[Moral Tales] “My Schoolmates, No. 5: Kate Kennedy,” by Abbie (from The Youth’s Companion, July 2, 1846; pp. 33-34)
Like the singing of birds in spring time, like the bright flow of dancing waters, like a joyous strain of rich music, like a sudden burst of sunshine, so to my heart come the remembrances of Kate Kennedy. And perhaps a written description of her character would necessarily be as deficient, as to attempt to describe in language the spirit of music, or adequately portray the sunshine by the art of painting. She was a being, that to be appreciated, must be seen, yet a few touches at her nondescript character, may serve to reveal some traits worthy of imitation.
Kate was the child of a widowed mother, and the youngest of three daughters. She was an American by birth, inheriting from her mother the easy courtesy and living gayety of the French character, and from her father, the loftiness of soul, the appreciation of the truly great and sublime, the deep stirring love of romance and song, which, as the marked features of the children of Scotland, have thrown so bright a halo around her history and poetry. Thus Kate seemed to unite in herself some of the characteristics of three different nations. But while her Yankeeism was developed in her republican notions and practice, and her French blood indicated by her merry laugh, courteous air, and lively, witty conversation, yet, as she herself said, her soul was Scotch; in her heart of hearts, she was Scotland’s own child.
Many of Kate’s mental powers were of a high order. She did not possess the love of severe study and fixed concentration of thought, and therefore heartily eschewed mathematics and metaphysics. She was a proficient in the natural sciences, of which Anatomy was her favorite, because of the startling grandeur of its discoveries, and their power to enlarge and multiply the conceptions of nature’s boundless immensity. She had in a high degree the power of originating, and an unusual command of language. Her compositions abounded in new thoughts, or rather new combination of thought; and fanciful, though beautiful allusions, all couched in words, which whether descriptive, boldly figurative, or expressive of the more delicate shades of feeling, were always for clearness and vividness, like a succession of pictures. In literature she
discovered and appreciated true excellence with a most subtle discrimination, yet she criticised not according to the rules of the schools; she but looked at the reflection of the good in the mirror of her own heart. But the grand elements of her character were the poetic and romantic sentiments, which generated a taste whose delicate perception, and exquisite enjoyment of the lofty and beautiful, was as a perennial spring of pleasure to her soul. Whether she went forth at morn, at noontide, or at even, all things seemed to minister to her happiness. To breathe the summer air; to gaze on the morning’s robe of greenness, glistening with its jewels of sunshine; to dash the early dew-drops from the forest flowers; to sit upon the moss covered rock, alternately watching the gladsome rush of the brook at her feet, in which she heard the song of the water nymphs, or listening to the low murmur of the lofty pines, in which she discovered the whispers of angels; these and kindred scenes were sources of pleasure for whose spiritual wealth, she would not have exchanged the mines of Golconda. To her, nature was as a grand temple, at whose altar the flowers daily burned incense, whose ministers were the spirits ever breathing in woods and winds and waters, and whose vast dome of glory, echoing the harmony from a choir of a thousand of voices, resounded with a perpetual hymn. And never did the high priestess at the altar of an idol god, never did the most deluded votary at the shrine of fashion, regard the object of their devotions with so enthusiastic a love, as did Kate Kennedy the spirit of the sublime and the beautiful.
The pleasures of taste are eminently sympathetic in their nature, and Kate’s happiness seemed doubled when it could be enjoyed by a kindred spirit. Though there were none of our number whose appreciation of poetry and beauty could compare with her own, yet there were many with whom she intimately mingled, and dearly loved. Indeed, she would find something lovely, something worthy of admiration in every character with which she came in contact. Then she was so unassuming, so politely regardful of the happiness of others, so social, and in her bright gayety, so like a sunbeam glancing here and there, that she was a universal favorite. Like a living stream, her influence among her associates might be traced everywhere in its path of freshly springing beauty, for to many it was the opening of eyes that had been blind to the beauties of this green earth, the unsealing of ears that had been deaf to its countless melodies.
One day Kate entered her room after a woodland walk, bearing in one hand a large collection of wild flowers, and branches of beautiful leaves; and in the other a basket of mosses.
“Oh, Kate, you will be transplanting the forest here soon,” exclaimed her room-mate, Louisa Willard, in a tone of dissatisfaction; for she was a nice, prim little body, whose exact notions of order conflicted strongly with Kate’s fellowship for dried fallen leaves; “don’t keep the mosses here,” she continued, as the crumbles of earth fell to the floor, when Kate removed her treasures from the ba[s]ket, “our room will look like a garden house.”
“Why, my dear, only see how beautiful they are, how shining in their velvet softness, and how rich in their shades of green. Now just notice for a moment their variety and beauty, and you would as soon banish as many diamonds. And I have some wild flowers here, so sweet that it will refresh your spirit just to gaze on their delicate beauty, and breathe their woodland fragrance.” And thus Kate went on, as she disposed her flowers and mosses, expressing her warm enthusiasm in a strain of French hyperbole, which awakened such a sympathy in her matter of fact companion, that as the arrangement was completed, Louisa seemed to look upon the beautiful intruders with as much pleasure as herself.
There was in Kate a spirit of adventure, a love of stirring excitement, which rendered her insensible to the danger that might attend its indulgence. She was quite accomplished in horsemanship, and delighted in wild equestrian excursions. For a long time she had tried to obtain the use of a certain horse in the village, a most noble gray, full of life and spirit; but the owner had most steadily refused her solicitations, on the plea that a lady had never rode the animal, and that under such a guide he would be perfectly unmanageable. But Kate so pertinaciously begged permission to try her equestrian skill, that he at length consented that she might mount for a moment, and be convinced that she could not keep her seat. Kate sprang upon the saddle, and as the noble animal recognized the lightness of his rider, he reared slightly, as if he scorned to make a greater effort to rid himself of so inconsiderable a burden; then after proudly champing his bits for a moment, sprang forward with a sudden bound, and ran with his utmost speed. The face of every beholder gathered paleness, for as the horse kept on his furious way, proudly rejoicing in his strength, the life of his frail rider seemed the sport of every moment. But with an undaunted air, Kate kept her seat. Her long shining ringlets, which were always worn in their natural freedom, streamed wildly on the breeze from beneath her straw hat; her eye flashed proudly, and her whole countenance was expressive of the keen zest with which her spirit entered into the excitement of the scene, notwithstanding its imminent danger. After a race of more than a mile, the horse gradually slackened his pace, and soon became so calm that Kate could easily guide him. In less than an hour from the time of her wild departure, she again entered the village, with her steed now quietly walking, and now gracefully cantering at her pleasure.
“Oh, I knew that Gray would not throw me,” she said in reply to the warm congratulations that welcomed her safe return, “we are too like in spirit for that.”
It was a summer afternoon of oppressive sultriness, that Kate sat at her window, watching the clouds which slowly gathered in blackness, till they covered the face of heaven. Her cheek flushed, and her eye brightened, as she first beheld the forked lightning gleam and dart through the gloom, and listened to the ominous mutter of the distant thunder, while the elements seemed to be fearfully gathering their strength for the coming contest. And when at length the tempest swept on in its fury, when incessant lightning sheeted the earth in living fire, and the crashing, deafening roar of thunder, seemed to rock her very foundations, Kate was entirely absorbed in the awful sublimity of the scene. She sat with clasped hands; her pale cheek, and speechless lips bearing witness to the intensity of her emotions, and her expressive face revealing that a sense of the dignity of her spiritual being, a lofty joy in the mere consciousness of an existence capable of such exalted delights, was blending with her enjoyment of the terrific, yet glorious display of nature’s power. At length the torrents that had seemed to threaten earth with a second deluge, spent their treasures; the lightnings gradually ceased, and the thunder bursts became low and fitful, and were heard only after long inter[v]als. Then the setting sun suddenly broke forth in brightness, flinging over earth the robe of his departing glory, and casting a rainbow in brilliant relief against the dark eastern cloud. And with the different aspects of nature came a corresponding change over Kate’s spirit. Her whole soul seemed overflowing with the joyousness of the scene. She clapped her hands in ecstacy, and literally wept for joy.
“How exquisitely lovely is everything now,” she exclaimed, “and how sublime, how magnificent but an hour ago. How I should rejoice to witness such a scene in my father’s land, to hear the thunder peals echo from crag to crag along the Grampian mountains, and see the lightning linger and play about the hoary head of Ben Nevis; to behold a rainbow like that reflected in the deep blue waters of Loch Lomond, and to witness at such a sunset hour, Loch Katrine reposing in its bright valley,
“One burnished sheet of living gold.”
The summer passed away, and the rich and melting tones with which nature spoke in the gorgeous drapery of autumn, awakened in Kate’s heart, a more pensive, yet deeper response of happiness than had been elicited by the gala days of summer. Numberless were the memorials of nature’s fresh beauty which she carefully preserved to gaze upon, when her bloom should have withered; and as the devotee enshrines the relic of his patron saint, so did Kate cherish what she termed her love-tokens from nature. They were evergreens and mosses, plants preserved in various ways, dried flowers and pressed flowers, also rare specimens of rock, sea-shells, coral, and divers kinds of petrifactions, all arranged so tastefully, yet so fantastically, as to give her room, which, by the way she now occupied alone, the appearance of a museum. Moreover, to complete its furniture, she had obtained a pine tree, which she had so disposed that its branches overhung her pillow, affirming that under its canopy, she heard in her dreams, the soft and soul-like murmur that of yore it had whispered to the breezes, and saw forest visions bright with summer’s golden hours.
Two years had elapsed since the school day parting, when an intimate companion of Kate visited her at her mother’s beautiful cottage, situated in a romantic retreat upon the banks of the Hudson. Marion arrived at the hour of evening twilight, and as she approached the residence, she heard the well known tones of her friends voice, accompanying her harp with a sweet Scot[c]h air. In a moment she had received the warm kiss of greeting, the enthusiastic welcome, while assured her that her school-day associate was still the same Kate Kennedy. As the two sat long conversing together in the silvery moonlight of a summer evening, many were their pleasant retrospections of the past, and alternately bright and shadowy were their narrations of the present.
“They told me, Kate, you were going to be married,” remarked Marion after a little pause. “Ah, truly, I plighted my troth to nature long ago,” replied Kate, “and surely I shall be constant to the prodigality of love with which she ever thrills my heart.”
“Your sisters are married, I think,” said Marion in an enquiring tone.
“Yes, they have left mamma and me alone,” answered Kate, with something of sadness.
“They both have those that love them only,
Whose dearest hopes are round them thrown,
While like a stream that wanders lonely
Am I, the youngest, wildest one.
My heart is like the wind that beareth,
Rich scents upon its unseen wing,
The wind that for no nature careth,
Yet stealeeth sweets from every thing.”
But Kate Kennedy, with all her poetic feeling, all her delicate appreciation of the beautiful and true, all her keen sensibility to the lofty and sublime, recognized not the author of the gifts that ministered to her spirit such exquisite enjoyment. Deep was her intellectual reverence for the character of the Deity, but she had never sought God by repentance and faith, and therefore could not approach him as her father in confidence and love. She was not a Christian. And often as I remember the beauty of her person, the bland courtesy of her manners, the rare, shining excellencies of her mind, the sentiment of the poet comes home to my heart,
“Oh, what is woman, what her smile,
Her lip of love, her eyes of light,
What is she, if her heart revile,
The lowly Jesus. Love may write
His name upon her marble brow,
And linger in her curls of jet,
The light spring flower may scarcely bow
Beneath her step; and yet, and yet,
Without that meekest grace she’ll be,
A lighter thing than vanity.”