Jones. All the children joined her, some entreating William, others crying out at the danger into which their favorite was rushing.
"Why, you cowards," cried William, "you make more noise than the creek itself. Here's something for gingerbread." None of the children offered to pick up the money which fell among them, but looked anxiously after William, to see what he was going to do.
"Mr. William," said Mrs. Jones, "come back; look at the water a roaring and tossing, and your horse is restless already with the noise. Don't throw your life away; think of your sister."
"I'm thinking of her, good Mrs. Jones. Never fear for me," said he, looking back at her with a smile, at the same time urging his horse toward the edge of the creek, where there was a gradual descent from the hill.
As Mrs. Jones had said, the horse had already become restless, he was impatiently moving his head, prancing and striking his hoofs against the hard ground. William restrained him, as he too quickly descended the path, and it may be the young man then hesitated, as he endeavored to check him, but it was too late. The very check rendered him more impatient; springing aside from the path he dashed himself from rock to rock. William saw his danger, and with a steady hand endeavored to control the frightened animal. This unequal contest was soon decided. The nearer the horse came to the water, the more he was alarmed,—at last he sprang from the rock, and he and his rider disappeared.
"Oh, my God!" said Mrs. Jones, "he is gone. The poor boy; and there is none to help him." She at first hid her eyes from the appalling scene, and then approached the creek and screamed as she saw the horse struggling and plunging, while William manfully tried to control him. Oh! how beat her heart, as with uplifted hands, and stayed breath, she watched for the issue—it is over now.
"Hush! hush! children," said their mother, pale as death, whose
triumph she had just witnessed. "Oh! if your father had been here to
have saved him—but who
could have saved him? None but thou, Almighty God!" and she kneeled to pray for, she knew not what.
"Too late, too late!" yet she knelt and alternately prayed and wept.
Again she gazed into the noisy waters—but there was nothing there, and then calling her frightened and weeping children into the house, she determined to set forth alone, for assistance—for what?
* * * *
Oh! how long was that night to Ellen, though she believed her brother remained at C——-. She did not sleep till late, and sad the awakening. Voices in anxious whispers fell upon her ear; pale faces and weeping eyes, were everywhere around her—within, confusion; and useless effort without. Her uncle wept as for an only son; her aunt then felt how tenderly she had loved him, who was gone forever. The farmer, who had warned him at the tavern-door, smote his breast when he heard his sad forebodings were realized. The young and the old, the rich and the poor, assembled for days about the banks of the creek, with the hopes of recovering the body, but the young rider and his horse were never seen again. Ah! Ellen was an orphan now—father, mother, and friend had he been to her, the lost one. Often did she lay her head on the kind breast of their old nurse, and pray for death.
As far as was in their power, her uncle and aunt soothed her in her grief. But the only real comfort at such a time, is that from Heaven, and Ellen knew not that. How could she have reposed had she felt the protection of the Everlasting Arms!
But time, though it does not always heal, must assuage the intensity of grief; the first year passed after William's death, and Ellen felt a wish for other scenes than those where she had been accustomed to see him. She had now little to which she could look forward.
Her chief amusement was in retiring to the library, and reading old romances, with which its upper shelves were filled; this, under other circumstances, her aunt would have forbidden, but it was a relief to see Ellen interested in any thing, and she appeared not to observe her thus employing herself.
So Ellen gradually returned to the old ways: she studied a little, and assisted her industrious aunt in her numerous occupations. As of old, her aunt saw her restlessness of disposition, and Ellen felt rebellious and irritable. With what an unexpected delight, then, did she receive from her aunt's hands, the letters from Mrs. Weston, inviting her to come at once to Exeter, and then to accompany them to Washington. She, without any difficulty, obtained the necessary permission, and joyfully wrote to Mrs. Weston, how gladly she would accept the kind invitation.