[Moral Tales] “My Schoolmates, No. 3: The Victim,” by Abbie (from Youth’s Companion, June 19, 1846, pp. 25-26)
Among the companions of my school days, none are recalled to me who were more universally appreciated and beloved than Clara Stanly. There were many who were perhaps more highly estimated and more dearly beloved in the little circle of their own intimate associates, to which they mostly restricted the endearments of friendly intercourse, while with the rest of their companions they mingled only on the term of common acquaintanceship. But none enjoyed a more wide popularity than Clara. Social and free as the air she breathed, she had a word for every one, sympathized in everybody’s troubles, rejoiced in everybody’s joys, and was literally no respect[e]r of persons.
Her character was by no means marked in its features. It consisted of a happy combinatio of qualities; a rare balancing of traits which are usually opposite and extreme, of which no one seemed to develope [sic] itself to the supplanting and eclipsing of another. There was nought in her character to excite rivalship, envy or jealosy. She was not talented, neither was she particularly fond of study, yet by a quickness of perception, and a power of throwing her mind into the general train of thought, whatever it might be, she sustained herself creditably in her classes. She was not witty, yet her full flow of animal spirits, and exhaustless fund of conversational topics, made her a most entertaining companion. Unlike most talkative persons, she was by no means a harsh or censorious judge, but commonly ascribed the best motives to actions, and the best character to persons that the circumstances of her narration would admit. At times she expressed her opinions with an unadvised freedom, but as she was always frank and truthful, she gave no offence, and was called a privileged person. She had a warm heart, always ready to do a kindness; was lenient to the faults of every one; with the same measure she meted it was measured to her again, for whatever might have been her failings or deficiencies, they were never sought out by her companions, and if discovered, were in their estimation more than cancelled by her excellencies.
Clara was the youngest of a large family, and had been petted and indulged from her infancy. To many her training would have inevitably sealed their fate as spoiled children, and though hers was a character that it would have been hard to spoil, yet she was by no means what she might have been, had her early education been properly conducted. There was about her a certain kind of wilfulness, which, though it seldom trespassed upon the rights of others, led her to choose her own way in all actions relative to herself, entirely irrespective of the advice of those who might be wiser and better. She had evidently always done as she pleased, making her own fancy or inclination the tribunal of her actions, and when in school, seemed not at all disposed to alter her course of conduct.
Our teacher in Botany had planned for her class, an excursion in search of roots and early springing plants. It was yet April, and the day that had been fixed upon mingled a fresh keen north wind with its bright sunshine.
“It will be very cold upon the hills,” said our thoughtful teacher, “and we shall visit some marshy spots, so you will remember to protect yourselves in cloaks and over-shoes.” We met at the appointed hour, all fully equipped for our walk, according to her advice, excepting Clara. She joined us with an unfastened shawl thrown carelessly over her shoulders, which left her neck and lungs much exposed to the piercing blasts of wind, while her feet were protected from the danp ground, only by the single-soled kid ties.
“You will certainly take cold, Clara,” said her cousin Ellen, a mature, quiet girl. “Why do you come out so thinly clad?”
“Oh, take care of your own precious self, my dear, and never fear for me. How you all drag yourselves along in those heavy cloaks and clogs, is beyond my conception. I love to feel free, and am not afraid that the winds of heaven will visit my face too roughly.”
“But suppose you should lose your health, Clara,” continued Ellen, in a melancholy tone, for from her infancy Ellen had been a frail and slender girl, “then you would sadly repent your carelessness. ‘Blessings brighten, as they take their flight,’ you know.”
“Don’t be so solemn, Ellen, you don’t know what a fine constitution I have, and I apprehend this is the best way to confirm and strengthen it. If one only becomes accustomed to going out in light clothing, it seems just as well.”
It was sunset when we returned, worn and weary from our long walk. “Why Clara Stanly, what wet feet you have got,” exclaimed my room-mate, Mary Millman, as she entered. “Do change your shoes and dry them without delay.” “Oh, nonsense, they will soon dry of themselves,” answered Clara, “you are very kind, but you would make an invalid of me outright. Pray what signifies a little damp upon the feet.”
“It often signifies cold, cough and consumption,” remarked Ellen, who entered just then for the express purpose of enjoining upon Clara, the duty in question, that of drying her feet. But argument and entreaty were alike of no avail. Clara persisted, that she derived no possible
harm from wet shoes, whatever might be their consequence to others.
“Do move your seat, Clara,” said one of her companions, as one foggy evening she sat by an open window, exposed to the damp atmosphere. “I should cough continually, if I were to expose myself as you do.”
“But I am perfectly well,” replied Clara, “I never had a cough in my life.”
“And therefore you conclude you never will,” remarked the other, “but you are certainly using the surest means of procuring one.”
Thus did Clara Stanl[y] trifle with the priceless boon of health. She seemed to regard it as a mere circumstance, a thing of slight import, a bauble, that once laid down might be resumed again at pleasure. Whether she deemed it unselfish, and generous, to be thus regardless of her health, or labored under the delusion that it was old fashioned and ungenteel to be careful of it; whether it was from mere thoughtlessness and an inappreciation of the blessing, or from a desire to have her own way in opposition to the advice of others, the fact remained the same. Her health, whose preservation and confirmation should have been her first temporal care, was valued at a price lower than that of the most trivial gratification, or the slightest inconvenience.
And how many young ladies are there, whose conduct in this respect is but a fac simile of Clara Stanly’s. They realize not, that the gift with which they are trifling is the working of a thousand springs of action, and that the jarring of one may mar the harmony of the whole. They are wilfully ignorant of the fact, or strangely insensible to it, that by tamperig with the laws of health, they are dest[r]oying the balance of a system of machinery, whose parts are so infinitely multipl[i]ed, so wonderfully complicated, so exquisitely minute, as to transcend their powers of conception. They are wantonly blind, too, to the results which are indissolubly connected with the transgression of physical laws. If every thoughtless trifler with health would but look forward into the future, and behold herself a prepared prey for the vulture-like grasp of disease; could she witness the anxiety and agony of friends, the awful approach of the last messenger, the shroud, the coffin, and the grave, she would tremble and turn. And more than this, could the dim vista of the future be lightened up with prophetic vision, and the years, whose seeds of misery she is now sowing, rise before her in their long, slow, solemn succession; with their terrific array of cramped limbs, spinal curvatures, and unnatural distortions; their hours of confinement, prostration and woe; their days of weariness, when the soul shall say, “Would God it were evening;” and their nights of sleepless anguish, when it shall cry out in bitterness, “Would God it were morning;” when the joyous spring time, with its springing flowers and singing birds shall be a mockery, and the gorgeous summer with its wealth of fragrance and beauty, and weariness to the anguished spirit could these years be revealed to her, she would trifle no longer.
Clara Stanly had been repeatedly entreated both by her companions and teachers to cease from her presumption, while she was most faithfully warned of its fatal consequences. Her parents were informed of her daring expos[u]res, and most tenderly did they urge her to beware; but all to no purpose. She preferred her own way. In the warm season she sat about in dewy evenings upon damp grassy banks, without hat or shawl, and exposed herself to strong currents of air. In winter she refused the trouble and burden, as she termed it, of clothing herself according to the weather, preferred a shawl to a cloak, wore thin hose with kid shoes, and eschewed India rubbers. Thus a year elapsed, and as summer again returned, it was plain that Clara’s much abused health was trembling and tottering to its foundations. She still called herself well, and constantly attended school; but her cheek alternately pale and burning, her eye unnaturally bright, and the entire prostration of strength that sometimes seemed to deprive her of the power of motion, painfully proved the contrary. It was but a short time after these symptoms became plainly marked, that she was seized with sudden attacks of difficulty in breathing, which, though distressing, were of short duration, and were regarded by her with apparent indifference.
It was just after daylight of a cloudy June morning that my room-mate and myself were awakened by a confused moving about the house, with a murmur of suppressed voices. We listened breathlessly, but that mysterious stir kept on, quick, cautious, stealth-like steps, with subdued whispering tones. “What can have happened,” said Anna. Soon familiar voices were heard near our door, then a cautious rap. Anna sprang to answer it, and as she opened the door, there stood one of our companions with a countenance fearfully pale. Twice she vainly essayed to speak, then came her appalling words: “Clara Stanly is dead.”
“Dead! no, it cannot be,” we responded in one voice. “Yes, she died an hour ago.”
A little before midnight she had been seized with a spasmodic attack upon the lungs. Immediate assistance was procured, and in a short time two physicians stood at her bedside. But their skill was nought. Her spasms rapidly succeeded each other with such fearful anguish as to bid defiance to all the power of medicine. The “silver cord” of life had long been wantonly stretched, and reaching its ultimate tension, had suddenly snapped forever.
That long, weary day, it seemed to embrace the hours of a week in its heavily dragging course. Again and again we visited the chamber of the dead, but how impossible was it to realize that the form that lay there so startlingly cold, so fearfully still, was she who had returned with us from the ramble of the last sunset, and seated herself at her books at the ringing of the study bell. Her cheerful tones yet lingered upon our ears, her pleasant smile had not faded from before our eyes. “Can it be, that life can depart so quickly, so unexpectedly,” was our mental questioning, and the answer came home to our hearts in the eloquent stillness of death.
A messenger had early been despatched to bear the sad tidings to the parents of the deceased. He returned at sunset, with orders that the remains of Clara should that night be conveyed home. The shades of evening had deepened gloomily, when we gathered together to engage in our last services over the dead. Most impressive were the teachings of holy writ; most solemn the prayer of the man of God; and most touchingly mournful the music of the last sad requiem, sung by trembling voices, and mingled with sobbing tears.
The coffin was carried forth and placed upon the hearse, which stood in front of the house. When all was duly arranged for its departure, an opportunity was given to take a farewell look of our companion. A group had retired to an open upper window, and how strangely solemn was the scene upon which we gazed below. It was a starless night. Many of the crowd bore lamps, whose flickering glare served to make the gloom more visible, while it fully revealed the face of the dead, and the bright young heads that successively bent over her, who but yester eve, was as bright and hopeful s they. At length the coffin lid was closed, and the pall reverently settled. Soon the fitful rays of the hearse lights vanished in the darkness, and the faint rumbling echoes which told that the remains of Clara Stanly were parting from us forever, died away in the distance.
The morning broke as gloriously in its golden freshness and bloom, as if earth had never known sorrow or death. At the accustomed hour we assembled in the school room. One seat was vacant. We listened to the call of our names, and as its well known routine brought us to that of Clara Stanly, our teacher paused, and the breathless silence that prevailed seemed to answer the unspoken words in the language of death. We opened the Scriptures, and the passage was slowly read, which by a strange coincidence, commenced the regular lesson in course. “Therefore be ye also ready, for in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of man cometh.”