[Moral Tales] “My Schoolmates, No. 1: The Contrast,” by Abby (from The Youth’s Companion, June 5, 1846; pp. 17-18)
It was an April morning. The beams of the rising sun were brightly gilding the domes and spires of Boston, and fantastically illuminating the wreaths of smoke that curled gracefully over the city. The tide of living beings from the surrounding country were setting in with a steadily increasing flow, and the great heart of business had commenced its mighty pulsations, and was sending forth its first streams of activity and life. It was at this hour that a stage coach rapidly wound its way through the streets of the city, collecting its passengers of the day’s journey. Once more it stopped, and admitting two young ladies, completed its number. The driver mounted his box, and by a startling crack of the whip, seemed to remind his horses that now all was ready for a speedy arrival at the place of their destination.
“Our house is very smoky,” said the lively Martha Parker, one of the young ladies who had last entered, in apology for her companion’s inflamed cheeks, and swollen eyes, while a certain redness and moisture about her own, proved that she had not been entirely insensible to the annoyance.
The passengers seated in the inside of the coach were nine in number, all school girls, and all excepting two, previously acquainted. Yet after the usual salutations, there prevailed an unbroken silence. Each seemed absorbed in her own meditations, and by a strange coincidence, most of the company seemed to have been afflicted with smoky houses, or something producing a like effect, for through the shade of green veils many glazed cheeks and tearful eyes were discoverable.
The coach had rattled over the pavements of the city, crossed Cambridge bridge, whose view of dark blue sparkling waters, and fresh sea breezes were most refreshing, and entered the beautiful environs of Cambridge, when there seemed to be a little change in the feelings of its inmates. Veils were thrown back, general observations exchanged, now and then smiles chased away the clouds from countenances hitherto tearful and sad, and there seemed to prevail a general, though tacit acknowledgment, that it is the best philosophy to conform to circumstances with as good a grace as possible.
Before many hours had passed, most of the company, doubtless, improved the opportunity of studying the physiognomy, and mentally noting down observations on the character of the two strangers to whom allusion has been made, who were henceforth to be our schoolmates and companions. One was a girl apparently about sixteen years of age, dressed neatly and respectably, but in garments whose texture and general plainness of appearance, indicated a careful regard to economy. Her figure wore little approximation to symmetry, and her face was unusually plain and uninteresting. Dull brown hair, small light eyes, sallow complexion, high cheek bones, and an insignificantly small nose and mouth, were the general outlines of her appearance. She was evidently diffident and reserved, for she made no attempt at conversation herself, and if addressed, answered in the most concise manner possible.
By her side sat a girl, of whom we fear a faithful description will appear like a fictitious exaggeration. If our readers will combine a figure of delicate moulding, with a complexion transparently fair, features of faultless proportions, large liquid blue eyes; and shining waves of the sunniest hair, they will form a beau-ideal of the appearance of Fanny Hastings. In repose, her face was doll-like in its expression, but her smiles were so winning, that you would give her credit for a warm heart, if not for a lofty intellect. Her carriage was graceful, and her deportment easily polite, while her dress and general appearance betokened that she was accustomed to ease and affluence. “What a contrast,” remarked Anna Lincoln to me, as we stood aside from the rest of the party, at one of the stations, where we obtained new relays of horses, “we will take care they shall not sit together again, for it is really pitiable to see that unfortunate being by the side of one so beautiful.”
The day wore wearily on, and after a tedious ride of fifty miles, we arrived at the pleasant village in which was situated the R. Female Seminary. Here was to be our residence for the coming term of four months, and although to many in whose hearts all the fond endearments of home were yet vividly fresh, this was a gloomy foreboding, yet amid the greetings of old companions, the selection of rooms, the unpacking and arranging of the contents of trunks and bandboxes, the general tone of spirits revived, while there were cherished many visions of school-day happiness. As term after term glided away, we learned the personal history of the strangers, and became acquainted with their characters.
Emily Davis was the daughter of a respectable and industrious mechanic, and the eldest of a large family of brothers and sisters. She was of a contemplative mind, and from her earliest years, reading and study had been her chief delight; and so great was her mental craving for knowledge, and her desire to enjoy the advantages of education, that her indulgent parents, by dint of many sacrifices, had placed her in the seminary at R. Most diligently did she improve her advantages, for she prized them according to their true value. She had a strong and well-balanced mind, an affectionate heart which shrank instinctively from inflicting mental pain, as truly as from receiving it. But she was most marked by her individuality of character. She thought for herself, always using her own judgment upon every subject on which she was called to think or act, and yet she cherished a high regard for the opinions of others, wiser and better than herself. She stood upon her own footing, and was not easily moved. Her opinions once formed, she abided by them; her principles established, she acted upon them with a moral courage and independence of what others might think or say, that could command nought but admiration and respect. And yet this was done so meekly, so unostentatiously, with an entire unconsciousness that her character was formed to sway others, rather than to be swayed, that love mingled with the esteem with which she was regarded. Most brightly and constantly also, did the principles of her Christian profession shine in her daily life. Her voice was never silent in our praying circle, as when in the twilight or moonlight hour, she could gain access to the ear of an unconverted associate. In short, it was Emily Davis who never failed in a recitation, never broke a rule, never seemed to neglect a duty, never received a reproof.
Fanny Hastings had been bereft of both her parents at the age of three years, and committed to the charities of an orphan asylum. It was there that Mr. and Mrs. Hastings, who had no children of their own, had seen the little orphan, and struck with her exceeding beauty, had determined upon adopting her. She was accordingly taken to her new home, where she had been reared in all the appliances of wealth, and in fond, though injudicious indulgences. Her foster parents had always sought to procure for her every advantage of education, but at the age of sixteen she was so deficient in the common rudiments of knowledge, that as a last resort they determined upon a boarding school, and accordingly she was sent to the R. Seminary. She said she was a luckless being, who never happened to do anything right; always tardy, al-
ways deficient in her lessons, and invariably doing the things she ought not to do, and leaving undone the things she ought to do. She was by no means deficient in mental qualities, as was often tested by her enjoyment of the beautiful in nature and art, of which she seemed to have an instinctive and delicate perception; and often, if her teacher could succeed in commanding her attention for a sufficient length of time to enforce a lesson, she understood as clearly and acquired as readily as any one. But she had no power over her own mind. It was as fickle and unstable as water. She seemed incapable of deciding for herself in the most trivial matters, and was constantly seeking the advice of those about her. Yet we could not help loving Fanny, for she was always pleasant, never self-willed or angry. Her thoughtless conduct brought upon her many and grievous reproofs, which she received most meekly, as knowing she deserved them, yet she forgot they had been given, as their sound died upon her ear. And when sometimes by the utmost stretch of politeness we could not restrain a hearty laugh at her egregious blunders, she forbore to take the slightest offence.
In the graduating class that was about to leave the institution, Emily Davis, whose talents had been brightened by the constant polish of study, ranked first in point of scholarship, whilst she was also its most respected and beloved member. Her influence over the school, of which she had been three years a pupil, was so great, that with many her sanction of any opinion or course of action was a sufficient recommendation for its adoption, whilst her example was considered the very standard of excellence. She had been educating herself for a teacher, and such was the confidence cherished in her qualifications, that several situations were offered her, even before she had completed her course of study.
The last day of the term at length came. Emily passed the ordeal of a protracted and close examination in her various studies with so strong a proof of mental discipline and intellectual attainment, as to elicit a general murmur of satisfaction, while poor Fanny, who happened to be called upon immediately after one of Emily’s most successful recitations, was so entirely at fault, so utterly destitute of an idea, that an expression of commiseration for her awkward position was plainly visible among the audience. Again my friend Anna touched my arm, and whispered, “What a contrast!”
In a few months after, Fanny left school, she often met in her walks a stranger, who after several futile attempts at acquaintance, at last introduced himself to her as a Spaniard of distinction, making the tour of our country in a humble style, for the purpose of becoming better acquainted with the various classes of society. He assured her, he was captivated by her beauty, and eventually offered her his hand, with most alluring descriptions of his home, among the sunny hills of Spain. Fanny believed him. She had always taken the statements of others upon trust. She had never thought for herself; never examined and weighed assertions that were made to her; why should she now. Her parents were informed of her acquaintance with the distinguished foreigner, and enquiring into his true character, they assured her he was a base impostor, and directed her never to see him again, on pain of being disinherited and disowned. She believed them while they were talking, and thought she would nave no further acquaintance with Medena. But again he contrived opportunities of meeting her, again told his stories with a fresh glare of splendor, and eventually persuaded her to elope with him. They were married in a Roman Catholic chapel, and immediately departed from Fanny’s native city.
Two years had passed away when Mrs. Hastings, during several weeks spent in the city of P. called upon an early friend whom she had not seen for several years. As she waited in the drawing room, a waiting maid entered to say that Mrs. Manson would meet her in a few moments, and as Mrs. Hastings lifted her eye to the messenger, her surprise may be readily conceived when she beheld before her, the former child of her adoption, the disowned Fanny.
Fanny’s first impulse, was evidently to throw her arms about the neck of her whom she had so long called mother, but a sudden sense of the relation then existing between them restrained her, and sinking upon a seat, she covered her face with her hands and sobbed aloud. Mrs. Hastings, deeply moved by her grief, was just about to approach her with words of kindness, when the lady of the house entered, and Fanny hastily left the room.
In the conversation that ensued, Mrs. Manson informed her visitor that several months before, Fanny had been recommended to her as an object of charity. She had found her in a miserable attic, surrounded by every mark of destitution and suffering. Her husband had deserted her, while in her lap lay an infant daughter of some six months, strikingly inheriting its mother’s beauty, although wasting away under the influence of a violent disease. It soon died, and in compassion for the forlorn mother, the kind-hearted Mrs. M. had offered her a vacant situation as waiting maid in her own house. “She has now been with me three months,” continued Mrs. Manson, “and although her extreme thoughtlessness and want of judgment often occasions me great annoyance, yet she seems so grateful for the interest I have taken in her welfare, and so anxious to serve me, that I trust by the exercise of patience on my part, she may yet become useful to herself and to me.”
Mrs. Hastings left her friends with sadness. The impulse of her own heart was, to redeem her own beloved Fanny from the necessity of servitude, and receive her again to her home and her love. But she knew her husband’s decision of character, and felt it would be worse than in vain to make such a proposal. There was no alternative. She must leave her whom she had reared as a daughter, and whom she had fondly hoped would prove an ornament to society, in the capacity of a serving maid, and her highest hopes for her must henceforth be that she might learn to discharge the duties of her station, so as to save herself from utter destitution.
It was on a beautiful summer morning that a train of cars swiftly sped through the wealthy town of C. “you have a flourishing academy here,” remarked a passenger to his neighbor, who had entered at the last station, and was evidently known by the speaker to be a resident of the town.
“It is now in a most prosperous condition,” replied the person addressed, “especially the female department. Under the present instructress, who has been with us for two years, it has been steadily increasing in numbers, interest and prosperity, and if we can retain her services, we hope to make it an extensive organ of usefulness. She has a weight and dignity of character that renders her influence over her pupils unlimited, while her deep interest in their welfare, and warm Christian love, is tending to educate them for the future as well as the present. She possesses universal confidence, and is regarded as an ornament and a blessing to our community.”
The eulogised instructress was Emily Davis. As I listened to the conversation, I thought of the history of poor Fanny, and the involuntary exclamation almost escaped my lips, “What a contrast!”
Let the young girl who is depending merely upon beauty, grace, accomplishments, as any of the adventitious circumstances of fortune, remember that the time will come, when these now brilliant possessions will avail her not. The hour is approaching, when she must think, examine, and decide for herself. Let her remember that woman needs firm principles of action, and an individuality of character, without which she will be tossed about upon the breezes of life, the sport of every passing circumstance. And let her remember upon whom god has not bestowed the gift of beauty, that by the exercise of firm and correct principles, she may beautify her spirit with a grace that may attract and bind other minds with an influence, lasting as eternity.